Creating Kinship With Gangbangers and Sex Workers

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


So. I wrote a blog last week about those Christians and these strip clubs. I wrote it to my normal tens of readers and to those 62 people who are funding our year with World Next Door, but it sparked a lot of discussion and sharing.

In the meantime, I watched a documentary on Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries and their work with felons and ex-gang members. It talked not just about the work we do in the margins, but about actually creating a kinship with those we are seeking to serve. So I offer this part of our process, because Father Greg nails it in the end:

We’ve met  women in all stages here in Las Vegas— young and old, pockets-lined and dirt poor, proud and satisfied, discouraged and discontented and fearful. We’ve met mothers living double lives, and runaway teenagers posing as adults, and women living the exact life they want, and women who are on, like, plan E.

As Jeff and I process each story and share our experience with others, we keep running into to the same questions:

Was she trafficked?
Is she allowed to leave?
Was she abused?
Is she on drugs?
Wait. Was she forced to be on drugs? Did they addict her?
Could she leave if she wanted to?
Does she make a lot of money?
Does she have kids?
Is she in school?
Is she bringing home money?

We provide each answer, and then we mull it around a little trying to understand. Trying to understand her choices against our own, maybe? Trying to figure out our level of empathy? Determining whether or not we can see any part of ourselves in her?

And then I had an awful thought: What if we ask the questions because our compassion is qualified by the answers. What if we are measuring the lifestyle against the injustice to determine what type of love this person gets from us?

Does she get arms-length love?  Praying-from-afar love? Is she eligible for the minimal qualifying Jesus loves you because Jesus loves everybody love? Or does she get full-on, big, wet, sloppy kiss love? Does she get a one-armed hug or both arms with an extra squeeze?

It’s much easier, I think, to feel compassion toward an abused 14 y/o who ran away and got locked in a hotel room for 2 years; on a coke-addicted prostitute feeding an addiction that was forced onto her; on a young woman intercepted at a Nepali border station who thought she was on her way to a better life in India. I’d love those women with both arms, probably, drowning in compassion.

If she was vulnerable and exploited, I’m all in. That’s not fair, I think. It wasn’t her fault.

But what if the woman goes into the sex industry with both eyes open? What if she falls in love with a pimp and runs off with him to Texas? What if she can make more money at the strip clubs than she can selling her art projects or her chocolates and she just really likes bringing home $600- $4k per night. What if it’s totally her fault?

What then? What type of love, empathy or compassion does she get from me?

Here’s a good example. After support group last week, a friend described how she had  voluntarily entered in the sex industry but was locked in a hotel room six days a week for 20 hours a day— willingly, she thought, because of what the business had promised her: dental caps, breast implants, her own house, and a car. She didn’t realize until she came across an article on human trafficking that she was a sex slave. That her life looked exactly the same. She had been working for the promise of money, not actual money.

It turns out attention and cash are as strong and confining as any physical chain or deadbolt—only they’re more deceptive. A chain and deadbolt look like a chain and deadbolt, but attention and cash look a lot like success.

When my friend realized what was happening, she walked away. It wasn’t easy for her to do, but she found a way. Now, even as she works hard and earns success at a career she’s proud of, she fights the voice in her head that calls her back when her car payment is due and her account balance is low.

What if that was the voice I was fighting every day?  I fight voices of insignificance and insecurity and ingratitude, and the ones calling me toward the pastry counter, and the ones burrowing holes of bitterness in my heart.

But because her voices are different than mine, I would have easily sized her up on my vulnerability/exploitation scale and offered her a love, of like, 3 up front.

Now? After spending time with her and getting to know who she is? I would climb across the table and give her a real, true, both arms, wet and sloppy with a big kiss and hug love. I would give her a love of 10. Because she deserves that from me. She is worthy of that from me.

(I can’t wait to share more about my friend and her incredible journey in World Next Door’s February issue, by the way. If you’re into inspiring stories from unlikely people, download it.)

Here’s where it really hits home for me, though. It’s not just the sex industry we qualify our love for.

A person I love very much is lost in heroin.

Do you know how I would have described a heroin addict before someone I loved became one? Before someone to whom I have already attached value became one?

Irresponsible. Selfish. Dangerous. Cold-hearted. Scrawny. Malnourished. Criminal. Reckless. Negligent. Thoughtless. Scary.

Do you know how I would describe a heroin addict right this heartbreaking second?

Lonely. Sad. Scared. Lost. Ashamed. Kind.  Insecure. A pleaser. A follower. In desperate need of affirmation. Lovable.

Before a person I loved became a heroin addict, I’d have offered arms-length love with a whole lot of qualifiers and very little compassion. But when a person to whom I have already attached value is addicted to heroin, I only have more love. I feel desperate compassion.

Our measure of love toward sex workers (or any population in the margins) can’t be the circumstance they find themselves in, but in how much we value each person to begin with.

So. Back to Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries. I was watching a documentary and started reading his book called Tattoos on the Heart, and I came across this:

“The measure of your compassion lies not in your service of those in the margin, but in your willingness to see yourself in kinship with them.”

Yes, that.

Kinship is a blood relationship, you know.  So here’s the question: How are we related by blood to sex workers? Gang bangers? Heroin addicts?

How are we the same?

Here’s a start. We are all made in the image of Christ. We have innate value no matter what.  And it’s only through the blood of Christ any of us have sanctification.

Even you.
Even me.

So it can no longer be us and them. It’s only us.


For more about our time in Las Vegas: click here
To download the most recent issue of World Next Door: click here