I was eating breakfast, just taking it all in, and wondered how I even got here. Sitting in El Porvenir, Chihuahua, a little town south of the Texas-Mexico border, I had just learned we have been under cartel surveillance since we arrived the previous day. I have been traveling to Mexico for several months to work with border town prostitutes and was not naïve to the dangers held in El Porvenir. But this news created reality from an it-could-happen situation.
Previously known as The Valley of Death, El Porvenir is half the town it used to be. The small farming community lost over half of its population when the drug cartels began fighting over this prime route into the United States. I am told that ten years ago the cartel posted a notice for everyone to vacate the city within one week, the final day of which was Easter Sunday. La Pastora (the pastor) of the local church where we were staying, said she refused to leave and changed the time of the sunrise Easter service to 8 a.m. so they would see she was not hiding from them. The congregants remained engaged in an Easter service that went several hours into the day, along with a meal that followed—all without incident. Today this 5-foot-tall 100-pound woman is hugely respected by the cartel, and this respect was our protection while in the city.
Although Mexico is less than 200 miles from my home base of San Angelo, Texas, it might as well be a world away. In Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico, I have witnessed unspeakable poverty that drives children as young as 10 to enter prostitution, and parents to sell their children’s organs. I have heard stories of men being driven to suicide because the poverty has so emasculated them, leaving behind widows driven to prostitution to feed their children. But I have also seen congregations crammed into dilapidated churches on a Tuesday night despite the 40-degree indoor temperature caused by glassless windows and partial roofs. I sat outside in the overflow seating and watched as people raised their hands to heaven praising God while wearing their winter coats, hats, and gloves. It’s as if they hold their arms up for God to reach down and pull them out of their despair. And He does.
So how did I get here? I took a step.
I am often commended for my willingness to go into a country where I do not speak the language, and I had had to take medication to rid myself of parasites when I returned home. But this praise is lost on me. I don’t understand being applauded for obedience any more than I can comprehend congratulating an employee for doing their job. Because this is what it is to me: my occupation, my calling. I know that God sent me to a place where he wanted me, and from there all I had to do was take a step. The first step. At that moment I had to make a decision: Would I continue on a straight path doing what I had been doing, or would I step into the unknown, on a winding path that was not always lit up, and often contained rocks and cliffs? At that moment I knew I would not be out of his will if I chose the straight path, but I would not receive all he had to offer if I did not select the winding path. I wanted it all.
I laugh when I remember a conversation with God just before that first trip. I asked that he would increase what I had so that I could give more to others. It was an honest prayer, and I fully expected him to answer it. And he did, but in typical God style it was not in the way I anticipated. God did not increase what I had; instead he sent me to a place where what I had would do more. The blessings we have in the United States make the poverty of these Mexican cities incomprehensible. They make the economic necessity of prostitution to provide for their families a reality that few of us can grasp. Finances are the key to working with these cities — and would be so simple for us to provide — but for these women who have no hope of anything better, talk of a future leaves them feeling as if they are grasping a shadow. They can see it for a moment, but it is not something they can hold.
My love for the women of Mexico was cemented with a conversation at the community center in Acuna. The director mentioned that the key to ending prostitution in her area was to provide training so the women could learn marketable skills. The center was already providing baking and sewing classes but did not have baking pans to teach a lesson effectively. They had eight women attending the class but only two sewing machines. This conversation was the catalyst for Lace Ministries to expand into Acuna officially. We announced through social media that we were collecting baking and sewing supplies, and received such an overwhelming response that when we returned a month later, we had a large tote full of baking pans and six sewing machines. We take more supplies each time we cross the border, with the intent of setting the women up for success by providing them with everything necessary to get started.
Later that night we had our first outreach in the bar district of Acuna. With roses purchased from a roadside vendor I initiated conversations with women letting them know that Jesus loves them right where they are, and desires to have a relationship with them no matter what. At the time I did not realize how important these words were. Mexico is very conservative, and prostitutes are often shunned from society, even when they are no longer engaged in sex work. After speaking at a church in Acuna, a woman thanked me for what I do. She had been a prostitute several years ago, an economic necessity so that she could feed her small children. She did not want anyone to know because she feared it would destroy her relationships in the church. That was the moment I learned how much these women give up to do what they do — for the love of their children they sacrifice their position in their families and their communities.
Although El Porvenir is a tiny community, the presence of the military nearby makes it lucrative and women commonly bus in from Juarez. Traveling away from their hometown prevents them from being detected by friends and family. My first evening there, I asked Pastora where the prostitutes gather. Although she acknowledged there was a place, she was evasive about the location. I then realized there would be no outreach on this trip and I immediately felt in my spirit that doing outreach in El Porvenir would not be as easy as walking through a bar district with some roses. I didn’t bring it up again but continued to pray for open doors. On the last morning there, Pastora said that if I gave her a date when I would return, she would have all the prostitutes at her church for dinner and we could minister to them then. God’s path led me not where I thought I should go but to a better place of his perfect design. Obedience means to comply with an order, and these first months in Mexico have been nothing more than an act of obedience. Luke 5 tells the story of Peter’s obedience to God. Peter was cleaning his nets after a long night of unsuccessful fishing. Jesus told him where to let his fishnets back down, and Peter said, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word, I will let down the nets.” Peter was tired and didn’t want to do it. But out of respect he dropped his net back into the water and caught so many fish that the fishnets were breaking. His obedience brought blessings beyond measure.
Obedience begins with one step. That first step does not occur when you agree to do something; instead, it is when you physically put in motion what you already agreed to do. Peter said he would put the net back in the water, but the obedience came when he did it. I said I would go wherever God sent me, but the obedience did not begin until I stepped on Mexican soil. Was I blessed like Peter? Absolutely! In just a few months:
- I have preached in two churches and at a woman’s conference in Mexico and witnessed men and women soaking in every word God had for them.
- Lace Ministries has received pictures of smiling women using the gathered supplies that are teaching them a skill and transforming their lives.
- I had the opportunity to visit the home of a woman to whom we provided a sewing machine and shared in her joy as she showed all the things she was creating for other people.
- I saw a prostitute’s face light up with recognition when I gave her a second flower on our second outreach in Acuna.
- And soon I will be sharing a message of hope that Jesus ama a las prostitutas in a cartel-run community.
These are the blessings that have come from taking that very first tentative step. But there is no looking back now!
Written by Strip Church Network Partner Jaz James of Lace Ministries