EDITOR'S NOTE: Human Trafficking Awareness Day is being marked today, Jan. 11, nationally and internationally.
CHINA (BP) -- The young Chinese woman steps from a back room into the soft, pink light of the small brothel. She adjusts her short dress and black stockings. A middle-aged Chinese man follows a few steps behind. Under the watchful eye of the shop's owner, the customer hands her a wad of bills -- about $60.
She nods and accepts the money, flashing a strawberry tattoo on her left hand, often a sign of rebellion in this ancient culture. Transactions like this take place every day in brothels throughout China, says Belinda Baker*, a worker who shares the Gospel among commercially exploited women in a city of 8 million people.
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The 40-year-old New Orleans native is careful not to say "prostitute," a word that implies that women choose that lifestyle. "No child says, 'I want to grow up and sell my body,'" Baker says.
Instead, poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunity drive women to prostitution as a means to provide for their families. Baker hopes to free the estimated 35,000 exploited women in her city both physically and spiritually -- first by sharing the Gospel, then by offering a safe place to live and alternative job skills.
The Weises* are among the women Baker hopes to reach. Ranging in age from 18 to 30, the five sisters -- Chen*, Jinjing*, Dongmei*, Liling* and Mingzhu* -- moved from a rural Chinese province to start a massage parlor in a working-class neighborhood in the city. Their goal is to send money home to their families.
An energetic redhead and former New Orleans party girl, Baker became a Christian in her late 20s after her sister told her about Christ. Because of her firsthand knowledge of the difference Jesus makes, Baker is passionate about sharing the Gospel with women trapped by exploitation and addiction.
Two of the Weis sisters, Chen and Dongmei, are Christians. Jinjing is Buddhist, since her husband and his parents strictly follow Buddhist traditions.
Baker shares part of her life story with Jinjing and tells her that she can be the first in her husband's family to follow Jesus Christ. "My sister was the first in my family to follow Jesus," Baker says to Jinjing. "Now all of us do."
Jinjing smiles and acknowledges that her husband enjoyed reading the Gospel materials Baker shared on her last visit. "He told me it was very good," the 27-year-old mother of two says. "He said I should read it, too."
Although her husband seems more open to Christianity than he did in the past, Jinjing says there are other reasons she can't become a Christian. "In my work, I can't avoid men who want sex," the young woman says. "I can't follow Jesus completely and do these special services."
But Jinjing never admits to providing sex to customers. "When men ask, I tell them no," she continues. "We will never think of doing that. We want to make money through energy and knowledge."
Her 30-year-old sister Chen, a Christian, paints a slightly different picture. "Business is slow," Chen says. "If I could hire a girl to provide sex, I would expand [our business] to offer more sex work."
Although Western Christians may be shocked by such an admission from a Chinese Christian, slow business can mean the difference between feeding the children or forcing them to go hungry -- especially in a country where some financial analysts estimate the daily unskilled labor wage to be less than $3.50.
These economic realities, along with customer demand, pressure Chen and her sisters to consider providing sex for sale. By hiring another girl to provide sexual services, Chen explains, the shop would make more money and the sisters would not compromise their faith. Without more profits, the sisters will have to close their business and return to their home province where the daily wage is even lower.
"When these women opened the shop, I think their intentions were pure," Baker says. "Now they are at a pivotal point. Maybe God sent us to them for that reason."
WORTH THE EFFORT
Not all massage parlors in China are dens of prostitution, Baker explains. Massage therapy, pedicures and foot massages are a ritual part of Chinese daily life. However, prostitution reaches every segment of society and runs the gamut from brothels and massage parlors to karaoke bars and five-star hotels.
"We have identified seven tiers of prostitution in China," Baker says. "Sex is for sale on every street and at every level of society."
On one bus route, Baker counts 18 brothels, small storefront properties bathed in the color of bubblegum and cotton candy. The Chinese symbol for "foot massage" combined with a noticeable lack of reclining chairs identifies the business as a brothel.
Because prostitution is driven primarily by economics, Baker understands the need to provide legitimate training and livelihood opportunities for women in the sex industry. For this reason, she opened a safe house outside the city and is in the process of registering to open a bakery.
"If you had another job, would you leave this business?" Ling Tao, Baker's ministry partner, asks Jinjing.
Jinjing shrugs and looks skeptical. "Maybe," she says.
Baker hopes many women will leave prostitution once the safe house and bakery are up and running.
"One of the shop owners has already asked if I will hire her 15-year-old daughter to work at the bakery," Baker says. "She hangs out at the brothel on school holidays, but her mother doesn't want her involved in sex work."
Baker explains that her work isn't just about providing job skills. She wants "every single girl" to hear and receive the Gospel because they are "worth it."
Referring to her past, Baker says, "My sister thought I was worth it. She could have written me off, but she didn't. She shared the Gospel with me."
But reaching 35,000 women singlehandedly is more than just a challenge. Without help, it is impossible. "Our greatest need is messengers," Baker says.
Therefore, Baker enlists Chinese students and house church leaders to work alongside her. She also uses short-term workers from the United States to prayerwalk, distribute gift bags and share the Gospel.
While Baker's greatest need is messengers, her best strategy is prayer -- not only for those she hopes to reach but also for Christians with the same passion to see commercially exploited women come to Christ.
"One of my prayers is that Christians will feel the same desperation for these girls that they have for their own daughters," Baker says. "I look at mothers in America who would literally put their bodies over their teenage daughters to protect them ... and I wish they felt the same way about these girls."
Baker and Tao continue to prayerwalk the city and share the Gospel in brothels and massage parlors. Although they've met few women willing to walk away, a number of shops have closed after some owners and employees prayed to receive Christ.
Preparing to prayerwalk one particularly notorious street, Baker explains, "This is a seedy section. The street literally glows pink."
However, she finds many shops closed and doors boarded since she was there nine months ago. She is amazed that only three brothels remain open.
Baker's team prayerwalked the area for at least two years, and the street is a consistent prayer route for one of her ministry partners. The team also used photos from the area to encourage prayer from advocates in America.
"Now I don't see any pink lights," Baker says. "I don't even see girls in there.
"That's good," she adds. "No disappointment here."
*Names changed. Tess Rivers is a writer for the International Mission Board based in Asia. Among resources available on the topic of human trafficking is "Not in My Town: Exposing and Ending Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery" by Dillon Burroughs and Charles Powell, available from New Hope Publishers at www.newhopedigital.com. New Hope is the trade books arm of Woman's Missionary Union.