Inside a Virginia ministry to prostitutes

They don’t preach or condemn, but a small group of Baptist volunteers is building a community of prostitutes who understand God loves them — and that’s transformative.

By Jeff Brumley

Women who accept money for sex, it turns out, rarely refuse invitations to pray.

“Prostitutes always say ‘OK’” when asked to be prayed over, says Travis Collins, the former pastor of Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. “But they would pray with one eye open to see if anyone was going to drive up” to proposition them.

Collins learned that and much more about prostitution through a street-walking ministry created four years ago to reach out to prostitutes and others living and working the streets of Richmond.

Prostitutes StreetThe ministry, which has volunteers initiating conversations with prostitutes the third Friday night of every month, has grown to include a daytime component called Wendy’s on Wednesdays. Prostitutes and others can meet with ministry members in the fast food restaurant for prayer, companionship and referrals to social services available to them.

“The ultimate goal would be that we find someone who has been trafficked,” Collins says, adding that probably any woman involved in the sex trade falls into that category.

“I’m not sure we ever met anyone who was there because it was their goal in life to be there. But we were always after those who had been trafficked — those who were there against their will.”

The outreach began in 2010 as the brainchild of Valerie Carter, then a minister at Bon Air and currently executive director of Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia.

In the beginning, volunteers were drawn just from Bon Air, but members of other local churches came forward as word of the project spread throughout the city.

Even then, the teams have remained small, rarely exceeding a half dozen each of the Friday nights. It certainly isn’t an outreach for everyone.

Not a recruitment effort

“This isn’t a ministry in which we recruit volunteers,” Carter says. Those attracted to the effort feel drawn to it.

“One woman from a Baptist church came one night to try it out. Afterwards, she said, ‘God is calling me to do this — God is calling me to be the grandmother and do the hugging.’”

The hours and location — 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. along a stretch of troubled Jefferson Davis Highway — have sent some volunteers away after an initial stab at it, while others take issue with organizers’ aversion to measuring or reporting ministry outcomes or employing strategies.

“It’s not that kind of ministry. It’s designed to be fluid so people can come in and out — it can be disconcerting for people who are used to stable paradigms.”

What it also isn’t, she adds, is a ministry to deliver sermons to prostitutes and others walking the streets at night.

“We don’t preach and we don’t condemn,” she says. “Our goal is to just show them that God’s love is unconditional and remind them that God loves them, pray for them, hear their stories.”

Prostitutes WendysThe women also are given Christian resources for how to get out of their situations if they want that, Carter says.

Those resources include hygiene kits — which do not include condoms — and information on how to contact Gray Haven, a ministry founded to help rescue people from the world of prostitution.

To distribute those materials and initiate encounters, volunteers break into two-person teams of either two women each or one man and one woman.

The pairs speak to and pray with anyone open to it. They also regularly check in with police.

Collins has witnessed several victories. One was meeting a woman in her 20s who said she was the daughter of a pastor. Another turned out to be the daughter of one of the volunteer’s friends.

“She got into the car with them and they drove her home.”

At no time did the group feel it was too dangerous to be out there, he adds.

“There were never any incidents, never a time when any of us felt that we shouldn’t have come that night.”

Finding fresh expressions

But helping some of the women feel safer was part of the inspiration behind Wendy’s on Wednesdays. It also was inspired by discussions with Fresh Expressions, a ministry that helps develop new ways of Christian community. Collins is now Fresh Expressions’ Virginia regional coordinator and director of mission advancement for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.

Carter secured permission from a Wendy’s on Jefferson Davis Highway to hold afternoon meetings with prostitutes there. With management’s approval, Carter and other volunteers rearrange tables and put up signs.

“At first there were only two folks who met us,” Carter says. “One was a guy in drag and the other a woman who had been a prostitute for 20 years.”

Relationships have also been established with other nearby businesses, including a laundromat where prostitutes wash their clothes.

The idea is to eventually build up a community to which prostitutes can feel a sense of belonging.

“One of the Fresh Expressions components is to listen to the people in the community to determine how to be church among them,” Carter says. “The approach is to hear the hearts of those in the community and to let something natural develop.”

Human trafficking

The context for both the street-walking ministry and Wendy’s on Wednesdays is human trafficking, Carter says.

The term is generally defined as the forced movement of people for the purpose of forced labor or sexual exploitation. Carter believes most of the women working Richmond’s streets fit into that category in some way.

“Most prostitutes are addicted to drugs, so they do this for money,” she says, adding that few actually get to keep the money they earn as prostitutes.

“They are victims of a dominant male in their lives” and “most are abused physically, sexually and mentally.”

In that sense, the Richmond ministry is one of a growing number on the state, national and global levels dedicated to combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Major pushes exist outside the faith-based realm, as well. Recent Super Bowls have included anti-sex trafficking campaigns.

Denominations also are becoming more involved. A variety of Baptist organizations offer materials to help churches and ministries address human trafficking, and a number of mission personnel are dedicated to the cause nationally and globally.

New dynamics

One challenge facing the Richmond ministry now is that there are a declining number of prostitutes walking the streets — and not because they’ve gotten out of that life.

“I recently told a detective that sometimes we never see a woman on the street,” Carter recalls. “And he said it’s all online now and doesn’t even focus on the street.”

That may force the street-walking ministry to become something else altogether. And that’s OK, Carter says.

“The cool thing about this ministry is that we can’t control it.”