Written by: Lemuel Teo (Photo by: Ronald Lim)
Revealing Love in the Red Light
I still cannot forget the first time I stepped into a brothel in Singapore. Pink LED lights illuminated the walls, and the room smelt like a mixture of Dettol, laundry soap, and cheap perfume. “Sawatdika!” I was greeted by four ladies seated on a long bench.
I was with a group of Christians walking and befriending people in the red light district. Passing the ladies some gifts, I asked how they were doing and they smiled back politely. Within mere minutes, I was ushered out by a brothel worker (or pimp).
Stepping back onto the street, I was stupefied. I had never stepped into a brothel before, so this experience was otherworldly to me. My mind was still fixated on what I had just seen.
Each lady was tagged with a number. Brothel workers would enthusiastically say to potential customers, “Come in, come in. Which number you want? This one service very good!”
It was revolting that human beings were being promoted by a serial number. These bodies were being marketed not unlike meat sold in a market, under the leering eyes of men. Every person is created in the image of God, yet here I was witnessing cash exchange hands before men and ladies entered rooms for fleeting exchanges.
Silently, I asked, “Father, what is Your heart for these people here?”
There was a huge chasm between what I saw and what I’ve read in His Word. In the brothels, ladies are known to the customers simply by their serial numbers, but Jesus calls his own sheep by name (John 10:3). Brothel owners control when and with whom the ladies would sleep with, yet the One whose image we all bear has redeemed us that we might glorify him with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Just last week, some volunteers and I met a lady from Thailand. She explained how the stress of servicing dozens of men in a single night took a toll on her. She felt that her soul was wasting away with each encounter, and there were times when she would come face-to-face with a drunken or violent man who would push her beyond her limits.
In the past six months, she has become increasingly tired and weary. We’ve witnessed her bright and smiling countenance change into a dreary and dismal one, month after month. Whilst assisting with police investigations against perpetuators of illegal sex work in Singapore, her passport is impounded and she has to stay in the country; to make ends meet (she has to support her teenage daughter and parents), she turned to informal sex work on our streets.
Her family in Thailand thinks that she is being comfortably supported by a Singaporean boyfriend, but this is far from the truth. In reality, she misses her family and wishes to simply recuperate at home.
Her story broke our hearts. The emotional, physical, and sexual trauma she goes through every day is utterly unimaginable. We could not be of much immediate help, but we could at least sit with her in her pain. We tried our best to embody the love of Christ. (Our God is the God who “lifts up those who are bowed down” [Psalm 146:8 ESV].) Oftentimes, these conversations we have with the ladies on the streets can be the first one that day that didn’t revolve around sex or money.
Turning towards the example of Jesus, he was found eating with tax collectors and sinners. In the wake of religious scholars of the day accusing him of being ceremonially and morally unclean for associating with these lowly members of society, he confronted them, saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick… For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12–13 ESV). Jesus did not overlook their sins, but by being with and teaching them, he brought healing and hope.
When some people hear about the ongoing work on our streets and back alleys in a red light district of Singapore, they immediately become wary and suspicious. To them, these areas are perceived to be dangerous as it has a high concentration vices and pagan spiritual activities.
While we should not be ignorant of these risks, I believe that it is in the mission of Jesus to serve and not be served, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). With Mary who had just lost Lazarus, her brother, Jesus wept with those who mourned (John 11:33). With the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her but exhorted her to walk in the light of life and not in darkness anymore (John 8:11–12). With the Samaritan woman at the well, who was a social outcast because of her questionable relationships, Jesus shared his living water with her (John 4:26). Jesus was ever-present and close to those who were suffering.
Surely, as followers of Christ, we are called to shine our light in the darkness (Matthew 5:16). We cannot shun the dark places. Instead, we must be with those who are in the pits of life and hear the cries of the “voiceless.”
Having served in a red light district in Singapore for the past year or so, I’ve had the privilege to partner with brothers and sisters — across denominations and para-church organisations — in sitting with the men and ladies in our proverbial backyard. I’ve witnessed the joys of those who can finally return home after years of being stuck in Singapore, the pain of missing family members back home, and the hope of those who decide to leave the trade.
My heart for the church in Singapore is for us to care more for the marginalised in our communities. In general, we are great at “going to church” — attending worship services and fellowshipping in small groups — but we cannot let these gatherings be the sum of our Christian life.
God admonished Israel when they religiously fasted while forgetting God’s heart for the poor and needy. True fasting happens “(if) you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out; (your) lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight” (Isaiah 58:10 MSG). Fasting is not just a spiritual exercise, it must be coupled with practical actions towards the poor and marginalised around us.
As we pray for our nation, may we remember that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:34 ESV). The prostitution happening in our land is a reproach to Singapore. There are structural issues that must be tackled at a policy level; some of us are positioned to “(speak) up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8 NIV) and we must do so.
However, this must be accompanied by work on the ground. Followers of Christ must walk the streets, representing the hands and feet of Jesus, to speak God’s hope into their lives and share the living water the comes from Christ (John 4:13–14).
Who are the poor and marginalised around you? Is the Lord leading you to step into dark places to be a beacon of hope and life? Take courage and obey!