Chelsea and I are living in the home of giants.
They have come down from the mountains and taken up dwelling in the streets. They have faith fierce as lions. They have otherworldly strength. They have courage to enter places most would never willingly go.
They are five-foot-tall Filipino women. They wear the sweetest smiles on their faces. They love milo and chamomile tea. They are partial to sweets and enjoy an afternoon nap.
And the light of Jesus shines brightly out of them. It burns and never seems to waver and they take it with them to face police and prison, pimps and prostitutes, politicians and pub owners. And with it, coupled with a steely persistence and untiring faithfulness, they consistently win these people over!
Ate Tina and Ate Lisa have given decades of their lives to loving and serving and freeing women from sex slavery. We call them Ate – pronounced “Ah-Teh” and a respectful Tagalog way of saying “older sister”. Along with another incredible woman of God, Ate Michelle Tolentino, they head up She WORKS – an organisation committed to helping see women survivors of human trafficking living with their God-given dignity, meeting their practical needs sufficiently, serving and leading others in the community and advocating against modern-day slavery in partnership with the Body of Christ.
Their approach is deeply relational – meeting the women where they work, befriending them, earning trust over months and even years. They pray for them, pray with them, protect them, advocate for them. They visit them in the squatters shacks – surprising the women by their resolve to know them as more than ‘sex workers’. They are women, friends, daughters, sisters, mothers. Over time, these relationships inevitably inspire curiosity about why the Ates love them. They ask if the Ates will help them read the Bible and learn about this Jesus who they follow. New chapters are written in their stories and the Ates never stop faithfully pursuing relationship with these women. They embody the persistent love of God.
She WORKS now has a core team of survivors who the Ates have built relationship with over a long time, some for over 20 years. The six core team members have access to counselling, employment, livelihood training, leadership training, literacy and computer classes, and more. Far beyond that though, they have a deep community of healing. The Ates’ home is a home for many. It is a safe place that some travel hours to be in every day. They are known here, their stories are safe here, they are empowered and believed in. This is where the She WORKS community prays, breaks bread, works, sing karaoke, worship, garden, and spend life together.
The Ates are steadfast about their empowerment of the survivors. If Ate Tina and Ate Lisa are invited to speak with government officials, then the women come with them and get priority to speak. If the Ates are invited to a conference, then the women come with them and are given the microphone. Ate Tina and Ate Lisa do not just tell these women that they are valuable – they actively give up their power and position to show the women that their voices matter.
The Ates constantly encourage the women to dream, and so there are many dreams floating around here – of setting up an oven to sell sweet, hot, fresh pandesal (Filipino bread) to their neighbours; of helping manufacture and provide sustainable sanitary products to survivors; of a She WORKS managed drop-in centre, offering hot food and friendship to people on the streets. One other action the core team are especially passionate about is visiting neighbourhoods with more bars, prayer walking and getting to know people, and reaching out to the women at the bars – many of whom are victims of trafficking or vulnerable to it. They say that the recovery process is so much longer when you start from where they started, so they want to release and help recover women before they ever get to where they were. The core team are fiercely passionate about using their freedom to set others free.
Any money that comes in from the livelihood projects gets reinvested into the organisation and the core team, who all get a salary. The only people who do not get paid are the She WORKS leaders! The Ates work however they can to get by and live completely by faith, trusting that God will provide – and He does! When one of the Ates suffered through cancer, an old school colleague read about her story and ministry in a book and reached out to pay for all the medical fees. They were dreaming about making bags and aprons to help spread awareness and raise funds for more advocacy – another organisation randomly reached out offering some sewing machines. Larger organisations with much more resources keep reaching out to She WORKS, because of the depth of character and spiritual foundations they see here. One day a week, the core team head to shelters where younger survivors live, some of whom are only months into recovery. They have been invited here by other organisations, who want to work with She WORKS because of the kind of deep, Gospel-centred healing that they have developed. The core team facilitates worship and participant-focused reading of the Bible. Everybody’s voice is heard, nobody comes as the expert. And when you hear them worship…it is the sound of people who truly know what it is to be set free. Below is a snippet from SheWORKS’ leadership camp, where survivors of human trafficking sing that their bodies are holy because God dwells within them. This is truly the sound of freedom. I definitely cried as they sang this.
That utter delight in God and gratefulness is one of the greatest learnings here for us. Everything is a reason to praise God. The most common phrases you hear in this household are “God is good!” and “Thank you Lord!” The community here pray fiercely and boldly, but take delight in the small things as much as the big. I’m challenged by this continual practice of gratitude. I am so often distracted by my frustrations, pains, and inconveniences. This community have their own too. They just encourage me to choose to begin with gratitude.
There is so much more I want to write about the incredible community of healing here. But for now, I’ll finish with this: This month, the community has consistently reflected upon 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and what it looks like to embody a love that is patient and kind; that does not envy or boast; that is not prideful or dishonoring or self-seeking; that is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs; that rejoices in the truth and always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres.
Chelsea and I are living in the home of giants who embody that love.
They have come down from the mountains and taken up dwelling in the streets. They have faith fierce as lions. They have otherworldly strength and they use it only to strengthen others. They have courage to enter places most would never willingly go. They love Jesus like I want to love Jesus. It is a blessing to know them and see the love of Christ burn so bright.
For more about She WORKS you can visit https://www.facebook.com/sheworksmadeinhope/