In recent weeks, the women of El Alto, Bolivia, have received international media attention as a result of their struggle against neighborhood efforts to rid their zones of the red light districts and, by effect, the women’s means for survival.
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The brothels are burning. They’re beating the girls. The girls need help.
I had already ignored two phone calls, hoping to preserve the rare peace of a Tuesday afternoon, but now my phone was displaying this text message. I grabbed my purse and keys, walked out the door, flagged down a bus, and started making calls. The girls were apparently safe (for the moment), but thelocales were being pillaged and the police had yet to show. We were left to watch the fires rise high into an already smoke-filled sky as brothel by brothel, walls and doors wasted away, and all was gutted and burned. I stationed myself at the Word Made Flesh drop-in center, in the window of our four-story chapel, and called the police (yet again). I waited for other members of our team to arrive (we have strict policies against entering these places alone), as I looked out overCalle Carasco and listened to the roar of the mob below.
The police and fire department eventually arrived, and I watched as they followed the mob down the street, block by block, door by door, fire by fire, ensuring the safety of people, but otherwise letting the people have their way. Communal justice. I felt helpless and angry and afraid. I waited for the girls to knock, for God to answer. I read Habakkuk aloud, called a far-away friend, wrote an e-mail to friends and family, and attempted to pray distracted, interrupted prayers, which took the form of short questions and exclamations.
And I couldn’t help but notice that this gang of young men who were tearing through walls with rocks and shouting ¡Si, se puede! closely resembled the crowds we push through during our ministry visits to the brothel. I’m reminded of Genesis 38, of Judah ordering Tamar burned for her sin and then being exposed as complicit in that sin. It has been rumored that a photo of a police official was found in one of the women’s rooms, and I wondered how many of those officers recognized the tearful women at their sides. I wondered how many of those young men had seen the inside of the brothel halls before that night, yet not one man stood against the fire-flinging crowd by acknowledging that “she is more righteous than I.”
My husband and our director eventually arrived, and together we walked the flaming streets, encountering friends who found their ordinary evening shifts barred by a mob of hate. We encouraged the girls we met to go home, lay low, and be safe. Back at our drop-in center, we welcomed a handful of alarmed women, put on some tea, and attempted to calm one another. One friend arrived drunk, hysterical. She kept repeating the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, interrupting herself with proclamations that God had come to judge her and the others. I pulled a chair next to where she was kneeling, put a hand on her back, and attempted prayers of my own: prayers for peace, for rescue. And in the midst of the chaos, our sweet friend and coworker Eliana, herself a victim of decades of exploitation, offered a quieting, prophetic word. “God isn’t judging you. Mas bien, He has saved you. They started burning early in the day. What if they had come at night while you were all inside? No, He’s saved you.” The cries of panic turned to thanksgiving, and then we left discreetly, a few at a time, sneaking back through the violent night, praying that His salvation would really be known.
In the weeks that have followed, we have watched as doors are retacked to their frames, girls return to work, and protests catch the attention of the international media. We have wondered aloud at our own prayers over the years, prayers asking that these places be torn down and destroyed. We are confused about how those prayers may correlate with the violent reaction of that mob. The women have united in hunger strikes, speaking vocally about their right to work and feed their children, defending the very violation that kills them—some slowly, some suddenly. One of the women who has been an important voice in the media has suffered both physical and socio-emotional cancers. I sat next to her in a make-shift funeral parlor a few months back, after the violent, work-related murder of a friend, and listened to her laments: “This isn’t right. We can’t go on like this. There is no life here.” A few weeks later I stood beside her in a circle as we prayed to open our annual Mother’s Day party, and I heard her offerings of thanksgiving for Christ’s presence in her own life and her pleadings that her friends would also know. And I watch her now, before the media, saddened that her brokenness and longings have been overtaken by indignant demands that she be given the right to return to her work.
I know the complications of the situation. I know that the neighbors are right to want their children to be safe, to want their husbands not to have to walk past so many red lights on the way home from work, to see this destroyed. I know that the economy is broken and impossible even for those with a fighting chance. I know that our own desires and attempts to find dignified work for our friends have left us with more questions than answers. The impact of poverty and social structure and family violence and sexual abuse frustrate our best intentions and our most holistic efforts.
I pray for the fullness of a coming Kingdom and the courage and strength to love it little by little. Everything else falls short.