NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the Hope Awards for Effective Compassion, part four.
Now might be a time to hit the pause button, because the story we’re telling next may be too sensitive for younger listeners.
Today’s ministry aims to reach some of the most broken women in this country.
EICHER: Yes, this one is for older ears, for sure.
Louisville, Kentucky, is a hot-spot for human trafficking, for strip clubs, and for the sex trade.
But one woman is on a mission to take the love of Jesus into the darkest corners of the city.
WORLD Radio’s Anna Johansen has her story.
ANNA JOHANSEN, REPORTER: Mary Frances was 16 when she got sucked into the sex industry.
FRANCES: He said he would put my name in lights.
The man she met on the streets of Louisville made her feel special—at first.
FRANCES: And he takes me from one brothel to a peep show to, uh, a dance hall to a picture booth to all these different sorts of ways that you could sell sin. It wasn’t until later that when we back up to this one particular place, I’ll look up and it says ‘girls, girls, girls.’ And I don’t think I got it then, but, uh, I did later, you know, that was my name in lights.
As many as 300,000 people face similar tragedy across the country.
STARR: I started researching. What is that place even about? Who’s there? Are people there? What does it look like?
In 2008, Rachelle Starr didn’t know anything about the sex industry. She just knew that God was calling her to minister to those women.
STARR: And I started realizing Louisville was the fifth largest sex industry per capita in America.
So Starr grabbed some friends. They fasted and prayed for three days, then headed to a club.
STARR: We packed up, we wore black turtlenecks and no makeup, hair in a ponytail. We were like, we don’t want to look assuming like we’re trying to get a job. We don’t want guys to look at us. You know, the whole nine yards.
Inside, everything was designed to be disorienting: strobe lights, mirrors, music vibrating through the floor. Starr sat at a high top table and looked around.
STARR: I heard the Holy Spirit say, get up and go over to a man. I had never met the man, never seen the man in my life.
She walked up to the man, introduced herself, and asked if she could bring in a home cooked meal for the dancers.
STARR: And that flew out of my mouth just like that. And I was like, okay, I guess we’re going to be bringing home cooked meals in. I mean, like the Lord just really gave me that, that next step. And his face was astounding. He said, well, I’m the owner and I’ve never heard of anything like this. And he said, well, tell me more.
Two days later, Starr and her friends brought in the first meal. They served 30 women. After that, they were in the club every week like clockwork.
At first, the women were confused.
STARR: They would say, are you trying to poison us? Because Christians don’t like us, you know?
But Starr had a simple response.
STARR: I love you and I love, I love God and I want to serve this meal to you. I’ll even eat it with you. So I started eating with them. And then that intrigued them to start asking questions and to build relationships with us.
In 2009, Starr made the ministry official and gave it the name Scarlet Hope. Now, groups of volunteers go every week to six different clubs across Louisville.
CLARK: I pray regularly that the Lord would protect their minds and protect their eyes and their ears.
Kari Clark is the volunteer coordinator. She has two ministries: One to the women in the clubs, and one to her volunteers.
CLARK: Sometimes the exposure to the exploitation when you see these girls…you just feel so incredibly helpless. There’s probably darker places in Louisville, but we can’t put our hand on the door and turn the knob and walk in. We can’t do that apart from God and his protection and his leadership.
Clark emphasizes spiritual care. She debriefs with the volunteers after every club visit and makes sure each one is having regular Bible study and prayer time.
CLARK: They have to do prayer. They can’t go in to the club every single week because that’s too much.
But even in the darkness of the clubs, there is hope.
FRANCES: Praise God, I survived the past, and I have a Savior that loves me every day.
Mary Frances spent 34 years trapped in the industry.
FRANCES: I would sit in the dressing room, and I’d look at the mirror, think, you know, how did I get here? I’m almost 50 years old and I cry out to God and say, please take me away from here. I’ve tried everything, God.
Then one day, Rachelle Starr walked into the club.
FRANCES: And she asked me if I’d ever had a choice and it blew my mind. I never had a choice.
Frances went to church and met Jesus for the first time.
FRANCES: And I knew it was time to go. The day of my 50th birthday, it was the last day I spent in the club and the rest, honey, the rest of this story is all that and buttermilk. [LAUGHTER] I mean, it’s such, oh, life has been nothing but good.
It’s been nine years since Frances got out. Now, she works for the same ministry that helped her.
Scarlet Hope provides an eight-month discipleship program for women leaving the sex industry. Building a relationship with Christ is key, and the women participate in Bible courses and discussion groups. They also take classes to learn basic skills like grocery shopping, parenting, and budgeting. Outside of class, they gain job skills by working in Scarlet’s Bakery.
STARR: So take a peek at that or anything on the counter. What’s the soup today?
The bakery opened in 2015 and now has three different locations. Women looking for an alternate source of income can gain valuable work experience here…even if it’s something simple, like making a latte.
AUDIO: [Sound of guy training a girl on how to make a latte]
Back at Scarlet Hope, Rachelle Starr points out one last thing. There are little shelves staggered at different heights along one wall. On each one there is a pair of shoes: White leather boots, red glitter pumps, silver stilettos. These are dance heels: The shoes that women would wear every night in the clubs—under those flashing lights.
But now, they’re hanging up their heels. They have new lives, so they’ll never need those shoes again.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Anna Johansen reporting from Louisville, Kentucky.