05.09.2007 - 21.09.2007
Our team has poured many weeks into praying for this month of ministry. We knew that going out and building relationships in bars with the young girls who are forced to sell their bodies would not be a task that we could accomplish through our own power. We are working in an area that satan has had a long-time hold on, and he is not going to give it up without a hard fight.
We are partnering with SHE (Self Help & Empowerment) Ministries this month in Patong on the island of Phuket. Started by Mark & Sharron Biddell from England, SHE is still in its developmental stage, but aims to help women at risk by establishing centers which can offer a safe environment, training and educational programs, counseling, rehabilitation and sustainable employment opportunities. Currently, there is one micro-enterprise project running, which employs 4 amazing girls (Kae, Kung, Glon, and Wan) who decided to leave their job at the bar and come to SHE to make jewelry (more on this in a future blog). The girls are paid a salary and work a normal 9-5 job. They make enough to send back a portion of their earnings to their families in their home villages, which is why many girls start working in the bars in the first place.
Patong is the most rowdy beach on the island, and it’s known internationally as a popular destination for sex-tourism. This is the Las Vegas of Thailand, with many streets dedicated to bars, discos, strip clubs, and brothels. There are more than 300 bars in an area the size of 3 city blocks, each catering to a different clientèle. Some are “school girl” themed, some feature “ladyboys” (transsexuals), and some are sadly themed with cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh.
We headed out on Thursday night, not really knowing what to expect. Even though I was prepared for the worst, my heart still ached for all of the empty people that I saw. The girls, the bar owners & managers... they all had an emotionless, blank stare on their face. The ones that did show some emotion were clearly intoxicated. Everywhere I turned I saw young Thai girls walking hand-in-hand with old, white men. It made my stomach churn. Men frequently stoop down to kiss their “property” for the evening while walking down the street. More often than not, I would observe the girls wipe the kiss off with their hand the instant the man looked away.
We didn’t even venture into the darkest places. SHE has a policy to only work in the outdoor bars; we never go behind closed doors where the worst-of-the-worst happens. Mark first took us to Joy’s Bar, where they have already built relationships with some of the girls. I took a seat at a barstool and ordered a Coke Light (I’ve come to learn that Diet Coke is purely an American product). A beautiful girl named Aj came and sat next to me and asked in broken English if I would like to play a game. I told her that I would love to. The next thing I know she comes out with an armful of games including Connect Four and Jenga. All of the bars are stocked with games for the girls to play with customers in an attempt to overcome the language barrier that often exists. I am going to be a pro at Connect Four by the end of this month.
After talking with Aj for a bit, I asked her how long she had worked at the bar. I think she said 8 months, but I can’t be certain.
“Aj, are you happy working here?” I asked.
“Yes!” she immediately responded.
I asked again to make sure that she really understood what I was asking, “You like working here?”
She understood this time. A wave of sadness flashed over her face and she lowered her eyes and shook her head. She didn’t need to speak; I understood everything she didn’t tell me. I told her about SHE and the job that was waiting for her if she wanted to quit working at the bar. In that instant, I saw a flash of hope in her eyes. That hope quickly dissipated as the fear crept in. She told me she would think about it, and we left it at that.
Leaving the bars is not easy for the girls, even though they are promised a job with a steady income. They have very little reason to trust anyone as they have been betrayed so many times in their lives.
When we were saying our goodbyes to our new friends, I saw genuine happiness in these girls for the first time all evening. They knew they had made true friends who genuinely love and care about them.
God is so much bigger than the hold that satan has on this place. The next day, 4 girls came into the shop (where we also live) for lunch saying that they were ready to leave the bars and start working with SHE. Praise God! Please keep these 4, as well as Aj, in your prayers. Pray against a spirit of fear that satan would love to instill in their hearts.