“I’m here and they’re still there.”
Those were the words of my housemate one night in the small hours after a brothel visit in El Alto. Naturally a deep sleeper, I don’t know why the sound of soft sobbing at 3am woke me this time. I heard her brush past my door and asked if she was OK. “Sometimes,” she said, “You can come home from brothel visits and take it in stride. Other times, the harshness of what they face night after night, and how we can just walk away at the end of the visit, hits home and the gulf between us feels overwhelming.“
Over the last 2 and a half years, I’ve been very privileged to have lived with Michelle, who worked with women and children in the red light district of El Alto, and I’m deeply grateful to know Andrea, the director of Word Made Flesh Bolivia. I also am glad to help accompany them on their weekly visits to the brothels.
I remember our first brothel visit so clearly. I knew it wouldn’t be quite like anything out of Pretty Woman, because El Alto is one of the poorest cities in South America. But nevertheless upon entering, my first reaction was shock at just how utterly unglamorous it all was. (Years later, the adjective I think I would use to describe the brothels, would be hopeless.) The floors were just dirt, the ladies were older and traditionally dressed, and the men shuffled around looking so dejected that I found it hard to despise them as I’d thought I would. They looked like they’d come back from a war in which they had lost just about everything they had ever owned, as they shuffled around the perimeter of the brothel, hands in pockets, stopping occasionally to negotiate a price. Some clients urinated at the entrance to the brothels, emphasizing their complete disregard for the ladies and degrading themselves in the process.
My friend and I watched and learned from the more experienced team members who talked with the women – no agenda, but simply asking them how they were. When there was a real connection established, they talked about their children or their hopes – to finally be able to buy that house, or at least that plot of land. It seemed so normal, so human, the very same basic desires and worries we all have in common. Just from the simplest of conversations, two significant seeds had been sown: connection and hope.
The next brothel we visited that night had tiles on the floor and the girls were mostly from western Bolivia, where they’re famous for their beauty. Here the atmosphere was a little more what I had expected and had been pre-warned to find: loud music, dim lights, exotic dancing on the TV screens, and girls more scantily dressed. The men sidled up to them before sometimes stopping to make an offer. And I thought, how terrible it must be to face rejection every single night, multiple times a night…horrible to be chosen and horrible to be sized up and down and then forgotten….for a man to undress you with his eyes and decide you weren’t quite worth his $3 this time.
I remember one lady in the corner. She seemed like such a sweet lady who cared deeply about her children, was worried about their homework and was full of shame for doing what she was doing. She asked forgiveness every day for what she did, she told us. We prayed with her and invited her to the drop-in centre and she thanked us sincerely. Perhaps just being able to cry had helped a little.
It’s humbling and beautiful when one of the ladies invites you into her room, asks you to sit down and feels she can cry with you. Humbling, because the circumstances that led her to that room were almost certainly progressively stock-piled up against her, circumstances relating to poverty, abuse, manipulation and violence that she never asked for, and that could very easily have been thrown my way too if I had grown up differently. Beautiful because in crying, in shutting her eyes to pray, in accepting the invitation offered, she was opening herself up to hope.
Hope is precisely what is lacking in the brothels, and yet that’s exactly what each person working with Word Made Flesh seeks to both impart and awaken. Hope that this isn’t the end of their story, hope that they could bring money home to feed their family, without carrying home an extra film of shame each night. Hope that their children could have a different future.
That’s why the women who first visited the drop-in centre over a decade ago, decided that their name for the house would be the ‘Casa de Esperanza’, the House of Hope. The hope offered by this special team of people cannot be fabricated or imposed upon anyone, but that is what the women receive and recognize at the centre and that is what the team will keep on offering as long as the need remains, as long as the funds continue to roll in and as long as the Lord gives them breath. Your support will bring nothing less than hope to these women.
Thank you so much for reading this and even more for supporting this cause.
Reflection by Rachel Davies, WMFB volunteer