Rising from the Dead

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Over the past couple of days, I found myself driving across state lines into the town of Ft. Smith, AR to retreat at St. Scholastica Monastery under the direction of Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, a Benedictine nun, an author, a sage. I was given her book, “Seven Sacred Pauses” by my friend Anna for my 40th. Anna is a soul sister and we’ve traversed several terrains (both geographically, and that of the soul) together. Anna decided it would be great fun for us to participate in Sister Macrina’s retreat in light of my crossing over the second half of life. “To adventure!” we cried!  These two Enneagram 1s couldn’t wait to get a little time away together and let ourselves loose. Anna texts, “I just read the fine print, this is a silent retreat. Do you still want to drive 6 hours to stare at each other and not talk?”  We howelled then both decided our noisy lives could probably learn from a few days at the St. Scholastica Retreat Center and Monastery. This would be a first for us both. 

At our first session, before we enter into the silence, we are greeted by Sister Macrina. She is 78 and currently hobbling around with a boot on her foot and smile on her face. She is tall and thin, with long arms and hands that gracefully whirl and bend outward toward us when she talks. Sister Macrina is quite the punchy nun: “I named this retreat ‘Standing in the Presence’ as I want us to learn about the Benedictine way, God is everywhere, you know?  But really, I could have easily have titled this retreat ‘The Art of Shutting Up.” She throws her head back for a laugh and we erupt.  She continues, “Words are the least important part of prayer. God is not gonna have a bad day if He never hears from you again.” She grins and we laugh some more. She quiets her face, her eyes focus intensely: “You all came here for something that only the silence can teach you. What is the storm you carry? Can you name your chaos? Are you living awake? Most importantly, you begin at Beloved.”

Every session she presents the words of saints and poets, artists and contemplatives. She gives us enough fuel to withstand the Sahara Desert of silence and yet my “monkey mind” wants to get back to flitting and flirting with chaos as soon as I exit to my dorm room. Just past our tiny “Call the Midwife”-esque kitchen there’s Merton Lounge. Think of your college dormitory social room that hadn’t been renovated since 1955, complete with well preserved floral, velveteen furniture and builder’s grade carpet. There is zero pretense or performance here. This place does not need any fixing up in order to rehabilitate weary souls. I pick up a compilation of Thomas Merton’s works called “Love and Living”. I curl up in my provided dorm recliner (which is quite comfy) and within the first few pages I am undone:

“Education..means more than learning; and for such education, one is awarded no degree. 
One graduates by rising from the dead. 
Learning to be oneself means, therefore, learning to die in order to live. It means discovering in the ground of one’s being a 'self' which is ultimate and indestructible, which not only survives the destruction of all other more superficial selves but finds its identity affirmed and clarified by their destruction.“


Rising from the dead is a lot like “awakening hope”, we say that a lot around JSL...it is a mantra that means “to rouse a feeling of trust from slumber”. Awakening hope is a resurrection. I can’t get over the resonance in my bones. Merton is describing the “education” we learn through the Gospel work of JSL. Not only our ACCESS participants, but each of us who are a part of our family - staff, Alliance Partners, and any volunteer willing to look in the myriad of faces (icon’s of God) and see themselves there.

So many of us have buried superficial selves, those masks we have worn to protect our ego structures. I still have grave-dirt on my shoes. How many selves have we developed just trying to avoid their painful destruction? There is a LOT that gets buried during ACCESS, the grief is palpable. Our women are exiting a life that affirmed them, even as it stole. A life that filled the ego while draining the spirit. An identity that protected, while marring their beauty. 

Through ACCESS, we must welcome the grief, and honor it, as the old dies and the feeling of trust begins to wake. A new creation is born in each woman. And at the bottom of the floor of her soul, my soul, there is hope. There is a true self, someone that has long been inside of us that we haven’t known...our inner woman...our truest identity. That woman can rise from the ground because, in that place, where sorrow dug the pit for old ways to be buried, there stood Love. Strong and pure. Gentle and good. Jesus, at the very depth of the hell we embodied.  He rises with her, and she in Him.  And it’s not just the great cloud of witnesses who affirm her Christ-like resurrection, it’s the very destruction that tore the veil of the temple and destroyed it so a better one could exist. The thunder of death becomes a resounding applause. Breakthrough is a loud ruckus in the silence of our souls, like an intergalactic battle underneath our very skin. 

This fall we welcome at least 4 confirmed applicants to our third round of ACCESS! There is potential for 10 total. Our former graduates will now participate as “Big Sister” figures, mentoring and providing support to the women who will come behind them. This kind of resurrection is no small task for ACCESS students. They need your prayers, your financial support, and Alliance Partners. We are still looking for AP’s (Alliance Partners), women in the community to walk hand in hand with ACCESS students. AP’s are trained, they are NOT counselors or mentors per say, they are available to talk, meet, pray, lunch and play together, expanding our students' connections in Waco. 

Financially, this course requires $5000 per woman. Remember, she is paid a stipend as she shows up for classes, like a scholarship. If your church, Sunday School class, or corporation would like to sponsor a woman through ACCESS as she transitions from a life of sexual exploitation, please email kellie@jesussaidlove.com . 

Would you stand in this space with us as we create an environment for death, resurrection, and ascension? Would YOU take part in awakening hope at JSL? 

In LOVE! - Emily
 

If God is for us...

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(Compiled of true stories.)

She’s 15 years old. From the time she was born, she had a roof over her head, food in the fridge, and drugs in the home. Her dad was involved in a gang and her mom in prostitution. In fact, every woman in her family, whom she can recall, has sold their body or become involved in turning others out for sex. They’re a tight-knit fam, the blood runs thick and so does the eyeliner. It’s harder to see light through a darkened window. God is for her.

Abortion #1, then #2, seemed like the best options as a teenager, but by the time pregnancy #3 rolled around, she decided she wanted to keep the baby. Afterall, she was 20, had a husband now, someone her Papi approved. Her new man promised she’d never have to “work” again, selling her body to strangers; but his touch grew rougher, his stare more sinister. During her pregnancy, his eyes dimmed and he spent most nights out. She was no longer desirable. Her belly and heart swelled for love as her husband grew cold. The baby was born alongside his rage. Seeing his child meant facing himself, and for a tormented little boy in a man’s body, all you know to do is bully, throw, hit. Repeat. Abuse will breed abuse until truest Love intervenes and finds a fruit-bearing partner. And still, God is for her… and God is for him. 

So, she hides, she manipulates, she pleasures him... anything but run. She knows if she runs, he will find her, and if not him, her father. This is a life you’re not allowed to leave. After baby #2 arrives, the burns, bruises, and rapes aren’t exclusive to her. The children now endure his hardened anger turned lust - he has now defiled his own children. A wellness visit brings to light the trauma and the physician informs CPS. Her gut turns sour, she is sickened. She didn’t know what he was doing during their bathtime. She is ashamed and disgraced, guilt-ridden for not trying her best to flee. But fleeing would have meant endangering her children, fleeing would have meant no shelter, no money, no food. Her own family would have found her and taken her back to him. Or, should she have made a run for it?  There was danger on both sides. And still, God is for them.

She’s able to leave under protective services and move across the country to Waco, Texas. CPS has arranged foster care for her children because they’re unsure of her ability to choose a safe environment. She’s totally alone now and has a GED, but no job experience other than prostitution. Hardwired, she heads to the one place she knows she can earn money for her kids - the strip club. Three years there and she’s practically running the club and beating the same block she used to back home. She’s figured a way to ditch her pimp and become the pimp. She begins turning out other women and has landed herself back in a life filled with violent men, sex-crazed strangers, and gang wars. Her tattoos share the story, and we ask about them on every strip club outreach. Little by little, inch by inch, we learn of her life, her pain, her sorrow and the shame she now carries. Forever, God is for us.

One night, we get a call - she’s pregnant... and in jail. Busted. The charge: violation of a city ordinance within a sexually oriented business. CPS is on her tail. This is her rock bottom, and she tells us:

 “I. Want. Out. I am done.” 

Fast forward, I am sitting in a hospital room staring at a brand new life, her brand new start. CPS told us both that while they want to have hope for her, she is not a hopeful case. I am warned, “Emily, do you understand that the men she deals with are violent gang members in town? You understand that she continues to go back to them?” 

“Yes, ma’am,” I respond. I’m not sure if the caseworker is scared of the men, or scared for our girl, or both. But, I remember Father Greg Boyle's words: "Community will always trump gang any day."

“I completely understand.” I continue, “And I know some of these men. But here’s what I also know: Her motivation lies in 6 pounds of new life that is swaddled up and nursing at her breast. Right now, in the present moment, we will build on that motivation and encourage her to see all of the beauty and goodness of this new baby. It is her only chance.  And, while I know these gang members are violent, I am not afraid. What we have found is that when our women begin to make healthy choices and remove themselves from this lifestyle, the men don’t look too hard for them. It’s not always the case, but there’s usually more than enough vulnerable women to take their bait.”  This sounds harsh coming out of my mouth. 

The caseworker and I agree to wrap around her as best as our arms can hold.

As she builds a new life for this baby, she has the hope of rebuilding the neglected ruins of her own childhood. This will be hard work, and it’s a bumpy road, but Christ is a skilled craftsman honed from the Supreme Architect. Jesus looks for collaborators, people willing to plant, plow, grow, and harvest fruit. Mothers are primed gardeners and babies are fertile soil. 

Hell will come against this resurrection: setbacks, poverty, addiction, the past, anything and everything may be thrown their way. But, one thing I know for sure: NOTHING can stand against the love of Jesus. Nothing. Because, “If God is for us, who can stand against us?” Romans 8:31

God is for her. 
God is for this baby.
God is for you.
God is for us.
 

Backpage, Commercial Sex and Women's Rights

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April was a big month in the sex industry. Backpage WAS an online site (like Craigslist) that was largely used to sell sex (an online sex marketplace). The New York Times reported that by 2014, Backpage brought in $135 million in revenue with affiliates spanning the globe. In 2016, Texas and California authorities raided the company’s Dallas headquarters and arrested chief executive Carl Ferrer and other former company executives on pimping-related charges. The judge in the case ruled the website was protected by the First Amendment, and it was not liable for the speech of third parties. In 2017, three young women brought a lawsuit against the company accusing Backpage of facilitating their forced prostitution.  But, on April 6, 2018 U.S. Law Enforcement Agencies shut down Backpage.com after many years of complaints and finally an all out investigation where criminal charges of human trafficking brought the house down.  “California's attorney general, Kamala Harris, says that Backpage was ‘purposefully and unlawfully designed’ as an online brothel. Her office alleges that the ‘vast majority’ of Backpage's profits come from fees paid by users posting ads in the "adult" section.”

Bradley Myles, chief executive of Polaris, an anti-slavery group that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline said, “Shutting down the largest online U.S. marketplace for sex trafficking will dramatically reduce the profitability of forcing people into the commercial sex trade, at least in the short term”. 

You could practically hear abolitionists rejoicing everywhere on April 6th. Anti-trafficking orgs, social justice ministries, and concerned individuals shared and reposted the exciting news of Backpage’s shutdown. But the next day, another voice rose up, and it came from women, mainly the voice of feminist, politically left, white women. I’m talking about The Women’s March.

On April 7, 2018, the day after Backpage was seized,  The Women’s March, tweeted: “The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info.”  

Five days after this Backpage endorsement, CEO of Backpage, Carl Ferrer, pled guilty to money laundering, facilitating prostitution in Texas, and human trafficking.

But many pro-sex work advocates are saying that the human trafficking narrative and abolitionist movement is a conservative sham that harms women. For 20 years, Laura Agustin, an author who studies the field of sex work and trafficking, told The Motherboard, an online media magazine,  “There's no federal prostitution law, but US authorities can use trafficking law to hunt people down,” meaning investigations can be done under federal human trafficking laws, while the actual charges are brought under state prostitution laws. “However, trafficking offences are hard to prosecute. Facilitating prostitution is easy. Thus the charges are made in states where prostitution is illegal.” Trafficking is often used as a “social justice facade,” she said.

There is no doubt that women in the commercial sex industry have rights, and indeed they are human rights because all humans have rights now matter what they “do”. And yes, some workers we know through the ministry of JSL, have told us, they used Backpage (along with many other online apps) to sell sex and contact clients safely.  So for the women who are choosing to engage in prostitution through Backpage, its shutdown created a bind. 

However, the crisis isn’t that Backpage shut down, the crisis isn’t even that Backpage was a platform for prostitution AND human trafficking. The crisis is that we are living in a culture where both women and men can sell their bodies for cash, and that many are calling it “okay”. 

There is absolutely a difference between prostitution and human sex trafficking. Is there a correlation? Certainly. Is it difficult, especially in an adult victim who’s been in the “life” for years, to know how to define “force, fraud or coercion” into the sex industry? Absolutely.  Are there women who call themselves strippers, prostitutes, and adult escorts who are also trafficking victims? Yes. Are there women who were pimped out at a young age, broke away from their pimp and chose to “work for themselves” by becoming a prostitute, stripper, escort, or pimp themselves? Indeed. But, there are also women who claim to like being purchased for sex and enjoy what they do. For these women, the shutting down of Backpage has imposed a problem. 

I received a message from one woman who told me, “Emily, now that Backpage has shut down I have no choice, I have no hope, I will be broke and have no money. Guess I’ll have to go find a pimp and work the streets. That is my only option.”

I reminded her that she had a choice and that we were here to help. That selling her body for sex is, in fact, an illegal act in our state and she didn’t “have” to do it. But what are her options? I will tell you. Last year she tried to leave prostitution and when she was released from jail, getting sober, and ready for life change she had a slew of hurdles to jump. She had been involved with some really violent people, she was also violent herself and racked up an assault charge and a charge of a terroristic threat. All forms of her identification had been stolen. She needed a job so we helped her to find one (talk about pulling strings), but she was severely overweight and could not handle being on her feet all day long. She found a willing friend to live with because she didn’t qualify for many shelters or recovery homes due to her violent charges, and she had zero documentation to apply for housing. She was also smoking weed daily which booted her out of the one place she could have applied to live. She didn’t want to go to rehab. She broke down to me, “I’m used to doing my make-up and lying in a bed all day long, I’m not made for this kind of work. This sucks. I don’t want to do it. Adulting is too hard. Plus, this minimum wage job is shit, I am used to making $200 an hour.” So, she quit her legal job. She didn’t want a back brace, new shoes, or a new bra that would give her back support. She didn’t want to lose weight, she wanted to return to the life: smoke and sell sex all day from a hotel room. And she did. Now that Backpage has shut down, she is back at square one.

I learned that she was orphaned at an early age and her adoptive family never “got” her. She rebelled early on but said that she had a hunger for spiritual things. Her family was conservative, church going, but eventually cut her off because of her choice to use drugs. The sex industry was appealing because she could make quick money to fund her habit. It doesn’t take long for the line between who you are and what you’re doing become blurred, it can for anyone in any job. But the implications of identifying yourself as a human commodity does something different on the psyche, the soul.  

1978, the year I was born, the term “sex worker” was coined by Carol Leigh, a.k.a The Scarlot Harlot and author of “Unrepentant Whore”. Coining the term sex work was a pro-sex work movement to help legitimize the industry. It argues that using the term “sex worker” rather than “prostitute” shows ownership over the individual’s career choice. That sex work is different than sexual exploitation, whereby a person is coerced into committing sex acts. 

Some people use the term sex worker to avoid invoking the stigma associated with the word prostitute. Using the term sex worker also encompasses a variety of occupations rather than deeming all people in the sex industry prostitutes. In addition, it is argued that choosing to use the term sex worker rather than prostitute shows agency in the career choice. This movement to legitimize the sex industry is pushing to legalize prostitution, claiming to make it safer for women. 

But here’s my issue with legalizing sex work or prostitution: even if we deem it an acceptable choice, regulate it, and destigmatize it, in the end, prostitution still harms women, and therefore all of us. Why? We have tried this. Prostitution, from ancient to modern times, has been legalized then criminalized, stigmatized and even spiritualized through temple prostitution - all to serve the lopsided system of patriarchy. Name one society that has thrived by legalizing prostitution. Tell me how girls’ education and sexual assault stats are doing in that country, city, and community. Tell me how STD’s, infertility, and reproductive cancers are going. Tell me how mental health issues related to women are faring. Talk to me about poverty and who is at the bottom. Tell me about drug addiction and drug crimes. Talk to me about California and the porn industry and the nightmare they are currently in as they are attempting to regulate it (not to mention STD rates among girls 15-25). Or let’s take a look at modern city who legalized brothels and is now in a societal collapse: Amsterdam. “The Dutch legalised their brothel industry in the year 2000. The government promised that this would result in safety for the women and put an end to trafficking. It claimed that everything would be above board, safe, and clean. The opposite happened. Sex tourism is now a major industry, with British men being one group of Europeans visiting the city to pay for sex. A number of punters I have interviewed told me that they wouldn’t have dreamt of using prostituted women back home, but that being in Holland gave them permission to do it.” 

I think about my daughters, their generation already culturally conditioned to believe that their body is an object for sex. What if I told them that while an education is of some value, the way they’ll make the most money in the future has everything to do with their anatomy?  What if this entire time that I have been telling them not compare themselves to Kim Kardashian, not to worry about their thigh gap, make-up, hair, social media; but instead to focus on her mind and heart?  What if a decent living in their future relies on sex work?  What if all the women who have grown their brains, earned degrees, run companies, created businesses, fought in court and in pulpits, or pounded the pavement of their communities to serve in public office were told by our culture: “Actually, you’ll make more selling your body.” 

Who does this serve? Men, but only the short site, not in the long run. It would be a regressive step for women and all of humanity, not progressive. Our eyes need to be watching The Netherlands (Amsterdam), Dominican Republic, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, Spain. These countries have some form of legalized prostitution and are top sex tourism spots, their economic structures are largely influenced by the sex industry. What is the condition of women in these countries? Do they have political agency? 

As long as sex is for sale, there will be women in need of services, and Jesus Said Love will be about meeting those needs as best we can. We don’t judge a woman for “why” she “chose” this line of work - we look at the context of those choices to see more clearly. When a woman wants out, we want to provide a path and help undo what’s usually been done to her over and over again. I know this to be true, of all the women we work with and learn from, none of them believe that sex work is their best life. All of them believed or still believe, it’s just what they have to do to make ends meet. Where is the power in this choice? 

As we look to the future for JSL and our women, we will continue to stand for women in the industry but against the sale of our bodies as commodities. After 15 years of walking with women in the industry, we still aren’t convinced sex for sale is beneficial to anyone in the long run. 

Read more on the Backpage case at this article by The Washington Post and this article from Texas Attorney General's office.  

Emily Mills
JSL Founder and CIO

Wild Torch 2018

Have you ever watched a fire burn, mesmerized by the flames, rightfully fearful of its power? Have you seen a small flame light up the night, or the tiniest spark begin a raging forest fire? Fire can bring both massive destruction as well as health and life to a community. Fire is primal and ancient, a symbol of the Divine, Holy Spirit...life to humanity. Fire molds, transforms, destroys, and heals. 

And such has been the journey of Jesus Said Love, carrying and holding a hot and holy vision that has burned us through and through, leaving us with a blessing. My husband, Brett, and I began reaching women within the commercial sex industry about 15 years ago after our first daughter was born. We had no clue we would be consumed with a love like we had never known. Before hitting the clubs we were singing contemporary Christian/worship music to an audience that largely spoke our same language. It became familiar, lackluster, and cliche. After our first outreach to strip clubs in Waco, Texas, we began to hold stories of women whose lives were impacted by severe forms of abandonment, neglect, and loss. Then, a spark was lit that would soon burn our “ordinary” lives to dust. The outreaches took on the name Jesus Said Love and a movement across Texas to “awaken hope and empower change” began. 

We launched teams in Dallas, Bryan/College Station, Killeen, San Antonio, Houston, and eventually Tyler. We held the love of Christ out like a hot meal to be consumed right then and there, and it was gobbled up. We began advocating for women whose lives were wrecked and hope waned. Homelessness, addiction, mental illness, attempted suicide, financial instability, transportation issues, single motherhood, dental problems, health issues, lack of education, legal problems, and even human trafficking were all now landing in our laps. These issues were wicked problems and how do you fix problems, but not people?  We couldn’t twist love into control and domination, we couldn’t manipulate and call it empowerment. We had to trust in the truth of Love at all costs. We are still learning. 

Today, Jesus Said Love has grown deeper with its headquarters at 1500 Columbus Avenue in Waco. We have current outreach teams in Waco, Dallas, Houston, Tyler, and Killeen….these outreaches are the deep roots that ground our fruitful tree. Programs at JSL HQ include:

  • ACCESS: an 8 week holistic paid internship program for women leaving the sex industry including job training, leadership, parenting, mental health, nutrition, financial literacy, and Bible classes.
  • Counseling via The Advocacy Center Crimes Against Women and Children on location.
  • Fight Club: an all female AA Recovery group open to the Waco Community.
  • Stop Demand School: a sex buyers intervention course for those arrested for buying sex (not located at our building).
  • Prayer and Worship on Outreach nights.
  • Lovely Enterprises: a social enterprise of JSL aimed at reducing recidivism into the sex trade by providing living wage jobs and launching micro businesses.


There’s a lot of sense in discerning the times we are living in, not merely plugging through life unaware of what is stirring, transforming, and shifting in our culture. We are living in a time where the light is shining on the issue of exploitation and objectification of women and we are learning how this affects our communities. This year at Wild Torch, our annual gala experience, we will voice a clarion call for hope and change and share the beautiful stories of transformation in our midst! Wild Torch uses the visual and performing arts to share these stories at the Waco Hippodrome!  

Incredible food pairings by Chef Jason Rolf (of the Grape) and Chef Corey McEntyre (of Milo Provisions) will light up your taste buds, your eyes will feast on visuals from the collaborative effort of Sidekick Agency and Matt Davidson Creative and the live fine art auction will include the talented Ty Clark of Waco and a custom oil painting by Samuel Shelton among others! Brett and Emily Mills along with their band including The Union Revival will take the stage and debut their new song, “Gold”. It’s an event like none other and one that is sure to leave you fired up!

Come “carry fire” with us.
April 23
Waco Hippodrome

Stop Demand School

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At Jesus Said Love, we are committed to awakening hope and empowering change in the lives of people connected to and affected by the commercial sex industry.

In light of the recent massage parlor arrests in the Waco area, it is imperative to understand the buyer of sex is not a victim; he or she is, in fact, the offender. Numerous comments have been made stating that these illicit encounters were between two consenting adults and should be no one else’s business. However, the unfortunate reality is human trafficking is a real problem, even here in Central Texas. When an individual is brought to our country from another, doesn’t speak the language, and is ordered to perform sexual favors for money, this is not consensual. And, it is imperative that we, as a community, educate ourselves on these issues.

One way Jesus Said Love is working to stop the demand and be part of the solution is through our program, Stop Demand School. Many of the Johns arrested in these stings will be required to take our course as part of their obligations for their crime. Our aim with SDS is to educate using restorative justice principles; the curriculum educates offenders on STDs, addiction, pornography, and the issue of human trafficking as linked to the commercial sex industry. While most individuals taking the class have never encountered a “real” human victim, this does not change nor lessen the intent. 

If you are wanting to educate yourself on these issues, I personally invite you to register and attend one of our Stop Demand School classes. It is a full day of content that will change your perspective on these issues. Visit StopDemandSchool.com for class dates and registration.

We are committed to awakening hope and empowering change in our community. Our women are worth it. Our men are worth it. And our children are worth it. 
 

- Brett Mills, CEO of Jesus Said Love