Every month I join a multi-ministry team of women that goes into brothels, nightclubs, and red light districts around southern Bali. Every outreach night is different. Sometimes our conversations seem insignificant – just small talk. Other nights, it seems like we have important conversations and make long-lasting connections with the girls and women we meet. A couple of months ago, I spent a long time chatting with a girl I’ll call Lisa who was brand new to the brothel. She is 24 and left behind a 4 year-old on another island to come here for a chance to make enough money to give her daughter and her sick father a better life. Unlike some who are duped into sex work or sold by family members, Lisa knew what she was getting herself into.
Last night, as I was finishing a conversation with another girl in the brothel, I spotted Lisa. She was crying. I made my way over to her, and she stood and all but collapsed into my arms sobbing her heart out. I asked her what was going on. “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t want to do this anymore. But I have a debt and the brothel has security cameras and guards…”
Through her tears, we talked about her situation, one that had gone from fairly straightforward prostitution to slavery. This is debt bondage, and it’s a common way people are enslaved. Lisa’s situation is even trickier because her recruiter knows where her family lives and the threat of violence against them keeps her from running.
I have Lisa’s information, and I am following it up with some contacts that I have. But to be honest, I have little hope that it will matter. This isn’t the first or fifth time we’ve encountered this exact situation, and unless we can somehow prove that the person is under 18, the police are unresponsive. They consider the “contract” the girl signs to be binding even though prostitution is illegal in Indonesia and debt bondage is illegal everywhere. In essence, hundreds of girls and women (or perhaps more) in Bali remain sex slaves, forced to service up to 20 buyers every night, every week. They have no options and no expectation that there is anyone who can or will help them.
Lisa cried for another half hour, her head on my shoulder as we sat side-by-side on the brothel bench while I did my best to avoid the eyes of the buyers on the other side of the window at the front of the room. Finally, her friend joined us and offered to re-do Lisa’s makeup. It was time for our team to leave. Before we went, Lisa picked up a snake fruit from the basket in the corner and handed it to me. I thanked her and with a last hug, said goodbye.
I’ve been staring at this snake fruit on my desk all day. It may be one of the most precious things I’ve been given. In Indonesia, friendship is usually recognized in a very tangible way, through the exchange of items. When I gave Lisa a slip of paper with contact information, I was offering her my friendship. When she gave me the snake fruit, she was offering hers. What is probably more significant is that this was not a free gift for her. The inflated price of that fruit went into a ledger as a part of the debt that she must pay off in order to go home.
I ate it today, the snake fruit. It was a holy moment, and I realized that I was partaking in the Eucharist. This is the body and blood of Christ, broken and given to you… Like Lisa’s snake fruit, Jesus’ gift of grace and forgiveness cost him an incredible amount of suffering. And like Lisa’s snake fruit, there was far more significance in the gift than what meets the eye. His gift is also friendship. This is the body and blood of Christ, broken and given to you… so what does it mean to be called the Body? For me, it means sitting on a hard bench, head bowed with a weeping Daughter of my King, unable to give promises but able to be her friend and share the grief of the moment, whispering prayers in her ears that Jesus will intervene and do another miracle.