Today, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ruthie. I’ll start by telling you how I met Ruthie about three years ago. (*Disclaimer: This is a rather long post, but it’s an important topic, so I wanted to do it justice – no pun intended.)
I guess, technically, I met Ruthie before this encounter, since we attended the same then small (now rather large, by SF standards) church, Reality SF. I know that we had talked, since we both had young children (mine was a newborn, hers was a year older) but we hadn’t really connected on that deeper level yet. One night, we were out to celebrate a mutual friend’s birthday at Cafe Divine in North Beach. Ruthie and I were seated next to one another and I casually asked her what she did (work-wise.) I was in no way prepared for the answer that I got that night.
Ruthie told me that she founded an organization called Because Justice Matters, which served women who experience isolation and exploitation by taking a stand against modern-day slavery, domestic violence, discrimination against immigrants and economic inequality. While the latter three were not new to me (especially having graduated from an all-girls Catholic school where “justice” was a central theme in our education and having a close friend who is a social worker that sees the effects of domestic violence all too often), the first one was completely new to me and our discussion led to an education about something that I knew absolutely nothing about.
When Ruthie mentioned modern-day slavery, I nodded and immediately pictured the foreign sweatshops that we all hear so much about in the news these days, but Ruthie quickly dispelled that image. Apparently, she meant slaves right here. In America. Honestly, I was stunned. I mean, we live in a modern age where technology is prevalent and people are aware and things are fairly transparent. There’s really no way that slaves exist in this country, right? I mean, where? I’ll never forget her answer…right here in San Francisco. I was taken aback by this notion and was, quite frankly, a little skeptical. And then, she began to tell me about the sex-trafficking industry in America and again, right here in San Francisco.
Now, having known Ruthie for over three years and knowing far more about what she does and also because of the recent media interest in and coverage of this industry, I can barely remember how I felt sitting there listening to all of this for the first time. I sat there, stunned and sickened by what she was telling me. I won’t recount the stories here because they deserve more detail than I can give on a blog, but I will share with you a sentence from her that stuck with me and then I’ll let her tell you in her own words what BJM does. When we were talking about various aspects of the sex trafficking world, I naively asked her if it wasn’t true that some women had simply chosen that lifestyle and legitimately wanted to be there. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “You cannot disassociate violence from the sex industry, because that industry is all about commodifying and exploiting women. With control always comes the need to enforce that control. Violence.”
I have to tell you, friends, that was hard for me to hear and my heart aches for the women that Ruthie serves. I realize that this is a tough topic and isn’t fun, but I also want to introduce you to someone who is getting in the trenches and doing something about it, because there is great hope in that. My hope is that you know something about this problem in America and that you are committed, like Ruthie, to doing something about it. One way to do that is to support her in her mission to change the face of San Francisco for women, either by giving to her ministry, by serving along side her or by partnering with her in praying for these women who are precious to the Lord.
Without further adieu, here is Ruthie’s story…
I can remember the first time I visited a metropolitan city. I was 13 and on a school trip to Paris, just a short trip from my home in rural England. To this day I can still recall standing on a spot, overlooking the Paris skyline at night. All my friends were taking photos and laughing, but I found myself distanced from the crowd. I wept that night as I looked at this beautiful city. I was embarrassed and confused about what could possibly be happening inside of me. I wasn’t sad, but rather moved by what I saw and what I felt. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood that in that moment I was feeling God’s love for that city, which would later propel me to more cities of the world.
The years that followed were a huge time of growth for me. My heart, having been stirred by that urban skyline, was being molded, challenged and carved by Jesus, leaving me with no other desire than to reach those who had been abused, broken and neglected in an urban context. In my mind, faith was always about action. If Christ had come to reach us by entering into our human world, it was clear to me that my response to this redemption was to reach others who also needed help. I loved how the gospels in the Bible were filled with Jesus defending women and engaging with those that others saw as unworthy or unlovable. This was the kind of Christianity that motivated my choices: a God who loved us before we loved Him.
I knew that a regular career was not for me, and I arrived in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district right after I graduated high school. I shared a studio apartment with 3 other girls as part of a training school with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), and we were located right across the street from GLIDE church. My first day, I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I was jet-lagged and experiencing tremendous culture shock. My thick British accent caused me frustration as I tried to communicate with the people I met outside my door and I thought God must have sent the wrong girl to San Francisco.
One day I looked out my window and the first sight I saw was a young woman standing on the street, prostituting herself to passing cars. My heart broke but although I was terrified of this new country and huge city, I knew I was in the right place. Within a few months, I met a young woman and her two children who were living on the streets. This was my first encounter with homeless children and looking back, this family affected me more than I realized. Their loneliness, isolation and fear kept me up at night, thinking through options and resources I could offer them. I began to meet more and more women in difficult circumstances and when faced with stories of their trauma, abandonment and abuse, I so often felt inadequate as I didn’t know what to offer them. I only knew that God had called me here and therefore He must have a plan to help them.
Thirteen years ago, no one I knew was talking about human trafficking and exploitation, but I was seeing it. I just didn’t know what to call it. One night I met Shantel, a young and very attractive girl who was regularly on the streets looking for customers. She had a daughter and always asked for prayer. I would look for her every week, share a warm snack and remind her that she was not alone and that we cared for her. I still wonder where she is now and if she’s alive. I didn’t understand then what I do now: that many of these girls are controlled and owned by pimps, and feel that there is no way out. I clearly remember the first time I saw a pimp take a girl by the throat and throw her up against a wall. Pinned against the cold, hard concrete, I saw the fear in her eyes and felt the anger in my own gut. Something inside of me made a commitment to take action – I just didn’t know what to do.
During my first 8 years in San Francisco I also helped lead students overseas to Asia. I worked hard to design our trips to include outreach to women, as this was so dear to my heart. As result, I spent a lot of time in the center of Bangkok’s infamous sex industry. I started to grasp the global gravity of the exploitation of women and before long, started to research how some of these very same girls were ending up in San Francisco’s massage parlors. It began to feel like everywhere I looked, I saw women who were abused, neglected and treated like objects. I completed training with a local domestic violence agency, and this only furthered my desire to support abused women in more practical ways. It was from this place that Because Justice Matters was founded over 4 years ago.
BJM is committed to serving women and children in San Francisco. The Tenderloin neighborhood offers few women-only locations that provide a welcoming, safe place to rest. It is vital for our ladies to have a place to avoid the hassle from men seeking sex or companionship, escape the chaos and violence of the streets, and have a place to retreat to when tired or afraid. Every week we open our doors and welcome 30 to 40 women for a free manicure outreach. Connecting with a lady over a hand massage is invaluable, as we listen to their stories and desire to build long-term relationships. Ladies walk through our doors after a long day in prostitution, seeking a break from pimps and customers. Most of our ladies are isolated and afraid, as they deal with various forms of mental illness. Their traumas range from childhood sexual abuse, severe violence, homelessness, and prostitution. As regular faces wait in line for our doors to open, our Monday nail outreach is more than just a brief break from the streets; manicure Mondays has become a place where community has been built. For many, these few hours comprise the only family time they know. For all, this is their community. This is their safe place. For more information on this outreach and how you can volunteer, please click here.
We are committed to opening a women’s center in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. The vision of the center is to provide a physical location for the programs and services that BJM offers women and their families, fostering a deeper sense of community and enabling us to expand our work and increase our relationships and connections. Having our own space will allow us to launch new support groups, Bible studies, a kids reading corner and facilitate larger parenting and ESL classes. We are currently under construction on a space located at Ellis and Leavenworth streets and will be opening the doors on “The Well” late this Summer. For more information on this project, check out this video of Ruthie talking about BJM’s vision for 2013. For more info about other BJM outreaches, please click here.
Every year BJM touches the lives of hundreds: their children and their families, and with every person I am more aware that it is Christ that works in and through us rather than any great talent, ability or gifts that we have to offer. I am moved by the thought that God cares so deeply for the women of this city, for those who are exploited, isolated, neglected and abused. I am moved by the fact that He called me – He calls us – to love and give and lay our lives down, just as Christ did for us.
annual Family Fun Fest in the Tenderloin
grilling at the annual Family Fun Fest in the TL
children playing in the Tenderloin