Lights. Camera. Action.
Scene: it’s a warm summer’s day in Los Angeles. A shiny, fire-engine-red convertible is cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway—a joyful, slightly sun-burnt family of four inside.
As the father drives, his beautiful wife turns around to look at their two children laughing in the back seat, they reminisce about the past few days of Disneyland, Walk of Fame and Santa Monica Beach trips. He turns to his wife and says, “I love L.A.!” as the camera pans back over the ocean.
We all know this Los Angeles: the fame, glamor, excitement, famous sites and streets. Many of us have thought about placing our hands in the concrete handprints of our favorite celebrities at the Chinese Theatre. We may have dreamt of driving down the Sunset Strip in that same convertible, hoping to see our favorite TV star walking down the street. The magic of Los Angeles is real, and that’s why it’s the perfect setting for so many idealistic movies.
But there’s another side to L.A. that most tourists avoid at all costs—places that locals scowl at when they’re spoken of and streets you wouldn’t dare drive down at night. I would like to tell you about those places and one in particular: Figueroa Street.
Figueroa “Fig” Street, nestled between Slauson and Imperial, is a lower-income area on the east side of Inglewood, California. Small businesses line the sidewalks, with the occasional motel and even a couple of churches thrown in. This is the area where I do outreach, alongside of a local non-profit.
Twice a month, a group of volunteers goes to Fig Street to give out bags of gifts, snacks and hot chocolate to women working in prostitution. Each bag usually contains a piece of candy, hand sanitizer, a hair tie, hand warmers and a few other necessities.
Volunteers gather at a church at 11 p.m. on a Friday to pray, worship and train for the night ahead. Normally, it’s a group of about 7-8 women, with one man for safety purposes. We pray for protection for our team as we walk the streets, protection for the women we are going to meet that night and real heart change for the traffickers who will inevitably be watching us and for the Johns (men wanting to purchase the women). After splitting into two teams, we leave the church and make the 20-minute drive to Fig Street.
Every night around 11 p.m., the streetlights on the track change from their usual “red, yellow, green” rotation to “flashing yellow, constant yellow, red.” Fig Street is the site of a lot of gang activity and drag racing, so the city of Los Angeles tries their best to keep drivers on their toes for that surprise red light. As we turn onto the street, we are greeted by those flashing yellow lights and corner after corner of women in lingerie.
Every block we pass, the corners get more crowded with women leaning into the windows of Johns who are requesting their services. There are lines of cars—called John Jams—blocking traffic both ways down the side streets, with men wearing backpacks to collect the cash the women have earned in the past hour to return to their traffickers. Fig Street is a heartbreaking sight that no one can prepare you for.
I will admit, every time I approach this place, a little bit of fear and anxiety rise in me.
Fig Street is unpredictable. We walk in an area where gangs fight for territory next to men who are trafficking women—the ones we are there to love like Jesus. It is a dangerous and intimidating experience, but something beautiful happens when we turn down the first side street.
As we roll down the windows of our white, 15-passenger van with the giant Send Relief sticker on the side, women on the corners start smiling and running to us.
“It’s the church girls!” they yell. They can’t wait to get their gift bag, a cup of hot chocolate and a bag of chips. It’s because we have consistently gone to Fig Street, asked their names, asked them what items they want and need and prayed for them. They know us, and they trust us.
They no longer tell us just their “work names,” they give us their actual names. When we ask if they need prayer, they tell us what’s going on in their lives and ask us to pray for them on the spot. They’re excited when they see us coming because they know that we’re safe people who deeply love and care for them, even when most people who drive by look at them with shame.
There are also times when we encounter women who are afraid to be approached. They pretend to be on the phone to avoid getting punished by their trafficker for wasting time and speaking to people who aren’t bringing in cash. Sometimes, they turn away from us and continue to walk down the street, but with others, we tell them that we have a gift for them and they let their guard down to take the presents.
We are there to love these women without any questions asked. If they take the gift, we ask if we can pray for them and let them know that if they need anything, they can call us day or night. We’ll be there for them. If they don’t take the gift, we know we’re one interaction closer to them knowing we’re safe people who love them.
It is an honor to get to know these women. To serve them exactly where they are, without needing them to change. We get to meet them where they are and let them know that they are loved, that they are important and that we see them as the women God created them to be.
Published July 12, 2023