The women sat in a circle, pressing their folding chairs closely together as they laughed, clapped and listened to each other’s stories.
Some had big news that week (“My daughter got a job!”). Others just shared their names. But all were greeted with the same enthusiasm—a round of applause, some smiles and encouraging nods.
Once every woman in the room introduced herself, Mattie Johnson, a co-leader of the group, began to speak. “We just want people to know that they’re loved,” she said. “There’s not one of us in this circle that doesn’t have problems. We’re put down a lot, but I thank God every day that he made me a woman. I’m glad to be a woman!”
Even more cheers.
The “circle time” sharing is part of a monthly event at Allen Temple Baptist Church called For Sisters Only. It’s a centerpiece of the Streets Disciples program, a ministry serving prostitutes and other marginalized women in Oakland. While the group was originally intended to serve only sex workers, today it includes women who are dealing with homelessness, drug addiction or other problems and come to the group for emotional support, prayer and a hot meal.
By offering them support and sisterhood, the group aims to show women that people care about them. “[The group] came out of knowing that the women are scared and also sometimes don’t have a safe place to go,” Johnson said. “We thought, ‘Let’s see if we can give them a safe place to come.’” In the future, the ministry hopes to expand to provide more social services, and possibly a transitional home, for the women.
The ministry was founded by Rev. Harry Williams II two years ago. Williams is a staple at several Bay Area churches, including Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and Allen Temple in East Oakland, where he leads sermons and Bible study groups. But he also takes his ministry beyond the walls of the churches and out into the community.
He remembers a “moment of awakening” several years ago that made him realize the scope of prostitution in Oakland, specifically in Allen Temple’s East Oakland neighborhood. He was waiting for a nighttime bus outside the church when a prostitute approached him from a nearby street corner and asked for food. He recognized her as a woman he had seen on the streets at all hours of the day and handed her a bag of leftover chicken wings he had saved from lunch. She thanked him, but the exchange was cut short by a man’s voice that seemed to come from the shadows.
“Get away from her,” the voice said.
At that moment, he said, he realized how closely sex workers’ lives and money are controlled by their pimps. After that, Williams said, he began to really see the women, who are often viewed as simply part of the neighborhood.
“Just to live in Oakland and see how in the open human trafficking is—it doesn’t raise any eyebrows,” Williams said. “I’m a great-great-grandson of African slaves, and there were people who were outraged about the bondage of slavery. But when you look at these young women … that sense of outrage that created abolition isn’t there.”
Oakland has tried prostitution-reduction programs in the past, including billboards that shamed johns, or customers of prostitutes, by displaying their faces. The most recent effort is the Dear John letter writing campaign, which started in the San Antonio neighborhood in 2012 and encourages neighbors to report to the Oakland Police Department the license plates of people they suspect of soliciting prostitutes. After vetting the information, the department sends a letter to the owner of the car, explaining that their vehicle was seen in an area of high prostitution and that soliciting prostitutes is illegal and unacceptable to neighborhood residents. The goal is to discourage johns, and thus prostitutes, from coming to the area.
According to OPD crime data, prostitution and commercialized vice crime in Oakland dropped 37 percent in 2012, with 167 reported crimes, down from 266 in 2011. About 20 percent of prostitutes picked up by the Oakland police are under the age of 18, said Sgt. Holly Joshi, head of its Vice and Child Exploitation unit, in an interview in October.
Williams’ Streets Disciples ministry is small—only seven members. Some are veteran churchgoers who are involved in Allen Temple’s other social service ministries, like the one that helps prisoners. Others are new to this type of community outreach. All want to share sisterly love with women who don’t always receive it.
“The keystone of the Streets Disciples ministry is love and compassion, because the one thing you find in America is that poverty is treated like leprosy,” Williams said. “The women are going to be hugged, embraced, nurtured, loved.”
The main event of the ministry is called For Sisters Only, a monthly night when women and children are invited to Allen Temple for a hot meal, beautician services, clothing and an opportunity to take a shower. At the beginning, only a handful of women responded to the brightly colored event fliers the Streets Disciples handed out and posted on telephone poles throughout the neighborhood. At the most recently event, there were about 30.
During the February event, women of all ages gathered in a small building at the church and clustered at separate tables to eat fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and fish. In one corner of the room, a woman sat on a folding chair while she got her hair cut by a volunteer. In another corner, two little girls sat next to each other as volunteers painted their nails. Volunteers included college students and members of other churches, who wore jeans and sneakers, making them indistinguishable from the women they were serving.
Toward the back of the room, a woman looked through racks of donated clothing and inspected the dozens of shoes, ranging from Nine West high heels to Converse tennis shoes. A volunteer came up to greet her. “You need help looking at anything?” Rev. Dorothy Shanks asked the browsing woman. “You need a bag?”
Shanks started to help the woman look through the neat piles of clothes on a nearby table. “Did you see those jeans in here?” she asked the woman, while picking up a pair in a dark blue wash.
The women at the event said they look forward to the monthly gathering of sisters. “It’s always exciting—it’s very, very heartfelt spiritual fellowship,” said Stephanie Pendarvis, an Oakland resident who has been coming to For Sisters Only since the second meeting.
Pendarvis doesn’t fit the outline of the women the group initially hoped to attract. She was drawn to the group during a time of financial and emotional need, not because of Oakland’s sex trade. In 2010, Pendarvis lost her husband after a 12-year marriage. The couple had been taking care of their granddaughter since she was six days old, and the death hit Pendarvis deeply. Pendarvis and her granddaughter stayed in a shelter for eight months. A year ago, they were able to find a permanent place to stay. “It’s like a healing process—it was by the grace of God that we made it,” she said.
After hearing about For Sisters Only from her pastor, she thought she would check it out. The fellowship and feeling of sisterhood made it something she would come back to nearly every month. “It’s encouraging, it’s inspiring, it’s motivating and it’s really something to look forward to,” she said.
Prayer sessions are offered at the event, along with workshops about job training and health. Though For Sisters Only is held at a church and often staffed by church volunteers, Williams says sermonizing isn’t the main focus. “The only thing we want you to believe is that you’re loved and cared for,” he said. “You don’t need to listen to a sermon to get a plate of food.”
But even if the For Sisters Only events aren’t solely focused on religion, the group’s motives are deeply rooted in faith.
Leaders of the group say the Bible’s teachings motivate them to minister to those in the community who are hurting. “Luke 10:25-29 says that you must love your God with all of heart, all of your soul, and all of your mind and love your neighbor as yourself,” said Sheila Warren, 51, one of the co-leaders of the Streets Disciples. “When we do something to help each other, as far as people who are marginalized or people who are going through situations … it’s doing what Jesus has done. He was there to save and heal and that had nothing to do with your economic or social status. So that, for us, is what we need to do.”
Williams, who developed the idea for the Streets Disciples, is a 51-year-old Brooklyn native who calls himself a “hood pastor.” He’ll lead a weekly Bible study wearing a black hoodie, jeans and tennis shoes, and he is known as a good listener, focused on each participant in turn, raising his head slightly, arching his eyebrows and encouraging speech with nods and yeses.
To him, faith is synonymous with social justice. He doesn’t believe in a separation between Sunday sermons and community service. In fact, he encourages Oakland pastors to take a more active role in their surroundings—to “wage war” against the prostitution that might be happening right outside church doors.
“One day, God is going to ask, ‘What did you do to help the people that Matthew 25 calls, ‘the least of them?’” Williams said, referencing a parable from the New Testament. “We’re all going to have to give an answer.”
Williams recently gave the reins of the ministry to Johnson and Warren because he thought a women’s ministry needed to be led by women. Both are longtime church members and had some experience with social justice ministries at Allen Temple, like the one that leads Bible studies with jail inmates.
At first, Johnson and Warren were wary of taking charge of the ministry; Warren said she worried about the time demands on top of her job. “But then I started to really contemplate that if [Williams] asked me to do it … he’s really brave and I do respect him,” Warren said.
Since then, they’ve eased into their new roles. “I love being here with the ladies,” Warren said on Saturday after the group’s most recent meeting. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Along with providing food, clothing and sanitary supplies, the For Sisters Only event sometimes includes speakers from the community, like Laney College representatives, who talk to the women about educational opportunities or offer nutrition tips.
Outreach and education is a critical aspect of the Streets Disciples, said Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist who founded the nonprofit group Prostitution Research and Education, which conducts worldwide studies on human trafficking and pornography and has partnered with the Streets Disciples at conferences to make presentations.
Williams approached Farley when he started the Streets Disciples to get more information about prostitution and ways he could help. “He said he doesn’t want people to just walk by and turn their heads. He wants the people in his community to stop and pay attention to the life circumstances of the people who live next door to us,” Farley said. “That’s a huge contribution and it’s a very large commitment he’s made.”
“Rev. Williams’ approach is to engage the community that lives there, to educate them about the nature of the harm,” Farley continued. “Some folks have a prejudicial attitude toward women and children in prostitution.”
Nurturing the women—through offering beautician services and emotional support—is an important way to build self-esteem, hope and resilience, said Nola Brantley, executive director and co-founder of MISSSEY, an Oakland-based nonprofit that offers help to trafficking victims. Williams also approached Brantley when he began his ministry to learn about prostitution in Oakland.
“It really is an effort that aims to meet the needs—the most immediate, pressing needs—of the people it serves,” Brantley said of the Streets Disciples. “Even when people are in crisis, they deserve to be pampered and spoiled, to have fun.”
Members of the Streets Disciples say they can already see changes in some regular attendees. Warren recalls one woman, who would step outside the church after the event and scream at the sky, a clear sign to some of the Streets Disciples that she was high. The woman’s early appearances would be brief—she came, ate and left.
But over the past few months, Warren said, the woman has become more coherent and is now staying for other parts of the program, such as a presentation from a Laney College representative. “I always see her and I always make sure to talk to her when she comes in,” Warren said. “We want to start zeroing in one-on-one with these ladies to see what they need and see how we can help them move forward.”
The organizers say there is no set game plan for how the Streets Disciples will evolve. Williams and other members say they want the attendees to dictate which services and workshops they’d like to see in future events. Eventually, Warren said, the ministry would like to work with Farley to provide a house where women from the streets can “detox” and have a safe place to live while they make plans for the future.
The ministry already has a number of community partners that can help women through drug or alcohol recovery programs and provide other health or social services, but Johnson said they are always looking for more. Williams said the ministry has considered housing these resources in one office and hiring a full-time case manager to help the women. They’ve also considered opening the ministry to women in their own church who might benefit from the nurturing of For Sisters Only, Johnson said.
The end goal, Williams said, is to help women escape the sex trade, and also to give women the tools they need to take control of their lives. “I wanted women to have the knowledge that there’s a world beyond East Oakland, and that they could get there,” Williams said.
Some of the women who attend say the program has already had a deep effect on their lives. “It’s been a blessing for me,” said Antoinette Bell, 44, who attended the February event, and advertises For Sisters Only to many women in her neighborhood. “You can be with other women in your situation.”
Though Bell has not been part of the city’s sex industry, she understands the difficulties of life on Oakland’s streets. She said she was brought up in foster homes, and at 18, when she became too old for the foster care system, she started selling drugs. She went to prison three separate times, she said. The last time, four years ago, she discovered she was pregnant. She was given a choice—she could serve 10 months in jail or do three months and enroll in a rehabilitation program. If she served the 10 months in jail, her child, once born, would be placed in a foster home, since Bell did not have any family on the outside. She chose three months and the program.
Bell enrolled in a GED program at Allen Temple for adults who did not finish high school, and heard about For Sisters Only when someone passed out fliers advertising the event at her class. She initially came for the free food, but she’s continued to come for the last eight or nine months because of the fellowship. Today, she said, she’s just one math test away from receiving her high school equivalency credential.
She said her daughter, named Antoinette Michelle after her mother, has been able to make friends with some of the other little girls who also attend the event regularly. That’s important to her because she sees her responsibilities to her daughter as key to her new life changes.
“My daughter saved my life,” Bell said. “I used drugs because I didn’t want to feel any more pain, or to think about hard times—no mom, no dad. It’s just amazing how [my daughter] showed me that life is not all about you anymore.”
Toward the end of the night, Bell’s daughter ran up to her mother, sporting painted nails in alternating green and orange tones. “I’m so proud of my baby,” Bell said with a wide smile.
At the end of the night, the group’s “circle time” became a prayer circle. Rising from their folding chairs, each of the women took the hands of those next to them and bowed their heads. Prayer requests were encouraged.
“Did you ask for a prayer?” Johnson asked, while pointing at a woman across the circle.
The woman nodded.
“OK, then I’ll pray for you,” Johnson said.
After choruses of “Yes!” and “Hallelujah!” sprinkled throughout the prayer, the women closed with a resounding “Amen.” They raised their heads, smiled and burst into a last round of applause.