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May 11, 2015
Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!
The first time I ever went into a strip club, I was there as an outsider, an observer, a learner. I was being trained to visit strip clubs and build relationships by a Texas pastor who made his living as a parole officer. I remember him approaching the manager to ask for permission to enter. I remember the pastor sitting next to me and pointing out things—who might be pregnant, how the dancers related to the customers, what the bouncers were watching, and where the house-mom’s influence was. I remember asking, “Should we tip?” and being told to always remember to honor the people you are visiting and that tipping honors the dancers. I remember the final thing the pastor pointed out was, “Always notice where the exits are.”
Through the years, I’ve crossed a lot more borders than the bouncer’s line in strip clubs. I’ve crossed national, state, city, and neighborhood borders to meet sex workers “where they’re at.” I’ve crossed borders of laws to provide drug users with paraphernalia like new crack pipes to make their drug use safer. I’ve crossed borders of polite conversation to ask personal questions about drug use and sex during HIV counseling and testing. And I’ve crossed cultures, languages, mores, races, and genders to provide a listening ear, some practical training, and to be an ally to sex workers and drug users.
But those lessons on that first club visit have stayed with me.
Ask for permission.
I recently spent six months in Bali, Indonesia working as a pastor. In order to learn more about the culture, I went to one of my touch-points. I located a small NGO working on HIV prevention with sex workers and drug users. The director invited me to come hear about their work at a staff gathering. The invitation, the open door, came from an ally in the work, so my presence was welcome. Because I knew very little Indonesian (okay, none), I entered with a statement of my past work, and asked (in what I confessed to be messy Indonesian) if the very dedicated staff would help me learn about their culture through their work.
Approach each new border crossing as a learner.
After spending a few weeks with the folks at the NGO, they asked me to lead a class. It wasn’t until about half way through the class that I remembered this maxim. I remembered that I didn’t have anything to teach them, that instead, I had things to learn. So rather than finish the class as their teacher, I explained to them that I was only reminding them of what they already knew and that those skills that they have work!
Value all the people you meet.
It’s so easy to cross a border and not see everyone there—to notice only the power brokers, the influential, and the rich. But to really, really know a culture, to really appreciate the culture, you have to notice the workers, the housekeepers, the restaurant workers. These are the people who can be your guides. If you want to see the real story, ask the helpers.
For me, sex work in Bali was invisible. Unlike in the United States where places of the trade are obvious (like strip clubs) or hidden (like brothels), sex clubs were hidden in plain view. But there were special names you had to look for and places that were marked with only a number. The way to find a club? Ask someone who knew. Service workers always knew.
And besides the help that they can give you, all people are potential friends. The chances are that there’s more than just one boundary between you and a new friend. If you’re going to cross one border, you may as well cross many.
Hospitality is important.
In all the cultures I’ve entered (strip clubs, sex bars, countries, and congregations), I’ve never been to one that didn’t value hospitality. Bring a gift, offer a smile, give a compliment. People love to be made to feel welcome, and one who receives hospitality almost always returns it.
Always notice where the exits are.
Part of respecting boundaries is knowing when to leave. If a situation becomes unsafe, or if you feel a change in the temperature of the room, it’s time to go. You are coming into someone else’s space, many times uninvited, just pay attention to the signs—and leave when you get one.
Lia Scholl is a pastor and author who has worked in the trenches of ministry with sex workers, drug users, and women exiting prison. She is the author of I Heart Sex Workers (Chalice Press, 2013) and is currently serving as pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Prior to that, she was pastor of Gateway Community Church in Bali, Indonesia and the Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia. Lia is originally from Alabama. She loves running and dark chocolate.