One evening in 2003, I found myself sitting in my car across the street from the strip club where I used to work. I felt like I was sitting outside of a prison that had once held me captive. I remembered what it felt like to be a 19-year-old girl in financial despair, who, after experiencing a lifetime of chaos and trauma, found myself working in the sex industry under the control of my abusive boyfriend (AKA exploiter). I remembered and I prayed for the women and girls working there that night.
While prayer is powerful and important, it occurred to me that it was time to actually do something. In my console, I found a stack of postcards that said, “Her value is far above rubies and pearls.” It was exactly the message that I wanted to communicate to the women. I quickly began writing handwritten notes on the backs of the cards to give to my ex-coworkers.
The vision of Treasures was birthed in that moment. Over the next few months, I began strategizing how we could reach women working in strip clubs throughout Los Angeles. Today, our outreach efforts have expanded to include child victims of sex trafficking in juvenile detention centers, women in the porn industry, and women and girls who are exploited through online forums. The message we share with them echoes what I wrote on the postcards that first night: You are loved. You are valued. You are purposed. And we are here for you!
I can’t stand to pass by a strip club without knowing that the women are being reached. That is why the Treasures team reaches women in about 170 clubs each year. That’s how many clubs there are in LA and Vegas combined.
At one point in 2003, I seriously considered renting a motorhome and driving to every strip club across the US. There are women all over this nation and the globe that are feeling trapped and alone like I once was. And I have a heart to reach every single one of them.
I love motorhomes and cross-country trips, but I quickly realized that this was not going to be the most effective way to see women in the sex industry reached and restored. For this type of outreach to truly impact lives, I strongly believe that it has to be done at a local level, by people in the community. Treasures’ vision is deeply connected to the local church.
I believe it is the role of the local church to be a place where people who are hurting and broken can come to find healing and restoration. I believe that it is the role of the local church to be the hands and feet of Jesus, meeting people’s practical and spiritual needs. I believe it is the role of the church to help people live in freedom and to discover and pursue God’s purpose for their lives, knowing that when we are free and walking in purpose, we are positioned to enhance the freedom of others.
In 2006, my story and the work of Treasures was featured in Glamour magazine. The response we received was overwhelming. Women from all over the world were reaching out to us for help. So much so that our website and email system crashed.
Liza* was one of the women who contacted us. She was a single mother who found herself stuck in a life of prostitution and desperately wanted out. Prostitution was the only way she knew how to make ends meet and put food on the table.
Since she lived in a small town, resources in her area were scarce. I encouraged her to find a local church. I told her that it was through a local church where I had found healing, grace, acceptance, healthy community and a place to learn to grow and thrive in life. I expected her to find the same.
That Sunday, she attended a service in her small town. Afterward, she made her way to the front to ask the pastor’s wife to pray with her. As she shared the circumstances of her life and what she desperately wanted to escape, the pastor’s wife began shifting nervously. Finally, she stopped Liza mid-sentence and said, “I really wish you wouldn’t have told me all of this. You are making me very uncomfortable”.
The next morning, Liza woke up and found that her car had been vandalized. Spray painted across the side were the words, “Liza is a sl*t”.
Even though Liza was devastated and humiliated, she decided to give the people at the church the benefit of the doubt. She thought maybe it was a coincidence and that the vandalism and experience with the pastor’s wife were not connected. The next Sunday, she decided to attend church once again. Only when she arrived at the children’s ministry to drop off her child, the volunteer said, “I am sorry, but you and your child are not welcome here.”
When she called to tell me what happened, I was mortified and outraged to discover that someone could experience this level of rejection from a church.
I had to assume that the response Liza received was a result of ignorance rather than pure malice. If the people at the church knew that up to 90% of women in the sex industry have been sexually abused as children… That despite the myth that the women are working in the industry by choice, the reality is that many have been forced or coerced into the sex industry, as in the case of sex trafficking… That even those who say they are there by choice are often compelled to enter the industry out of financial desperation and lack of viable options… That 70% of trafficking victims in the US are from the foster care system… If the people at the church knew that 89% of women in the sex industry want to leave, but see no other options for survival, perhaps they would have responded differently. After all, what is “choice” without options?
It became clear to me that if the local church is going to be effective in responding to the needs of victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking and women working in the sex industry, education plays a huge role.
That is why we began the Treasures Outreach and Care Training Program. We are passionate about equipping people in the church to develop strong, grassroots, and effective outreaches in communities around the globe. To date, we have had the honor of training outreaches in over 120 cities on 6 continents. We are seeing lives reached and restored through these efforts all over the planet!
God never ceases to amaze me. What started as a small grassroots effort to reach women in the sex industry in LA has turned into something far greater than I could ever imagine. I love the fact that each leader that we train and develop represents an entire community of women who will be reached and impacted! And each time a woman is reached and her life transformed, she has the potential to reach and impact the people in her sphere of influence!
As much as I love motorhomes, God’s plan for Treasures is working out much better! Imagine that!
And yet, this is only the beginning. There are still women and girls waiting to be reached. In fact, I am often haunted by the words of a young girl I met in a juvenile detention center a couple of years ago. Upon hearing about the work that we are doing, with tears in her eyes, she asked us, “Where were you when I was 10-years-old and forced into prostitution by a pimp?”
It breaks my heart and stirs me to action to know that there are women and girls out there right now, waiting for you and me to show up. Let’s do it!
*Name and identifying info changed to protect confidentiality
If you’d like to hear more about my story you can get a copy of my memoir Scars and Stilettos!
LET’S CONNECT! XOXO, Harmony