Saturday, August 10, 2013

Lessons in the Red Light District




As I reached the top of the hill, my senses were overwhelmed. Below me the city hummed with motos and tuk-tuks circling thoroughfares; miniature vendors peddled their wares below. A man beckoned me to pay the meager sum of a dollar to gain entrance to the temple grounds. I paid it, shoving my ticket into my bag. 

I was not there as a follower of Buddha. I was there so I could look around, get a sense of culture, as well as a view of the area. The cloying smell of incense filled my nostrils. Through its haze I watched a woman bent in prayer over a shrine, as tourists, worshippers, and orange-clad monks mixed.  Monkeys played along the walls. 

I was standing at Wat Phnom, a large Buddhist temple in the midst of Phnom Penh. Across the circular park surrounding the temple sat an affluent hotel. Right next to it was the United States Embassy. 

I wiped the sweat from my face, fanning myself trying to relieve the horrid afternoon heat. Not succeeding at it or removing the ache from my heart. 

This was a business and government hub, looking innocent enough to an untrained eye. In the midst of the city chaos and resplendent temple, I stood deep in the heart of injustice.  This was the location where young girls were sold for the price I pay for coffee. Their pretty, make-up covered faces a cold fa├žade for deep-seeded pain. Whether by force or deception, these girls were stripped of their human value, sold as commodities. Sullied, devalued commodities. 

Many of them were teenagers, some even younger. 

At night, the area was transformed. Locals were scarce. Foreigners would not dare to venture there without good cause. 

I watched as close guard was kept on my native embassy. What great protection and value was given to that stately building! What little protection was given to the women who now lined the street in front of it. 

An entire strip of benches and dim lighting were dedicated to prostitution. Women came and went via moto with clients or pimps carrying them off into the night. 

As I walked down the street, I soaked it in. A young girl clad in heels and a short skirt cowered in a shadow. A woman cozied up to a client, flirting on a park bench. Some avoided eye-contact and walked away. Some stared in open interest. Others’ dark eyes pleaded with me, hungry for hope. 

The ache in my heart returned. I wanted to weep for them. 

Their life consisted of the night. The most vulnerable, impoverished women and children, were exposed to this dangerous avenue with its gangs and drug dealers. They were left prey to the greedy and perverse. We guard our embassies and temples but expose our most precious, even exploit them for selfish gain.

My heart cried out. What can I do? I am just one person. 

I prayed. 

Isaiah 61:1 says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.” 

God’s Spirit is upon me. This scripture is not just for a prophet thousands of years ago crying out for his people. His Word is so valid, still today. 

In Acts 1:8 Jesus states, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witness ….. even to the remotest part of the earth.” 

Not only is God’s Spirit upon me, but I will receive power to be His witness. 

In the heart of the Red Light District of Phnom Penh, it was very possible to reach a state of hopelessness. I knew that it would never be by my might or strength any of this would change. I, an incredibly imperfect person, alone cannot bring about justice to this world. 

What blossomed inside of me, however, was hope. A hope that told me I had authority to change the world. A hope that saw the church in Cambodia rising up, loving those around them, and bringing freedom to captives. A hope as people dedicated their lives to organizations like International Justice Missions, SHE Rescue, and Daughters of Cambodia. 

The reality is, some of the women I saw near Wat Phnom will die of HIV/Aids related illness, some will be killed by a pimp or gang member, some will waste away of a broken heart and hopelessness, but some will be rescued, restored, and given Hope. 

In that moment I knew it would be worth it to give my life so that not just some, but one day all of the vulnerable would be given a chance: protected, loved, and valued.

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