By Jani Lewis
Anyone sitting outside a strip club on Wednesday nights in Lexington, Kentucky, is likely to see three or four women piling out of a van with armloads of food and being welcomed by bouncers who yell, “Here come the church ladies!”
For five years the managers and owners of these establishments have allowed us to serve a warm, home-cooked meal to the dancers and staff weekly. Not everyone “gets it”—there are folks in our church who don’t understand why we go, and many people inside the clubs who are just as confused by our presence.
We go because Jesus went.
Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?” Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders” (Matthew 9:10-13, The Message).
If you ask individual team members why they go, most acknowledge the hurt and pain of their own past, and tell you how grateful they are for the chance to “pay forward” the love and compassion Christ followers gave them when they needed it most. Simply put, they want to love like Jesus loves.
We are continually amazed by the openness of the women and men we serve, and have seen many lives changed through the unconditional love and grace the team shows each week. But the change team members experience has been just as dramatic as the change we have seen in the clubs. No one can do this ministry without being affected in a major way!
Neile Ifland admits she wasn’t sure what she was getting into three years ago when she stepped into this ministry. The classic “good girl,” Neile was raised in the church. After she married, she and her husband spent many years in high school and college ministry. Neile says both ministries involved meeting people “where they were,” and helped prepare her for her involvement in Bruised Reed.
What have you seen God do through the Bruised Reed ministry?
Neile Ifland: We change women’s (and men’s) perception of the church. Many thought God hated them because of what they do. Rick McKinley, author of Jesus in the Margins, says, “The reason that so many people who are deep in sin don’t believe that God loves them is because God’s people (Christians) don’t love them.” Through this ministry, we’re trying to show them otherwise. That messes with them. Sadly, love isn’t always what they expect from “church people.”
How has this ministry changed your life?
God has taught me so much. I’ve learned to ask myself the question, “If not us, then who?” The girls in the clubs aren’t likely to come out of the dark by themselves. We need to go in and show them the way out, by using love to light the way. Many I talk to don’t think they’re good enough to come to church, so the church needs to go to the dark places and love people right where they are.
Has he changed your heart toward those you are serving?
Absolutely. When I began serving, I was mad at the customers in the clubs. But God has taught me they’re just as lost as the women who work there. They’re all loved by Jesus and need him the same. I remember driving home and praying after one particularly disturbing night, and hearing God say, “I knew all of that ahead of time. I saw all of it in advance. And I chose to die for it anyway.” That will knock the wind out of anything judgmental that might be coming to your mind!
How else has it impacted you?
Every night is so different. We have to be prepared to face whatever is on the other side of that door every time we go. We had one dancer asking for prayer, one crying in the corner because her dad was dying, another who was pregnant and asking about church, one sleeping in her truck with her kittens because her boyfriend threatened to kill her, and a bouncer who was looking for another job. It has reinforced my belief that God will use us if we let him. There’s no doubt. What would happen if we weren’t there to listen that night? They needed us, and I’m so glad we were there. But they need Jesus even more!
What has God specifically taught you about serving on a team?
Our team is the best example of the body of Christ I have ever encountered. Our members are married, single, divorced, housewives, employed, black, white, many with broken pasts, loud, quiet, tattooed, pierced, white-haired. Every kind of personality and gift you can imagine working together; the youngest team member is in her early 20s, and the oldest is 83. I have seen firsthand how God fits the body of Christ together to serve, and it works!
What would you say to someone considering relational ministry similar to Bruised Reed?
Sign on the dotted line! I will never be the same. God has changed my heart. This is the wildest journey I have ever been on with him. Looking back, I know God brought me from “classic good girl” to a woman who now goes to strip clubs on Wednesday nights. This is from a recent journal entry I made: “Thank you, Lord, for the sheltered life I lived. It was a wonderful gift of protection. And thank you also for sending me out there in the vile, sad, and heart-breaking world to bring some of the broken in. This, too, is a gift . . . and it’s time.”
Ifland is now a delivery team leader and can’t imagine life without Bruised Reed.
Security team member David Miller said working with this ministry has changed his life. “In the Army—especially the special operations world—any show of emotion is considered a weakness. Being a part of Bruised Reed has shown me experiencing emotions is part of growing in Christ.”
What has it meant to “eat with sinners” as part of this program?
David Miller: Growing up, I was taught if you’re good you go to Heaven. When I became a Christian I was taught those who sin are bad. Working with Bruised Reed has taught me to “hate the sin but not the sinner.”
Each person this ministry serves has a unique story. Some of them are very open to the love our team brings. Some are skeptical about any love given freely with no strings attached. Bruised Reed plants the seed of God’s love and waters it faithfully every week without fail.
I am beginning to understand that true selfless love is a very new experience for them, and they need to experience this love constantly and often. It’s the only way they will truly understand the love of God.
And as a bonus: being on this team has made a real difference at home, too. My teenage daughter says I am much kinder since I began working with this ministry!
There are so many who have never heard about the unconditional love and grace of Christ. Several times a year we are blessed to meet with other churches and communities looking to start similar ministries. As God continues to call Christians to reach out with grace and compassion in relational ministry, we pray others will listen.
If you do, watch out, because your life will be radically changed!
(SIDEBAR) The Bruised Reed Ministry at a Glance
Bruised Reed is a ministry of Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky (although women from several other area churches participate). It began in 2005.
Number of clubs served: 5.
Number of volunteers: Started with 3 women “begging friends to cook and meeting in my apartment,” according to Jani Lewis. The ministry now involves about 200: 35 delivery, 15 security, 5 prayer, 145 on the food team (prepare and receive prepared food). The volunteers meet Wednesday nights at the church.
What the teams do:
Delivery: Trained volunteers deliver food to the clubs and form relationships with the girls and the staff.
Security: Men (and one wife) ride with the delivery team and wait in the parking lot to pray and watch the team enter and exit.
Prayer: Women pray at the church on the delivery nights and connect via e-mail throughout the week.
Food: Prep teams prepare food according to a preplanned menu and deliver it to the church on a given night. Intake teams work at the church on delivery night; they receive the food, keep it hot or cold as required, make sure all food is delivered, and help load the food into cars for delivery.
A typical Wednesday night schedule:
6:30: Food intake team arrives and sets up kitchen. Food prep teams deliver food until 8:00 pm.
7:45: Delivery team meets for prayer and updates.
8:15: Load cars.
8:30: Drive to clubs.
8:45: Ministry at the clubs. Sometimes this lasts 30 minutes. Sometimes two hours or more.
How the teams minister: The teams serve up to 150 people in the five clubs each week. Not only do they bring meals, but they also provide referral to appropriate social services throughout the community. Free medical and dental help is available through Southland’s Refuge Medical Clinic, and the church’s Helping Through HIM ministry offers furniture and clothing.
What the ministry has accomplished: “God made it very clear to us from the beginning that we are seed planters,” Lewis says. “While we do not gauge the success of this ministry on the number of women who are baptized or leave their jobs, we have been blessed to see tangible results.
“A number of women (and men) are now out of the industry—some in school, some in new jobs, some in job training programs. And we have had the joy of seeing many baptisms—women, men, and their children, as they come to know their true identity in Christ.”
(Sidebar) Next Step
For the last few years, it’s been obvious a “next step” was needed for the Bruised Reed ministry. What would we do with women ready to make a serious life change, but lacking the necessary resources? We began to pray and plan for a residential facility where women (and their children) could go to heal and prepare for life outside the industry. That dream has come true! In April, the Refuge for Women opened in central Kentucky. For more information about RFW, contact Ked at firstname.lastname@example.org