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Nothing Shall Be Lost

by Heidi Neumark

Two  women I’d never seen before stood behind the altar, one leaning her  head on  the shoulder of the other. Together they lit the nearly 300 votive candles that covered the surface of our holy table and  wiped away each other’s tears.

During the candle lighting, those seated  throughout the sanctuary; read from the slips of paper they had received upon arrival.  They read through choked voices. Some had to pass their paper to a neighbor because they found themselves unable to get the words out. The space filled with the sound of names remembered, their place of death, date of death, age at death. The naming went on and on, as frag-ments of lost lives were gathered from the shadows and lifted up. Most, but not all, were young. All had been sex workers. In fact, most of those gathered in the sanctuary, had been—or continued to be—sex workers.

Earlier in the event, some of those present had spoken of their own lives. A young man who is now in college told of being kicked out of his home when he came out to his parents and how he had turned tricks to survive. A transgender woman spoke of the lewd remarks and snickers that assaulted her when she went to the local precinct to report her rape. Another transgender woman spoke of her friend who was found strangled and then hanged in the closet among her sparkly gowns.

When asked if we would open our doors to host a service of remembrance on the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, our church council immediately said yes. Why wouldn’t we open our doors? We already have a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth in our church basement, hoping to prevent the fate of those whose names filled the air  above us to an undercurrent; of sobs.  Our council’s response did not surprise me, but it did surprise those who came through our doors and were greeted with respect. They had anticipated the agreed upon use of the building but no fully authentic welcome within the space. Frankly, they expected the bitter incense of judgment in the air. And why not? After all, are we in favor of sex work as a job that God wills for us? Would it not have been appropriate to stand at the door following  the service with a welcome brochure and a warning to “Go and sin no more?”

The Rev. Heidi Neumark serves as pastor  at Trinity Lutheran Church of Manhattan in New York. She is the author of Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx (Beacon Press).

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