EVERY TUESDAY, AI JIN and two other young women from one of China’s underground urban Christian churches get together to pray—then walk the streets of a mafia-run red light district to tell girls as young as 13 who work in brothels that they can get out of prostitution. “Eight years ago, the average girl working in brothels was 25. Now it’s 14 and 15,” Ai Jin tells me. “I think it’ll get worse since it’s more difficult to find jobs, especially for girls from poor families with no education. They desperately need money to survive.”
Ai Jin and her two colleagues work with Mercy Outreach, an organization that offers prostitutes and trafficked women a safe home and alternative jobs. Started in 2003, Mercy Outreach is one of the first social enterprises of its kind based near the infamous “Golden Triangle”—the euphemistic name for one of the world’s busiest drug-trafficking routes. Running through Thailand, Burma, and Laos and bleeding into China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, it is a potent mix of extreme poverty, sex trafficking, rampant illicit drug production, and complicit local government leaders and warlords.
Ai Jin, 28, is part of a new breed of daring young women pioneers from the underground church reaching marginalized people, such as prostitutes, who had not previously been readily welcomed into house churches. “My pastor told me that what I’m doing in reaching out to prostitutes is what Jesus did,” Ai Jin says. “When I first started working at Mercy Outreach, I didn’t even want to shake hands with prostitutes. Every day I prayed for more love for the women. Now I can treat them like my own family.”