Tonight was an emotionally painful night. I knew something was up because Mike called me a little after 5pm. I had already emailed him that I would be volunteering tonight, so when the phone display said it was Mike calling, I knew that either the van had broken down and he needed a lift or jump start, or that something important was troubling him. I wish it had been the van. Mike told me that he had seen a woman on the street--a woman that he, Michelle and Karen had tried to help on Tuesday--and asked her if she needed help. She told him that there were a couple of guys looking for her and she was trying to get away. Mike took her in the van and drove away from the area so she would feel safe. He learned that she was being sexually trafficked--she described some terrible things. Mike made a few phone calls. One was to Jodi from Fierce Freedom, an anti-human trafficking group. She has been out with us many times in the past. Another was to Michelle from Feed My People, who has a lot of experience working with traumatized people, and is also a regular volunteer with the Street Ministry. I was cooking when Mike called me, trying to keep dinner from burning while talking on the phone, but I told Mike I'd be there as soon as I could.
I arrived at the parking lot at 5:40pm. It was hot, humid, and sunny; my car thermometer said 84 degrees but because of the humidity it felt a lot hotter. Barb, Brent, Jodi, Sandy M, and Mike were there. Michelle was in a lone car on the other side of the parking lot--about as far away as possible--with a young woman in the passenger seat. Mike was talking with a different woman.
Mike motioned for Barb, Jody, and me to go to see Michelle. He remained talking with the other woman. We walked over to the car and introduced ourselves to the young woman in the front seat. Michelle started to talk when Mike walked back with the other woman. He stopped a few yards away and waved Jodi and me come over. He introduced us and told the woman that we would listen to her story. She (the woman who had been talking to Mike) had been helped by the Street Ministry for several years, although I didn't recognize her. She said that her son had arranged for some man to take care of her--she had substantial health problems--and that man turned out to be very abusive. He controlled who she could see, made her put all her phone calls on speaker phone, and pestered her for sexual favors, which she refused. He was physically intimidating and mentally controlling. He threatened to throw her onto the street or call the police on her (for what, she didn't say). This situation lasted for several days--I think about a week but am not certain. One day when she was gone for more than a couple of hours doing laundry, he became angry and put all her possessions outside the house, expecting her to come back groveling. She was stronger than he reckoned, however, and left. She was safer but now homeless. The man then texted her, begging her to come back, but she refused. She was hot and sweating as she talked--we all were tonight--so we got her some cold water. She assured us that she felt safe--the police were aware of her situation and the man had to appear in court soon for choking another woman. She felt confident he would be put in jail soon. Just to be safe, however, she always stays near other people. She said she needed to sit in the shade, and we had neither a chair nor shade in the parking lot, so she walked across the street to the benches in front of the shelter, assuring us that she was safe. My work with the Street Ministry has taught me how wrong stereotypes often are, and I try hard not to hold them, but they are difficult ideas to lose. I'll admit that I expected women who end up in a situation like she did to be meek and lacking self-esteem, but here was a very strong woman who endured through a nightmare and got herself out of it. As she left, she was assuring us that all was ok, and not the other way around! She still has a rough road ahead, however.
Jodi and I then walked back over to the first woman, the one in the car with Michelle. She was now was out of the car and Barb had been making a list of items that she needed--clothing, shoes, and so on--and also trying to make the woman feel more comfortable. Barb has a very calming and empathetic manner and was a good person to be doing that. Michelle was on the phone calling shelters that would be appropriate for a woman in her situation. The woman herself looked terrible. I don't know how to describe it--she looked haunting, dejected. She looked like she was at the same time terrified but also didn't care anymore. We tried to assure her that she would be safe--that we would find her a safe place. I was trying to decide if my presence was helpful, or, because I was a man, if I was intimidating or keeping her from talking. She was sweating and I asked if she would like some cold water. She said yes, she would like that, so I walked back to the van. I came back a couple of minutes later with a bag of food and several cold water bottles for her and for us--we were all hot. She didn't seem bothered by my presence so I stayed. Michelle had wandered away for a bit and had been on the phone yet again. She had called a hospital to see if they could get the woman in for a visit tonight. Michelle also contacted a shelter that specializes in caring for abused women. The shelter thought they had an opening and was looking into it. Michelle came back over and talked with the woman--would it be okay if they went to the hospital to have her health checked? There might be a wait but the hospital would be cool, and they would take her to a shelter afterward. To my surprise the woman said yes, it sounded like a good idea. Michelle phrased it so well. We all knew, I'm pretty sure including the woman herself, that we were worried about exposure to STDs, but Michelle asked so gently, never insisting or pushing, and got what we all thought was the best result possible.
We asked if she had had any dinner. She told us that either Mike or Michelle had bought her some chicken strips. (She remembered who provided her dinner, but I forgot what she said.) We then got her some better shoes (the ones she had were way too large) and some socks (she had on extremely thick, woolly ones that must have been unbearable on a day like today). Jodi was lining up a second shelter in case the first one fell through, but Michelle then got a confirmation that the first shelter could take her. Michelle and Jodi agreed to take her to the hospital first, and then the shelter, and wouldn't leave her alone. They were about to leave when the woman held out her arms to Mike. She wanted to hug. Mike held her for quite some time. I don't know if she was crying, because I turned away because I was starting to cry. It is the most emotional I think I've ever felt during Street Ministry, which is not a light statement. I walked back to the van. Brent and Sandy M had been handling all the other visitors for quite some time.
For the remainder of the time we handed out lots of cold water, cold juice, and food bags. We saw and talked with many other visitors. I didn't get a count because I was at the back of the parking lot for so long, but I'm guessing we served somewhere between 30 and 50 people. The most notable to me was a mother and her little girl. The mother had few wants--we had helped them before but were now being helped by a shelter for families. We asked if they needed school supplies--no, the shelter was providing those as well. They just wanted to say hi to us. The little girl however, then asked for a dress. Barb carefully recorded her request and we will do our best to find her a nice one.
As always, please pray for, and care for, the poor. Please especially pray for all who are trafficked and all who are in abusive situations.