On the coast of Thailand, there is a medium sized city with one of the largest red-light districts in the country. Packed into about a quarter of a mile are dozens of brothels, strip clubs and go-go bars. Thousands of tourists visit this area every week to see the lights and to buy sex.
In the middle of this street an alley cuts away from the main road. Down this alley you will find a large go-go bar called *Night*. There are plenty of seats and plenty of girls…dancing…waiting…ready to be sold.
I walked to this club with two other investigators from The Exodus Road. At this point, the three of us had been in a dozen clubs together.
It’s always the same. The bouncer pulls a curtain to the side, and the loud music overwhelms us as we walk into the dark. At this point in the week, I’m used to the sights and sounds (and maybe a little numb to it).
I instantly see Fawn.
In a room full of girls made up to look young, she stood out as the youngest. I never get used to seeing kids in this setting. It crushes me every time.
So I sit down and pretend to take it all in, while I give myself a moment. Eventually, I make eye contact with her and gesture for her to come and sit with me. She smiles and comes right over, asking right away if I would buy her a drink.
The three of us sat in that club for about 45 minutes talking with Fawn, some other girls and the Mamasan (who oversees the girls). It was a conversation that I’d had dozens of times that week. With the help of Google translate we talk about a lot of things.
I try to bring some humanness to this dehumanizing place, holding her hand instead of the usual groping she experiences, asking her about herself, encouraging her about her broken English, letting her teach me a few Thai phrases, complimenting her intelligence.
But there are always a few key questions mixed into the conversation.
“What’s your name?” “Fawn”
“Where are you from?” “Isaan”
“How long have you worked here?” “2 weeks”
“Do you like working here?” “not really but the money is good.”
“Can you come to our hotel?” “I stay here. There is a room upstairs.”
“How much for short time” “1500 bar fine 3000 for lady”
“Are you here every day?” “yes.”
“If we come back tomorrow will you still be here?” “yes.”
All of this is caught on a cleverly disguised camera. After a few drinks, we make our excuses and move on to the next club.
We walk slowly, because we’re torn. So glad that we found Fawn. But so heartbroken that we found Fawn.
This work pulls your heart in a million different directions. In three more clubs that night, we got more footage, we found more girls, but none were as young as Fawn.
In the morning we review and edit the footage. The camera does great in low light.
On screen you see me smiling and laughing with Fawn. It’s hard to watch myself in these moments. Something about this night’s footage makes me tear up a little. She’s so young. And I see myself playing a role – laughing, talking, joking – like it’s not awful. I’m convincing enough, but it is hard to watch myself.
And it is hard to watch her. She smiles and laughs too… until I look away. And when she thinks I won’t notice, her mask cracks and for just a moment you can see the deep sadness that she carries with her. The camera catches all of it. And on the screen, I see her take a big sip of her drink and put her smile back on.
Fawn isn’t wearing that smile because she likes sex. And she isn’t wearing it because she likes me. She wears that smile for one reason… she’s poor. She’s desperate.
And in this world, the poor and the desperate are exploited and enslaved. She has been manipulated into this life. And from where she sits, she likely doesn’t see any options. So she takes a drink, and puts on the face she thinks I want.
It is a sad charade. A pretense designed to use Fawn’s smile and her body to get money. Her traffickers care only about what she can produce for them. And most nights, her customers only care about the momentary pleasure that her body can bring.
But last night was different.
She may not have noticed the difference, but last night wasn’t like all the other nights she had spent in that club.
Last night she was seen.
Last night someone was looking for her.
Last night someone cared about her for reasons other than what she could produce.
Last night someone was hoping to give her something instead of take from her.
Last night was the beginning of her journey to freedom… hopefully… please God make it so.
Fawn’s case is open. An amazing group of Thai staff will continue to look for her. When the evidence is clear they will bring her face to the anti-trafficking police. In the best case, a raid will happen, and Fawn will start the difficult journey of healing and restoration.
As I edited the footage that morning and pray for her freedom, I’m reminded of how much I love the gospel. Experiences like this have made me fall in love with the gospel again.
When I was younger my understanding of the gospel was rooted in the epistles. It was about substitutionary atonement. It was about forgiveness from sin and freedom from the threat of hell.
I still believe all of that.
But as I’ve gotten older, I have spent more time reading Jesus words about the gospel.
Jesus talks about a kingdom. A kingdom where God reigns. A kingdom where “good news is proclaimed to the poor and freedom is proclaimed for the prisoners.” A kingdom where Jesus will “set the oppressed free.” According to Jesus, the gospel includes forgiveness for sin, but his gospel is not finished until all is made right.
The gospel of Jesus is not finished until Fawn is free. Free from exploitation. Free from rape. Free from having to put on that fake smile and please men who see her as less than a person.
In one version of Matthew 11 Jesus sends a message to his friend John. He tells him that wherever Jesus goes:
The blind see,
The lame walk,
Lepers are cleansed,
The deaf hear,
The dead are raised,
The wretched of the earth learn that God is on their side.
I love that because of the gospel, through grace my sins are forgiven.
But I long for the full gospel. The one that Jesus talks about. The one where the wretched of the earth wake up to discover God has been on their side all along.
I don’t know what will happen to Fawn.
There are a lot of variables that will shape her future. The work of the Exodus Road is not always happy endings. But with all my heart, I believe the gospel… that God is on Fawn’s side. The Exodus Road is on her side, and at Pulpit Rock, we want to be on her side too.
If you haven’t already, please pray about participating in Venture – this year’s Christmas Offering. If you do, you support the rescue of girls and boys like Fawn, as well as some other amazing projects.
These projects reflect the full gospel.
These projects align us with a God who is on the side of the wretched.
May we all stand with him on their side.
Written by Jonathan Cleveland