Those Christians. And These Strip Clubs.

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website ( for more information and download our most recent issue! This blog became an excerpt of this feature story our Las Vegas magazine issue about The Cupcake Girls, published in February 2014.


Well. We’re going on a cupcake-delivering-strip-club-run tomorrow. Jeff and I will stay in the car, of course. The point of all of this cupcaking is to build relationships, and bringing a couple of eager new photojournalists into the clubs just to see what happens, outside the context of relationship, sort of turns it into a side-show.  Plus, you have to serve on another Cupcake Girls committee for 90 days first, which we haven’t done. I guess “Eating Cupcakes” is not one of their other service areas, anyway. Blast!

That said, our second week has been filled with interviews and tag-alongs with various volunteers and staff within the Cupcake Girls, and each interaction has stretched us into new areas of growth and perspective.

Here’s the way it all works, we’ve discovered:

The Cupcake Girls knock on the door to a strip club or brothel with a box of cupcakes. Sometimes they’re invited inside—not to the club part, but to the behind-the-scenes part where the women hang out to get ready.  Along the way, they cupcake (see? I verbed it) bouncers and doormen and valet guys and bartenders and DJs until, as you might imagine, they become widely welcomed, and almost everyone looks forward to their visits. Because, really. Who doesn’t love a good cupcake?

Once inside, they talk about kids and pets and vacations; they talk about how hard it was to get to the club that night from all the flooding or traffic; they compare the best ways to apply perfume and lashes. They offer help with hair and makeup while the women get ready. And sometimes, they just sit and eat cupcakes together.

The Cupcake Girls, in turn, field a million questions with a smile and a laugh:

Are you guys lesbians?
Are you cosmetology students?
Do you take tips?

Funny, but a steely reflection of the assumption in this business—in this whole town, really—that nothing is free. You can’t even get a picture with Hello Kitty or Darth Vader on the corner without the expectation of a tip, the founder explained to us during orientation. There is always an agenda. Everything is a trick. Freedom is an illusion.

So, in walks a group of trendy-looking women with cupcakes and a bag full of products, and of course suspicion abounds.

We’re not lesbians.
We’re not cosmetology students.
We don’t take tips.
We’re just here to love on ya, they say. We offer support to women in the industry.

But it’s the last question that really breaks my heart:
Are you those Christians?

Which Christians could they be talking about? The ones who picketed clubs last week, or the ones who threw tracts inside? The ones who dropped off beanie babies and bibles with a church invite inside? The ones who condemned the city with giant billboards explaining how their lust is dragging them down to hell?

Are they talking about those Christians who want to save them, but don’t know their names or how many kids they have or what options they had to choose from? Or maybe the ones who stay on the other side of the giant invisible wall that separates them from this area of town, except for when they pour in to feed the homeless or something at Christmas. Those Christians?

Maybe they’re talking about those Christians who don’t know what to do with sex workers.  The ones who easily say, “Jesus loves you” from a distance, but never consider saying, “I love you” right up close.

I might be one of those Christians, I thought, who doesn’t know what to do with the sex workers. Honestly, I had never even considered the sex workers before. I had only recently considered the hungry and the homeless and the poor, the vulnerable kids and women in far away places, the oppressed and disabled.  The marginalized.

The marginalized.

Do you know what marginalized means? It means the powerless or unimportant people within a society or group. Confined to the outer limits of social standing. Pushing people to the edge of society by not allowing them a place within it.

Could it be that those Christians are the ones accidentally marginalizing sex workers?

It’s easier to say, “Jesus loves you” instead of “I love you,” Joy C, the Director of Cupcake Care, explained. “To separate ourselves in that way—offering third party love instead first person love. But when we say I love you, we glorify God, Christian or not.” Joy C (not to be confused with Joy H, the founder) arranges for the care of both industry women and volunteers through counseling, trainings and support groups.

So, No, the Cupcake Girls say. We are not those Christians. We’re a non-religious organization— and they are.

Because here’s the thing. If you are a Christ-follower, you don’t have to go into full-time ministry or label your work Christian. You don’t have to be a Christian something-or-other. If you are a Christian, no matter what your job is, YOU ARE ALREADY IN FULL-TIME MINISTRY. So no, I agree, they’re not those Christians. They’re these Christians. They’re the ones who love you right here in this club. They’re the ones who know your names and how many kids you have. They’re the ones making deposits of love without anyone even knowing. And they’re the ones walking out into the margins to do it.

So. Back to how it all works.

After they drop the cupcakes off and visit for a while—or in some cases, drop the cupcakes off for weeks and months until they’re finally invited in—they leave the girls with this: If you need anything, call me! And then they hand over their phone numbers.

Their actual phone numbers.

Each Cupcake Girls volunteer that visits a club (these volunteers are usually referred to as meet-up girls) can build an intentional relationship with up to five industry women. This means they’ll continue to go to that specific club and maintain ongoing relationship with those specific women each visit.  And each week they’ll reach out to the women individually outside the club, offering a kind thought like: Hey, just thinking about you—hope you’re having a good week, usually following up with: Let me know if you need anything!

Eventually, someone does need something. Moving assistance. A bed. Tutoring. A dental crown.  And the meet-up girl does everything in her power to provide those tangible needs through the Cupcake Girls resource network. This network is made up of doctors, dentists, lawyers, financial counselors, educational tutors, moving trucks, federal aid assistance, counselors, etc. The moment of follow-through is the moment the rubber meets the road, the moment when the industry woman realizes the meet-up girl is for real. They actually do care. The providing of the physical need widens the relational door a little bit and deepens the trust.  We watched this happen this week as Jeff was able to help one of the meet-up girls put together a bed for a single-mom’s 12 y/o.  And yeah, the Christian meet-up girl from the non-Christian organization said, “I love you,” as they hugged before we left.

Eventually the need-filling sometimes turns into coffee dates outside the club, and then sometimes even weekly support group attendance and more—but even if it doesn’t, the authentic love and support are still there, week after week, right where the women are: in the club.

So, No, to those who are asking. The Cupcake Girls doesn’t set out to pull women out of the industry. They support each woman wherever she is— both in the industry, or walking next to her as she navigates her way out. They add value to each life knowing that the value will inform the woman’s choices. Because here’s the other thing: Jesus did not wait until we had everything together to love us unconditionally. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And so right there in the club, the Cupcake Girls love the women, simply because they’re lovable.

Also, we love God because he first loved us, right?

Could we maybe love them first, too?

I’m almost done, I promise.

We believe in the palms-up approach at World Next Door. Palms-up meaning that instead of arriving with all the answers, we learn from the people we are there to serve. We believe in saying to the outcast, the oppressed and the marginalized: You are better than me, let me serve you. Let me learn from you.

I know what you’re thinking: What could we (the American church) possibly learn from strippers, right?
But the Cupcake Girls is showing us, I think.


IN CONCLUSION (yes, it’s ending) I woke up this morning with this song on my heart:

Take it away, N. Nordeman:

Oh the days when I drew lines around my faith to keep you out, to keep me in, to keep it safe.
Oh the sense of my own self-entitlement to say who’s wrong, who won’t belong, or cannot stay.
Cause somebody somewhere decided we’d be better off divided.
And somehow, despite the damage done…

He says Come

There is room enough for all of us
Please come, the arms are open wide enough
Please come, our parts are never greater than the sum
This is the heart of the one who stands before the open door and bids us come.

Oh the times when I have failed to recognize how many chairs are gathered there around the feast.
To break the bread and break these boundaries that have kept us from our only common ground:
The invitation to sit down if we will come

Come from the best of humanity
Come from the depths of depravity

For the follow-up to this post: click here
For more about our time in Las Vegas: click here
To download the most recent issue of World Next Door: click here


Welcome to Grace City

We’ve been here in Las Vegas on our current World Next Door assignment with Cupcake Girls for about a week. Having already been a not-so-secret fan of the Vegas for about a decade (what? there are other things to do here), and given that we’d have a car and familiar food, I did not imagine a cultural adjustment period.

But several things have left Jeff and I looking at each other at various times like: what world are we in?!

For example, our host family gets cheap tickets to several shows almost any night of the week, so they took us to a jaw-dropping a cappela group last night, where 5 humans created a jazz band with their mouths: a trombone, a bass, an entire drum set and an electric guitar, among other things.

On our way home, we listened as our host mom encouraged her 15 y/o son to share his garage band recordings of his own rap songs—which were actually pretty good! He likened himself to a mix Macklemore and Drake, and his mom was obviously proud of his ingenuity—lyrics and recordings all his own—though most parents I know would be laying this child at the alter in fear of what it all means. I appreciated her opposition to fear and her encouragement of his creative expression.

This, as we drove the overpass above the strip and looked down over the seedy industrial area just two streets over, passing giant glowing billboards of almost naked women—which turn no heads but the Midwestern ones—through Chinatown with it’s stacks-on-stacks-on-stacks of massage parlors, past Naked Pizza—which does not mean vegan pizza, by the way. We’d just eaten it the other night at the orientation. It’s the supposed best pizza around, has nothing to do with naked people, just a symbol of the city. When you want to order pizza in Las Vegas, these are the names of the pizza places. #nobigdeal #totallynormal

And this entire night after spending 12 hours driving to 4 different brothels delivering cupcakes to women the day before. I don’t know how you imagine the brothels in Las Vegas—actually, there are none in Las Vegas, because prostitution is only legal in certain counties—but I was not ready to see a tiny purple trailer in the middle of Death Valley, staffed by 50 y/o end-of-the-road women and owned by an elderly couple in their 80s. Sadness does not even begin to describe it. This particular brothel was no one’s plan A. This was where they ended up.


Not all brothels were like that, though, and next week will be the strip clubs—a whole different game. For some, it’s a snowball effect of cash and attention. For others, the result of exploitation. Voluntary or not, pockets lined or dirt-poor, Las Vegas Boulevard headliner or the little purple trailer, many stand by the work as legitimate with a display of pained dignity. Pained because it’s a hard sell to most, and it’s their value on the line.

People ask all the time—to the Cupcake Girls staff transplants and their families from Michigan and Connecticut and Massachusetts, to us as we prepared to leave for this assignment, even we asked the Christ-following volunteers with teen kids who live in Vegas—how can you live here? Wouldn’t it affect you? And your kids? Doesn’t it wear on you over time?

But then it dawned on me what I shouted from the rooftops only a month ago when Jeff was undercover with Tiny Hands at the brothels in Nepal:

“The group had prayed before beginning the operations. In doing so, they drew upon the resources of a God who was already present in that place. God was in the brothel or dance club before this group had ever arrived and He would remain there long after this group left. The people and places they’d encounter were as much a part of God’s creation as any others, and God had not surrendered them to anyone, not even to the traffickers Vegas.

I knew that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). If our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way. We couldn’t remain afraid, indifferent or inactive in the face of human slavery oppression of any kind.

I knew that if one girl was to be freed due to the investigative work of these men Cupcake sharing of these women, it was because the people with the power and influence she lacked would also be people of goodwill and courage.

God cares about the women, and He has equipped the human race with everything we need— time, education, resources, cash, skills, manpower and brain capacity—to end this injustice. It is we who have not responded.”

So I look at Vegas. At the glitzy strip and the seedy industrial area, at the famous TV brothels and the tiny purple trailers, at the disproportionately small amount of voluntary workers in the midst of so many enslaved—all doing the best they can to maintain their value despite their own choices and the choices of others forced upon them, and I wonder:

Is this the best the body of Christ has to offer Las Vegas?

Raised eyebrows and fear?

In response to question everyone asks about how can we be in Vegas, I offer this one: How can we not be in Vegas?!

What I’ve seen in a week is that Cupcake Girls is offering love with no strings attached. Not love with evangelism. Not love if you leave the industry. Not love from a distance. Love right there next to her just because she has value.

In less than a week, my perspective has shifted from “fun city” when I arrived, to “sin city” when we started poking around the less than glitzy areas, and then flipped to the digital negative when our host mom sat down with us on the first night and said: Welcome to Grace City.

Vegas and Jesus co-exist, you guys (as quoted by myself back in 2007 when I was Myspace blogging- both nailing it and discrediting myself in the same blog. Wink.)

Undercover: A night out with the guys… and girls.

*STOP! Before you read any further, make sure you have read the previous post about the morality of these types of operations. Below are Jeff’s observations and reflections after having gone out several times undercover with the Freedom Operations team.  The info is both sensitive and mature, so, you know, not for the kids.

The following was written by Jeff Hartman (my husband):



I stood on a street corner in Thamel—the touristy area—at about 8p waiting for a call from the Freedom Operations team, who I would be joining for the night. Undercover.

I watched the physical change take place along the streets from a tourist hub to a seedy nightlife in a span of 30 minutes.  Crowds became younger and much more male-oriented, the music became louder as the store fronts were closing up for the day, and I got butterflies. I got the call. Jeff, the VP of Freedom Operations would meet me in 10 minutes with the rest of the team at Fire and Ice, a local pizza joint.

I walked over through endless “smoke and hashish” guys, Turkish salesmen, street girls, cab drivers, and the policemen. I’m not sure if I even saw one female tourist the entire way.

The Freedom Operations team arrived and I was immediately comfortable.  We talked about trafficking, their theories, dreams, and the challenges of the work. We also talked about the psyche with regards to trafficking and law of many countries around the world. It was exciting, inspiring, depressing, and fun all at the same time.

We briefly discussed what we were to do that evening and the DOs and DONTs of the clubs. Basically be cool, follow their cues and just watch and learn. They were also getting mic’d up with cameras and recorders, bringing DNA swabs in case they came across some used condoms, glasses, or got consent from the women to collect samples. We were posing as “researchers” in case anyone asked.  I was a bit nervous, but I felt in good hands with all the experience around the table. We said a prayer then made a plan of attack.

We headed out with the intention of hitting three or four clubs. My adrenaline was pumping as we walked down the streets of Thamel and Jeff B. pointed out the prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts. He was cool, intense, smart, and played the part well.

We arrived at our first club, passed through security, and went down to the basement. Immediately it seemed shady with a girl dancing on stage, several others hanging around scantily dressed, and a few Nepali men. We were the only white men there.

Three women escorted us to the back corner of the club, where light was scarce. We sat down in a torn up booth and the women immediately started flirting. I had no clue what I should/shouldn’t do, what I could/couldn’t do, so I sat there for a minute like a deer in headlights. I admit I was looking around the club looking for the pimps, customers, rooms, etc… trying to get a feel for the place and trying to take cues from the other guys without giving anything away.  They explained that the women are smart, and they can pinpoint within a very short period of time what kind of customer you are and why you’re there. This scared me a bit, so I really tried to blend in the best I could.

I looked over and noticed the other guys arms’ hanging loosely around a couple of women.  Should I be doing that too?! I began to mimic him with regards to how to act.

Two girls sat on either side of me, it was so loud we you had to crowd together to communicate. Needless to say the environment was set up for comfort and intimacy.

The girls began asking for drinks, and I was a little confused but then realized their jobs were to please the customer and generate income for the establishment. They were doing a good job.

The place was not only loud but it was very hot despite a fan blowing directly on us from above. The women were dressed in lingerie or skimpy outfits, and I was in jeans and a Packers shirt.

The women got more friendly as the night wore on, and conversation turned more intimate with comments about my “beautiful” skin, my muscles, my eyes, etc…

We talked about families, but never about marriage. All of this was done through broken English, broken Nepali, gestures, touching, and a lot of laughing and flirting. Fortunately it was initially a lot like a fraternity party, of which I was familiar, but the flirting became more intense, with requests for kisses and touching, and that was a frontier I was not used to.

The first two girls I was with eventually went up to dance on stage and were replaced by new girls—one with tears in her eyes. The other girl told me she was sad, but the girl denied it even as tears continued to pool. I tried to lift her spirits, which resulted in her holding my arm and leg. Whoops. Rewind.

She didn’t say much more, but just kept her arm around me as I thought, How did I get here?! I was undercover with experts in the field of anti-sex trafficking, sitting inside a Kathmandu nightclub with a sad girl’s arm around me.  So weird.

More tourists and Nepali men arrived and the music got louder. The energy was picking up and the girls were starting to work harder by asking for kisses on the cheek. At one point I leaned over to one of the other guys told him half-joking that it was a pleasure meeting him and how ironic it was we were meeting like this! He laughed and said how crazy that we have wives that trust us enough to let us be here. I agreed and thought about Brooke at home. We were both so lucky.

I honestly wanted to tell all these girls in the club that there is help, and that I was harmless, and that I really wanted to give them a sincere hug. I pictured some of the dirty kids in the rural villages and on the streets of Kathmandu and wondered if this was their fate. Never did I expect the emotions I was experiencing. Fear, yes. Excitement, yes. Sadness, yes. But deep sadness and anger stirred inside me that I hadn’t expected.

I wondered how many had gotten here, and Jeff explained they had either been tricked into coming and were now not free to leave, or their families were so desperate for income they were pressured into staying. Whatever the case, he made it clear that NO ONE chose to be here, and that each girl had a story that would break your heart.

The team eventually recorded the information they needed and collected DNA samples from some willing girls.  I remember standing up to walk out and feeling every girl in the club escorting me out with her eyes. Perhaps it was just me, but it seemed like a mix of stares, the I don’t want to be here stare fighting the I need business to survive stare, and both were sad.

These were the girls. These were the ones I had read and watched documentaries about. These are the girls they’ve been working to free. These are the girls so many people are either fighting for or turning a blind eye to. They are real. I had looked them in the eye. I had laughed with them. I could have done a lot more, and many would after we left. It really tugged at my heart.

Thamel appeared darker when I walked outside. The crowd was rough and girls were working the streets—very different from the tourist hub I’d shopped around just hours earlier.

On the way home I thought WOW, how privileged was I to get to experience this and witness the workings of an organization that is on the cutting edge of doing something about the abuse of women?

I have to admit, before this experience my heart was saddened by the idea of sex trafficking and prostitution, but now my heart was totally broken.

I got home and Brooke was awake to hear the stories. I was still going on adrenaline as I paced back and forth in our room sharing the night with her. As I slowed down, fatigue set in and I got ready for bed. My wife’s eyes were shut and I leaned over to give her a kiss as she fell asleep. I felt so lucky to have an amazing women like her who trusted me so much. I felt blessed to be raised the way I did and to come from affluence like so many in the States. I thought, Who knows how I would have ended up if I grew up on the streets of Kathmandu?

I rolled back over and felt the fan from above blowing on me. I flashed back to the club when the fan was blowing on me and women were all around. I was sure glad to have a different fan above and only one women next to me—one I loved and cared so much for. I was saddened to think that most of the women I met tonight longed for this but were in a very different situation with little hope of change.

It wasn’t fair, but all I could do was thank the Lord and think about what I was doing to help them through my work.



So there I was, again, sitting up in the third floor of an old hotel in Pokhara with the Freedom Operations team planning out our day. Hidden cameras in key fobs, sunglasses, shirt buttons, watches were donned and assignments were given. I was about to go out at 3p to learn more about the sex trafficking work in Nepal. This would be another physically and emotionally draining day like the others, the difference being it would be during the middle of the day, not the during the night when most people think the trouble is happening.

One group was heading out to “purchase” a girl for a few hours. She had been identified the day before as potentially trafficked. The other group was to find a good restaurant to bring her to, one that was empty with good lighting and minimal background noises, since we were going to be using five cameras during the interview.

The team headed out on motorcycles with me on the back, and I literally felt like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie. We turned the corner to face a giant mountain peak to the north and a cloud of dust from the motorcade in front of us. I just smiled and hung on for the ride, which would be the theme for me the rest of the day.

The team split up looking for restaurants around town that met our needs. We found one at which we could sit on the third floor in solitude. It was relatively quiet, had good lighting, and we hoped to capture evidence if the girl happened to admit to being trafficked or described who the perpetrator was. We prayed she’d provide key information we could use for litigation purposes.

We got the call that Jeff was approaching with the girl, so we set up a camera in our key fob and positioned ourselves to hear the conversation from a nearby table and get a good view while not raising suspicion.

Jeff arrived, followed by the interpreter, and then the girl. My heart sunk because she looked so young, innocent and vulnerable—not like a prostitute I might have seen in the movies, although technically she wasn’t a prostitute; she was a slave. She was wearing a simple shirt and jeans with high, pointy heels. She looked awkward, like a 16 year-old might if she were eating lunch with two 40-somethings, and especially if she were just bough as a 3-hour rental for $30.

She could have been my nephew’s junior prom date. I was saddened at the thought that this girl could not go to prom, could not live a normal teenage life, and has none of the fun a kid her age should. She doesn’t get to run to the park with her friends or go on a with other boys her age. She an enslaved sex worker, and she has no choices in her life. It was hard to see the type of girl that I had been reading about walk by me and sit down at a table next to me.

Initially her body language was passive. She slumped in her chair and didn’t look anyone in the eye.

She later described to Jeff that was married at the age of 14, and her husband left her five months later. The community rejected her on the grounds she was no longer pure. On top of that, she had a medical emergency that cost around 60,000 rupees ($600) with no way of paying it back.  She borrowed the money for emergency surgery—she had to pay in advance or they would not do the surgery—from her ex-husband’s sister’s husband, who offered to help. To pay the money back, she came to work at a cabin restaurant owned by the family, which was a brothel in disguise.

The girl described how she wants out desperately, but she currently owes 45,000 rupees ($450). She is not allowed to leave the establishment unless someone purchases her. She sleeps in a room with the other girls and can be rented out at any time. She cannot refuse business and is truly enslaved to sex-work until her debt is paid.

When their meals were finished, Jeff asked the girl where she wanted to go.  He wanted to get more information, but more importantly wanted to give her a couple hours of peace and enjoyment before going back to the hell she lived in.

She asked to drive up to one of the most beautiful Himalayan observation areas in Pokhara. And she just wanted to sit, so Jeff obliged. They sat without talking for a little while before Jeff had to take her back. She asked if they were going to the hotel now to have sex. Jeff told her he wasn’t interested in sex. She gave him a huge hug.

While this was going on, the rest of us went to several other cabin restaurants to collect “data”.  Again, it felt like a scene from Indiana Jones. We zipped though town, down side streets dodging dogs, cows and people. I was holding my breath. I had no clue where I was, but I knew we weren’t in the regular tourist part of town.

When we stopped, kids were outside playing, families were hanging out, and stores were open for business. While it wasn’t a place I’d hang out it without a purpose, I didn’t feel overly scared and I sure as heck wouldn’t have guessed there were brothels in the area. One of the team members then walked around the corner and motioned us to come. As we turned the corner, the street suddenly became eerie. He told us there were probably 500 women for sale in this area and that I needed to stick close to him.  He became more serious, and I became his shadow.

My insecure side emerged and I wondered what people thought of me. It was obvious that when a couple of white men are in the area, it’s probably not for any other reason than sex. I wanted to wear a sign saying I am trying to help! I am not purchasing sex! But, of course, I had to play the part. I said a prayer and reminded myself that God was with me, and that I was there for a reason.

The cabin restaurant was dark, musty, and warm and the quarters were tight. I looked to the right and saw the community bedroom for the girls. The next door was closed. There were an additional three or four rooms for sex, and only one small cubicle for dinner. It just didn’t feel right and I was so nervous!

Three young ladies greeted us, all smiles. A couple of them remembered the team from the previous day, when they had been in to scope things out. We had returned to the restaurant because now the team knew exactly where the trashcans were, and they would attempt to collect DNA evidence through condoms and other used items.

The girls escorted us back to the cubby, and one kissed my shoulder three times. The six of us crammed into the small cubicle and ordered chips and drinks.  The girls that surrounded us were more like girls than sex workers. They dressed like teenagers, giggled, and had silly personalities, but every once in a while they’d do something atypical for a teenager like massage our hands, feed us little chips one by one, or blow on our necks to keep us cool.

As we left, it was getting dark and scary in the neighborhood. The girls started coming out of all the cabin restaurants, and it became obvious this was the red light district of Pokhara. I saw many young girls just sitting like young teens would outside their home, but the difference was they were doing it against their will and were simply being advertised.

My heart broke for them, and as we rode by on our bike, I wished I could swoop them all onto a giant truck and take them away to a place where they could be free and happy, with hopes and dreams of a future.

The team met back at the hotel and debriefed. We were exhausted and just needed a break for a while. Despite our limited success, everyone was pleased with the day and so was I.

I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. I’m not sure if it was a blessing or a burden to have experienced this and now I have faces and names to assign to this injustice. It’s no longer ten thousand. It’s one girl and another girl and another girl.

The question I’m now pondering is what I’ll do about it.