The pink cotton jacket can't be doing much to ward off the winter winds, and this New York City night is getting colder fast. But the hooker who waits at 125th Street and Park Avenue doesn't seem to notice. She wears fishnet hose and cracked boots, and scans passing cars for encouragement. She also listlessly propositions a few passers-by: "How 'bout a date, lover?"
Prostitution, from the sound of it, is a matter of the heart. Those who minister to prostitutes agree. "It is. Selling herself breaks a woman's heart, hardens it," says Eva Spitz of New York City's Little Sister Project. "What it takes to fix that is God--God's heart coming in and healing theirs. It takes the love of Christ."
Shirley Martin started the Little Sister Project in 1979; the ministry's name comes from a reference in the Song of Solomon, in which the writer asks, "What shall we do for our sister?" Ms. Martin, a 60-ish New Yorker, has now worked so closely with hookers that at times the police have suspected her of being a madame.
Ms. Spitz, a 29-year-old British expatriate came alongside Ms. Martin two years ago. They work with about 400 women, mostly in the women's prison on Riker's Island. They also go to the city's "strolls," such as Hunts Point in Queens, where streetwalkers gather to wait for customers. The women often hand out candy to the hookers, with information about their ministry taped to the wrapper.
The two women are now beginning the next phase of work: they're opening a halfway house for up to five women at a time. Women will go directly from prison to the renovated three-story walk-up in Spanish Harlem, where they'll receive drug counseling, job training, and--most important--exposure to the Gospel through daily group Bible studies. The house could receive its first few "clients" on Friday, February 14--Valentine's day.
Ms. Spitz has a heart for these women; she also has the nerve: "I've never been scared," she says of times that pimps try to menace her or drive-by johns harass her. "Not everyone can do this ministry, we realize, and maybe that's why God has called us to this."
First, she said, she had to realize that what she thought she knew about prostitution was mostly wrong. "The myths are that the money's good, that it's fun, that eventually it leads to love and marriage--the right guy will come along and fall in love with you," says Ms. Spitz. "But they never see any money--it goes straight to their pimp, who manipulates them with promises of love."
These days, however, crack cocaine is often the pimp. Addicts--mostly female but sometimes male--will trade sex for crack, or take any sum so they can buy the next hit. One woman told Ms. Martin of selling herself for as little as $2 because she was so desperate for the drug.
Even the women who do not go into prostitution because of drugs soon begin taking them to numb physical and spiritual pain. When they hit bottom--when they're locked up on Riker's Island, sitting through the mandatory drug counseling--they are sometimes receptive to the Gospel.
But their work can be discouraging. "How many women make it? Not many," Ms. Spitz says. "It's a very small percentage. Most of the women we work with are HIV-positive; they've already lost their children; they're addicted to drugs; and they're in and out of jail. It's a huge hole to rise from."
The ministry's success stories "can be counted on two hands," admits Ms. Spitz: "That's heartbreaking at times. We just do what we can, and hope to see the fruit later. This is where faith comes in."
Churches are often reluctant to work with ministries to prostitutes. In the 19th century, though, Christians in cities such as New York sponsored Magdalen Societies that helped young women to escape prostitution and the tragedy that often accompanied it in those days, abortion.
Today, one church that has stepped in, and helps to fund the Little Sister project, is New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Prostitution is "an uncomfortable subject for men and women to talk about," Ms. Spitz says. "Also, it goes against the media images to see these women as victims, as people who need healing." But in 1830 Presbyterian clergyman John McDowall, founder of the New York Magdalen Society, wrote in his diary: "O woman, woman, think on your ways! Do you mean to harden your heart?"