By Katelyn Grounds
Life-changing ministries often start simple, with a handful of people and a common vision. That is true for Natalie’s Sisters.
In 2000, three women sat down over lunch and decided it was time to answer God’s calling on their lives to minister to women caught in the sex industry. Soon they were taking home-cooked meals to women in Lexington’s strip clubs. That’s when Bruised Reed (as it was originally known) was born.
The mission statement captures the group’s vision: “. . . to create life changing opportunities for women in the sex industry by extending hope, support, and God’s unconditional love.” Over the next 11 years, volunteers continued to spread Christ’s love by visiting and building relationship with women in local strip clubs.
In 2011, the women of Bruised Reed felt God leading them to expand their ministry. They weren’t sure what the expansion was supposed to look like, so they prayed relentlessly for about a year. In January 2012, they learned one of the women they had been ministering to, Natalie, had been murdered by her pimp/boyfriend.
At about the same time, a group of six police officers who were tired of throwing women in jail began praying for a better way to help the women they encountered on the streets. After Natalie’s murder, the six police officers met with the women of Bruised Reed, and they realized they had been praying for each other all along.
With support from the police, Bruised Reed decided it was time to expand its ministry beyond the clubs and into the streets in order to reach more women caught in the sex industry. Feeling that Natalie represented the kind of person the group wanted to bring hope and healing to, Bruised Reed renamed its ministry Natalie’s Sisters and has been serving faithfully in both the strip clubs and on the streets of Lexington ever since.
Natalie’s Sisters’ street outreach involves dropping off food to women on the streets and running a drop-in center for them, providing women with life-skills training, visiting women in jail, referring women to community resources, and offering other kinds of help.
Club outreach involves bringing food to women in the strip clubs, planning girls’ nights out and fun seasonal events, leading a Vacation Bible School for girls in the clubs, providing opportunities for discipleship, and other related activities.
The goal is the same with both outreach efforts: to meet women where they are, to build long-lasting relationships, and to provide them with countless opportunities for growth and healing. Natalie’s Sisters is currently partnered with numerous churches around the Lexington area, and with the help of hundreds of volunteers, it continues to be a nonprofit that pours hope and love into the darkest of places.
Natalie’s Sisters seeks to love like Jesus loves. Its workers strive to meet spiritual and physical needs: love, encouragement, friendship, basic necessities, access to a closet full of clothes, home-cooked meals, and a safe shelter for those who want to get away.
“Jesus spent a lot of time eating with people and developing relationships,” said Neile Ifland, who has been serving for nine years. “There’s something about sharing a meal that makes people feel loved and welcomed. Jesus knew this, and we try to emulate it.”
This ministry also seeks to meet people where they are, just as Jesus did. In Jesus’ day, the overly religious people often ignored or denounced prostitutes and adulterers. Carol Reynolds, who has been serving with the ministry since 2009, points out that Jesus spent only part of his time at the temple. The rest of his time Jesus spent on the fringes of society, loving people where they were and meeting their needs. Natalie’s Sisters seeks to emulate Jesus by being the “first touch” nonreligious people have with the gospel by coming and meeting them where they are. Simply put, Natalie’s Sisters brings the church to the broken.
“We don’t go into the strip clubs with Bibles and pamphlets,” said Jani Lewis, one of the ministry’s founders. “We start with authentic relationships and go from there.”
The ministry also reflects Jesus in the way its volunteers unconditionally love the women they encounter. They genuinely believe consistency and authenticity are the key to building long-lasting relationships that bring hope and healing over time. They refuse to give up on these women, even if it means visiting them in jail or helping them find a rehab center for drug addiction.
“Natalie’s Sisters is all about relationship,” Ifland said, “. . . coming alongside women right where they are, in the midst of their brokenness and mess, and loving them unconditionally. We reach out to the women who are way out on the edges.”
The Great Commission does not say, “Stay and wait for the broken to come to you,” but rather, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This ministry gets this simple yet pivotal command.
Ministry volunteers believe God is leading this ministry and helping workers make pivotal connections along the way.
“Honestly, this ministry doesn’t work at all if God isn’t at work within it,” Ifland said. “He has allowed us access into strip clubs, and the club managers welcome us with open arms—that’s God clearly at work.”
“We are a church group partnered with the government,” added Reynolds. “How can you deny God in that? How often does that happen?”
The volunteers experience a lot of joy from being a part of Natalie’s Sisters, though it can be a heartbreaking ministry that requires being up close and personal with extreme brokenness and despair.
Lewis, who helped found the ministry, was a single mom involved in the strip clubs from the ages of 18 to 21. She said once she received personal healing, she desired to go back and help other girls caught in the sex industry heal as well. She said it has been such a blessing watching God use her story to bring hope and healing to others, and she truly believes God will always use our pain in productive and life-giving ways if we allow him to.
Ifland said there are a lot of hard things about serving with this ministry, “but it is also the greatest joy when someone finds the life they were created for.”
Kate Grounds is working toward a Master of Theology degree at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.