MEMPHIS- We're out looking for hookers. This great big bulldog of a man, George Kuykendall, leans over the wheel, eyes leveled at the street. He's a tall guy with big hands and a round, ruddy face. We're in the ugly part of Memphis, near the airport: all gray and brown and dried-up in the mid-winter afternoon. Carol Wiley is in the backseat. She's a small woman with the humblest little head of dark brown hair. She doesn't look mean. She looks like a preacher's wife, because she is.
"Tell him what we're looking for," Mrs. Wiley says. Mr. Kuykendall takes a curve slowly, still looking.
"The Ho Track," he says. His red bulldog eyes do not leave the road.
"The way you can tell they're a prostitute," Mrs. Wiley says, "is if they don't have a purse."
The two make up the entire staff of Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a nonprofit in Memphis. The title does little to convey the nature of their work. Their Victim Assistance Program, appropriately called "A Way Out," is the first of its kind in the country. They rescue women from topless dancing and prostitution and teach them how to find good work, how to save money, how to live. Mr. Kuykendall is CCV's executive director and spends most of his time getting strip clubs shut down and nagging the city to do its job. Mrs. Wiley spends her time with the girls. These two make a good team.
Now we're in a strip club parking lot. Mr. Kuykendall practically puts his Jeep through the front door of the place, just about knocking over a bouncer's stool out front. He calmly points inside, sharing details about this and every other club we see. One club, he says, is a regular for meth dealers. Another lot is full of SUVs with tinted windows. Another is full of sedans and even a minivan, no different than the church parking lot down the street.
The sex industry is about anonymity, but "A Way Out" is about people. Hookers and strippers, it turns out, have real names, like Mardina, Melinda, Gail, Cindy, Krissy, Jennifer.
One day, Mardina called Mrs. Wiley from a crack house in the not-very-safe part of town, saying she wanted help. "I didn't think she'd actually come out there," Mardina recalls. Mrs. Wiley came and walked up to the door, not knowing that four gang leaders were inside.
"These guys had guns and everything," Mardina says. "They would have started shooting."
Mr. Kuykendall drove up behind Mrs. Wiley and, to his surprise, the little preacher's wife was already "standing on the front porch with this great big black guy that would blot out the sun."
All of a sudden, Mardina came to the door. Mrs. Wiley was ready to help her: The hooker's nearly 6-foot frame had wasted down to almost 100 pounds. But Mardina didn't want to go. "I was waiting for another fix," she says. So the CCV duo left.
Mardina would have to go through a little more before she decided she needed help: getting beaten with a 2-by-4 and rubber hoses, being forced to shred her kneecaps with a stiletto heel, having her head shaved and clothes stripped off, and getting dumped naked on a busy street. Mardina speaks about all this in a dry, matter-of-fact Midwestern accent.
"I felt like I was just a joke that God had accidentally made," she says, deadpan.
She kept calling Mrs. Wiley and Mr. Kuykendall for help, but every time they showed up, she'd be gone. Finally, exhausted, Mardina staggered into St. Frances Hospital. She called Mrs. Wiley for the hundredth time, but she wasn't out of the woods yet. As she was being admitted, she saw a male nurse she recognized.
"One of them-the guy that did my intake-was actually a trick that I had on Summer Avenue." She says he proffered her right there in the hospital. Then the CCV duo showed up.
"They came up there with bags of clothes they had gotten and bought me. They weren't even used. They were new." Mardina was more used to men carrying 2-by-4s, not bags of new clothes. And God, well, God was just another big man with a 2-by-4.
"My view of God before then was this guy with a great big stick," she says. "If I couldn't do what He wanted He was just gonna pound me in the head."
Now Mardina's clean, engaged to be married, and has plans for nursing school.
Mrs. Wiley and Mr. Kuykendall don't just help these women with the big things, like sobriety and something to cover up their nakedness. They help with the small things, too. Things like school lunches.
The conversation bubbles in a meeting room at Christ United Methodist Church: "What did Santa Claus bring you?" "Who made this lasagna?" "Is that new?"
It's just a normal Wednesday night meal at any old church. Kids run about, women talk over this and that. They hug and laugh and groan over pounds gained at Christmas. You'd never know half of these women used to sell sex to johns and tricks and men in strip clubs.
The other half are women who've never had anything to do with stripping. These are the mentors, the Christian women who volunteer to serve as counselors, friends, anything.
Melinda is in her 30s. She's bursting with the energy of some little bird, talking to every corner of the room. Melinda started out as a topless dancer, then a high-priced escort, then a plain old prostitute. She'd done a lot in the decade or so she lived this lifestyle, but she'd never made school lunch for her kids. "A Way Out" gave her the chance. "I was excited about making lunch," she says, "and walking my child down to the school bus."
Gail, in her 40s, is quieter. I ask her about the small things, too. "This is something really small, but making homemade cookies with my mentor." She looks up at her mentor, next to her: "We wore the aprons, I mean, it was really fun."
The mentors help out with rides to church, to the dentist, to see a play. They help with groceries, gas, even school lunches and Christmas cookies.
All these women have tough stories. Pimps, tricks, crack, heroin, rubber hoses, torture, jail, starvation, degradation. They've seen friends killed by pimps, had friends die in their arms because the hourly motel didn't want to attract the attention of an ambulance. When they talk about their old lives and livelihoods, it's always veiled: "the industry," "back then," "out there." Mrs. Wiley and Mr. Kuykendall are the ones who go "out there" and bring some of its residents back.
The women talk about their future. They want to go to school, to study social work, nursing, psychology. Jennnifer says, "I just want a simple life."
Mrs. Wiley and the other mentors have dreams for the program's future: "We need a house," she says, a place for the women and their children to live, a place to meet, to fellowship, to throw birthday parties, to make those school lunches.
Back in the car with Mr. Kuykendall and Mrs. Wiley, we're still looking for prostitutes. Mrs. Wiley likes to give each a little Bible, a candle, some lotion: "real girly stuff." But we don't find any women out on the Ho Track tonight. The midwinter dusk is blue-black and turning darker, and Mr. Kuykendall finally turns on his headlights. We turn around to head home.
"I'm proud there aren't any prostitutes out here," he says, but he and Mrs. Wiley both sound a little disappointed. We stop at a red light, his face even ruddier in the red glow of brake lights in front of us. The bulldog turns to me and says, "After what you've seen, don't you think the church ought to be in this fight?"