Magazine Features

Seeking Treasured PEARLS

It has been three decades since I had my first interaction with an outreach ministry to people being exploited in and through the sex industry.

In 1987, my husband and I were stationed at the Times Square Corps. It was there I met Major Betty Baker and learned about the sex industry from her. Betty was one of our corps members who showed my young heart so much more than I had previously experienced. As a new lieutenant, I was fearful of exposure to this ministry. But Betty was not afraid and she taught me well.

Major Betty went out on the street with The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) canteen late at night to offer food and encouragement to the women—and sometimes men—being prostituted in New York City.

Sometimes she would need to scare off the pimps and the johns, but she did so courageously and with a firm belief that she was called to be spiritual light and love to them—despite the cost.

I remember earnestly praying, “Lord, give me a love like Betty Baker has for souls … the kind of love that casts away fear and bends the knee to vulnerability.”

The Lord heard and continues to hear this prayer of my heart, transforming it for one specific purpose—to love. This journey has stripped away the layers of fear and judgment within and filled  me with His Spirit and with a love that has purpose and calling.

It was during this journey that I embraced the notion of going in to the strip clubs, illicit sex massage parlors, and meeting the exploited women on the streets. My sole purpose was to show God’s love through small gifts and words of kindness. I have learned that, as we activate outreach, we do so not with the intention of saving, rescuing, judging, or transforming, but we reach out to show God’s love and trust the Spirit to do the amazing work He alone can do.

Now, 32 years after learning from Major Betty and praying that prayer, I have come full circle in my personal journey. I rejoice that I am with many people who take part in this kind of outreach.

What do we do? We have been trained by a group called Treasures. We shadowed them, as we visited the clubs in Manhattan. Gathering once a month for prayer and instruction after preparing gift bags, we went by foot in groups of three or four women, each holding bags full of small gifts of comfort. We took public transportation to the clubs on our list.

In January, we launched our Salvation Army group called “Pearl Essence.” We took what we learned from Treasures and with the group’s blessing and focused on Brooklyn and Staten Island. This is the most saturated area for illicit massage parlors where many of the women are trafficked.

After four months we still have more women to visit, but it is our hope to reach every single one and return to them again and share God’s love.

We visit the parlors and strip clubs and keep our eyes open for anyone working the streets. Every place we go to has a different feel. We try to keep a good narrative record so that we will learn and recognize the women by name. We also take note of the details they share with us, so they know we believe that they are important and valued.

Our outreach begins with us gathering at the Brooklyn Bay Ridge Corps for preparation, prayer, and instruction. We receive the corps officers pastoral prayer and we board one to two vans driven by our EDS team and male volunteers.

The evening’s outreach is planned. We identify locations through media and newspaper advertisements and scout the locations.

We have a driver and a navigator on board who also serves as a protector when we leave the vans and make our way to the clubs or parlors. They wait outside, ever watching for us. The teams of volunteers are women, and many times there will be six to nine women in a van, but when we reach a location, we go out in groups of three with one woman taking the lead. The team visiting the location will have enough gift bags, made by Others Trade for Hope, the Army’s entreperneural outreach to women. 

In the bag is a simple lip gloss, nail polish, maybe a piece of jewelry and a Pearl Essence card letting them know they are loved and valued, and invited to a free lunch or free English as a Second Language class.

Many of the women speak languages other than English and this keeps them trapped.

We walk to the door and perhaps there is a manager, bouncer or house mom and we introduce ourselves. “Good evening, we are from ‘Pearl Essence,’ a group of women who want to encourage other women. My name is Susan.” I offer my handshake. “We are here to give gifts to the girls working this evening and we do this because we just want them to know they are important to us. Would you like to see what’s in the bags? Also, for you we have some home–made cookies if you would like.”

We may be invited in. There are times we are directed to the dressing room where we can meet the women and give them the gifts. Other times we are invited to the main floor where we can give the gifts to the women who are taking a break from working. We have short conversations with them. We are careful to focus on their eyes and convey care through an easiness and a joy in meeting them. We avoid looking down in judgment. We tell the women that we value them and have a small gift to encourage them. We keenly observe whether the women are inviting us for further conversation and presence or perhaps prefer to end the conversation. We act on their invitation; we never push ourselves in. We wait to be invited in and listen intensely to the Spirit and to the women we visit.

We have experienced the women dancing or hosting a client in the clubs. We intentionally but silently pray as we walk through and hope for encounters where we can share God’s love. There are occasions when we are kept out, but we keep going back and hope next time we’ll see an open door.

Our evenings are saturated in prayer among team members, but we refrain from proselytizing the women whom we visit. Our prayer ministry is for each other and for the women we contact. We pray before entering each place and while one group is inside an establishment, those in the van are praying.

When one outreach is completed, there is a moment in the van when we hear all the details every team member remembers from that outreach. Then we move on to the next place. We pray to God with thanksgiving for getting in. We also pray for the women by name.

When the evening routes are completed, we debrief and talk through everything and anything that may be good or unsettling. We pray through those things and follow up with the team when issues remain.

Major Betty Baker taught that a simple gift given today to someone may be the one thing that changes the direction and foundation of that person’s future. This is our hope and our prayer as we activate the Pearl Essence outreach—that the people would come to know how God pursues His precious pearls. May they receive each aspect and essence of being His treasured pearl.

by Major Susan Wittenberg

—Major Susan Wittenberg is the women’s ministries secretary for the Greater New York Division.

In the Classroom

Meghan Labrecque and Kate Borrero were two of four women cadets to take a 10–week elective class at the College for Officer Training called Introduction to Domestic Human Trafficking. Another 20 officers and employees accessed the class online.

The teacher was Jamie Manirakiza, the Eastern Territory’s anti–human trafficking program coordinator and an adjunct professor who has taught at Eastern and Vanguard universities. Manirakiza said the class covered a host of topics from the definition of the laws, best practices for fighting trafficking, and pending legislation.

“It was a snippet of little areas in trafficking,” she said. “It was an overview to equip everybody with some research and knowledge.”

The class, which met once a week on Wednesdays, was the outgrowth of a lecture at the CFOT last year. Colonel Janet Munn, then the training principal, asked if the class could be offered as a winter elective.

“I think it was a great learning opportunity for cadets and for me to best learn what is most applicable for future Salvation Army officers to know as they are commissioned and go out into the field,” Manirakiza said. “It was a great opportunity to equip cadets with information.”

The students in the class were required to attend outreach to earn a portion of their grade.

“I built it into the course with the Greater New York Division to have immersion opportunities so they could actually do something related to anti–trafficking and get in the field,” Manirakiza said. “It’s a portion of their grade, but others have come without it even being required.”

Borrero said the class taught her that trafficking can happen anywhere.

“I thought it was an overseas issue and I didn’t realize it’s everything from massage parlors and strip clubs to restaurants and migrant workers,” she said. “It’s all over the place.”

In fact, a restaurant in Labrecque’s hometown of Chambersburg, Pa., closed after being cited as a human trafficking hotspot.

“Seeing that reality anywhere, and not just in urban settings, really showed me it’s something we need to be more aware of and have a better understanding of how to implement ministry opportunities,” she said. “I knew this class would help me.”