Sorrow on Swiss streets
The Port’espoir ministry brings kindness and spiritual hope to prostitutes in Switzerland
On a frigid February night, most residents of Lausanne, Switzerland, are indoors, keeping warm in their homes. The only people out on the streets of a Sévelin district neighborhood are prostitutes, sex buyers, and volunteers from Port’espoir, a local ministry reaching these women. In French, the ministry’s name means Bringer of Hope.
Prostitution has been legal in Switzerland since 1942. Port’espoir co-founder Vanessa Randewijk had no experience with ministry to prostitutes when she first felt God was calling her to meet with women working the streets. “But since this is supposedly a job, I figured they should have a coffee break from that job.” She took thermoses of coffee, tea, and hot chocolate and started to get to know the women. That was in 2013. Soon she met volunteers from a nearby church who were also ministering to this population, and together they founded the ministry.
On that February night, Randewijk meets Anna and offers her a cup of hot tea. The young woman wraps her cold hands around the steaming cup, shyly answering questions from Randewijk and ministry co-founder Olivier Raess. Anna is from Nigeria and has been in Switzerland for two years. Some of her answers are vague, making it unclear if she came here by choice, so Raess tells her about a nearby social agency that helps victims of human trafficking. After Raess prays for Anna, she rejoins a group of compatriots up the street. Sidewalk corners painted in red delineate where the women are allowed to prostitute themselves.
Most of Switzerland’s prostitution takes place in brothels—euphemistically named “salons”—but Lausanne law also allows street prostitution as a historic business that has been practiced since the Middle Ages. What was once a last resort for Swiss women has overwhelmingly become an end destination for women from poor countries. That often includes women whom pimps lured to Europe with promises of jobs in hotels, then forced onto the streets.
Randewijk says the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problems associated with legal prostitution. Prostitutes pay taxes and social security, but since the government considers them independent contractors, they weren’t eligible for unemployment or job retraining when brothels and street prostitution were both halted during the first pandemic lockdown. Brothels were among the first businesses allowed to reopen, while restaurants and cinemas remain closed. And because demand was low, buyers demanded lower prices and sex without condoms.
This neighborhood in Sévelin district is usually crowded with street prostitutes, according to volunteers. COVID-19 and the freezing temperatures this winter have driven business indoors or online. A woman from Romania says although she needs the money, she will stay outside for only two hours because of the cold. Her friend Camille tells Randewijk a bit of her story: She has three small children who stay with her mother in Romania. Her father has health problems and doesn’t work. She plans to return to visit when she has enough money and is grateful when the Port’espoir volunteers pray with her for them. Then she goes back to waiting for the next customer. The johns drive up and down the street, eying the women.
Raess and Randewijk say it’s sometimes discouraging to continue without seeing much change. But the ministry has built relationships with some of the women. Together they celebrate birthdays and holidays. “We are called to bring hope. To be the friend that that woman needs at that moment,” Randewijk said. “We want her to connect with who she was when she was not a prostitute and show her care because God says she’s worthy of that care.”
Before his involvement with Port’espoir, Raess said, he was leaving a prayer meeting one night when he felt the Holy Spirit leading him to give 50 francs (about $50) to a prostitute and to tell her that Jesus loved her. Unexpectedly, she asked about his church, started attending, professed Christ, and turned her life around. That memory encourages him, even when results are less dramatic.
“When I don’t have the motivation, I just have to remember that it’s a calling,” said Raess. “It’s not about doing good works, or because it’s fun—because oftentimes it isn’t—but to remember that God wants to meet this girl more than I do. … It doesn’t depend on us, it depends on God.”
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