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‘Passionate’ about hope

It’s a sweltering summer day in the troubled Kensington neighborhood of North Philadelphia.

The sun is shining, but an elevated train trestle casts an ominous shadow over a section of the city known for being the point–of–purchase for the purest form of heroin in the nation—and for prostitution.

These women, who are victims of the local sex trade, amble over to a former storefront and pound on its door, hoping to find help there. It’s a new drop–in center opened by The Salvation Army.

“People know that we’re The Salvation Army, that we will support them, and that ultimately, God is with them,” said Jamie Manirakiza, MSW, social services program director for Greater Philadelphia.

The drop–in center, which opened in April, fits perfectly into the urban mission aspect of “Strikepoint,” the vision unveiled for the Eastern Territory by Commissioner Barry C. Swanson, territorial commander.

Arielle Lopez, MSS, the anti–trafficking program coordinator for Greater Philadelphia, agreed that Christians should reach out more to blighted urban areas.

“I think The Salvation Army, in particular, is a great organization for that,” she said. “They kind of get dirty; they get their hands and feet in the midst of populations that no one else wants to talk to and no one else wants to touch.”

Manirakiza, Lopez, and Kelsie Patton, a case manager, are the lead staffers of the anti–trafficking efforts at the center, which also calls on a list of some 200 volunteers from various church groups.

For the last three years, the Army has been part of a coalition of other non-profits that fought human trafficking, and Manirakiza helped lead an effort to open the drop–in center.

Manirakiza said the women who drop by receive case management, food, clothing, toiletries, and “non–judgmental conversation” with staff and volunteers.

A washer, dryer, and shower are also available. Manirakiza said some local businesses have volunteered their services to help upgrade what was once a rundown storefront.

The center, described as a “safe place” and an oasis for the neighborhood’s women often forced into street prostitution, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Thursday; and 9 p.m. to midnight on Wednesday and Thursday.

Manirakiza said other non–profits that also do street outreach direct the women to the drop–in center. During the day, a sign directs women in and sometimes staffers go out to the sidewalk themselves.

“The women who have visited the center also talk to each other,” Manirakiza said.

“Because women have such a good experience when they come in—not feeling judged, feeling loved, feeling accepted—they tell other people,” she said.

Lopez said clients always tell her they appreciate that the staffers are welcoming.

“For us, part of what we want to create is a safe and welcoming environment, so [their appreciation] shows us we’re accomplishing that goal,” she said.

Patton said the women sometimes complain about being judged when they visit other organizations, but not at the Army.

“That, in a way, is restoring their dignity and empowering them,” Patton said.

Manirakiza said staffers talk about spiritual issues with the women and are planning a Bible study. Scripture verses and encouraging quotes are tactfully placed on the walls. The women also visit the nearby Pioneer Corps, if they wish.

“We desire to display the love of Christ through our actions and our relationships,” she said.

“We want to make sure that we are representing Christ well and that we are serving women in a Christlike way and showing them love and meeting their basic needs first. And then we talk to them about Christ.”

Patton says the first thing she does when a client comes in is to introduce herself and ask what the woman prefers to be called—either her “street name” or real name. Patton then tries to meet her needs, such as food, clothing, or toiletries.

“I’m called to and passionate about this population,” she says. “As a woman, I’ve felt as if I didn’t have much respect and dignity for myself at times.

“That moved me to want to get an education in social work and to empower a population of society’s ‘throwaways.’ I feel as if it’s my duty as a social worker and as a Christian to serve this population.”

Lopez says that, as a Christian, she enjoys “being the hands and feet of Christ.”

“I think of how Jesus hung out with people on the edge of society,” she says. “This is a way that I get to do that and to interact with these women.

“There is no doubt this is where God put me and this is what I was created to do.”

Manirakiza learned about human trafficking through working with international refugees, and soon realized that the problem is also in Pennsylvania.

“You can’t really turn your eyes away from it once you read what happens to somebody, or you hear her story, or see her cry, or notice the darkness in her eyes,” she said. “You see the lack of hope and you just feel that shouldn’t be anybody’s story and that shouldn’t be anybody’s experience. I think that continues to fuel my passion.”

The Kensington neighborhood is actually quite close–knit and has some beautiful elements, but they get overshadowed said Manirakiza, Lopez, and Patton.

They’re often in the neighborhood at night. And when they sometimes walk the women to the train, they pray for safety. Several staffers who are on site each night, keep a watchful eye via strategically–placed surveillance cameras.

“Christ is with you,” Manirakiza says. “He’s watching over you and I do feel that He’s called us to be in this community. He’s here and He’s present. That power is definitely real for me.”

by Robert Mitchell

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