Milena is very attractive – beautiful, I would say – bright and vivacious. She is 19 years old. She was telling me about her dreams for her life.
“I want to keep working in the chocolate company,” she said, “then I can save enough money to go to the university and study law. I might go into police work.”
Later in our conversation I asked, “So, how did it all begin?”
“When I was very young,” she replied, “my step-father began to come to my room at night. He did things to me. It was always sex. When I got much older, almost 14 years old, I began to do sex work in the bars. Because I was younger than the other women, I made good money, but it was hard work being up all night and trying to stay awake in school the next day. It was dangerous, too. I was sometimes raped and beaten when I left the bars and the men who attacked me would steal my money.”
“Did you report what happened to anyone – like the police?” I asked.
“What for?” She answered, “They just said, ‘you’re a whore, what do you expect? Just try to be more careful.'” (Prostitution is legal where Milena lives.)
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“I couldn’t keep up, so I left school. Drinking and drugs made me feel a little bit better, but not enough, and it ate up my earnings. Eventually, I tried to kill myself, but afterward, I ended up here.”
“Here” is a wonderful ministry in Medellin, Colombia named Valuable Women in the Hands of Jesus. It is run by three Colombian Covenant women and the husbands of the two who are married. The women had met at a church retreat some years ago and discovered that they were all survivors of prostitution, rescued by God’s grace. Now, they run small businesses that are dedicated to providing alternative work as part of their passionate encouragement for young women to leave the sex trade and still be able to provide for themselves. The larger of the two businesses teaches and certifies women as skilled seamstresses in their lingerie company. The other makes and markets chocolate candies of various kinds.
Wendy and I, David Husby, Director of Covenant World Relief and Ronna Husby, his wife, along with Gary and Mary Lou Sander, Covenant missionaries serving in Colombia visited the program in early December. We met nine of the women currently involved in it. (Covenant World Mission and Covenant World Relief help support this ministry.) I say “women” a bit reluctantly. Their ages range from 14 to 19. Eight of them are pregnant or had babies recently born. This current group had come mostly from a temporary shelter for pregnant single mothers, all of whom worked in the sex trade. We talked with them, listened to their stories, tried to encourage them and prayed for them.
At one point, we asked the program’s leaders to describe their greatest challenges.
“Real transformation – a changed sense of worth and identity and different values – can be a slow and difficult process. The girls have known nothing but sex work from childhood. We provide a good alternative, but they can make much more money in the bars. Of the first 30 in the program, only five stayed with it.”
Someone asked, “Was it worth the effort?”
“Yes,” was the immediate reply. “It was worth it all for those five.” Another added, “It would be worth it for even one.”
“Our greatest current challenge,” another continued, “is our need for the Church. The only way that transformation can have its full effect is if these girls will be welcomed into the caring and supportive life of the Christian community in the midst of their journey. They can’t do this alone. It has been hard since many churches are afraid of them and don’t trust them. They are afraid to take the risk. (Would these girls be welcomed in the youth group at my church, I wondered?) But some churches are beginning to open up and show compassion.”
There is no sermon to follow. We invite you to sit quietly with this story and listen for the voice of Jesus. We think it is, indeed, a Christmas story that tells us again why the Loving Father sent His Only Son to be born among us and dwell with us, full of grace and truth.