By Kaleigh Ward
I remember the very first time I met Jo. I spotted her the second we entered the bar. She commanded the room, exuding confidence and maybe even a sense of power. She strutted her stuff, calling to male passerby, and kicking tail on the pool table.
Our first night with her, she was absolutely thrilled to have female customers. She told us that foreign women don’t like or talk to Thai women because they are jealous that they steal all the foreign men.
I told her, “Of course they are jealous! You’re beautiful!” She gave a knowing laugh and proceeded to demolish me in a game of pool.
Despite our ministry’s recommendation of 15 minutes per bar, I was with Jo that night for an hour and a half. She loved talking to me and was clearly thrilled to have a reason to ignore the men who came in to seek her out. We played pool and laughed and chatted about her life before the bars.
I knew it was a great night in the bars, but I had no idea just how much I would come to love Jo over the next few weeks.
When the rest of my team met her the next night, they invited her to lunch. She opened up to our team about how much she dislikes having customers. She talked about the manager scolding her for not going home with more men, about the excuses she would give so she could stay back in the bar instead of leaving with them, about the way she tried to retain some control over which men she “chose.”
The next time I saw Jo, I ran over to give her a hug and chat excitedly about how she had met my teammates, but she quickly dropped her happy demeanor and told me she was very sad.
We sat down, and she told me about how she didn’t want to work in the bars anymore.
Just 15 minutes before I walked in, I told God I was overwhelmed by the darkness in Chiang Mai and the immense need for Jesus Christ. I asked Him, begged Him to show me a glimpse of hope, a reminder that He was stronger and more powerful than the darkness in the red light district.
Now, here she sat, telling me she was ready to get out. God was moving on Jo’s heart– and fast. I told her about Lighthouse in Action’s Transformation Program and she looked at me with surprise. “Yes,” she nodded at me, “I want to meet the director.”
My team spent nearly every day with Jo after that.
As we did, God poured more and more and more love for Jo into my heart. I was so full of love I thought I may burst.
A few days ago, we invited Jo along on our trip to a local waterfall where calcium deposits allow you to climb the rocks without slipping. It was Jo’s first trip there, and she had the delight of a child.
Gone was the hardened bar girl of the week before. Jo ran ahead of us, shrieking in delight, rolling around in the water, and splashing whoever dared to come close. Her makeup washed away and an innocent grin spread across her face. It was a beautiful day of chasing after her, struggling to keep up with her boundless energy and limitless enthusiasm.
As we made our way back up the trail to the bus, I couldn’t bear the thought of this joyful friend returning to another night in the bars. I didn’t want to ever see this jubilant “Waterfall Jo” return to being the hardened “Bargirl Jo” I met that first night. I asked her, “If our team could give you the $100 right now that you need to cover your bills, would you quit the bars today?”
She looked at me with wide eyes and then smiled and said, “No, it’s ok!”
I pressed in and asked again. She considered it for a moment and then said, “Yes! I quit today!” and rushed into me for a hug.
My heart swelled with joy and we rushed ahead on the path to tell the rest of the team. I was elated. My dear friend Jo would not be working in the bars that night– or ever again!
That night, she quit her job and moved out of the bar.
I was thrilled, praising God for allowing us to see her take this huge step before we left Thailand.
We had one more night left to go to the bars. As we walked down the street, I prayed, “God, why am I here tonight? I feel like my purpose here has already been fulfilled. I don’t have a relationship with anyone but Jo, and she’s free! She’s out of the bars! She’s walking into a new life! What am I going to do with this one last night?”
We passed Jo’s old bar, and I glanced in.
There she stood. In the same outfit from that first night. Bent over the pool table. The air rushed out of my lungs and my heart sank.
I turned to my teammates, “It’s Jo. She’s there. She’s in the bar. Just like the first night.” And tears flooded my eyes.
There in the middle of the bar street, I tried to nonchalantly drink a Sprite, but tears were flowing down my face. My teammates encouraged me and prayed for me. Em, my partner in bar ministry, told me that the Lord wanted me to press in, to not give up, to keep pursuing.
Oh, I did not want to go into that bar. I couldn’t bear to see Jo back where she started. My heart broke at the thought of seeing her old facade, her hardened shell. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears. I had no clue what I would say.
Em prayed over me, but the only words I could manage to pray myself were, “God, I can’t do this. I’ve never been so dependent on You in ministry before. I don’t know what to say or do. Help.”
I walked into the bar and took the very first seat, the one closest to the exit. I was scared and sad and hurting. Jo looked over, put down her pool stick and walked towards me. The tears filled my eyes as I looked up at her.
“Why are you crying?” she asked me in dismay.
“Why are you here?” I asked through my tears.
She quickly sat down beside me and grabbed my arms. Tears filled her own eyes, smudging her thick eyeliner. “I did not lie! I did not lie to you! You are a good friend and I did not lie! I quit the bar. I don’t work here. I’m here with a boyfriend. He just wanted a drink. He’s good to me. He gives me lots of money, not sex. He’s good. You’ll see. I did not lie.”
She brought over her boyfriend– the second “boyfriend” I’d met in a week. He was in his 50s. From California. Retired. Annoyed. Defensive.
She came back to sit beside me, assuring me she really was going to do the transformation program, that she really wasn’t going to move back into the bars. I asked her to promise she wouldn’t marry one of her boyfriends before she completed the year-long program. She offered her pinky in an official pinky promise.
I told her, “I believe you, Jo. I believe you didn’t lie to me. But I just want better for you than this. I love you and I don’t want to see you here!”
With tears in her eyes, she leaned in to kiss me. I grabbed her shoulders. My heart broke further over the depths of her confusion and brokenness.
“No, Jo. I’m here because God loves you. He sent my team here to meet you and love you. When I love you, it is God loving you. When I pursue you, it is God pursuing you. I want you to know that.”
She nodded, promised she’d see me tomorrow, and then hugged me goodbye.
Jesus is pursuing Jo. I have glimpsed just a tiny bit of Jesus’s love for her, and even that small glimpse overwhelmed my heart.
Jo made a life-changing decision on Monday when she moved out of the bar and quit her job. I jumped to the conclusion then that the work here was all done, that she was free.
God quickly reminded me that life-change takes time. I’ve been in the church since I was born and God is still working out a lot of sin and confusion and deception in my own life. He has begun a great work in Jo, and He will be faithful to finish what He started. He will beckon her forward, show her His love, free her from the lies and deception, and I truly believe that one day I will stand beside her in Heaven as we worship the One who set us both free.
The path to that finish line is long and narrow. Jo needs support to continue walking away from her past and into the beautiful future God is writing for her. She cannot make this journey alone.
Please join me in praying for Jo daily. We could very well be the only people lifting her up to the Father.
Pray for my team as we continue to use Facebook to build a relationship with her when we leave and encourage her in this path to a new life.
Join me in praising and thanking God for the miraculous work He has already done in Jo’s life and the work He is yet to do.
And please consider sponsoring Jo. In order to prevent her from running back to the bars for a paycheck, she will receive a monthly salary of $300/month while she completes the 12-month Transformation Program. Jo needs financial donors who can commit to give a small amount each month for one year as she goes through this program.
Click here to learn more about the program and how you can play a special part in her restoration. I’d love to have family and friends come alongside me in supporting this special woman who has captured my heart.
Jesus loves Jo. Will you come forward and be His hands and feet? Will you show her just how loved she is?
To sponsor Jo…
1. Click here to set up tax-deductible monthly donations through Adventures in Missions.
2. Email email@example.com to notify Lighthouse in Action of the amount of money you will be donating monthly and to specify that you are donating as a sponsor for Jo. This will ensure you get updates on Jo’s progress throughout the year.
Thank you, friends, for loving me well on my journey. Now, please help me love my friend through a special journey of her own. Jesus has called us all to love the lost, and this is our chance to join in that together. Are you with me?
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.