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Into the trenches: an IMB worker’s visit to the streets

[SLIDESHOW=41982]EDITOR’S NOTE: Indonesia is the country of focus for the current International Mission Study by Woman’s Missionary Union. IMB workers featured in this study are supported through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Find IMS study resources at imb.org/ims and wmu.com/IMS.

INDONESIA (BP) — We got out of the car and walked away from the bright, crowded market and into the darkness. We went down the path of broken bricks and past the rats and bonfires with seedy-looking men to a clearing where we saw the outlines of two girls standing at the edge of the shadows. It was impossible to see any details, but we knew from their location that they were likely prostitutes.

My Indonesian friend, Hani,* flashed her giant smile and said, “We’re from a social foundation … and we brought gifts for New Year’s!” Handing out gift bags tied with a bow, she explained the contents: cosmetics, a comb and a brochure. She talked about our women’s shelter, mentioning that it was all free — even the food and milk for the children. She explained that there, the women could learn English, computer skills, cooking and more.

They hesitated. One said, “I quit school after elementary.” That was my cue. “It’s okay! I’m sure you can do it,” I said, as I thought, “Am I, though?”

Hani put her arm around the first girl as if they were best friends. “Now, can you show us where we can find some more ladies?”

We followed our newly appointed tour guide, Nina,* further into the darkness. Hani had said the prostitutes would like to have their picture taken with me, the “white lady.” She was right. Maybe it was not so much to get their picture taken but to have me next to them with my arms around them. When we were done with one set of photos, they all kissed me goodbye with the pecks on each cheek that are common in Indonesia. During one peck, I caught a glimpse of an Adam’s apple and I stifled a gasp. I realized I had just kissed a transvestite! That was a first.

Nina led us down a dirt path into what looked like a dumpy picnic area. A boarded-up noodle cart stood near the platform where people were sitting. None of this seemed out of the ordinary since makeshift handout areas and used carts are commonplace around here. But then the curtain on the noodle cart opened and a heavily made-up face appeared. The whole thing had a circus sideshow feel to it. A woman was sitting on a thin mattress inside the cart. She was not young or attractive; nevertheless, she was open for business in the old noodle cart with a mattress, a bare light bulb and some photos torn out of the underwear section of a 1980s J.C. Penney catalog.

I smiled, gave her a gift bag, asked her name and tried not to show on my face the million thoughts and questions flooding my mind.

The next group we saw included a woman in her late 60s who stopped digging through the trash long enough to come ask for a gift. “Oh, sorry,” we said. “These are for ‘night ladies’ only.” Everyone there spoke up at once: “Oh, yes, she does that, too. She’ll work later tonight.”

I shook her hand and wondered how on earth someone comes to trash picking by day and selling her body by night. This sweet, worn-out woman is why the shelter exists — to minister to her, as well as prevent others from living the same nightmare.

Huddle after huddle, we talked with women in the dark. Their pimps asked us what we brought for them. Next time, I’ll bake cookies for the pimps. It’s yet another statement that sounds surreal when you say it out loud.

That evening was shocking, comical and deeply spiritual all at the same time. While we were out there in the dark with the prostitutes, pimps and various creatures living in the woods around their hideouts, I felt the smile of God. I felt the protective hand of God. And I felt the intercession of Christ on my behalf.

At one point, we were approaching a stall selling two girls, Annie* and Emma,* along with some fried snacks and bottles of tea. The situation didn’t look any more menacing than any other we’d been in and actually seemed safer because there was a little bit of light.

Still, I was compelled to pray out loud as we walked up: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus … make Your presence go with us.” And He did. We approached the girls without fear; I squeezed in between them for a picture and told Annie how special her name was and that I wouldn’t forget it. God did that.

*Name changed