The Red Light District Needs the Local Church

I wandered into the depths of a red light district, armed with a Bible and a bag of toffees. It’s a dirty, wet, smelly place. Shops on the ground floor sell motors, gears, and bathroom fixtures while stairwells in between lead to brothels on the many floors above.

Men on the sidewalk sleep off hangovers from the night before. College guys wander around in packs looking for the cheapest ladies. Pimps eye everyone suspiciously from a distance, and cops walk by with their batons threatening the ladies if they don’t go back upstairs. Little kids roam in the middle of it all.

When my attention first settled on this area of the city, I had no idea what to do. Many organizations—even Christian ones—already worked in the district. I met with a few of them and learned they focus on meeting physical needs. No one was addressing the spiritual needs. Ladies couldn’t leave the brothel in search of the gospel themselves, so God impressed on me the urgency to go to them.

So I went.

An American friend and I arrived one morning when business was slow. We approached a group of ladies and offered them a toffee. That small gesture, though very confusing to them, broke down walls and gave them a reason to talk to us. We used our broken Hindi to ask if they wanted to hear a story. Most of them were just sitting there waiting for the next customer, so they were interested. I knew God was already at work. I also knew he wanted to do more, and I wasn’t the answer.

I Am Not My Strategy

I never wanted to have my own ministry in the city’s red light district. I wanted it to be a burden of the local church. The problem was, no one from church wanted to go. I tried enlisting my national friends to at least to come help with my broken Hindi. They were afraid they would be seen, captured, or simply prevented by their husbands from going.

“It doesn’t matter how we engrain ourselves in their culture. The people we serve will almost always give more weight to the words and experiences of their own people.”

Finally one of my close national friends agreed to accompany me. After she went just once, she felt burdened to continue sharing God’s love with ladies in the district. It wasn’t long before her burden rubbed off on a few others. Soon we had four people from our church coming weekly to share in a Bible study held in the brothels. I had been encouraging women in my church to come with me for weeks, to no avail. Yet when my national friend spurred others to step out, they did.

It doesn’t matter how we engrain ourselves in their culture or how much trust we build. The people we serve will almost always give more weight to the words and experiences of their own people. That’s not a bad thing, and accepting that reality helps put into perspective our place in cross-cultural ministry.

Broadcast Your Weaknesses

My national friends knew the work was important, but they needed some kind of “spark” to get them more involved. Strangely, my insufficiency was often that spark. One girl came with me but didn’t want to speak out of fear in her inability to communicate the gospel. However, after listening to me share in Hindi, she immediately started sharing the gospel, her testimony, and even Bible stories. As we were leaving, I asked her what had changed. “After I heard you speaking, I knew I could do it and do it much better than you,” she said.

Fair enough.

That blatant honesty I had come to expect from those in her culture was actually an encouragement. I didn’t have to have amazing language abilities, gifts, and talents. God reminded me that he uses everything—even our weakness—if we are willing to simply go. He used my inadequacy to ignite a fire in my friend to boldly proclaim the gospel.

When the Church Is Unleashed

Finally, after we developed a brothel ministry with a small group of people from his church, the pastor of the church caught the vision for what God could do there. He led the church to embrace the red light district and take on the responsibility of reaching the area. He even dedicated a church service to informing the congregation of this new goal and commissioning those who ministered there.

Once the church joined in, the ministry began to flourish. Ladies in the brothels became more interested in the gospel. They started gathering for Bible studies. We even held an Easter worship time inside one of the brothels. One of the ladies brought her adult son—who worked as a pimp— to our church, where he accepted Christ.

“Only God can use our inadequacies and fears to form a healthy partnership that leads to gospel proclamation among the unreached.”

Since then, a few ladies have accepted Christ. The church is now working toward making a halfway home for the ladies who want to leave the district. It’s amazing how things changed once the local church started championing this area.

Through all of this, God has shown himself to be the hero in this story. Only he can use our inadequacies and fears to form a healthy partnership that leads to gospel proclamation among the unreached. It’s right and good to initiate and involve yourself in cross-cultural ministries. But hold your role with a loose grip because a desire to control may stunt the local church’s flourishing and the effectiveness of the ministry at hand.

Keelie Rock has been at home in South Asia for twelve years. She serves with her husband and two girls.