What I Learned Under the Red Lights

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How Caring for Women in the Sex Trade Taught a Missionary New Truths
This story contains content that some may find disturbing
By Teo Sin Ee
n a blazing hot day in June of 2021, I make my way across the bustling cityscape of Taipei to the Pearl Family Garden Woman’s Center, where I have worked for the past 12 years. Cutting through Bangka Park, I see the homeless scattered across long concrete benches around a grassy patch. They’re wearing masks and sitting apart. A fountain nearby plays music on the hour and displays colorful lights at night.

Located in Wanhua, Taipei City’s red-light district, our ministry reaches out to women in prostitution, the elderly, and others on the margins. Our center is situated a stone’s throw from Longshan Temple, one of the oldest in Taiwan. I can normally smell incense wafting from the altars, but the temple is closed due to the recent lockdown.

Before the virus outbreak in May, the neighborhood thronged with people filling its roadside food stalls, secondhand flea market, and shops selling herbs and traditional foods. One would have to be careful not to step on rubbish, dog waste or the fibrous remains of betel nut, a stimulant favored by working-class men. Throughout 2020, life had continued pretty much as usual, numbering 253 consecutive days with no domestic infections.

Now, the streets are empty. The government announced a batch of cases traced to two tea houses in Wanhua. Thousands of women work there as hostesses, offering their company to mostly middle-aged and elderly men drinking tea or alcohol and singing karaoke. Some of the women are involved in prostitution. Since May, all 172 tea houses and lounges here have been closed. Most of the buildings in the area are old. Some are decrepit. Many elderly and poor are crammed into basements or rooms without proper ventilation.

My destination is a nondescript four-story shophouse formerly occupied by an illegal betting operation. This is home to the Pearl Family Garden Women’s Center, which moved here in 2019 after ten years in a smaller apartment.

As I step into the center, my team leader greets me. This is my first time seeing Tera van Twillert after my three-month furlough in Singapore, and my first day back at work after the mandatory quarantine for travelers. An OMF worker from the Netherlands, Tera is one of the most gracious, patient, and faithful people I know. At 5 feet, 8 inches, she towers over most Taiwanese, but her cheerful smile, gentle demeanor, and twinkling blue-gray eyes make them feel welcome.

Called to missions at the age of 16, Tera has always been drawn to people on the margins. She came to Wanhua 28 years ago and took up residence on this very street. For 14 years, she served in a church for homeless people before starting the Pearl Family Garden ministry.

Pauline, our Taiwanese co-worker, likes to tell this story about Tera. “When I went around the neighborhood with her, one lady said, ‘Ah Jen [Tera’s Chinese name] loves us.’ How many people would say the same thing about a pastor walking around his neighborhood?” I’ve also seen homeless people greet Tera with great enthusiasm and come up to hug her (even though most Taiwanese are not accustomed to such signs of affection).

Tera and I set up tables and lay out instant noodles, rice, and canned food, which our low-income neighbors can prepare even without a kitchen. Tera has called some of our regulars—people who would be struggling since tea shops, KTV hostess lounges, and the sex trade on the streets have been shut down—to get supplies.

Shaoli is the first to arrive. Her mask is askew and reveals her missing teeth. Dyed an unnatural blond, her hair gives her a youthful look that belies her actual age of 62. She’s dressed in shorts and a top that barely covers her belly button. Following government regulations, I take down her name and telephone number for contact tracing. “Can you please adjust your mask and keep your distance? Tell me what you want and I’ll put them in this bag for you.”

Shaoli ignores me and grabs the instant noodles. I feel a frisson of fear and frustration.“Can I use the bathroom?” she asks. Public lavatories in the area have been closed for months.

I let Shaoli use the bathroom. Then Tera chats with her and they pray. When Shaoli leaves, I disinfect the toilet. I wonder if it’s wrong that I’m afraid of the people I came to serve. 

A week goes by. I return to the center and find Tera patiently listening to an old friend. Hwee is speaking with great agitation. Her mask hangs loosely to one side. I say (only) half-jokingly, “Hwee, can you leave now? Let other people come in to get stuff.” With a nervous smile I gesture to her to move on.

Tera does not let fear hold her back from her mission. Last summer she was due to take her furlough in the Netherlands but postponed it. I asked her what led to the change. 

“I realized that being present for people is more important than protecting myself,” she explained. “God called me, first into missions, then to ministry with marginalized people, then to women on the margins, and finally, to this particular street. God called us to be here. He put us here for a purpose, for a season, for the bigger community. Only when you’re on the ground, can you see and feel what people are going through.” 

Roddy Mackay | OMF

By opening the center once a week, we are not just meeting physical needs, but also emotional, mental, and spiritual ones. Often, women just want to come in, enjoy the air-conditioning on a hot summer’s day, and talk to another human being. In the past, they would spend most of their waking hours outside, hanging around the park or the neighborhood. But the month-long lockdown changed all that. For people living on their own in cramped living quarters, the struggle with loneliness and boredom is especially acute. One of our friends, Madam Lai, sometimes walks 15 minutes from her home just to sit on our street and watch people go by.

It takes time and patience to have a meaningful conversation. I struggle against my own fear. I want people to come, take what they need, and leave. I can see some of the women crave conversation more than they need supplies, but talking to anyone for more than a few minutes makes me anxious.

At home later, I think back on the day. My anxiety makes it hard for me to be close to people. Ironically, since most ministry activities have ceased in the pandemic, being physically present with the women who come in for supplies or conversation is the only “productive” thing I can do. I too often focus on “getting the job done” and forget that the real job, the real calling, is to make God’s love and grace present to the people he brings before me. 

Crises drive us to yearn for the status quo. However, as the Chinese saying goes, “A crisis is an opportunity for change.” Perhaps when the old ways of ministering are set aside, we can press on and discover new ways to minister the love of Christ others. 

The pandemic has forced us all to confront our mortality. The first time Tera returned to the neighborhood during the outbreak, she met Mr. Ho. An elderly man living on his own, he looked forlorn. He had recently suffered two strokes. While Tera prayed for him, she felt the Holy Spirit prompting her to ask Mr. Ho, “Do you want to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” Without hesitating, he replied with a firm “Yes!”

A heavy heart and an open mind, ready to receive God’s word. All we have to do is sow the seed. The result? An unexpected moment of light. A celebration in heaven.

Week after week, Tera put two stools on the sidewalk and met Mr. Ho outside the center to listen to his story and in response, share God’s story. 

Watching their relationship blossom, I was forced to ask: Do I truly love the people that I serve? I’ve never liked the phrase “serving the poor” but I could never articulate why until I read Father Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. It taught me the concept of mutuality, where we view others through a perspective of oneness and kinship. There is no mutuality in “serving the poor,” only a barrier that says “us versus them.”

Mutuality and kinship speak instead of a relationship between equals. There can be no sense of superiority or pity. As Father Boyle says, “Finding and seeing, beyond our sense of being separate, our mutuality with the other is hard won. Bridging the gulf of mutual judgment and replacing it with kinship is tricky indeed.”

I once asked Tera to describe her relationship with the women who come to our center. She said, “They are my friends. You show up for your friends in tough times.”

I think of Hwee, of her agitation and stress when she came to our center to pick up supplies. “It is too hot in my room,” she says. She cannot sleep. She has nowhere to go for meals. After Tera prays with her, Hwee calms down. Then Tera buys her some eggs, milk powder, and bananas. Tera tells me afterward, “What do I know about her struggles? It’s no big deal for me to do something for her.”

Father Boyle says, “Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom. Kinship — not serving the other, but being one with the other.”

For many cross-cultural workers, unspoken boundaries or professional distance sometimes separates us from the people we serve. To enjoy mutuality and kinship, we must be willing to “waste time” and not constantly monitor the boundaries of our private time and space.

The moments where we enter others’ worlds, and they enter ours, can be precious. Several years ago, I visited Jinjin on Christmas Eve. For a long time after, I recalled the warmth of the red bean soup we shared at the night market, as we remembered the birth of Jesus together.

Carnation, Tera, and I used to attend church in another part of the city. After services, we would have lunch together and I would venture to try new things. I remember Carnation’s excitement the first time we had naan and curry together. Even now, I can still picture her blissful expression as she sipped an aromatic chai latte.

Incarnational ministry is the only way to truly embody the spirit of Jesus in serving others. It requires that we learn the culture, language, and worldview, and live a lifestyle that reflects our identification with our neighbors.

Jesus is the fulfilment of incarnational ministry. The Word of God had to take on flesh so that we could see the Father through his Son (John 14:9). Christ could have stayed in heaven, enjoying the praises of the angels and the fellowship of the Trinity. Instead, he was born into a humble family. His earthly father was not a king but a craftsman. As a baby, he slept in a manger, not in a gilded crib. As an adult, he was an itinerant preacher who did not know where he would sleep from one day to the next. As he explained, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors. He visited homes and accepted hospitality. He spent time talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. We often focus on “doing” for the sake of ministry. Building relationships and trust, however, requires “being” with others. It requires us to slow down and communicate, “You are important to me.”

Rather than going home right after work, Tera likes to walk around the block to greet people. For more than a year, she spent an afternoon each week visiting neighbors and shops on the street, making friends and giving out tracts. She might not live in this neighborhood now, but she has become part of the community. One place she visits on her walkabouts is the restaurant next door. Before Tera went home on furlough, Ah Leng, the restaurant owner said to her, “We love you very much.” As Jesus’ ambassadors in this neighborhood, we mediate his love to people through our presence, words and deeds. 

After six months of being shut down, the tea shops and KTV hostess lounges have reopened. This time around I am not paralyzed by fear or excessive caution. With a colleague, I venture into the poorly ventilated establishments to visit ladies at work. 

On Sundays, I gather ladies at the center to watch an online service and share a meal. The ladies tell me that the worst part of lockdown was the rejection they faced from their own families. Madam Lai said, “I wanted to go to my family in central Taiwan for Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were scared and told me not to come.” Hence, being able to gather physically as God’s family was very precious for her.

God is changing lives in the midst of this crisis. Some women have left the sex trade, some have found help through social services. Others have stepped into our center for the first time and heard about Jesus.

Tera’s willingness to take risks and put the needs of others before her own, challenges me to consider the reasons behind my fear. Her calm demeanor is a contrast to my anxiety and impatience. I have a choice. I can allow myself to be paralyzed by fear, or I can ask God for the wisdom and courage to take prayerful risks. 

The more time I spend in this ministry, the more I recognize that Jesus shapes me through mutual relationships as much as he shapes the women I serve. He uses the ladies, my co-workers, and others with different attitudes, views, and circumstances to challenge my fears and biases. I gain new insights and my trust in God grows deeper. 

When our Lord heard that his friend Lazarus was ill, he said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4). Do we believe that our Lord Jesus may be glorified through this pandemic, even if this sickness may end in physical—but never spiritual—death for his followers?

May our Lord grant us the grace to overcome fear and anxiety. May love and compassion, not self-preservation, motivate all we do. By our faithful response in this pandemic and beyond, we can bring glory to his name.

Cover Photograph by Gene Brutty

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