First, I want to reassure anyone reading this that our blog is still alive. I spent half of July in Bolivia on a missions trip and the rest recovering, while my mother has directed all her energies to getting out the latest issue of Practical Homeschooling.
That said, I witnessed true poverty for two weeks. My team spent several days at an orphanage in Caranavi and the rest of the time in La Paz, the capital city. La Paz sits at an elevation of 13,000 feet and sprawls out spectacularly across a valley. It is actually two cities now—La Paz in the valley and “El Alto” spilling out at the rim. In an already poor city, El Alto is the slum. And that is where Andy and Andrea Baker work, living near the red light district and ministering to the prostitutes.
Ten years ago, when this American couple moved to Bolivia, they hadn’t yet found their ministry. On a two-year contract with Word Made Flesh, an organization that serves Jesus “among the poorest of the poor,” their job was to expand into this new country. Finding poor people wasn’t any trouble, but the Bakers wanted to serve where God wanted them. They went to one of the most dangerous areas in El Alto, mapped out all the trouble areas, walked into them, and prayed. They visited bars in order to sit and observe.
“We saw loudness and chaos,” says Andrea, “but I remember thinking that our mission was subtler and darker.”
They visited a group of alcoholics living in a sign on the highway, worked with street children, and continued their research. Soon, they realized there were fifteen homes for street boys and only four for girls.
“Girls don’t last long on the street. They disappear, or someone puts them into prostitution,” Andrea shares soberly. “It became clear that if we were to work with anyone, we should work with women.”
An organization that was building a union of prostitutes to fight for their human rights invited anyone who was interested to their meetings, including the Bakers—as Andrea shares, the “only gringos in El Alto.” Little by little, they got to know some of the girls. They walked the streets every week, building relationships and offering help.
But ministering to prostitutes has its challenges. According to the information sheet Andrea handed our team, over 90 percent of women in prostitution show a history of sexual abuse in their childhood. About three-quarters of those in prostitution have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. In El Alto specifically, the majority of women charge between 15-25 Bs. (between $2-$4) per client, with at least ten clients per evening. Many suffer from diseases and addictions. And although 90 percent of the women the Bakers knew said they wanted to leave prostitution immediately, statistics show that it takes a woman about seven tries on average to break successfully with this life.
The night before our team arrived to clean and paint in Casa de Esperanza, a house behind a nondescript door among doors in El Alto, the Bakers had walked the streets as normal. Andrea found that one of her first friends in the brothels, a woman who had learned about Christ and tried unsuccessfully to change, had been found dead in a dirty bathroom. And that’s just one story.
They’ve experienced successes too, however. They met “Ilyana,” now a Christian who lives and works in Casa de Esperanza. Ilyana was trafficked to Bolivia against her knowledge at age 17. Decades later, the Bakers met her and invited her to the house. She served as a housekeeper, but she didn’t talk, so they didn’t know what she was thinking. One day, to their surprise, they overheard her telling another woman that “there wasn’t any other place like this house.”
You can see a bit of Andrea in the four-minute video of our trip below. I share her story to put a face to statistics and suffering. I will never forget this ministry, and I would love to show God’s incarnate love to others in a similar way. We all need to think about how women suffer around the world, and we need to pray. Also, if you would like to give to Word Made Flesh, you can find more information here. As for me, I am still discovering everything I learned from this trip.
“This is not a pretty ministry,” says Andrea. “Everyone wants to work with children. Everyone wants to work with youth. Nobody wants to walk the streets.”