The church was beautiful, small with stained glass, polished wood, built to look like a ship with something precious inside, making its way through a community that looked like it was filled with storm-tossed debris and monsters of the deep. The occasion was tragic, a memorial service for a young woman murdered as she tried to leave prostitution. The dead woman, Cindy, had graduated from a YANA program designed for women on the brink of change. She had done community outreach, given away condoms, tried to do better, tried to turn her back on the darkness of her life and become one of those thousands of points of lights that politicians like to talk about. Instead, someone broke her neck when he threw her down the stairs. I'm not sure whether the murderer was supposed to be a boyfriend or another trick, but she was dead either way, and the little church that she liked to visit sometimes was filled with teary-eyed mourners.
It soon became clear that the minister was not one of them. As we sat there in increasing amazement, he pointed out that she had been a prostitute, then he lectured, with grim matter-of-factness, her children, her mother, and her friends on the hellfire and damnation that await sinners. It was blindingly obvious that he saw no reason to mention heaven or salvation or anything else of comfort in a sermon about someone like her. He said almost nothing else about Cindy or her life, though he did take the time to announce that a couple of her mother's other children were dead as well. Having discharged what was clearly an onerous little task, he moved on to a much more interesting topic: graffiti had been scrawled on some churches in California. In a service nominally devoted to the murder of one of his flock, this man's outrage and, apparently, genuine grief poured forth on the subject of petty vandalism. After we left, Sid told me that Cindy had sat timorously in the back when she attended that church. She'd been afraid to talk to people. Wonder why?
So, that was one experience our women have had with organized religion. We've had a few other negatives: belligerent, self-styled preachers who've called us to schedule a time to come and "save" our clients. Those types have never gotten through the door, which is too bad for them. They probably would have found a little cluster of women easily abashed, ready to admit their guilty natures, eager for salvation. Our clients could have offered them a rich opportunity to feel morally superior.
Yet, moral superiority is not the usual response we get from churches. During our time of wandering through a fiscal wilderness, the churches have been our salvation. They give us money. Ministers preach about YANA from the pulpit, and their congregations send us bags full of supplies. We have a church (I believe of the same denomination as poor Cindy's minister) that makes up elaborate and expensive Easter baskets for the women every year. There's another church that tried to give us space for YANA until they ran into insurance problems. A group of young adults from a Korean mega-church worked very hard with our women. We gave them space to put on dinners and offer gentle sermons to the clients Thursday evenings. They drove out to our neighborhood and picked the women up for Sunday church. They took them to picnics, visited them in the hospital, prayed with them, looked after them until we worried, unnecessarily as it turned out, that they would be become enablers rather than helpers. The leader of that group was a young male engineer who became almost tearful with gratitude for the opportunity to serve God by serving the women of YANA. He was simply stunned by the thought that people could call themselves Christians and still turn their backs on the downtrodden.
And we've gotten the most help of all it from the organized Catholic Church. The Sisters of Mercy were one of Sid's first funders. They've regularly helped with small grants, and the nuns themselves volunteer at YANA. They are always well liked by the women, easy with them, and kind. Hezekiah House itself is owned by the Catholics, and they are the ones who took us in when we couldn't afford the rent. I'll probably never forget our first meeting with Brother Joe. We poured out stories of our women's suffering, and he responded immediately with plans for YANA days at Hezekiah. Midway through the meeting, we realized, with more than a little shock, that Joe wasn't clear on the fact that we planned to come with the women. He was so appalled by their circumstances that he was ready to have their little staff add YANA days to their schedule. For those of you who've been reading this blog, how would you like to squeeze an extra responsibility like that into your work week?
Still, for all the help we've gotten from the churches, I believe that the most important relationship between our women and the church is the women's love of God. At least if you measure religiosity in terms of gratitude to God, belief in having been blessed, and the absolute certainty that a literal God exists, then the prostituted women of YANA are -- by a long shot -- the most religious people I've ever met. Especially after they get a few weeks' sobriety under their belts; then they start praising him for everything. Ask them how they are today, and half the time the answer is "blessed." They thank God for a two-day janitorial job, for miniature bottles of shampoo and conditioner, for a blanket in the winter. They remind each other of his importance. But they rarely go to church. And they never talk about heaven.
Maybe most of their experiences were like Cindy's. Maybe the contempt her minister felt for her was the norm, and all the helping churches have been the exception. How can they risk the pain of being told by a messenger from God that they are contemptible in his sight? Maybe the women don't think they deserve to go to a place that good. Maybe, and I suspect this may be the case for at least a few of them, the experience of going even to a welcoming church would be too powerful for them. If they believe they have walked into God's house, and they feel impelled to think about what God wants them to do with their lives, how do they go on living the way they do? And how much help can they get from a traditional church if they want to live differently? Thinking about what I wrote in the second How Much Money do Prostitutes Make? section, how would they be able to take it in the message they are valuable. They are loved. They are important in the eyes of God? I believe a message like that would be intensely painful for some of the YANA women. And maybe the concept of heaven is too. Despite their sickness and despite the fact that almost all of them grieve over the loss of someone they've loved, they never mention heaven. I'm pretty sure they believe it exists. Maybe they just don't think it's for the likes of them.