“What kind of girl would you like?”, her tone is kind and warm. She hands me a menu and begins to explain it’s contents. It’s the same process as dining at a fine steakhouse, but this isn’t cuts of cattle and Napa wine on the menu. These are women with names, faces, minds and souls.
Hometowns, histories, hopes, hobbies, and humor- all the ingredients in the recipe of human identity are not a part of tonight’s featured specials. This is good old-fashioned, auction-block slave buying prettied up with heels and lace- dehumanization in its finest form.
Perusing the menu, I am part interested in this process and part stalling for time to think.
“Miss? What kind of girl would you like?” she repeats the question with the same robotic tone.
“I need to talk directly to your girl with the best English,” I reply as if I am a brothel visiting pro.
She leaves to ask the “bartender” if this is ok. I’ve been alert to his suspicious gaze searing through me since I entered the room.
Karina is thirty-four years old and dressed in cheap lingerie. With candied red lips and a sleek blonde pony-tail, I can sense a confused mix of reservation and relief as she sits down beside me. She has been dancing and prostituting since she was 18- the same year she married. She is enslaved, trafficked by her spouse. The man who vowed to be protector is predator.
Karina taught herself English from movies and fashion magazines. She likes my boots and beanie. We talk about H&M’s fall releases. We talk about communism, capitalism, and matters of policy. She is brilliant.
She has a ten year- old son, Ivan. In a few hours she will leave the brothel for a shower, clothing change, and will drive him to his Sunday morning football tournament. I ask her about that transition- from brothel purchase to soccer mom.
She answers all my questions with thoughtful ease, except for the one question I came to ask. The one that so often stumps me, also stops her cold.
“What’s your dream, Karina?”
She laughs with a nervous tension and pushes the question aside with a joke. I push back.
Karina reaches for her iPhone and shows me pictures of Ivan. Words escape me as I stare into the big, brown eyes looking back at me on the screen. For a woman who lives wrapped up tight in a cloak of secrets, I know I have just been invited into a sacred space to behold her most cherished gift.
Karina tells me her dream is to divorce her husband and become a nurse. Her dream is not to have to lie to her baby boy about how she earns their living.
“I want marry someone who will not force me to this- a man for Ivan that will not share me,” she said, her broken English revealing an even more broken heart.
Her head lifts and for the first time in our conversation, Karina has made eye contact with me. For a brief moment in time, amid the smoky haze of a Romanian brothel, the weight of shame lifted and two people from two worlds connected as friends.
She was born into poverty and Communism. I was born to first-world wealth and Capitalism. She is entrapped in a fraudulent marriage; I am free to live and travel as I please. She dreams of a formal education; I have multiple degrees. She is a prostitute, and I am a missionary. These are the cold, hard facts of life.
But the facts of her burden do not reveal the truth of her being. Jesus went for the latter, always. He defended the prostitutes, dined with tax thieves, and fought to end religious control- not start a new one. He looks past the facts of what people do and into the truth of who they are. He lived and died for freedom, compelled by love.
Karina dreams of living in the truth of who she was made to be: free. She is compelled to know the kind of love that is ferocious and protective, that doesn’t scare her or share her. This is her dream. This is the vulnerability of her humanity shining into our differences to illuminate our similarities.
I’ve never sold my body, but I have sold out. I have sold my affection, attention, allegiance, time, and talents to my own low bidding demons. I have enslaved myself to fear and shackled myself to the approval of others. I have lived in the noose of opinion, materialism, and pride.
I’m not comparing the facts of our lives or trying to draw some sort of parallel to our life experiences. That would be absurd. I’m comparing the truth of lost dreams- dreams of freedom and love tossed overboard on the high seas of life. The fight to dream for freedom from our oppressors, whether real or internal; the fight to dream for the kind of love that anchors down in high swells.
Karina is dreaming for something she has never seen, something for which she has no direct experience. This is the spark of faith kindled by God.
Dreams of freedom and love posture us before the Creator who ignited them within us to connect us with each other and to Him. They are signals to something bigger, greater, and more meaningful, a North Star of sorts- showing us the way home to Love and to the freedom for which we were created.
Karina and I said our goodbyes and parted ways. As I watched her walk away, I couldn’t help but think of a prison visit. There were no guards or bars, but when she disappeared behind a black, beaded curtain, I felt that she was going back to a cold, dark cell.
I cannot save her, free her, or help in any way that is measurable. I will never see her again. These are the cold, hard facts of life. But the facts of her burden do not reveal the truth of her being. And like Jesus, the ugly facts shouldn’t keep us from the beauty of humanity and relationship. The inconvenience and danger are just the high swells of life’s stormy realities and entering into someone’s story points them to that North Star- showing them the way home to Love.