This article looks at efforts and challenges to develop an integrated approach to ministry among women in Taiwan who are misunderstood and forgotten by society. It shows how ministry to the marginalized requires patience and support if personal change is develop into lifestyle change.
Tera Van Twillert has served in Taiwan with OMF since 1988. After an initial term of language study and student work, she joined “The Spring” ministry reaching out to the homeless in inner city Taipei. After this ministry was handed over to local believers in 2005, Tera together with Taiwanese Christians, started a new outreach to women working in prostitution in the same area, now known as The Pearl Family Garden.
Our Journey in the Gospel with Women Working in the Wan-Hwa District
Mission Round Table Vol. 5 No. 1 (June 2009): 25–27
Sharon’s curly hairdo, make-up, stuck-on eyelashes and cute outfit belied her age. She was well on in her forties, working as a street prostitute in Prosperity-street. One of the first questions she asked me in desperation was this: “Where can I find a benefactor?” What she was really meaning was who would save her from the hands of the loan sharks and pay off her debts. “Jesus is your Benefactor,” I answered, “He is the one who can save you!”
“Sharon” is one of the hundreds of women working in Wan- Hwa, Taipei inner city’s ‘red light’ district. Some work in tea-shops, others as street prostitutes. They are not young girls, their ages range from around 40 up till 70! Many are single mothers, widowed or divorced. They work to provide for children or parents or grandchildren, to pay off debts, to earn a living or just because this has been their way of life for over twenty years. Previously, it was a way to earn a good income, but it is no longer so easy.
Through contact with us, Sharon started praying and ultimately did decide to put her trust in Jesus Christ. Now, three years later she is still working in Prosperity-street, and still bound by huge debts. Was I too rash in saying that Jesus is her Benefactor? Can He save her both spiritually and from the hands of the loan sharks? We give thanks to God that she has not given up on her faith and finds strength and comfort in Him. There is a very real challenge in proclaiming the gospel to women like Sharon, because the salvation they need is not just a spiritual one.
BUILDING TRUST, SHOWING RESPECT
Any ministry that involves the sharing of the gospel message needs to deal with the integrity of people’s lives and we need to find a consistent and integrated approach to ministry to deal with the range of needs that people have. In our work, we progress slowly putting an emphasis on showing respect and building trust through relationships. One way we have done this is by reaching out at festival times with small gifts. For example, in the autumn, we prepare moon-cakes and sticky rice dumplings, foods that accompany Chinese traditions; at other times we give out Christmas cards and Easter eggs. Such gifts allow interactions where we can express love and respect. We include suitable evangelistic materials and over time we become aware of those who appreciate these gifts–this enables us to provide positive input into their lives. However, even more important than the gifts given, are the blessings we have received: we learned from the women – from their experiences, from the challenges they face, and from how they keep going under such pressures.
Listening to their stories helped us to appreciate and respect them and we learned that often they know more about sacrificial love than we do. In a ministry like this, there is a temptation to give advice, to want to help the women to ‘get out’ of their difficult situations. But the reality is that often the women have tried to change: this profession has not been their first choice and there are many reasons that keep them ‘in’. Only through understanding what keeps them ‘in’ will we be able to speak into their lives with the love of God and offer suitable help. Careful, patient listening builds trust and relationships of trust are the best bridges for the gospel. We engage in lots of conversations, just enjoying interacting and spending time with the women. They test our motivations: they want to know if we are only there to preach or if we really do care. As a result, we often have opportunities to pray with them and share something of God’s story of grace or our own stories as shaped by God’s love.
MAKING WOMEN BEAUTIFUL
One December, we watched in amazement as a team of ten Christian beauticians transformed Wan-Hwa’s grimy looking teashop into a shiny beauty parlour. Outside a big red banner announced: ‘Free Beauty Treatment and Massage.’ Normally, men were getting all the attention here, but now the women were treated with loving care: getting their nails polished, their necks massaged, and their faces made up. You could just see how this loving attention touched them.
We had arranged this activity for four Wednesday nights in a row leading up to Christmas. Each night more people came. These Beauty Nights gave us lots of opportunities to get to know the women and for them to get to know us in a non-threatening environment. But the fact that we provided what we announced: ‘Free Beauty Treatment and Massage’ helped to built trust. They kept asking: “Is it really free?”
In terms of an integrated approach to ministry, we wondered to what extent such activities needed to be integrated with more direct expressions of faith. At one point we wondered whether we should do more in terms of a direct sharing of the gospel. However, we persevered in our desire to reach out without strings attached and to express something of the free grace of God. Part of the challenge of integration is being consistent in what we are doing and showing that God’s love is unconditional.
Just before Christmas, we held a Christmas party on a completely separate basis: this had a more overt Christian theme and a number of women attended this and were able to hear the gospel. Monthly Tea Parties and special events like the Christmas party provide a platform for us to show love, to offer friendship and introduce the women to a very different message of hope.
A NEW COMMUNITY
A place of refuge
After two years of working on the streets with the women, laying the foundations of friendship and trust and gaining a growing understanding of their situation, God provided a meeting place for us, which we call “The Pearl Family Garden.” This location opened up new possibilities.
We started with a free lunch on Thursdays, where we can provide a safe and homely place away from the streets where people can enjoy a good meal and be themselves for a moment, where there is a listening ear and the possibility to pray. This has developed to the point where we now have a time of singing and spiritual input after the meal. Sometimes we invite speakers who talk about health or other issues that are of special concern to the women – most of whom have never had an opportunity to learn and some of whom are functionally illiterate.
We came to realize that the profession certain women in Wan-Hwa have chosen narrows their lives down. At home, they cannot tell what they are doing: shame isolates them. The only friends left are those with whom they work. Leaving the work becomes a scary option without the encouragement and support of others. If we hope for them to leave in the future, we need to provide support and a community of faith, where it is safe to be honest and where they can grow. The Pearl Family Garden allows for this support and is a place where the integration of spiritual and practical help from Christians can be made available.
A place for Advocacy
This group of women is a forgotten group in society. They live in the shadows, they are misunderstood and they are looked down upon. We take every opportunity we get to make their needs known – both amongst Christians and in other settings. The kind of help that social services in Taiwan can offer is limited and is hard to access. Often the women get discouraged after their first attempt at contact or they do not go at all – let alone tell the whole story of their lives.
Recently the Social Services have taken a renewed interest in the women in the Wan-Hwa district: they have asked us to share about our ministry and the needs of the women and they are willing to work closely with us. They have even come to The Pearl Family Garden to meet with the women. The familiar surroundings and our being there, makes it easier for the women to open up and trust the goodwill of the social workers. Through government support, we seek to relieve the financial pressure they are under. Only then will they be able to consider a different future.
An integrated approach to ministry means that spiritual, emotional, lifestyle, financial and practical help have been offered – but the spiritual change does not always lead easily into lifestyle changes. Bryant Myers1 has pointed out that poverty is a multiple process with many sets of chains; prostitution creates multiple similar bonds where people end up enslaved to their lifestyle. It is our prayer that though an integrated approach to ministry and a long- term commitment that the lifestyle changes and breakthrough will in due course follow the spiritual breakthrough.
In January 2009, two members of our group took part in the “International Alliance on Prostitution Conference” held in Manila. It was a great time of fellowship and learning, seeing how different ministries around Asia had developed. We were the only ones reaching out to women who were over forty. At the end of the conference someone asked me about our ministry: “How long have you been doing it, how many women have come out?” I had to say: “Not one as yet.” She looked at me in disbelief! If she had asked me how many had come to know the Lord, I would have been able to give quite a different answer.
This has been one of the biggest challenges for us: fighting circumstances that are not easily solved – like paying off debts owed to illegal banks that are gang-related. Another challenge is the fact that you cannot push people towards change when they are not ready for it, you can only walk with them through the process, providing support and suitable opportunities. However, one of the biggest joys has been seeing God work in their lives and joining Him there, knowing that He can do immeasurably more than we can ask for or imagine.
Haugen, G. 2008. Good News About Injustice: A Witness of Courage in a Hurting World. (Updated 10th Anniversary Edition.) Downers Grove: IVP.
Myers, Bryant. 2004. Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
 Bryant Myers. 2004. Walking with the poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis. See especially p.56 – 90 on the roots and causes of poverty and the need to understand it in a wholistic way.
Find out more about Pearl Family Garden
Pearl Family Garden: Taiwan
Tera van Twillert explains how God led her to found a ministry to women in the sex industry in Taipei.
Not Out to “Make a Difference”: What One Woman Learnt about Serving in Taiwan’s Red-light District for 12 Years
Teo Sin Ee, 16 April 2021, Salt and Light, https://saltandlight.sg/service/not-out-to-make-a-difference-what-one-woman-learnt-about-serving-in-taiwans-red-light-district-for-12-years/
Snippets of Pearl Family Garden
Pearl Family Garden – A safe place on the margins