Within Arm’s Reach

I was working on a study last year at work, going through the notes of interviews with women in prostitution in Minnesota and preparing the data to send to our statistician for analysis. For the study, more than 100 women had been interviewed – asked intimate questions about their childhoods, the abuse they had suffered, and their experiences in prostitution. At the end of each hour and a half long interview, each woman was always asked if they had anything else they would like to add.

One woman’s response still haunts me: “Who the hell is going to help me?”

The truth was that we were trying to help her. The studies the organization has published have helped to shed light on the realities of prostitution in the US and around the world, exposing it as exploitation and abuse rather than as a viable occupation. Policy makers, educators, and other advocates have taken that work to enact real change that someday will hopefully tangibly help that woman too.

But what haunted me was that on that day, in that moment, I had no answer. Months after this interview had been recorded in an office hundreds of miles away, I sat feeling helpless to provide her with immediate, tangible help.

I’ve been reflecting on Nehemiah 1, in which Nehemiah hears about the Israelites who have survived the exile who are now living in shame and the wall of Jerusalem that has been broken and destroyed. Immediately Nehemiah begins to weep and mourn for days, praying and fasting before God. He then acts, and God uses him to miraculously change that situation.

Today, it seems that we are so bombarded with atrocities going on in the world that we can become desensitized to the things that ought to make us weep. It is more comfortable to remain far away; it is more comfortable to let our hearts build up callouses so that they cannot be so easily bruised or broken.

Yet it is okay to weep and, I think, we are called to it. We are called to have soft hearts and, more importantly, called to open our hearts to those who will cause our hearts to weep.

Last year, I worked for two organizations – one that did research and another that focused on policy, both concerning the fight to end human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children. While I was thankful for the work, I found that it was somehow too comfortable for how God was calling me. He wanted me closer, wanted me to open my heart not only to issues but to individuals. Since last year, I’ve changed positions to work with Agape International Missions. I weep a lot more these days, and it is good.

The reason I weep more is that now my heart, and not only my mind, are invested in this work because now I know not only the facts, but the individuals who must endure them each day. We work with about 8-12 girls at any given time who have been able to leave their lives of exploitation, and we are doing more outreach to young women who are still being exploited. When we do outreach, I go with our staff and my husband and simply have conversations with these young women. It is heartbreaking to hear about their lives – their loneliness, their lack of family, their lack of real love.

One young woman we met had lost her family at a young age, and she moved up to Siem Reap to start working in the beer gardens where men can come to buy her for sex. Each night she has to binge drink with her customers to get them to keep purchasing alcohol, but at great harm to her own body. She told us that she once became so sick from all of the drinking that she could not leave her rented room for six days. She had no one but the security guard at her work who she begged to bring her medicine.

My heart now breaks for these women each day because I am within arm’s reach of them and because I am close enough to their pain for my heart to break. This also means that I am close enough to be able to tangibly offer them love and assistance.

God’s Word calls us to be close enough. We are to care for the widow and the orphan, the vulnerable and the oppressed (Psalm 82:3, James 1:27, Isaiah 1:17). Jesus modeled this to us in how He healed the sick and helped the hurting – He touched each one. He certainly did not have to, but He placed Himself within arm’s reach.

So, too, should we. We may not be able to go overseas, but we must be willing to go outside of being comfortable. We can spend time in prayer, opening our hearts to truly lift up those who are in need. We can spend time working with children who need mothers and mentors; we can spend time with the hurting in our churches, in our families, in our communities.

We’ve since been developing a relationship with the young woman from the beer garden. She has come to us now for medical care, and our prayer is that someday she’ll come wanting to leave the life completely – to know real relationship, family and love.

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