Ever since I arrived in Bolivia, I knew I would eventually visit the brothels. I learned about Word Made Flesh before coming down here, and prayed that the Lord would introduce me to women who worked for this incredible organization.
Within the first week, I had crossed paths with several women who were being the hands and feet of Jesus in El Alto. Word Made Flesh “seeks abundant life for those affected by prostitution” in the red light district of El Alto. Let me tell you two things: I have never been anywhere as dark as this area of El Alto. But, I have also never met anyone braver than the women who work for Word Made Flesh.
After months of praying about it, I finally had the opportunity to be trained as a volunteer and join a street team. Once a month, we head to the red light district to visit the women working in the brothels. The point is not to evangelize, judge, or “save” them, but instead to build relationships, get to know their stories, and just be where they are.
So the night came. I arrived at Casa Esperanza to prepare materials for our walk and to pray over our time at the brothels. Alongside two other fearless women, we turned everything over to Jesus. What else could we do? Tonight was His mission not ours. We wanted His words, not our own. We desired His breath in our lungs, not ours. We prayed for these women, our sisters, caught in these dark corners. We prayed for those men, our brothers, that they would flee from that hypnotizing darkness. Before arriving at Casa Esperanza, during this time of prayer, and throughout our time at the brothels, I could not stop praying the prophecy of Isaiah 9:2: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.”
As we went out into the streets, the sun was falling below the altiplano horizon. Dusk was slowly turning into the dark of night. I took a deep breath, desperately trying to fill my lungs with the Spirit as we walked into the first brothel. This one was quite tame, my friends told me. It was still relatively early so there were very few customers, and only a few women peeked out from behind their doors. We approached one woman who was ushering us over. We introduced ourselves, wished her a happy Easter with a chocolate egg, and talked about her life, how long she’s been in the business, her family, her children, etc.
What surprised me about these women was most of them are not young. They are not beautiful or skinny by any standards. Most of the women were older “cholitas”: the short, round, indigenous women of Bolivia. Then this woman did something unexpected. She invited us into her room because she wanted us to pray. We all shuffled in and shut the door so that the brothel owner couldn’t see what we were doing. We all put our hands on her and as we prayed, she cried. In the middle of this dim space with paint peeling off the walls, incense swirling about, and condom wrappers on the floor, we prayed. In one of the darkest places I have ever been, He too was there.
We hugged and kissed goodbye and our new friend promised she would come visit Casa Esperanza. We left the building with very little light left in the sky, but enough to still see. How refreshing that light felt. After being inside that dimly lit room with red light bulbs, I almost fell to my knees at the sight of the sky at dusk. And I thought, how much more I want the light to dawn for these sweet women.
With no time to spare, we visited four more brothels. It got progressively worse throughout the night. The last brothel we entered, I almost fell over at the stench that hung in the air. The smell of incense, urine, lubricant, and stale beer made me both light-headed and perfectly clear-minded that I had entered into some place very close to Hell. The darkness was only made darker by red lights that might as well have been flames. There was loud music that reverberated deep into my bones. There were TV screens, some playing music videos, others playing porn. We kept our heads down and walked further into the brothel, and I felt myself walking deeper into the presence of evil.
Oh, how I longed for the dawn to break.
We walked around the dank hallways, passing by dozens of closed doors. It was impossible not to think about what was going on behind it. My shoes would often slip or stick to some unidentified substance on the floor. I would shudder and force it out of my mind. There were moments when I was so overwhelmed with the stench, or just the sheer experience of being there, that I had to pause and hold onto the railing to keep myself from falling over.
Lord, when will the light dawn?
We approached any woman who was standing at an open door. To my surprise, the women wanted to talk to us. Many would ask us questions or share stories about their own lives. When we would look them in the eyes and tell them that they are loved, I witnessed a gaze, a long way off. They had once known, but after years and years of walking through this deep darkness, they had forgotten.
We had to weave our way through the crowds of men as the night got later. Men were now pouring through the entrance, like ants streaming from their hill after it’s been destroyed. These men had blank stares and empty eyes. They moved about in a peculiar choreographed pattern, one that we were not a part of. We pushed our way through, swimming up stream as they circled the hallways looking for their next $3 transaction amongst the scantly dressed women.
One of the last women we talked to was fairly young, beautiful, and did not leave much of her body for the imagination. As we drew close to her, she positioned her body behind the door but kept her head peeking out. We greeted her and introduced ourselves. When we asked for her name, she first offered her “work” name, but we asked again for her real name because we wanted to know who she really was. She replied, and then explained that she felt very ashamed to be seen like this by other women. This was the moment when it really hit me. These women don’t truly want to be here. They feel shame, guilt, embarrassment. But, they are here because they believe there is nothing else for them. That they are not worth anything more. That this is the only way. They truly believe that they belong in the deep darkness.
Lord, how long until the dawn?
When we exited this last brothel, the vast altiplano sky had turned to pitch. It was a thick, inky black that could almost be felt bearing down on your shoulders and the top of your head, forcing you to feel the full weight of the darkness.
The rest of the night I felt like I was going to be sick. The stench lingered in my hair and clothing, whispering to me of the rottenness of humanity. I sat on the floor of my shower and cried.
Oh, how I wait for the dawn.
The next morning, I woke with the sunrise. Never before in my life have I been so glad to see the sun. The night was over, the dawn had come. I sat up in my bed and looked out the window, tears streaming down my face. The light was so real.
If only, if only the light would dawn in the dark corners of this world.
I can’t say that I found any beauty that Thursday night up in El Alto. There wasn’t anything grungy-broken-beautiful. There was nothing joyful or happy about our encounter. It was all raw and dark and fractured and vile and unfathomably heavy. That night will haunt me for some time to come.
But I can say with assurance that I trust in God’s word. He is who He says He is. I trust that when He promises a light will dawn, it certainly will. Especially for my dear sisters up in El Alto.
So for the time being, we are here in the waiting. It’s a long, dark night. But take heart, my friends. The light will surely dawn.