It was a crowded market. Pop up vendors and small businesses lined side by side filling every square footage leaving just enough room to walk in a single file. Upbeat music sung in Spanish blared from various shops. It blended in with the sounds of people selling and buying and vehicles stopping and going. Local aromas including the smell of fresh fruit and baked goods were mixed with the days trash that littered the streets.
This is also home to thousands of women and children forced to the streets of La Merced in Mexico City. Some have come because they believed in the promise of something good and trusted in the goodness of humanity only to be gravely deceived. Others have come because their families have groomed them for this moment when they would be sent off, sold into a life of slavery.
I trailed behind my group into an unmarked building protected by heavy barred doors, then upstairs to an airy second floor. Laundry hung from some of the windows. Little toddlers peered out. Amongst the doors that led to residential units were two doors that welcomed workers of the red light district. One was the community center, the other was the designated kitchen where former victims of human trafficking learn to cook and bake.
In the community center, it is impossible to escape the notice of the hair sprayed hair, red lipstick, tight clothing, and platform heals. For a quick moment, it dawns on you that you are about to enter into the unknown and are keenly aware of the differences separating her and you. It is beyond language, culture, skin color. It is whether or not we feel at liberty to make choices, whose voice we hear on the other of the phone at all times of the day, to what extent fear and terror overwhelm and haunt us, and what hope for tomorrow looks like.
When we finally make eye contact, I gesture with my hands and invite her to the table with paint and canvas. She nods with interest. Her eyes that were once cautious, light up and she too is willing to step into the unknown.
In the other room, she is dressed casually. She is eager to measure and mix the ingredients listed in the recipe. I wonder about her tentative smile, observant eyes, and how her ability to hyper focus on the task at hand leave little room for relational engagement. And yet, in both settings, for that moment in space and time, we put aside what makes us the other and connected over what makes us human.
We create. A blank canvas reveals our vision of a night sky. Flour and eggs are transformed into a loaf of warm banana bread. We labor together. We are present. And we celebrate and marvel together at our finished works.
That is not all. Far greater is the shared reality that she and I are both made image bearers. This means that our lives and the stories we hold, however different and the same, however laden with shame, horror, heartache, evil, and injustice, bare value, dignity, beauty, goodness, and glory because of the one in whose image we are created.
It is this beautiful gospel that calls us to enjoy the presence of the other because she is fearfully and wonderfully made.
In part two of Red Light District, Vacations, and Dressember, I’ll continue my reflections on the value and dignity of women taken from an experience from my family vacation and from participating in Dressember.