It’s pouring rain. In a time of the most severe drought this country has known in decades, there’s no room for complaining about the wet and cold. We welcome the storm, although it does complicate our objective.
We walk into the first brothel; only red lights illuminate the shadows of utter darkness inside. The heavy smell of incense and alcohol, along with the pulsing music, adds to the stifling atmosphere. It’s hard to breathe in here. Nonetheless, I take a deep breath and follow my friend, a seasoned veteran of brothel visits, into the obscure back corners of the local. She walks quickly and confidently, intention radiating in every bit of her being, a force to be reckoned with. I mostly just listen and take in my surroundings as she talks with woman after woman. I marvel at her ease of conversation, as though she’s chatting with a girlfriend she ran into at the grocery store, commenting on the storm outside and discussing the difficulty of raising teenagers. For a moment it’s easy to forget that we are talking with a woman taking a short break between clients; she’ll possibly encounter up to 50 men this evening. But as I feel the shuffle of dozens of shopping men brush by me, I am immediately brought back to harsh reality. I notice a group of men fixated on a glowing television set, and avoid looking at the screen so as not to be assaulted by the perverse images that are no doubt being displayed.
We step back out into the cold, wet night, breathing deeply of the fresh air and quickly make our way to another brothel, and then another. Back on the street, my friend says to me, “Are you okay? Would you like to do more talking?” I hesitantly agree, even though I am dying to converse with these women. We step into the next brothel and agree to take the upstairs while the rest of our team stays downstairs. Our male volunteer remains in the middle of the brothel, praying while vigilantly watching over us. His presence has a calming effect on me. We climb the rickety steps, taking care not to fall through the unsecured planks that form a makeshift stairway, and approach the first women. “Dale” (Go for it), she encourages me as I quietly walk toward the woman before us. I stutter over my words and forget what I am saying. “Why I am so nervous?” I leave the woman with a smile and an invitation to the Casa in her hands. The talking gets easier.
While my friend and I stay near each other, we venture into different conversations. I look into the eyes of each women, ask them their name, invite them to our clothing sale this weekend, let them know they are always welcome at the Casa. As we chat, I’m vaguely aware of the men around me, staring, gawking really; it’s highly unusual to see a gringa in this place. Some women are open. It’s obvious they want to chat, and so we do. Others are guarded, hiding behind the literal masks they are wearing, barely peering beyond the cracked door of their room. Occasionally we’re interrupted by men whispering in their ears and offering a price. One man enters a room and shuts the door before I can offer the women inside a kind word and an invitation. Many of the women I talk to are clearly under the influence of some drug – a coping mechanism to endure what the brutal night may hold – violence, rape or just the simple horror of giving themselves to man after man.
Some of the women agree to come to the Casa this weekend. Others hesitantly accept an invitation but make no promises. Before agreeing to come one women asks, “You’re not going to mention what I do here, right?” As the night grows longer, each brothel is beginning to look the same; the puddles outside have now moved inside as the driving rain continues in torrents, dripping through cracked ceilings and weeping roofs. We spend several minutes inside each place, walking the cramped hallways, waiting outside closed doors, unwilling to miss even a single woman. Then we plunge back out into the stormy night, finding a brief reprieve from the oppression inside even as we dodge more pools of water and comment on our soaked shoes.
I hold back tears most of the evening as the question; “Is this real life?” reverberates through my mind. Yet, I am filled with a strange joy. The dark places of this world exist and somehow I am privileged enough to walk in them; in the brokenness of those around me, I see my own need reflected. Imagine if you will, a room shrouded in complete darkness, so dark you cannot see your hand in front of you. Then, suddenly a lamp is turned on. As a light becomes visible, a shroud of hopelessness turns to a glimmer of hope. Jesus was that light when He walked among the Earth, making close company of prostitutes, thieves and sinners. He is still that light and He changes everything.
As I looked into the faces of so many women tonight, I couldn’t help but recall the faces of another group of women. Women who once frequented the brothels, looking to survive, to support their children, to escape their current reality, cursing the circumstances that had contributed to their entrapment, believing they were worth nothing, yet hoping against hope for a way out of this hell. They were much like the scarred and broken women I encountered tonight. Yet, if you met them today, you would never know. You would share a warm smile or a cup of tea while discussing the latest sewing techniques or the price of thread these days. These are the women of Sutisana*. These are women who have encountered the Light of the World in the darkest of places and for whom everything has changed. And these are the women whose transformed lives speak of a hope and a love so great that we cannot help but continue stepping into the darkness.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:15
* Sutisana, a social enterprise of Word Made Flesh Bolivia, offers dignified employment to women affected by prostitution in El Alto.