In the summer of 2003, I was overcome beyond my own understanding with a vision of creating some kind of outreach ministry for sex workers on the streets of Portland. I had just returned from seminary, where during a summer internship in London I experienced a street ministry to prostituted women which changed me. It changed my understanding of sex work and it changed my understanding of coming alongside people on the margins as a follower of Jesus.
When I got back to Portland I looked around to learn what kind of ministry was already being offered to women who made their living on the street. The answer at that time was: not much. I made a connection with another recent seminary graduate who was at that time assigned to Sts. Peter & Paul Episcopal Church on 82nd Avenue. She had a similar vision. Together we dreamed up something we first called a “midnight mass for working women.” Our dream began to take shape into something else, something that eventually became Rahab’s Sisters, a ministry of presence and hospitality to women on the margins.
In the process of developing this ministry, I met a man who ran the only other drop-in center for women in prostitution. In my mind and in my writing I always call him Jeremiah–that’s not his name but he’s a Jeremiah kind of guy: relentlessly honest, critical, and faithful to his cause. Jeremiah had started a program similar to what I wanted to start, but it was difficult to talk with him because he was so incredibly mistrustful of anyone who was part of a church or wanted to do outreach through a church. He had been emotionally damaged by the church as a child and many of the women he worked with had suffered emotional and physical abuse in the name of organized religion. I finally got him to talk with me, and I and my co-conspirators visited with him several times.
In our last meeting with Jeremiah before we opened our doors, he gave us a final piece of advice and a final benediction. The advice was to buy ourselves a giant golf umbrella so that if it was raining we could still stop and offer shelter and conversation to women we met as we walked up and down 82nd Avenue. The benediction was this: When you see the women the way that Jesus saw, they’ll know it, and that is how you’ll take part in their healing. When you see the women the way that Jesus saw, they’ll know it.
The volunteers who staffed Rahab’s Sisters began each Friday night gathering with prayer. Our prayer was always for God to open our eyes, that we might see the women who needed to be seen by us. We meant this in at least two ways: it is easy to walk down 82nd and not see any vulnerable women. They are invisible the same way that outcasts are always invisible. But they are there. Like bird-watching, seeing them takes vision, and love, and practice.
The other kind of seeing we prayed for was to see them as the full, complete, complicated, multifaceted, beloved human beings they are. We prayed to be able to see as Jesus saw.
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Jesus, help us to ever look outward to the edges where you live, and give us grace to see with your eyes, that we might be healed of our blindness, and enter your kingdom.