Sunday, March 4, 2012

I went to the red light district.

Amsterdam's red light district, known as De Wallen, is one of the strangest spectacles I've ever seen. While most cities' red light districts are filled with violent crime, broken glass lining the sidewalks, run-down motels that charge by the hour, and prostitutes who look nothing like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, De Wallen is actually quite charming. White swans gently paddle on the canal that cuts through the middle of the street, picturesque brick buildings share the same quaint architecture as the rest of the city, vendors sell sweet stroopwafels (my favorite Dutch treat), and the prostitutes - well, some of them actually do look more like Julia Roberts. They pose behind floor-to-ceiling windows, dressed in provocative lingerie, and tap on the glass to get your attention, then ask you to join them inside.
De Wallen at night
Yet this comparatively peaceful image of the world's oldest profession is deceiving, and one of the greatest fallacies of Amsterdam is that since prostitution is legal, all of the working girls are there by their own volition. In reality, authorities estimate that between 50% and 90% of window prostitutes in Amsterdam are there against their will (source article). Many of them are trafficked from eastern Europe and sold into sex slavery, while others haven fallen into the "loverboy" trap - they fall in love with a man who gets them into debt, then convinces them that prostitution (with him as their pimp, of course) is their only way out. In one interview I read, a prostitute said she did it simply because she had "problems" and the money is good. Knowing all of this, I went to De Wallen to pray. I prayed for the girls in the windows - that they may be freed from the bonds of slavery, that they may know they are valuable and loved by God, and that they may be able to utilize the wonderful talents God gave them to find a fulfilling career that has nothing to do with pleasuring gross old men.

While I was waiting at the gate to catch my flight to Amsterdam, I was happily surprised to see that my colleague, Lourdes, was on the same flight. Lourdes is someone who I greatly respect and admire. She grew up in Peru, where she eventually became a professional bull fighter. Later, she got into the mining business, one of the most male-dominated industries in the world, and worked her way up through the company, overcoming numerous cases of discrimination along the way, to become a highly acclaimed executive. She's smart, she's tough, she's beautiful, she drinks tequila straight up while remaining as sober as a nun, and she's a master of the bossa nova on the dance floor. If Dos Equis were ever to do an ad campaign featuring "the most interesting woman in the world," they would have to cast Lourdes for the part.

Yet when Lourdes approached me that evening, she shared some somber news - her father had passed away the previous week. She had flown back from the funeral in Peru that same day, and was about to get on yet another long, arduous flight. To make matters worse, the gate agent had just announced that our flight would be delayed by at least an hour, meaning we wouldn't leave Atlanta until after midnight. So I asked Lourdes if she'd like to join me for a drink in the lounge, and she accepted. I, too, know the pain of losing a father, so I wanted to give her the opportunity to tell me about her memories of her father - that was always the best grieving medicine for me.

Lourdes told me that her father grew up very poor. As a teenager, he went to live in the jungles of Peru. The government was building new roads there, and he worked on the construction crew. Yet he knew his talents extended beyond construction labor, so he took accounting classes through the mail. After long, grueling days of working with pitch black tar in the scorching heat of the jungle, he would diligently read about the thrilling topics of assets, liabilities, and owner equity, and complete his assignments. He eventually started his own accounting firm, and became very wealthy.

Lourdes said her dad always had a gift for working with numbers, and just needed to nourish it with those accounting courses. She went on to claim: "I think God is fair - He gives us all gifts, we just have to use them." Lourdes told me that her gift was business intuition - she's able to envision how business deals with play out in the long term, and she uses that information to make more wise decisions. She doesn't know where it comes from - it's just a gift. And while she didn't have to take correspondence courses to develop her gift, she had her own set of struggles - constantly having to prove herself and fight prejudices every step of the way.

As I strolled down the streets of De Wallen and prayed for the spiritual gifts of the prostitutes, I thought of Lourdes, her father, and myself. I thought of how many gifts I have been given by God that I should nourish, but haven't because I am too lazy to take the correspondence courses or fight the prejudices. Instead of pursuing the things I could be truly great at, I settle for the mediocre skills I'm comfortable with, simply because they pay more. In short, I'm just like the hookers behind the red lights - tapping on the glass and selling myself out to whomever will finance the debt of my earthly desires.

In Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a wealthy man who is going away on a long trip. He has three servants, and he entrusts each of them with a sum of money to look after while he is away. He gives one servant 5 bags of gold, 2 to another servant, and the final servant gets 1 bag. The servants who received 5 and 2 bags, respectively, each invested the money so that by the time their master had returned, the principal had doubled. Yet the servant who received 1 bag was scared to use it, so he dug a hole and buried it. When the master returned, he was very pleased with the first two servants, and gave them even greater responsibilities in his household, but was furious with the third for being lazy and not using the talent he was given.

Too often, I see a lot of myself in that last servant. I'm intimidated when I see others around me have more natural gifts than I do, wondering why they have 5 or 2 bags while I only have 1. I'm afraid to take risks or really send my talents to the crucible for refining out of fear of what the heat may do to my comfort level. And it's not just limited to what I do for my occupation, either - it spreads to my ministry, too.

In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes something about this parable that really convicted me: "The third, who prudently wraps his money and buries it, typifies the Christian who deposits his faith in an hermetic container and seals the lid shut. He or she limps through life on childhood memories of Sunday school and resolutely refuses the challenge of growth and spiritual maturity. Unwilling to take risks, this person loses the talent entrusted to him or her. 'The master wanted his servants to take risks. He wanted them to gamble with his money.'"

I can't stand to be the third servant anymore - I'm ready to gamble. I'm closing down my window on De Wallen, and I'm following Lourdes's lead. I'm going to utilize my talents to serve the Lord, even if it takes a few correspondence courses and fights with prejudice along the way.

1 comment:

  1. I love this Jay! How inspiring and true. And you are a really great writer. You will now have another blog follower. Thanks for doing this!