What I Learned: Walking Into a Brothel

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Jillian Rogers who write about walking into a brothel, sitting down on the bed, and learning something unexpected. This post is incredibly brave and hard and honest and filled with grace. It challenged me and I’m thankful to Jillian for sharing it here.


Stench. Filth. Nausea. Everything I had imagined and everything I had feared hit me in the face on that day last spring when I walked in to a brothel in Southern Asia and sat down on one of the beds. All the things I had read came crashing down on my head. Men came in droves, in and out, in and out, slinking around like they didn’t want their Mamas to catch them. At the same time, there was a tilt to their shoulders, like some kind of badge of merit or achievement had just been won. Young girls, barely thirteen or fourteen years old, with their beautiful faces painted like a white-washed picket fence eyed me from their perches on the teeter totter of hope and resignation. And just like that, they pulled on my arm; they pulled me into their world.

jillian rogers1

Underage girls. Drunken men. Large women, with gaps in their teeth. This is what I had expected. There could be no questions; I was their guest. I couldn’t ask what I really wanted to know. I couldn’t grab the girls by the hand and whisk them away to safety, to freedom, to take them back to the childhood they had lost. The idea of freedom is like pink cotton candy; it’s fluffy and light. The reality, though, its road, is more like a ton of bricks settling down in the hollow of your stomach; it can weigh on you and shift your every move around with its awkward gait.

I had expected to feel everything I did while sitting on that bed. With the soiled curtains mocking me as they blew haphazardly in the wind, I became outraged that this was happening in my world, on my watch. I expected to have the image of the little boy begging me “Aunty, Aunty, please take me home with you. Don’t you love me, Aunty? Don’t you want me, Aunty?” to be seared, branded, embedded into my memory, into my conscious, a part of my very being. I expected the anger, the fear, the what-ifs to run amuck in my brain.

What I never expected was to accept the hospitality that was offered. I didn’t see the grace or the love coming, and it pummeled me over, like an avalanche. Right there, on her sturdy bed, the overweight Madam, the one in charge, the one who held the power (maybe) to stop this atrocious work, invited me to come over and drink a nice cold bottle of Sprite.

This same lady who was influential in keeping all of those young precious girls inside the brothel, working and earning and sinking ever farther down, was just as influential in getting small girls, babies really, outside the brothel, away from the stench and the sin and the sorrow. How could this be?

jillian rogers2

With tears in our eyes, we talked of *Satvik, her eight year old daughter, who had recently come to live in the residential home that my husband and I operate. Here I was, sitting on the bed with the brothel Madam, swapping tales of report cards and holiday treats, laughing at the girlish antics of the one who had made both our lives come full circle. I, with my rescue, and she, with her “business,” had found a little bridge to connect the chasm between us. Tentatively, like the first five minutes of an already maladroit first date, we began to walk along that bridge, makeshift steps and all.

She told me how she had brought her girl to Akhi’s Place, to our girls’ rescue home, determined that Satvik grow up with a different story, living out a better life. This same woman who commanded the other girls to “get back to work” had made sure another girl received the chance to go to school, to learn English and computer skills, to get as far away from the white-washed tombs hiding in the eyes of the brothel workers as possible.

What I learned that day last spring was pretty simple, really. Whether I am in sitting in front of my computer screen or sitting on a bed in a brothel, I can’t slap a one-size-fits-all label on to others. I can no longer pretend that I am capable of measuring the unseen oceans within them. Mothers want the same things for their children. Whether we are sipping luxury from a white suburban spoon or engaged body and soul in the atrocities that even a dingy curtain cannot hide, we want something more for our children.

I saw unspeakable darkness in the border town brothel that day. Its palatable grip choked my expectations and what I thought I knew about ministering to the exploited. I also saw, and inhaled in short steady doses, the reality that Light and Hope can live there, too. There is a Madam, now a friend and ally, working with my team and me to see that same Light push the darkness back a little further. I can’t help but believe that His Light is also warming her from the inside out in the process.

*Names have been changed, and faces have been blurred to protect the identities of those involved.*

jillian rogers3A lover of coffee, chocolate, & deep conversation, Jillian’s heart is to give a voice and a choice to the countless millions who find themselves needing options, safety, love, and hope. She serves as a community relief and development strategist alongside her husband, Mel, and their two small children in Southern Asia. Together they direct Akhi’s Place, a rescue home for young girls born into brothels. Jillian would love to connect on Twitter (@JRogersinAsia) and on her blog, www.singforjoysouthernasia.com

What I Learned: Forming a Diverse Team

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Anita Dualeh (who also wrote Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab for the Let’s Talk About Hijab series). She writes about wrestling with issues of race and diversity in the Parent Teacher Organization at her children’s St. Paul, Minnesota school.


This past September our oldest son started kindergarten at a public school in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. At the first meeting of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) I learned that the school now has fewer than half Caucasian children in its student body. The PTO, however, does not reflect the diversity of its students. There were a few parents of color at the first few meetings of the year, but the only people who consistently show up are white moms. Leaders in the PTO have been talking about how to increase the diversity of the organization. They formed a mosaic committee, which has met twice I believe. I haven’t ever heard an exact number, but I’ve gathered that the committee charged with helping figure out a solution to the lack of diversity is mostly, if not all, white.

diverse school boys

I thought about joining this committee, but it seems like it is doomed from the start. My husband, who is from East Africa, isn’t joining either. He has things to say on this topic, but he’d probably never say them in such a setting. Many minorities may feel like he does. They have little spare time because they’re working hard to provide for their families. Why would they show up at meetings where the goals are nebulous and where they are fairly certainly people don’t really understand them? If they have input, would anyone take it seriously? Some of them probably feel that the major decisions have already been made and there isn’t room in the conversation to tell the group that they aren’t convinced of the need for their children to sell frozen pizzas or kitchen gadgets from a glossy catalogue to people who don’t really want to buy them. They probably won’t bother to say that they have no intention of going to a bar on a Saturday evening to bid on silent auction items they don’t have room in their budget to buy. (I never said that aloud either, though it was how I felt.) And they may not understand the point of going to school on a frigid night in January for family fitness night. But that does not automatically mean they are uninvolved or apathetic parents.

At our school there are parents of every color who care deeply about their children’s education. But ideas of what an involved parent looks like may vary from one culture to another. And how it plays out in the day-to-day could look quite different from what those in the dominant culture might expect. For starters, the mass emails or letters sent home from school probably aren’t reaching everyone the PTO wants to reach. Indeed, some parents may respond better to personal invitations to help out with existing activities or programs, but I have a hunch that even a more personal touch won’t achieve a really high response rate. It’s a hunch based on personal experience. For the school’s literacy night, another PTO-sponsored event, I talked my husband into telling some traditional tales from his culture for one of the storytelling sessions. He didn’t want to. “Do it for your son,” I pleaded. So he agreed. But if my son and I wouldn’t have been here to talk him into it again on the snowy evening of the event, he may have never gone. He really did it just for us. I asked our neighbors from Togo to participate in the storytelling that evening as well. They declined. Even though I’d recently started taking care of their daughter after school and I thought they sort of owed me a favor.

Rather than just inviting individuals of color to join us in what we’re already doing, perhaps we need to take a step backward. Maybe we need to start with questions like, “How should we collectively support our children’s learning?” Certainly, we need to make it a conversation that includes a lot more people. But to those like my husband, even this appears to be little more than lip service. I asked him why he thought parents of color are generally not involved in the PTO. “Because they don’t feel like they belong,” he said. “Look at the staff at the school. They’re all white.” In his view you’re not going to get parents of color to participate in volunteer activities when the school doesn’t demonstrate they value diversity enough to hire teachers of color. What if they can’t find such teachers? He doesn’t believe that’s the problem. (I have heard once that city schools in our area have found it challenging to hire licensed teachers that reflect the diversity of their students, but don’t have any facts to prove or disprove that statement.)

What my husband is suggesting is that perhaps the root of the problem is structural racism, which is something the PTO alone can’t fix. It sounds overwhelming.  But for the sake of our children I hope we don’t give up. I hope we continue to ask the hard questions. I hope we make a commitment to listening to minority parents. To do that well, parents from the dominant culture first need to reach out to parents of color with no agenda beyond friendship. As we each diversify our own pool of friends, diversifying the PTO might just take care of itself.  

anita doualeh2Anita Dualeh, who lives in St. Paul with her husband and two sons, leads her church’s Refugee Life Ministry team. She blogs at www.1stteacher.wordpress.com

*image via Flickr

What I Learned: The Hospitality of Greetings

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Heather Caliri, writing about greetings and the uncomfortable risk we take in simply saying ‘hello.’


The instructions for passing the peace are pretty clear—and even written in the bulletin: un saludo cordial, mirando a los ojos. Which means, “a cordial greeting, looking into each others eyes.”

My first time at the Spanish-language service at my church, I thought I understood those instructions. I stood up and shook hands with the people seated around me. Each person murmured la paz del Cristo–The peace of Christ–as they shook hands with me.

Easy enough. I smiled cordially, looked them in the eyes, and repeated the phrase back to them. After two or three people, I sat down again. My shy self was a little relieved that the face-to-face time was over.

My duty done, I lifted up the bulletin, wondering what came next. Then I stopped.

Something weird was happening.

No one else was sitting down. No—everyone was wandering around the room like bees dancing in a hive, zooming from one person to another. People shook hands, they kissed cheeks, they hugged. Several people from across the room came over to me and passed me the peace, even though I had closed up shop.

For several minutes, I did a little jumping-jack dance where I started standing, then sat down again, feeling silly. Surely the greeting would end soon. Surely if I stood up now, I would be the last woman standing. Or maybe I seemed standoffish, sitting down? I half sat, half stood and wished I could hide someplace until the greeting dance ended.

It takes a while for even a small congregation to greet everyone in the room. I watched everyone swirl around me, wishing I had approached the peace of Christ differently. I realized that there are greetings, and there are greetings, and I had wandered into the second kind.



I’ve spent years of my life in Latin American cultures; greetings stuck out even in my first weeks of immersion. In one of my letters soon after I arrived in Argentina fifteen years ago, I wrote this: “I’m entranced with the Argentine people, who are warm to the extreme. The proper greeting is a kiss on the cheek, regardless of sex. After getting used to not sticking out my hand, I started loving that I got such a friendly welcome.”

That hive-dance I saw at church shouldn’t have surprised me; living in Argentina, the same sort of thing happened all the time. Arrive at a large birthday dinner? Everyone stands, forms an impromptu receiving line, and kisses you on the cheek. Coming in late to a gathering at a restaurant? Expect to go down the line of chairs saying hello to each person in turn. The more people arrive at once, the more comical the greetings seemed—a factory line of quick pecks and “holas”—twenty at a time—until my lips were worn out with air-kisses.

But if you don’t bother with greetings, people notice. If you don’t bother to say goodbye or goodnight, people notice. My Argentine friend Cami told me that when people don’t say hello to her, she wonders whether she offended them somehow.

So I’m surprised I was surprised by the greetings at church. And the more I see greetings as central to the congregation’s culture, the more I’ve seen them pop up everywhere, woven into the very fabric of worship.

After the opening prayer, new and returning visitors stand and introduce themselves by name, and the person leading the service greets welcomes them—calling out people that were too shy to stand up.

Minutes later, the children gather at the front of the room and say their names into the mike one by one. After each one, everyone answers back, “Hola, Henry,” or “Hola, Eileen.”

And informal welcome is constant: someone grabbing me a Bible in English when the leader begins to read from the Word. The pastor, rushing on his way to start the service, stops and gives me a hug, saying, “I am so glad you’re here.” An older man finds me a song sheet. And if someone comes to the service that doesn’t speak Spanish, a bilingual member sits next to them and translates.

Coming as a stranger for the first time to these services, being welcomed—formally and informally—deeply affects my heart.

And in a country where immigrants are often demonized and made to feel unwelcome, being given a warm welcome by immigrants is tremendously humbling.

I think about that before I started going to the Hispanic service at my church—which shares facilities and some activities with the Anglo population—when I’d see various members at the coffee cart, or in the English service. Can I be honest? I didn’t make an effort to look them in the eyes and give them a cordial greeting. I told myself they might not be interested in meeting me (despite my fluent Spanish and the fact that we’re brothers and sisters in Christ). I felt awkward and shy. I felt weird about the divisions between Latinos and Anglos at our church and in San Diego.

So I didn’t bother.

I’m not sure: is it culture that kept my eyes downcast? Is it culture that prevented me from walking over and giving the Latino members of my church a cordial greeting?

I look back and feel ashamed. I knew better, and I didn’t do better.

Being welcomed over and over into the Spanish-language church is changing my approach to hospitality. It’s not a nice thing for people who are good at it. It’s an imperative that acknowledges the humanity and value of every person. It’s the first step to confronting barriers like ethnicity, skin color, or language. It’s a petite cross that we should not neglect to shoulder.

I stay after the Hispanic service sometimes, and I watch as people leave. The parents kneel down by their children, and tell them to say goodbye to this person or that. Their children wiggle, ready to play or run or move on to the next thing, and their parents gently, kindly, insist.

*image via Flickr

heather caliriTwo years ago, I started saying little yeses to faith, art, and life. The result? Transformation. Get my free e-book, “Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-perfectionist Faith in Five Easy Verbs”, on my blog, A Little Yes. Follow on Twitter.

What I Learned: A Culture of Relationship

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Malana Ganz, writing about relationships in Panama and realizing how cultural her understanding of her faith had been.


About two years ago my husband Steve and I were visiting Panama for the second time.  We had come to teach, at the invitation of friends from Oregon, where we live. While there, Steve had a dream of Jesus standing over the map of Panama, arms outstretched, saying,  “I want you to teach in Panama.”

Not being a man to whom dreams come, his reaction was to ask for counsel. When I responded positively, our hosts did, our pastor did…well, then we asked our six adult children for their input. Although they were not as quick to agree, we reminded them that we had supported all of their life decisions. What could they do? Other than requesting that we remain in good communication for the sake of our grandchildren, they gave their blessing.

What a whirlwind of activity it took to close two businesses, get on social security, and move out of a 2400 square foot house and 2400 square foot shop. My organizational skills, for which I am legendary in the family, were severely challenged. But we did it! Eight months after the dream, we were here.

As part of our service here, we ended up being in their first training school at this location as students.

When we started school we had been here a year. My Spanish was improving, my husband was still struggling with simple phrases but making some headway. He told everyone that it goes in one ear and out the other. They suggested that he hold the exit ear shut! But he explained that then the words come out his nose.  Pretty funny conversation in sign language!

Our understanding of the people was also improving. We thought we had a good handle on the differences between our American Christian culture and jungle tribal culture. When Steve teaches, the interpreter has few cultural corrections to make, mostly about keeping examples pertinent to their experiences. We were making friends and enjoying our classes.

However, our cultural differences really hit home to me one day in class, when our teacher was discussing the scripture, “The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy.” His point was, that if we do the opposite of what the devil is trying to accomplish, we will thwart his plans and he will have no control over us. The class was asked to identify the opposite of “steal, kill, and destroy.”

My thoughts instantly went to “to support yourself (let those who stole steal no more, but work with their own hands), bear life (no abortion), and to build (a wise woman builds her house, a foolish one tears it down with her own hands). Where would your thoughts go to? Self-sufficiency, social responsibility, personal responsibility, that is the American mantra. I’ve learned it well.

I sat in silence to listen as my Wounaan friends and classmates answered the question. We try to let them speak first, because their parents taught them to listen before speaking. If we jump in too quickly, they won’t participate in the discussion. The first response was from an 18-year old girl:

“When I was little my father left some money on the table. I was tempted to steal it and go buy candy. Then I remembered that he always told me, ‘If you want something, ask me for it.’ I decided not to steal the money, but to ask my father for enough to buy candy. He gave it to me gladly. The opposite of steal, is to ask.”

Then someone started throwing out antonyms for “kill” – “resurrect, grow.”

And the opposite of “destroy” that they decided on?  “Include.”

What I have always seen as words of responsibility and guilt, my Wounaan friends saw as words of relationship. If you ask, you will receive and not need to steal. If you encounter death, bring resurrection life. If you have a temptation to destroy a relationship, include the person in your life and rebuild the friendship.

I was completely floored and humbled as I understood the limitations of how I view scripture.  I was unaware that I had been locked into a narrow cultural interpretation. As I meditated on this class, I remembered that Jesus comes from a rural relational culture more similar to Wounaan than American. I felt like I was hearing His heart.

Worldview is usually our silent partner, until it is challenged. I am so glad that my worldview was exposed, so that the light of truth can shine more deeply into my heart.


malana ganzMalana Ganz and her husband have 6 married children and 14 grandchildren. They ran a piano restoration business for 38 years and pastored a small church for 10 years. They work with youth in Panama and happily refer to themselves as Geezers for God.

What I Learned: 5 Things I Learned from Immigrants Learning English

*This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Jody Fernando, sharing what she learns as she teaches English language students.


To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to teach English as a second language and even get paid to pass along my knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resilience, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.  “I teach you English,” I tell them in our serious moments.  “But you teach me life.” While I spend my days prepping for class, scouring the internet for engaging videos and activities to help them learn English and navigate a new culture, they spend their days attempting to learn a crazy-hard language, reconciling new realities with old traditions, and working hard to thrive in a new country.

We come together from every corner of the world, bringing so many experiences and stories. Together, we laugh, we dream, we hope.  Some carry sad tales of war-torn homes, others struggle to navigate life without the right documents or enough money. Nearly everyone is terrified of LA freeways and perplexed by American teenagers.  Each day as I walk them through the maze of the English language, they teach me how to walk through the maze of life.

Sometimes life is sad

Some days, a student enters my class with tears helplessly spilling out. The reasons for their tears vary, but often they’re due to violence in their homeland, separation from families, or overwhelmed feelings of living in a new culture. Most recently, my Syrian and Venezuelan students have been unable to hide their sorrow, and they speak of their grief with weary eyes, “I pray to my God to bring peace to my country,” a Syrian man told me with slight tears in his eyes.  “But I don’t know when it will come.”

An Egyptian asylee has been waiting for her husband and five year old son’s paperwork to come through so they can come to America for almost two years now, “I am so sad I cannot not see them, teacher,” she tells me. “My heart hurts very much.”

“My daughter has been in her house for 10 days,” a Venezuelan woman whispers to me in the hallway. “She’s safe, but her little children are driving her crazy because they cannot leave the house. She doesn’t even have toilet paper. I’m so worried for her, teacher.”

I pause quietly, remembering the heart-heavy years when my husband’s homeland of Sri Lanka dominated the headlines for ethnic violence. There were never any answers – it was always tense, always sad, always heart-breaking.

Sometimes life is happy

Even though it’s present, the sadness doesn’t always predominate.  One term, we had an end-of-term party which I interpreted as wear-jeans-and-a-t-shirt-casual-day.  My students arrived decked out in sequins, heels and perfume, ready to dance the morning away.  Many lack money, papers, family, jobs.  They’ve lost family members, careers, homes.  But these things slip away momentarily as they swing their hips, raise their arms, and kick up their heels to merengue or circle dance.

They bake cakes, share fruit, swap recipes. They tell stories of children, parents, beaches and Disneyland. They dream about the cars they want to buy, the homes they’re creating, and the opportunities for their children.  They exclaim with glee over the technological wonders of apps and websites that make learning English just a little easier; and we all laugh ourselves silly over a host of YouTube videos.

Their joy is as real as their sorrow, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

Kindness is important

It started with a package of paper cups, then a platter of sandwiches.  When another student walked in with a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Jodi”, I grew instantly grateful for the ‘secrets’ that Facebook tells. At the time, I had recently relocated to a new home 3000 miles away from my old one.  I’d given up a thriving career, proximity to my family, and cultural familiarity for the foreign land of palm trees, plastic surgery, and freeways and was still feeling a bit tender from my losses.

jody fernando birthday

Being new, I didn’t have many friends to celebrate with, so we were planning a small family affair.  I was ok with that, but what a grand surprise to have a party thrown for me when I thought I didn’t have enough ‘friends’ for that!

I watch their kindness toward each other as well. They translate for, give campus tours to, and excitedly share what they’ve learned living here with newer students. They throw wedding showers for each other, ooh-and-ahh over pictures of adorable children, and listen empathically to each other’s woes. Their kindness reminds me of our individuality, of our need to see others and to be seen, even in a city of 10 million people. I see it expressed in so many little ways, and it inspires me to return it to them.

I see you, I say in my mind each day as I stand before them.  You are not invisible here. You matter.  They’re the ones who taught me this first, I’m just sending it back to them.

It’s good to laugh at ourselves

After learning the word “migraine”, one of my students recounted a pronunciation mistake she made once, “I go to the doctor and tell him I have a ‘ma-ga-ri-na’ and he tell me, ‘Lady, you in the wrong place for a margarita.’”

As we all howled at her phonetic misfortune, she stopped us, “It gets worse!  I try to ask for a ‘fork’ at a restaurant but they no understand because I no say the ‘r’ sound good. Yes, teacher, I tell them ‘I have no ‘f&*#’ on the table.”

We lost track of all sense for at least 3 minutes. It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed that hard. Having spent six years in the serious and lofty world of academia, all this fun was proving very healing for my soul. I’d forgotten how life-giving laughter can be.

It’s important to show gratefulness

Just because I’m their teacher, I’ve received Chinese candies, Venezuelan chocolates, Egyptian plates, Ecuadorian necklaces, Salvadorian coin purses, Thai lunches and Peruvian sweets. Class ends each day with choruses of Thank you, teacher, expressions of gratitude for the time we spend together and the work I put into teaching them.

While I’m not the most emotionally demonstrative person, they’re starting to rub off on me.  We throw ourselves a party for our hard work on the last day of each semester where we eat and laugh and listen to music and sometimes even dance the class away. As the party wound down, I gave them their completion certificates and told them how proud I was of all their hard work. They responded with the ever-flowing and grateful expressions of thank you, teacher. My tears arrived suddenly, without any advance notice, “Thank you,” I said, my voice breaking. “You teach me, too.”

We all embraced our good-byes, and one student met my eyes on her way out, “This is not only job for you,” she said to me. “It is your passion.  It comes from deep in your heart. I see it, teacher. You do more than teach. You love us.”

What could I do but nod in agreement with her? These immigrants – I love them. I teach them. They teach me. Together, we laugh and learn about so many things on top of all the  verbs and vocabulary. They are, indeed, one of the greatest gifts of my life.

jody fernandoJody Fernando (@jodylouise) does a lot of living between worlds.  A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean.  Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents.  She writes about intercultural life on her blog Between Worlds, teaches amazingly resilient immigrants to speak English, travels the world with her soul mate and sweet kids, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry.
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