Remember my last post about the Walking Street in Angeles City, Philippines? I had a sense of dread about going there. When asking myself how do you prepare for your heart to be broken? I said,
“I believe the answer to this question is – there is no way to prepare. It could be worse than I anticipate. It could be better, but I doubt it.”
I was right. It was worse than I anticipated. And I was wrong. It was also better.
Our night began by walking as a group before sunset down the Walking Street to the very end for dinner together at a large outdoor patio restaurant. That was an adventure in itself. Spectacle doesn’t even begin to describe what we must have looked like. Fifty or so Americans consisting of middle-aged men and women and their 20-something daughters and son along with a handful of Filipino young women who used to work on this street. They knew we were up to something.
As the sun set and we laughed and joked our way through dinner, none of us really knew what the night would hold. We had been told the basics. These girls were here because they didn’t have a choice. In the Philippines, college graduates are lucky to get a job at McDonald’s or as a helper in someone’s home. Where then, does this leave these young women? On the Walking Street.
Our job was to tell them about Wipe Every Tear. This ministry offers hope where there has been no hope. It offers a safe house to live in and enrollment in college or completion of a high school equivalency program. For free with no obligation.
A way OUT.
A way to see their children again.
A way HOME.
But just HOW do you approach an exploited girl with this information, exactly? You buy her a drink. You take her off the stage and occupy her time. For as long as it takes.
As we formed our teams and prayed before walking the street to search for a bar to enter, there was a sense of anticipation. Uneasiness. That’s it – uneasy anticipation. The men in our group were especially uncomfortable, given that the clientele of the bars was largely made up of their peers.
As my daughter reminded her dad that there will be no bar fights to rescue these girls, she took the lead as we entered the first bar. It was small, and our group of ten made up more than half of the patrons. The seating was configured so that the patrons sat facing the stage. The stage was full of about 25 young girls. They stood, swaying lightly to the music. Local regulations say they must be 18, but it was doubtful. This group wore cutoff short shorts and cropped tops. My first thought is that they had more covering than most women their age at California beaches. Their uncomfortable stance was hard to miss. Most had their arms wrapped around their stomach. All had a bra on even under a halter top, for a little added modesty. This bar owner must be one of the kind ones.
Nikki quickly approached the stage and began talking with a girl who caught her eye. She invited her for a drink. She happily hopped down to join us. We bought her a drink and she kissed the drink ticket before tucking it into her bra, for this means she made a commission without having to give herself away. We ordered drinks for ourselves. We asked her about her family and told her about ours.
What does she dream of doing someday? Nothing.
What would you like to do if you didn’t work here? Nothing, there’s nothing else I can do.
One of the girls on the stage was making big facial gestures indicating she would like to join us next. The two were friends and whatever this was, she wanted in. So, we asked her to join us. Keep in mind that the rest of our team was doing the same thing and collectively we now had probably 6 girls off the stage and hanging with the crazy Americans.
The same conversation happened again. And then, something extraordinary happened. The girls became so comfortable with us and felt so safe, that they began to share their dreams. “I’m a great baker. I’d like to own a bakery someday.” “It’s my dream to finish school one day. My brother is a pastor and two of my sisters are in seminary.” By then, we were chatting and laughing like we were old friends. Another round of drinks (more commission), and we danced. We danced with those girls like we were at a high school slumber party. Because, after all, girls just wanna have fun, right?
And then we’d talk some more. What if I told you there’s a place you can live for free away from here while you attend school? They will pay for everything, and there’s no obligation to ever pay them back.
How can this be true? Cue the girls with us who used to work in the bars. As they came and chatted with the girls, the expressions on the faces were priceless. “It’s true. I used to work here just 7 months ago. Here’s a picture of me in my school uniform. Here’s a picture of the house where we live. Here’s my school schedule.” Phone numbers were exchanged. We had FUN in the sexploitation district of the Philippines. Oy.
After about two hours, we promised the girls we’d be back the next night.
And we were.
We entered that bar the next night to the happy greetings of our new friends on the stage. As we called the girls to join us, there was a new joy in that night. You know what it was? It was HOPE. We had returned, just like we said we would. Maybe that other stuff we said was true, too.
One of the girls we’d spoken with the night before was absent, which made me sad, but we were able to chat with three girls in our time there. We danced some more. Even the mamasan (madame) joined us in our revelry, dancing in the middle of our circle. The DJ happily took our song requests. They were happy to see this crazy group of American missionaries enjoying themselves. We danced even more. We bought the girls more drinks (the three of them all ordered milk for their second drink, which was brought to them in a lovely wine glass. It was more precious than words can describe.)
And then we made our offer: Come with us. Come and see this house we’ve talked about. Meet the other girls. Ask questions. See if it’s real. Then we will give you money to get back here in time to work tomorrow night. We told them the bus leaves at 10:00 am and we know they will be tired from working all night, but they can sleep on the bus.
Our prayer and our dream was to fill the bus. That bus was more than full. In many rows, we sat two to a seat. An already full tourist bus added seventeen girls and one toddler anxious to see if a new life was possible. HOPE was in the air.
All because of a bunch of crazy Americans who were willing step out of their comfort zone to come to them. To invite them to come away. To invite them to come HOME.