Laura Lasky is a the Executive Director and Founder of Solace San Francisco, a ministry devoted to working with ladies and gentleman in the sex industry. Her story is amazing and I had the chance to interview her. She is an Idea Camp guide and you can find her on twitter here.
Tell us a little bit about how you began ministering to the ladies and gents in the sex industry in San Francisco.
Laura: a few months before i moved to san francisco, it seemed like no matter where i went, i was meeting someone who did sex work. i’d be sitting next to a dancer on a flight, in line with an adult performer waiting for my coffee – it felt like i was getting an opportunity without seeking it out.
one morning after we’d moved, i was having breakfast and noticed a young man on his phone, texting and dialing and was not getting the response he was hoping for, that was clear. while it is not like me to strike up a random conversation with a stranger, i leaned over to his table and said, “are you ok? do you need help?” and invited him to pull up his chair and he did. while we sat there looking at each other for what seemed like forever, i had a familiar feeling looking at him and realized we had something in common. i took a chance and said, “did your date cancel?” he looked surprised shook his head yes and said, “yeah…how’d you know?” when i told him i used to be in the game, he relaxed a bit, we had breakfast and i asked him what his story was. while we ate, he opened up and he closed by saying, “and now, because all my dates cancelled, i can’t make rent.”
we sat on the restaurant patio and we must have called every social service agency in town. no one would help him, because he was honest in saying he was a sex worker. they never asked him why he worked this job. he had chosen this as a way to provide for himself while he was putting himself through school in addition to taking care of his younger sister and his mother who lived on disability due to stage 4 cancer.
making the calls, i was reminded of something i had prayed when i was mid-way through my final stretch of doing sex work. i was grieving a number of things that had taken place with my peers who also were also sex workers and i recall saying out loud, “Lord, help me get me through this and i will do anything to make things easier for people who do this work.” the Lord called me on that with that young man that day. 2 weeks later, on Halloween weekend of ’08, i invited some friends to visit 5 strip clubs i felt we needed to visit. they showed up and we assembled the biggest trick or treat pails we could find – the old school, orange pumpkin pails – and we filled them with fake lashes, lip gloss, nail laquer and candy with dozens of cupcakes on the side.
we went to the clubs and everyone we met were very kind about receiving the treats. the performers were kind to us and we knew they were speculating on who we were and what we were doing. there were no contact cards, just a note that read, “thinking of you, you are loved, see you soon!” no one believed we would be back. we returned with cupcakes in november right before Thanksgiving with a note that said, “we are thankful for you” and during the month of December, we delivered gift cards and cupcakes that had holiday messages on them. by December, the clubs knew we were not going anywhere except to them again. from that point, we had researched what resources were available to our ladies and gents and built from there.
What needs did you see that needed met and what were some practical ways that you could help meet them?
Laura: when we do volunteer trainings, we always point out the following: people in general have some basic needs: a safe place to call home, 3 meals a day, for their bills to be paid and to have community. when we have those bases covered, we can handle anything life throws at us. those needs are not exclusive to accountants, Pastors, teachers, sex workers or your neighborhood barista. those needs have to be met always. that’s not exclusive to those solace is directing their attention to.
since we are wholly relational, we know our ladies and gents. so when we are doing life together and a need arises, we know we can extend an offer of help or they know if they need or want help, we are there to navigate the rough patches and the celebratory moments with them. when we are in relationship – real, vulnerable, honest relationship with anyone, we can easily meet a need and journey with someone. many people want to help others with a possible quick fix: “here’s a referral to X, good luck.” however, we are intentional in building relationships with people. relationships help meet needs far more than a referral. relationship, community and a non judgmental relationship while enjoying some coffee are things those we encounter often want far more than anything else.
What keeps you going week after week?
Laura: so many things! i genuinely believe that this is what i am meant to do with my story; solace is one of my ‘beauty for ashes’ experiences. our team is painfully aware of the needs that exist and when the knowledge of a need combines with love for those who need it, how can one not keep moving forward? my husband, my Board, our team and friends are incredible sources of strength but so our the men and women we get to do life with. if you want to be challenged with real perspective when you’re having a rough day, talk to a friend who is a sex worker. at the end of the day, i love, respect and want to honor those who are trusting us to journey with them. those feelings over ride any fatigue or feeling of wanting to kick rocks.
Have you ever experienced burnout and if so, how did you address it?
Laura: yes, especially in the beginning. there were days when i was just a soup sandwich but i had brought it on myself. it’s a learning process in my opinion, for anyone who practices compassionate care. you look around and see a need fueled by your desire to help and it can easily overtake you. i had to admit that i cannot do and should not do it all. i learned how to build a healthy team that is incredible and runs perfectly without me; we all have and practice healthy boundaries. my Board is incredible – they have always encouraged me to take a day off every week and i also have 4 times a year that i have 2-3 days to go on an adventure, take time to recalibrate and come back ready to take on whatever is next. for me, if i am experiencing burn out, it means i am relying on my on power, not the strength the Lord offers me.
What is something(things) you want to the church to understand about the human care needs of the women and men in these places? OR How do you want to see this human care issue evolve in the future?
Laura: it’s very clear in John 13 when it says, “they will know us by our love”. actions speak louder than words, always. our fundamental understanding is that Christ always met an immediate need first and that He was relational with those He engaged with. His actions went before His words more often than not. these are people, not projects. to judge those who do this is not our place anymore than if we were to sit and critique those who over eat, have reckless spending and saving habits, gossip – the list list goes on. we are not called to save people; we are called to love them where they are, as they are. we are not little Jesus. relationship trumps rescue. we cannot follow a formula of, we rescue, rehabilitate to our liking and then parade an individual in front of a camera for a fund raising campaign and label it as ‘awareness’. that is wholly exploitative. these men and women have identity, agency and a unique story. treat everyone with respect and dignity – Christ did.
What can the church do?
Laura: we ask this to our ladies and gents frequently. their answers and mine are the same:
treat us as people, not victims.
please know that many people who identify as sex workers do the work by choice for different reasons. ask the person to share their story. not everyone is abused and suffering from mommy and daddy issues. not everyone who does this work is trafficked. there is a massive difference between choice and coercion.
no one we know assumes that an accountant has gone into their line of work dysfunctionally because they have a love of money and have to be surrounded by it in some way. also, keep in mind, that if you are a person who professes Jesus as Lord, that’s wonderful, but not everyone you will meet does. the Bible and what you believe to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘sinful’ is not the case for many people.
The Church can extend love, compassion and assistance without treating marginalized individuals like an ‘other’, they can help meet basic needs without feeling like they have to provide a sermon with a resource.
an example we use when training: let’s say i need help and also, for the record, i do not speak Chinese. if someone spoke to me exclusively in Chinese, i’d be confused. you’d see me trying to tell you politely, that i do not understand what you are saying to me. now let’s say you keep speaking to me in Chinese. you know i do not speak the language, so why are you continuing to speak to me in a way i don’t understand? it makes perfect sense to you – you speak it fluently, you absolutely identify with China and it’s culture or maybe you lived there and learned via immersion. i’ve never been and it turns out everyone i meet like you who speaks to me in Chinese makes me feel disrespected because it turns out, you also speak my native language but refuse to communicate with me in a way i understand. that is the best way i can describe on what not to do. in the words of a wonderful friend and loved one who is a sex worker, “You find a middle ground on how to communicate when you know you don’t speak the same language. One of you has a need and one of you has a solution to it. You work together to solve the problem.”