What a Prostitution Survivor Taught Me About Joy, Part Two
In part one of this article, Jay Stringer, an alumnus of The Seattle School (MDiv and MA in Counseling Psychology ‘09), began writing about the devastating, paradigm-shifting stories he encountered working at a community mental health clinic:
“The absurdity and oddness I observed in these men and women were, I realized, not only characteristics of their trauma. They were also estranged because they did not have the access, ability, or desire to bow to our modern idols of capitalism, denial, and power. These gods allow most of us to maneuver our lives away from pain as we settle for surrogate sources of comfort. In spending time with this population, I began to get a sense of something out of a Twilight Zone episode—I began to think that maybe we, the stable ones, are actually the most troubled.”
Here, Jay, who works as both a licensed mental health counselor and an ordained minister, writes about a specific encounter that suggests the difference between “helper” and “helpee” may not be as significant as we thought. This post originally appeared in The Other Journal.
One Friday afternoon, I was covering the front desk after our receptionist went home sick when the most unusual woman came through the doors. Her walk, her clothes, and her face—they were all ancient in a futuristic, Star Wars sort of way. She leaned her arms over the reception counter and carefully examined my face for a good ten or fifteen seconds as she chewed gum with the tenacity of an iconic 1980s aerobic instructor.
She stopped chewing and said, “You must be new here. I don’t believe our eyes have met.”
I nodded with a smile and said, “You are correct. This is my third week. What can I do for you?”
She glanced at the clock. “Well I know you are about to close for the weekend. I just need to know where my party is and I will be on my way.”
I told her I had no idea what she was talking about. She looked at me with a bit of irritation. “Oh, of course you don’t know yet—but the city of Seattle throws me a party every Friday night.”
At this point, I was thinking almost exclusively about the appropriate clinical diagnosis for the woman. My internal dialogue went something like this: “Schizophrenia? Possibly, but not enough disorganization. Narcissistic personality disorder? More than likely—who in the world says something like that?”
I chose instead to be playful with my incredulity and asked, “Now why would a whole city throw you a party?”
Delighted, she stood straight up with a strong and playful dignity and proclaimed, “Well, I used to be a heroin whore, but now I’m clean, I’m sober, and I’m beautiful. Every weekend the city throws me a party to celebrate my life. You should come; it’s the best dancing in the city.”
I googled clean and sober parties in Seattle, and sure enough they existed. I wrote the address of her party on a card and she thanked me, spun around, and danced out of the clinic.
A week later, she returned to the clinic, requesting a meeting with her case manager. Unbeknownst to both of us, that was now me. I walked out to the lobby to meet the woman who had our receptionist page me, and when I did, we both laughed, realizing we had met the previous Friday. She told me her name was Stacey and requested my assistance in helping her apply for a hair academy. We filled out the application online and concluded our session by confirming the details of her clean and sober party that evening. After declining another dance party invitation, I retrieved Stacey’s chart to write a progress note from our session. When I opened her file, chills ran through my body. I had read her file before. This was the woman who was sold into prostitution by her mother on her ninth birthday and had remained in that life for over fifteen years.
Stacey’s life and presence remain completely astonishing to me because I’ve come to recognize that she understands more about the nature of trauma, addiction, and healing than I could ever hope to learn. She knows that her lifetime of trauma and decades of addiction were not grounds for condemnation or alienation; she knows that they were the very events that formed her beauty and invited her to dance in the delight of God. This is a woman who, like Hagar, knows what it means to experience the sight of God, a sight that is curious and kind.
The mission many churches faithfully commit to year after year is one of service to a broken and hurting world. The complexity of this mission is that it often sets us up to believe that brokenness and sin reside mostly out there in the world and not in us. The result is a patronizing engagement with the people we make the focus of our mission or outreach. We refuse to see ourselves as the sick ones, and we therefore live as if we need no physician. A litmus test for whether or not your ministry falls into this trap is to discern whether you understand yourself to be more troubled and in need of the gospel than those you serve.
This is why beautiful concepts like charity and service must be held in check from time to time; they can morph into sophisticated methodologies that neuter the severely traumatized and addicted from offering us anything but needs. Instead, what I suggest is that when we hear stories of trauma and addiction we should suspend our instinct to help and learn to listen and watch for the movement of God. If you want to meet Jesus, head out to the places and people you have largely dismissed and listen to them tell stories. Sometimes you will be unable to discern whether you are hearing stories of suffering or joy.
We should suspend our instinct to help and learn to listen and watch for the movement of God.”
Christianity is fundamentally a faith in the trauma and resurrection of Jesus. The powers of evil believed their weapons of torture could defeat God, but paradoxically it is the trauma and death of Jesus that liberates the world. If we want to reveal the story of Jesus, we will be asked to confront the traumas that surround us. There will be seasons where this confrontation looks more like sorrow or anger for the traumas that have visited us—the loss of a brother in a car accident, the honesty to admit that sexual abuse existed in our family home, a friend who used access to our vulnerable stories to slander our reputation. But there are other seasons in which the trauma we confront is of our own doing—the recognition that our control has fractured the relationships with our spouse and children; the reality that we have hated ourselves for decades and it now contaminates everything, from our eating to our buying and the very theologies we embrace; of a gender that is responsible for so much of the degradation and violation of women.
The wonder and wisdom of the gospel is that God’s trauma addresses both these storylines. The atonement Jesus procures for us is the announcement that we are sinners who struggle with lust and anger but also the good news that this sin is not grounds for separation; it is the very soil in which the work of redemption will grow forth. Furthermore, Jesus’s death is also God’s invitation to be restored. It is God’s invitation to turn and face our wounds, to find the One who chooses not to be immune to or offended by our pain, and who instead becomes so acquainted with our pain that he offers his splayed and broken body for our nourishment and forgiveness.
Jesus’s death is also God’s invitation to be restored. It is God’s invitation to turn and face our wounds.”
In the years I have spent working with trauma, I have learned about the efficacy of good treatment, but I have learned far more about the nature of repentance. Repentance is not feeling guilty and doing our best not to make another mistake; it is turning to see the prodigal God who waits for our return so that a party can commence. This is Stacey’s God, and I long to know the delight she has found.
What I’ve learned is that I will know God most in my traumas. When I sin and when I am harmed by others, I often see Stacey’s face, as she playfully smacks at her gum, leaning over a counter, and looks into my eyes. It is as if she is asking me, “Jay, where is it that you come from that you would fall into this area of sin and violence?” And in other seasons she looks at me and says, “I wonder, now that this harm has happened to you, where will you go?”
Brene Brown, a professor who has spent her career researching authentic leadership and shame, has discovered that our capacity for wholeheartedness—what we might commonly refer to as wholeness, healing, and joy—can never be greater than our willingness to be broken hearted. If I am to live with a whole heart, then it will be to the degree that I am willing to enter into the depths of what I have experienced. How do I hold onto the reality that I have done great harm to others and to myself while also being vulnerable enough to open my wounded heart and body to receive comfort and kindness? Stacey’s life offers me the best answer I know—to read the thick maroon files of my life’s violation and pain and to be willing to ask others where to find the party.