Inner City Diary
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Hey, isn't that Harry with some hookers?
August 1, 2004
What would you have thought if you walked into a hotel last week and noticed a preacher hanging around with some women you knew to be prostitutes?

That could spark a juicy rumour!

I remembered the comment of Mark Twain that "a lie gets halfway 'round the world before the truth puts on its boots."  

For a brief moment, I felt a bit self-conscious and vulnerable as I noticed a few people looking at our group.

The truth is I was quite pleased and proud to be there with these women.

Several days earlier, I received an invitation to a graduation luncheon at the hotel. It was for a program called TERF -- short for "Transition, Education and Resources for Females." The program aims to provide a safe, supportive learning environment for women who have been involved in prostitution.

Grads were allowed to invite a guest to the event, and one of the grads called to invite me. I told her I'd be honoured to attend.

She could have invited others, but she invited me. I took it as a sign of trust combined with an awareness that I would appreciate the significance of her accomplishment.

I met her about two years ago. Had I not known her, I would never have guessed that she was "well-known to police" as a sex trade worker. She attended a function at our church, as gracious and respectful as anyone else in the room. Her care for others, interest in learning, and love for a good book and a good laugh were immediately evident to those around her.

It was another great reminder that people are more than what they do.

Don't get me wrong. I haven't changed my mind about the harm or hazards of prostitution.

But some people assume that my opposition to the activity of prostitution translates into antagonism toward the women themselves.

Fortunately, my folks taught me that it was possible to "hate the sin without hating the sinner." I know because they had to practise what they preached with me, their own son.

The changes in my life were, in large measure, due to their integrity in communicating both unflinching moral standards and unfailing parental love. I knew how they felt about my behaviour. But there was always hope for change, because I knew how they felt about me.

Maintaining that balance is essential to sustaining any real change in our neighbourhood.

It became even clearer as the afternoon progressed.

I arrived at the hotel and sat at the table with several of the participants and instructors from the TERF program. We shared a great buffet lunch and had some good conversation around the table.

Our conversation was about everyday stuff. We chatted about music, movies, friendships, learning, next steps, dreams, and frustrations.

There was pride in the women's eyes and genuine joy in the table fellowship. It was evident that these emotions were heightened by their contrast to a long familiarity with shame and sadness.

The lunch was followed by a series of speeches and presentations.

Not one of the speeches made reference to the fact that the women had worked as prostitutes. Every speech referenced the perseverance, personality and passions of the women.

This graduation was focused on looking forward, not living backwards. The focus was not on past bad choices, but a celebration of current good choices.

As I sat there, I reflected sadly on something bad that's been happening to these women in our neighbourhood.

People are rightfully upset about the criminal activity and immoral behaviour of prostitutes (and johns) when they're working the streets. I'm a firm believer that the vigilance of residents and scrutiny of police is actually a help to the women as well as the community.

But what about when they're not working? What about when they're actually waiting for a bus, going for groceries, or going to a park or a store with a friend?

Many of these women receive dirty looks even when they're not doing anything dirty. Some have been called names, mocked and ridiculed even when they're doing the same things as everyone else in our neighbourhood.

Some people have stopped distinguishing between their attitude toward the behaviour and the attitude toward the people.

I wished I could have brought some of those folks to that luncheon at the hotel. Perhaps the best antidote to the shame on our streets is the pride and respect shared in that room last week.

I figure there's little hope for change if we don't offer some hope for a change.
Copyright 2004
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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