The church members paired up, and each night walked through noisy, neon-lighted bars where sex workers tried to lure in visitors
Steamboat teachers Janna Hoza and Rebecca McNamara never thought they’d be “picking up” prostitutes in Thailand, but when they decided to be part of a church mission, they ended up doing exactly that.
The two women were part of a group from the Steamboat Christian Center who spent a week in Chiang Mai, Thailand, mingling in the bars where girls and women sell their bodies.
“The first night was really hard walking through the bars,” said graphic designer Jessica Wagner during an interview with fellow church members Hoza and McNamara.
“We worked with the children in the slums … worked with the orphanage and talked with monks. But our main focus was to minister to prostitutes in the bars,” Wagner said.
The church members paired up, and each night walked through noisy, neon-lighted bars where sex workers tried to lure in visitors.
“The prostitutes work for the bars,” Hoza explained. “They’re not on the streets with a pimp. There’s probably 25 to 30 bars in that area. Each of those bars would have three to 10 women working.”
The Steamboat Christian Center sent the group to work with Lighthouse in Action, a Thailand group dedicated to helping women transition out of the sex industry. Church members say there are 2.5 million sex workers in Thailand, with almost 850,000 of those under 18 years old … overwhelming numbers for a little group from Steamboat.
Pic Cr Jessica Wagner
“Our pastor told us, ‘Ask God to give you one, and do for the one what you wish you could do for everyone,'” said Hoza, a Strawberry Park Elementary School teacher.
In fact, Hoza and Pastor Daniel Susenbach connected with a young sex worker from Burma who had no passport and was tasked with supporting a family. Her father had died not long before.
“We bought her out of the bar for a few nights, paid a fee to take her out,” explained Hoza.
“She was in a tough dark time. She needed someone to care, to talk to,” Hoza continued. “We took her to dinner, got her a massage and hung out at the market with her. We tried to show her love and be there for her and to keep her from working. We talked with her how we felt she is worth more and deserves more. We felt that God led us to her.”
McNamara, a first grade teacher at Strawberry Park, had a similar experience and managed to befriend another sex worker, buying her freedom for five nights.
“For me, I was trying to build a relationship and a friendship, not judging her,” said McNamara. “She had kids and an 80-year-old mom in a village. She wanted to get out. Her husband died seven years ago, and she was just trying to survive and provide a education and better life for her children.
“We just poured God’s love on her and told her how beautiful she was on the inside. No one had ever told her that.”
McNamara and her mission partner Ron Klein almost managed to talk the young woman into leaving the bar for a women’s safe house, but other bar workers convinced her she’d be unsafe. After arriving back in the states, McNamara and Klein have learned she is now working on leaving.
The American missionaries explain that education costs money in Thailand and ill-educated girls from indigenous villages are often taken advantage of. Hill tribes are not considered citizens, which disqualifies them from many jobs and even healthcare.
They say the oldest girl is often tasked with taking care of the family. Some in extreme poverty even send their oldest daughters with sex traffickers. Others are tricked with promises of jobs in big-city restaurants.
Whatever the reason, the workers often find the pay hard to give up. Workers can make up to $50 a night.
However, the job comes at a dangerous price.
“It’s estimated that 20 percent become HIV positive in five years, let alone the emotional trauma,” Hoza said.
And unlike a brothel, the sex workers in the Chiang Mai bar district go off with their clients with no protection to back them up.
“It’s really disappointing that most of the customers that come are Westerners,” Wagner added.
In spite of all the odds stacked against volunteers like Wagner, Hoza and McNamara, the women left with cell phone numbers and a way to communicate with the sex workers in hopes of one day getting them to a women’s shelter and safe house in Thailand.
In fact, the trip was so life-changing that two other church members are selling off their personal possessions to spend more time working in the slums and orphanages.
“It shifted my entire perspective on life,” McNamara said. “You can’t come back the same person after that experience.”