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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We Harts You.

Hi buddy-ol-pals,

This is one of those lump-a-bunch-of-news-together kind of updates, with one embarrassing picture of our packing status.

We are only 8 hours from flying out for our next assignment in Nepal. We have been home for about 4 weeks and jam-packed a lot of family and friend visiting, although we didn’t see or talk to everyone we would have liked to visit with. We are in a state of constant disconnect it feels like, and wish we could stop time to catch up and share a meal with more people than there are days home. If you’re wondering, yes, we mean you!

World Next Door just released our 6th magazine issue this month (the 3rd for Jeff and I) and have seen growing success with increasing in downloads and readership each month!  We have also discovered many personal stories of individuals and families getting involved with different organizations, kids getting sponsored, trunk parties hosted, inspired US teens diverting birthday gifts to other teens in faraway places, etc. and have started a new section of the magazine called “Wild-eyed”. This section tells stories of ordinary people who have gotten personally involved in the fight against social injustice after reading an article in the magazine.  It’s how we’ll begin to share the effectiveness of the magazine with those who have invested in our mission of engaging others to action. We continue to be inspired, and we’re more excited than ever to get to Nepal and produce our next magazine with Tiny Hands International, scheduled for publication in December.

While CGI in Cambodia focused primarily on the prevention and re-integration of sex-trafficking, Tiny Hands actually intercepts girls being trafficked from Nepal to India through 26 border stations, and partners with International Justice Mission to build a case and prosecute. Each station has the capacity to rescue up to 130 girls per year if fully staffed. Tiny Hands also has several children’s homes staffed by a local married couple, a prayer initiative, and are in the middle of establishing a Dream Center and a US-accredited School of Injustice. Below are two behind-the-scenes videos about the Tiny Hands border stations and how the interceptions work.  The first video is embedded, the second is a link called “Trafficked” you’ll to click through. I was floored:

Trafficked: https://vimeo.com/45765371

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At the end of our six weeks, we’ll be spending time with a different organization called Nepal Outdoor Adventures, a Nepalese owned and operated trekking company who who are passionate about reaching young people in Nepal for Christ. They have developed a business model to help keep youth workers in their community called, Nepal Outdoor Adventure Treks and Expedition. Every 10 trekkers that use Nepal Outdoor Adventure Treks and Expedition will employ a full-time youth worker in Nepal for a year.  We will be going on a 10-day trek to the Annapurna sanctuary with this organization for an article or two.

The next six weeks will be packed! I sure wish we were packed.

Photo 2

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Now for the goods.

Below are the pictures and links for the iPad version of the Cambodia issue that came out last week, and the online version of the magazine for those who prefer to read the content online. We’ll also list the specific articles Jeff and I wrote for easy access, though I recommend reading the three features by our summer interns- SO good.

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Online content (click the image below to go to the table of contents):

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Our specific articles this month, with most of J’s photography scattered throughout the sections in the iPad version:

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Thanks for following along and for all your support, love and prayers. You guys carry us! Feel free to follow along while we’re in Nepal via:

Twitter.com/brooky

Facebook.com/brkhartman

Instagram.com/brkhartman

And the ol’ blog: www.brkwilson.wordpress.com

In Which I Eat a Sweet Roll Off the Ground and Misunderstand Trafficking

A small victory was achieved this morning when J and I were able to effectively communicate with Mom-sung (phonetic spelling), the woman who watches over the Daughter’s House: One egg lunch Jeff. Eat rice Brooke. Lunchtime. Egg. One. Jeff. No egg Brooke. Eat rice. 12 lunch.

We spoke all these words in Khmer, and Mom-sung eventually decoded our accents and repeated the words in Khmer with gestures. It didn’t sound the same, but we checked our notebook, understood we were all saying the same magical words, and then threw a party! We clapped and cheered, Mom-sung hopped up and down, we danced a small circle all around each other with big smiles and thumbs up signaling success.

When we came home for lunch, we found three eggs, heaping plates of rice and some cucumber. Close enough!

For almost four days we have been happily settled into our host home, but totally confused. Mom-sung, so sweet and energetic, speaks to us non-stop in Khmer with lots of gestures, but we can never figure out what is going on. For the first 24 hours we had no food or water, because the Daughters (who we would typically eat dinner with) had already eaten dinner, and we couldn’t figure out how to get breakfast, because the girls eat breakfast at the workshop.  Even with our translator friend, something just kept getting lost in all the back and forth and when all conversations were finished—there was still no food or water!

Finally around noon the next day, half-starved and dehydrated, we saw a roadside stand, purchased a sweet roll and a bottle of water, accidentally dropped the roll on the ground, stumbled over each other to dust it off, and ate it anyway. Given that we had just eaten a roll off the ground, we did not have to try very hard to convey our desperation to Srey Leak (our translator friend, CGI Kids host, and the woman we spend our days with), but continued the long walk to and from home visits. It would have taken less effort if the little girl we were going home with hadn’t sped off on her bike without us. We walked half a mile down, turned around to ask the sweet roll ladies who the girl was and where she lived, walked another quarter mile but couldn’t find her, looped back around to the village chief’s house and then found the girl.

When our friend walked us home at 1p, she spoke a few words to Mom-sung, and the next thing we knew, a giant plate of rice and several fried eggs with soy sauce were set out in front of us.  By 5p we had a 5-gallon water tub and immediately got water-drunk. That night we ate dinner with the daughters: shoes off, cross-legged on bamboo mat, spices and sauces in a bowl, chopped the roasted chicken, spooned the rice, and dipped everything into everything. By 7p I was in bed with the dehydration-walked-forever-in-the-hot-sun-barely-ate-but-accidentally-worked-out-because-I-didn’t-know-the-day-would-go-like-this headache. I slept 11 hours, drank another liter, and have been back to normal ever since.

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We also went into town for a birthday party yesterday, visited the big supermarket, and came home with a few essential easy-to-store groceries and maybe a sleeve of Oreos that somehow ended up in our bag.  Srey Leak helped us set up a bread delivery each morning, so now we get 4 baguettes. Two for breakfast and two for lunch. And then (are you tired of me yet?) today we passed a little surprise pop-up roadside market and bought tomatoes and cucumbers to eat with our baguettes. We bypassed the frogs, eels and snails, though.

(Uh, also Jeff ate a baby duck at that birthday party. Video is on FB. Gag me.)

In my notebook, the first three pages are words in Khmer, like water, breakfast, lunch, egg, one, two—all words we needed to know in the order we needed to know them. You could easily read my vocab list as though it were a journal and understand what was going on in our life simply by the words we learned and in what order. Funny. I think it’s safe to say between the vocab, the bread delivery, the water tub and our surprise market, we’re now onto a regular routine of eating :).

In other news—this is it, I promise— I have a nice little lost in translation moment. Yesterday we sat in the schoolyard waiting to meet with a teacher for THREE HOURS after having been told the teacher had just gone to the market. Later we learned she’d left to attend a customary three-day funeral. Whoops. During our three-hour wait, we got into a pretty intense conversation with Srey Leak about the dangers of being born beautiful in Cambodia, and the value of lighter skin tone as it relates to beauty, which is why most Cambodians wear full-length shirts and pants despite the heat. They want to protect their skin from the sun—not out of skin cancer fear, but fear of turning a shade or two darker.  In the middle of this discussion, as she was introducing all kinds of different “issues” in Cambodia, she told us they have a big problem with trafficking. J and I looked at each other like, here we go. Straight into the issue.

She continued to talk with a look of concern, said a bunch of things we had a hard time following, made the motion of two fists banging into each other, and then said, “Yeah. Trafficking is a big problem. The cars and the motos crash into each other and sometimes they crash into a tuk-tuk. They drive too fast.”

Traffic. They have a big traffic problem.

An album of school kids, meals, the bamboo train, our neighborhood and other first-week-firsts? HERE!