“You’ve been celibate for 35 years?!” She raised the question in utter shock. “I’ve been celibate for two weeks,” she then proudly shared.
It was my first time in a room alone with a young woman rescued from life as a call girl in a large city. Once we got past my not being married and not having kids, it didn’t take her long to figure out I was a sister. Contrary to what some people might think, women in her situation are very intelligent. They have to be; they are survivors.
I was first introduced to the tragedy of sex trafficking at a regional Leadership Conference of Women Religious meeting where a speaker told us there was great need for anti-trafficking efforts in our greater Toledo area. At a follow-up meeting, five of us from different communities founded STOP! (Stop Trafficking of Persons).
Some of us volunteered at a local agency that worked with both teen and adult women who were trafficked or involved in prostitution. The teens had time on their side. Most of the adult women, however, were trafficked as children and had simply fallen through the cracks, making their way through life the only way they knew how, as street-level prostitutes. If not given drugs by their traffickers, they often turned to them later, sometimes selling them. Or they became experts in theft. Women often came to us, went back out into street, and came back again. Every time we welcomed them.
That is where I met Lee Ann Campbell, who was trafficked as a child by a relative. When she was in her mid-teens, her trafficker died, and she turned to prostitution to support herself.
Lee Ann grew up thinking God and the devil were the same because: “What kind of God would allow this to happen to a child?” Lee Ann had lost custody of her five children and was in jail for multiple charges when one of her cellmates encouraged her to take a Bible brought by a local church group. When she was released, she began attending church and found the God who, rather than allowing it, had suffered with her. Lee Ann now allows God to use her experience for others. She was hired by the agency that once helped her to mentor women with similar experiences. She got all five of her children back and has raised them beautifully.
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Lee Ann had a dream to directly reach women still “working” on the street, and I wanted to help her. We both left the agency and went out on the street to meet the adult women she understood so very well. We gave them personal care packages, wholesome snacks, water, and socks. But most importantly, in Lee Ann’s words, we “loved on them.”
That is how Rahab’s Heart, a drop-in center where women can come for respite and renewal, was born. We are named for the prostitute in the book of Joshua who gave the Israeli spies safe haven in exchange for her family’s protection. Rahab’s Heart provides food, showers, a change of clothing, and basic personal care items. But our most direct service takes place on the streets where we build relationships without judgement.
When I began this ministry, I was surprised by how often the women I met would bring up God. Many of the women attend church in their neighborhoods. One day, when I took a woman to her family home to pick up some items for her new apartment, she found her Bible where she had marked Psalm 17:8: “Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings.”
Another who came in to get personal supplies brought two new women with her. “Sister Sandy,” she said, “One of those women hates me, but I had to bring her here. That’s what the Bible tells us to do, right? To serve our neighbor?”
Personally, I have struggled with the privilege that being part of a religious community has gifted me. I have never known what it’s like to struggle to survive day-by-day. And yet without the support and blessing of my sisters in community, I would never have connected with my sisters on the street. Every moment I spend at Rahab’s Heart keeps me real.
Last Christmas, 26 women, children, and volunteers held hands in a rather misshapen circle around the three rooms of the drop-in center. We had not expected so many, and when I prayed, I secretly asked Jesus to perform his miracle of loaves and fishes on our potluck dinner. We served small portions of everything. No one complained, everyone was fed, and there were enough leftovers to take to some of the women who could not attend. Since then, the women we work with at Rahab’s Heart have started volunteering to say the prayer before meals. It is often like being in church — hearing words of praise and thanks flowing through these women who for this moment in time, know they are in the heart of God. We, the volunteers, feel blessed to be in such good company.
Sister Sandy shared her story with Busted Halo as part of the “Sister to All Campaign,” raising awareness of the powerful work of Catholic sisters in the United States. New research from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation examines how the U.S. public currently perceives women religious.