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 (www.worldnextdoor.org) 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.

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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.

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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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A Letter to My Younger Self

Preface: This was our Scribes assignment last month (writing a letter to our younger self) and it was hard. Like, really hard. You should try it. I took the assignment literally. Others were more creative.

Dear Younger B,

It’s me, Older B. I’ve been commissioned to write you a letter.  You will never believe how hard it is to be in charge of all the secrets in our lives, and to determine which things to tell you and for what purpose.

We live in Carmel now. You are somewhere nearby (back in time) and whenever I run into a person who knew you, I feel compelled to run a way or jump behind a bush.  What I really want to say is: stop hi-jacking my experience here! But if Oldest B were writing me a letter, I would want her to be proud of me, and very kind. So, while reaching for my top-shelf patience, I would like to offer you a little compassion and a hug. Is seems necessary to pick you up and put you in my pocket before anyone else makes a judgment, because, well, you’re me. And we’re both doing the best we can, yes?

With that in mind, I would like to tell you right off the bat: you are already good enough, cool enough, nice enough, honest enough, funny enough, pretty enough, smart enough and competent enough. If you do nothing else, you are already these things.  Also, I have looked at a ton of pictures of you throughout the years. You are always skinner today than you will be tomorrow, so be happy with your body right now.

(You might also find this helpful sooner than later: there is a good face behind those eyebrows.)

I have decided not to share too many secrets, because life will give you lots of stories to tell, and without those, you might become a bore at parties. Also, each thing prompts you toward the next, and life gets exponentially better further up and further in. I don’t want to short-circuit this process. I will, however, give you some tips to ease the journey, throw some metaphorical pillows on the ground to soften your falls, and try to sand down a few sharp edges, okay? That’s what Older Bs do for Younger Bs.

I don’t know if you’re at the phase in life where 5’8″ you is jumping over shin-high bushes in the background of a video of your 3 and 5 year old brothers doing the same in the foreground; I don’t know if you’re at the stage where you can be seen doing karate chops by yourself, again, in the background of a video of your brothers doing real karate in the foreground. I’m not sure if you are a foot taller than your 4th grade class yet in a one-piece jumper made out of firework fabric sewn by your mom, or if you’re being kicked out of gymnastics because you’re too tall and heavy to spot, or if you’ve already soaked your jet-black hair with sun-in, baked it with a blow-dryer and performed an at-home perm kit backward by brushing it straight. Wherever you are in this process, you should know that you grow up to be funnier because of how weird you are right now.

Here are the punch lines to those stories: your hair turns bright orange, and the perm kit doesn’t work. You will be gray when you’re 19. You’ll quit gymnastics and play basketball through college. Although you’ll go to a college so tiny the volleyball team doubles as the basketball team, you will get a scholarship and you’ll break the scoring record during a tournament your freshman year—the only win that season. Today your grown-up self doesn’t even care about gymnastics.

**Side note, you’ll be tempted to order a little bacon and pepperoni pizza at midnight after basketball practices several times per week in college. Don’t do it. This is a dangerous habit. One day your metabolism will stop, and you’ll be frantically canning salads on Sunday nights to eat throughout the week because you can’t drop 15 pounds and your pants don’t fit. You are not currently playing basketball as an adult. You’ve spent a decade trying to break the pizza-cookie habit.

Maybe you’re in 7th grade, wearing a black turtleneck and multi-colored cow boxers, same as your BFF, with a notebook that you carry around every second containing the lifelong secrets between the two of you, and also some lyrics to Lion King. Everyone thinks you are a lesbian right now. You probably don’t even know what this means yet. No matter. Don’t change one single thing. This BFF will get you through High School in one piece, and you’ll both marry fantastic men.  The kids who make fun of you feel left out. The adults who think you’re a lesbian are out of touch with what BFF looks like at 13.

Younger B, if a safe-looking place opens its doors and a group of people attempt to love you unconditionally—assuming it’s not a gang—hang out there. You will have access to a pretty amazing youth group. Don’t take this for granted, because it’s the only reason you have turned out semi-normal at an earlier age, as compared to those other dudes in the foreground of all those cute videos. They will never really engage in this youth group. Their support network will expose them to several different drugs and county lock-ups. Yours will expose you to cross-cultural missions trips to Central America and, like, Chicago. That said, you act kind of weird, and if “youth group” were writing the story, it would not begin with a sentence like: “I have a pretty amazing Brooke.”  This dynamic is what makes the place so great. They know you and they still let you in. There you will find enough hugs and friends and snacks. Attend as often as you can. Go on every winter overnight and fall-break trip and summer mission. This experience is widening your lens and building a strong social and moral network, although it won’t present as such for several more years. Grown-up me wants to tell all the adults in your life thanks for keeping you safe and loved, and for not rolling their eyes to your face.  **Note to future self: stop rolling eyes at crazy teenagers.

Younger B, here is an important thing to note: life will seem completely out of control sometimes. That’s because it is.

Life is hard, but there is always a pressure valve somewhere. Kids will make fun of you.  They’ll call you Boring Brooke at cross-country camp and throw candy wrappers in your hair during choir.  Adults will manipulate you. Coworkers will bully you.  Family will disappoint you. Friends will hurt your feelings. People will say mean things behind your back, and sometimes even to your face. You’ll be misunderstood and misrepresented a thousand million times. You’ll be judged and dismissed and ignored. Lots of things will be unfair.  You will not be the best or the brightest. You will not be the funniest or the prettiest.  Good things will happen to bad people in your life. Bad things will happen to good people in your life.  Plans will not unfold according to your expectations. Even your own body will let you down.

But somewhere nearby will be a crawfish-type guy. Make it your mission to find the crawfish in your misery, give a quick thanks, force yourself to smile and keep moving forward. I tell you this one truth: someone nearby has it worse than you. Get tough, lady!

(Also, quick! Join volleyball. This will keep you from having to go to Cross Country camp in the first place. If you get stuck going anyway, just don’t tell the coach your family can’t afford it to get out of it- your coach will call your confused parents and offer them a scholarship. Ugh.)

Okay. Tone shift.

Little B, this is most important: Before high school is finished you will get confused about your value.  You will do all kinds of silly (desperate) things to figure it out, and in the end you will feel worse. These are the types of things that make adult you want to jump behind bushes when I see someone we know here in Carmel. I don’t care what people tell you—high school years are not the best years of your life. Whoever said this must have died at 19.  In whatever way you’re able to push through it (and I promise to set aside all judgment, because I believe you are doing the best you can with the resources you have), push through it. On the other side of high school is a spectacular green meadow with birds and rainbows and soft-serve machines in your college cafeteria and unlimited access to pop-tarts and friends and total freedom. You will think this is the best best and you’ll try to live forever at 19, but after college is an even bigger, greener meadow with meaningful relationships, sound judgment and insight, spectacular job opportunities, financial independence, other cities and countries, passions, competencies, etc. Just trust me on this. Your adult life is currently amazing.

Also, I debated whether or not to disclose this, but you do so much better when you’re prepared for these types of things.  Asking for a little help from the right people would have saved us a ton of heartache, so if I could offer you a redo on anything, it would be this—and I disclose it with my tightest hug and my warmest blanket: Aunt C is going to die. It will happen in a car accident 2 weeks before you go to college, right at the beginning of your parent’s decade-feeling-long divorce, and it will screw up the first half of your college experience.  You will understand that life is unpredictable—that any awful thing could happen at any safe-feeling time; that a person could be here this morning and gone by dinner, with no warning. You will feel so sad and alone in your grief, and so chaotic in your brain.  You will not know how to express this to anyone. You will smoke and drink and lie and steal and get straight Fs and get kicked out and move off campus, and you won’t understand why. You will make friends with people 10 years older and try to fit them into gaping holes inside. You will begin to absorb a piece of everyone around you and lose your entire identity. This will be so hard,

To save you from this, I am dying to give you a bright neon list with lights and arrows identifying people to stay away from, because they are bad for you. They’re not bad people; but they’re not whole people either, and their needs will feed on your vulnerabilities.  But these people and experiences will bring you to the very edge of yourself, and finding that edge will provide you with insight and a never-again determination toward assertiveness, balance and truth-finding.  This is what 18-22 year-olds do: solidify self and develop insight.  Don’t beat yourself up over it.

Also, you’ll find that because God cares about you and intervenes in when you are flailing, there will be a professor—a psychology guy—who provides a list detailing the non-negotiable truth about who you are. This is what God says about you. It’s right here in the Bible, totally independent of what’s going on in your life right now. Just choose to believe it.  (You will want to believe this so hard.)

Once you choose to believe this, you will never be able to separate yourself from these truths from that moment on. If you could somehow know this at 8, and 17 and 19; at 5’8″ jumping bushes with curly black hair; at the gymnastics studio when you’re a foot taller and too heavy; right before you do all those silly (desperate) things to find value and absorb an identity. If you could internalize this immediately, your life would be better faster. If you just can’t get it right yet, don’t worry. This will be waiting for you at 24.  Life gets infinitely better after 24, trust me.

Now for the good stuff.

You could never imagine this, but somewhere in Wisconsin or Evansville or Belize or Sierra Leone or Nepal or Ecuador or Bloomington or South Carolina or Maine (depending how old you are right now and where he is right now) a dude is living and growing and stepping into tiny footsteps laid out for him to someday cross your path. Unless you’ve met this guy yet, you think you don’t want to get married. I will not try to convince you otherwise, but as your older, wiser self, I can’t wait for you to meet him! He’ll marry you. Love will spill over, and you will be the kind of happy there aren’t words for. He will hold you in esteem as though you are the exact kind of person God says you are. And he’s so funny.

There are a bunch of other things I would like to save you from: a car accident, piles of rejection letters, natural disasters, acts of terrorism, family dissolution, aimless relationships, etc. But many of those things will prompt you toward other, better things your lil’ heart can’t even imagine.

The thing to know is this: Adult you is safe and happy and warm and successful and loved. You are married to a handsome, funny, compassionate man. Your job is meaningful and important. You have three beautiful nieces, and your brothers are amazing dads. You are so proud of them in that way. Your parents remarry via the internets to people you love, and everyone sort of ends up happy.  God has always been present in your life, and your life is proof of his grace.  Translation: you do some crazy things, but are undeservedly cared for.  I want you to remember that God does not cause bad things to happen, Younger B. He sits right next to you in your grief, even the kind caused by your own self.  He’ll redeem anything and everything if you trust him, and he’ll make something bright out of darkness.

You will be tempted to think you know exactly what you want out of life at any given moment. But he writes a much better story than we do, so don’t try to hijack the plot and deposit yourself somewhere else. You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Love & Hugs-
Older B

PostScript: It turns out I talk to myself more frequently than I realized. These may also help- here and here.