“We’re here, no conditions”: Doing life with brothel caretakers and streetwalkers
by Gracia Lee // March 26, 2021, 12:45 pm
The red-light district in Singapore. Photo by Alex Coleman
When Covid-19 shuttered the country’s red-light district in March 2020, Teck (not his real name), a brothel caretaker, saw his livelihood vanish in front of his eyes.
As safe distancing measures persisted – the Government has yet to allow nightlife establishments to reopen – Teck found himself growing increasingly desperate to make ends meet.
So, when he was offered a job at a Christian restoration programme, he leapt at the opportunity.
It was not something that he would have considered before. The pay at this new job was far from the $4,000 to $5,000 he had been pulling in monthly. And it required new skills that he was reluctant to learn.
But it was the best option he had at the time.
A good kind of different
Teck had meant this job to be a temporary one while waiting for the red-light district to reopen. But to his surprise, he felt different – a good kind of different – in this new role.
“Today I don’t feel the guilt of inviting a client into the brothel,” he shared. “Do you know I’m wracked with guilt each time I do that?”
He also found that he could spend more time with his family now that he worked in the day and could return home in the evenings, compared to in the past when he had to work till late into the night.
Perhaps this could be a possible – maybe even better – way of living, he thought.
“Do you know I was wracked with guilt each time I invited a client into the brothel?”
Teck’s story is one way that Tan See Keen, who has befriended pimps and streetwalkers for the past six years, has seen God working for good even in a difficult season, when many livelihoods in the red-light district have been disrupted.
Tan is a core team member of Operation Mobilisation (OM) Singapore’s local ministry, which serves red-light district workers as well as the needy and elderly living in one-room rental flats.
Since last March, OM Singapore has referred about five to six red-light district workers to the restoration programme, which is run by a partner organisation, for employment and re-skilling.
Through the programme, these workers pick up skills such as pottery, coffee-making and sewing, and are employed in the programme’s social enterprise arm, said Tan, who is also OM Singapore’s communications manager.
“We affirm them in their new jobs. It’s an honest job, they’re good and hardworking. And as we affirm them in their new role, we hope that they see that maybe it’s possible to live like this,” said Tan, calling this season a “precious” window of opportunity.
Coffee shop friends
Started in 1981, OM Singapore was set up to mobilise local believers and resources to participate in global missions, in particular to least reached communities that have yet to hear the Gospel.
But in 2015, God led the team to start a local cross-cultural mission work after revealing to them that “the mission is as huge here”, said Tan, who joined OM that same year. “He asked us who our neighbour was, and we opened our eyes to see that there are least reached communities in Singapore as well.”
Since then, OM Singapore has been walking the streets of the red-light district and extending friendship to pimps and streetwalkers.
Before Covid-19 hit, five staff members and a pool of volunteers would head out every other Friday to chat with workers from about 50 brothels and in back alleys, or over a cup of coffee or tea.
“God asked us who our neighbour was, and opened our eyes to see that there are least reached communities in Singapore.”
They also enjoyed blessing their friends with gifts, from cosmetics to food, accompanied with a related Christian message translated into their native language. For example, they once gave them apples with a simple note that read: “You are the apple of God’s eye.”
While the workers were wary of them at first, many slowly came to accept their friendship over time after sensing that they were sincere in building real relationships, said Tan, who knows many of these workers by name.
“We told ourselves that evangelism is not the condition for the basis of our friendship. Even if no one is converted, our relationship with them is important. The goal is friendship and that defines our actions,” she said.
She added that even if their friends decide to return to their jobs in the red-light district after it is allowed to open, her team members will continue in their friendship with them “wherever they are, however they see Christ”.
Some of the workers have come to regard Tan and her team members as friends – something she is heartened to know.
”The goal is friendship and that defines our actions.”
She recalled an incident when a brothel caretaker was chided by his employer for chatting with her team. He later met up with them again in a nearby coffee shop, visibly flustered about being scolded earlier that evening.
“Why can’t I talk to my friends?” he asked.
“He called us his friends!” said Tan. “He then spoke to us and said, ‘Most of my friends are fair-weathered friends. They will come and borrow money and leave, or they won’t be very sincere.’
“It was then God spoke to me, saying, ‘You (and your team) are the spiritual friends he has never had,’” said Tan. “So, maybe that distinguished us from those other friends. We’re here, no conditions.”
Genuine sharing of lives
Through the genuine sharing of lives with one another, Tan has seen God work in ways that far exceeded their human efforts. Example after example tumbled easily out of her mouth.
Once, while a small group of them were having a casual chat with a brothel caretaker, he shared that he prayed to Jesus every night.
Recognising that he had some measure of faith to do this, she felt led by God to tell him: “Brother, you are a son of God and He loves you.”
With tears glistening in his eyes, he replied: “No, I’m not good enough to be God’s son, because I still buy 4D (lottery), I still smoke.”
“Every one of our team members said, ‘Aiyah, we are all still sinners!'” recalled Tan, adding that it opened up a vulnerable and authentic conversation about their own brokenness.
”Today you are called a son of God. Today you believe in Christ.”
“We all said, ‘None of us are fit to be called God’s children, but we have this life in Christ. Don’t worry about your 4D-buying or your smoking for now, you can work on it in the long run. Today you are called a son of God. Today you believe in Christ.'”
Giving another example, she recalled when a team of them had prayed for a streetwalker who was having problems with her family. The next day, the problem was resolved.
“She said, ‘Wow, your God is so powerful!’ And she acknowledged the Lord’s work in her life,” said Tan.
In yet another instance, a brothel caretaker who had chosen to follow Jesus at the gate of his brothel after hearing the Gospel and later left the trade entirely, testified to Tan that God had answered his prayer for help by providing him with a new job, and kind co-workers, too.
“He testified to these things very simply, but it was the faith of a follower of Christ,” said Tan.
Valued in Christ
Journeying with these red-light district workers for the past six years has also changed the way that Tan sees discipleship and disciple-making.
While local churches typically have a series of Bible study programmes for seekers or new believers, Tan said this model simply does not work for these workers, many of whom have had little formal education.
“Now we know why Jesus hung out with people in their homes over food and drinks.”
“They will not make meaning out of those academic things. It’s really not their cup of tea,” she said, stressing the importance of day-to-day friendships, oral Bible storytelling and conversations surrounding life and faith.
“Now we know why Jesus hung out with people in their homes over food and drinks. We totally understand that.”
She believes that it is through engaging in life-on-life interactions and rendering practical help that the Gospel can be declared and demonstrated at the same time.
For example, acknowledging that one of the primary concerns of these workers is money, she and her team help them as much as they can by finding them jobs with a stable income, or by giving them supermarket vouchers to tide over the Covid-19 period.
“We tell them, ‘We want to help you in your economic circumstances. We want you to get a good job. We recognise that you need money for survival. But as we search for these opportunities together, let’s trust God.'”
Since the ministry started six years ago, several have responded to the Gospel and are in an intentional discipleship journey, said Tan.
“We want you to get a good job … But as we search for these opportunities together, let’s trust God.”
She related an incident where one former streetwalker, who had left the trade after becoming a Jesus follower, had brought Tan timely refreshment in Christ during a particular weary season.
“Instead of me initiating the spiritual conversation, she was encouraging me in the faith! The Lord will use everyone, gifted in their ways, to edify the body of Christ,” she said.
However, she added that the ministry is not focused on the numbers, as a relationship with Christ is less about a singular point of conversion than a process of growing in faith.
“It’s a long-term journey for someone to really be a follower of Christ. If someone says that he acknowledges the sovereignty of Christ in some way or other, that he has these conversations with Jesus, we believe it’s a journey towards wholeness in Christ,” she said.
And this is her prayer for these workers, which rings true for her hope for everyone else: That they will come to see that they are valued in Christ and will one day find wholeness in Him.
If you would like to pray, give, or participate in OM Singapore’s local mission, please drop them a note at [email protected]. Check out global mission opportunities by visiting the OM Singapore website or following them on Instagram and Facebook.
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