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 (www.worldnextdoor.org) 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.

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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.

Awesome.
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
Come.

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

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Katie B.

This is strange, I know. But I have been thinking about Katie lately, and can’t NOT mention it… Also, I think things are cyclical, and most of the time we realize things internally before we process them mentally. Almost one year ago exactly, after bawling my eyes out over not getting accepted to UNLV, after plans for moving to California fell through, Lisa and I had our first conversation about me and Belize.

What a year.

There are moments here, in Santa Familia, when I am the happiest I have ever been in my whole life, almost like I was born half Belizean and raised with an invisible compass pointing me here.In those moments, I look around and think: how did I get here? How did I cross the bridge from—well, maybe I should go to Belize—to actually quitting my job and moving here?

It had always only been a threat. Like, when I got so fed up with life or work in Fort Wayne, I’d say, I should just move to another country. My mom has friends in Belize, you know. I could work in the schools, paint, teach—whatever they need.

But then I would get wrapped up in things like Taco Bell and Grey’s Anatomy and the GAP and would totally discard the stirring until the next time I felt bored or useless or unmotivated or overspent.

I only knew one girl personally, my age, who had actually picked up and moved to a developing country. Katie in Haiti. The tagline on her Myspace was: My heart belongs in Haiti. I always wished my heart belonged anywhere besides the Target dollar spot.

I have done lots of short-term missions trips—built churches, visited orphans, constructed wheelchair ramps for disabled seniors; I did a three-week stint with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina and loved it—but I could never figure out how to cross the bridge from vacation pay to unpaid leave to actually quitting my job and starting a new life. I didn’t even know how to take the first step. And the not knowing scared me into complacency.

Whenever Katie came in town, I would sigh and say, I wish I could do that in Belize. And she would say, “You could.” Then I’d shrug and keep eating my Molten Chocolate or Cookie Monster thinking I could never make it in Belize without hot flowing chocolate at my fingertips.

A week later, she’d go back to Haiti, and I’d go back to entry-level social work (which I loved, by the way) but I paid attention to her updates and support letters, and I began emailing little questions like: But what did you do with your car? What kind of phone plan do you have? Do you live with a family or on your own? How do I defer my school loans?

Those easy little questions and answers nudged me to a logistically comfortable place. It was always important to me to have a plan.

The great news is, a couple years earlier I had been run over by a semi.

In the hospital, the nurse looked at me and said, “God must have something really important planned for your life.” And though I was humbled and inclined to roll my eyes and insist it was just coincidence (I do believe my greatest fear sometimes is that God actually does believe I am valuable and capable of something very important), I nodded and whole-heartedly believed her.

Then I thought I should probably get on with things—figure out how to do something important and extraordinary with the life I’d been lent. So I explored a bunch of crazy interests I’d always wanted to pursue. (You can never know where God might use you, okay? It could have been in the theater classes at IPFW or at The Paul Mitchell School in San Diego, or in an MFA program in creative writing. Who’s to say? The important thing is I looked.)

And, actually, that 14th rejection letter from UNLV last February led to my first consideration for Belize Team 14—almost one year ago, exactly. The rest is history. I said goodbye to the MFA and Paul Mitchell school, put myself on spending freeze, and used the summer to prepare.

I remember how amazing my last day of work felt in September. Remember the crispy white Anne Taylor pants story? I could feel it in my bones—something great was ahead. Something important.  And it HAS been, both great and important.

In October, right after my first trip to Belize, Katie died in her sleep. In Haiti.

It was a terrible shock, and heartbreaking for all of us. I felt like I had just burst into the room excited with my brand new Belize, thinking it could be friends with her Haiti, and she was gone.
Not to mention the fact that she was gone.
It was just hard to understand.

So hard, in fact, I flew home in the middle of a six-week trip to Germany, ready and prepared to never leave Fort Wayne again—to skip Belize, defer grad school, hang on the couch with Sprinky for life.

But sometime later, I wrote this:

The miracle, I have realized—the exception, not the rule—is that we are alive. That our skin comes together and holds everything in. That our blood flows and our hearts beat. That we breathe in and out and are given a certain number of days to complete a certain task in the world, and that we think somehow all of this is our doing. That our lives belong to us. We are created, and we exist so long as our creator continues to breath life into our frail, fragile, pile of bones and skin and muscle. Each time we breathe in and out, we are experiencing a tremendous, fantastic, unbelievable miracle.

When I am here, I feel like God’s finger is on my pulse. I feel him breathing life and purpose into me.My heart belongs here, in Belize. And I can’t tell that to Katie, but God knows, and all he has to do while I am riding in the back of a pick-up truck with a bunch of Belizean kids sucking limes, is nudge her and say, “Look, Kate.You helped plant this seed.Well done.”

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