4 Lessons I Learned while Ministering in Thailand’s Red-Light Districts

“Lord, shut down the sex industry in my city.” This was my prayer standing atop a mountain in Thailand, overlooking my city in June 2010. At that point, I had no intention of becoming personally involved in a ministry to exploited women. I simply wanted God to shut down the bars and massage parlors notorious in Thailand for exploiting and trafficking women and girls.

Prostitution is rampant throughout Thailand. Girls as young as fifteen, and some even younger, in short skirts and heavy makeup line the streets outside the bars and massage parlors in the capital city Bangkok, and in tourist towns like Pattaya and Chiang Mai. The bars and massage parlors where they work often serve as hubs of prostitution for Western, Middle Eastern, and Asian tourists. Seeing evidence of the trade in visits to the tourist sections of my city for shopping and dinner made me heartsick.

“If the gospel alone isn’t enough, it isn’t the gospel.”

A Small Step Goes A Long Way

God gently led me and a small group of women to reach out with the gospel to exploited women in our city. We began by taking ten gift bags to one bar and having conversations with the women who worked there. Although our conversations only lasted a few minutes, the women received the gifts with a smile. The three of us realized we could do this. We could walk up to young women we’d never met before who were working in dangerous areas, share our faith, and offer to pray for them. It was a small step, but one we could take.

Within a few short months, this simple ministry of conversation and prayer grew to include two teams of about five women each. We taught weekly English classes using Bible stories in two massage parlors during daylight hours. At night we prayerwalked the city’s red-light districts in teams of two while looking for opportunities to have gospel conversations with women working in the bars and massage parlors.

I learned four things while working in the red-light district:

Expect God’s Direction

God directs us when we pray, and our team prayed a lot! I’m not being humble when I say we had no idea what we were doing. As a group of middle-class American women, we had little previous exposure to the more sordid aspects of the sex industry. We were clueless. But God was faithful to provide direction, little by little, conversation by conversation. He always provided just enough “light” to allow us to take the next step.

Expect Opposition

As we make inroads into dark places with the gospel, we will face opposition. God’s Word promises it, and our team experienced it. In one instance, a woman who had prayed to receive Christ with our team recanted her faith under pressure from and in the presence of her coworkers. Not knowing what else to do, we followed the principle of Luke 10:10–11 and walked away.

God provided his presence, perspective, and power as we sought to share his love in a dark place.

A few minutes later, we met another woman who asked us to teach her about Christianity. Eventually, she became a Christian, and the massage parlor where she worked became the hub of our ministry. From this, we learned to expect opposition, but not be overcome by it. God will lead us to the people who are open to his grace.

Expect Confusion

During thirteen years overseas, I was often confused. More times than I can count, I was confused by language and culture. One of my favorite examples comes from South Asia. Two young ladies were sharing with a man paralyzed from a landslide. Their translator said, “Sisters, he wants to escape!” “Escape? He doesn’t have to escape. We can leave.” “No, sisters, no! Not escape. Accept! He wants to accept Jesus!” We learned that God could work through and in spite of our language and cultural confusion.

Expect Lives to be Changed—Yours and Theirs

Women (and one man) were saved as we shared Jesus in our city’s red-light districts. Some shared the gospel with their families in the surrounding villages. A handful of people were baptized. Some women are no longer involved in the sex industry. Scores heard the gospel. By some standards, the scope of our influence may be considered small, but little by little, the lives of the people we met were changed by God’s power and grace. Our lives were changed as we learned to depend on God through every conversation and (sometimes bizarre) encounter.

No, God didn’t shut down the sex industry in my city. As far as I know, it remains as active as ever. Instead, he provided his presence, perspective, and power as we sought to share his love in a dark place. He taught a group of clueless American women to rely on him in difficult and confusing circumstances, and he allowed us to be part of what he is doing to bring his love and salvation to Thailand’s oppressed and exploited women. Like many who encountered Jesus in the New Testament, I prayed for a quick, surface fix to the problem: “Shut down the sex industry!” But God wanted something much greater. He wanted lives transformed—theirs and ours—for his glory.

Ann Lovell is a former IMB missionary who served thirteen years in Asia and four years on Richmond’s home office staff. She is currently corporate director of communication with LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes.