There are cigarette butts and plastic wrappers carpeting the cobblestones; a mixture of leaves and dirt and gunk plants itself in the cracks between the buildings and the street. A street cleaner barely misses the backs of our bean boots and Converse and Vans with his hose–it’s probably intentional, washing away the grime of this place, one that so many come to gape at now, a tourist attraction. There’s grime from the lives lived here and grime from the lives who pop by for just a day, or a weekend, a new European city on the agenda in 72 hours.
That’s something I’m learning: wherever people build their lives, they leave their grime. Grime isn’t a privilege of leading what’s considered a “seedier” lifestyle–prostitute, pimp, drug dealer, john. Grime is a byproduct of being human, of sin itself. My cookie-cutter college girl life still produces grime without Christ to redeem me. It shows up in the times when I break promises and deceive and manipulate.
It’s 9am Monday morning and we’re in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The sun is up. The red lights are on–they always are, somewhere in the streets. The District houses a few hundred windows, shrouded in red from light just above the doorframe, where prostitutes work.
I learn my usual bright-eyed, bushy-tailed curious attitude is less welcome here than at a classroom desk or in a lecture. The women are used to stares from wide eyes that have never dared venture into their world before. But in the way I expect, the Red Light District doesn’t deliver. There aren’t men banging down all the windows, barreling through the streets like hungry pigs. There aren’t husbands slipping wedding rings into pockets, nor are there lurkers, feet planted firmly in the shadows, gripping condoms between a thumb and index finger.
There are, however, girls in the windows. There are girls who pose in police outfits and bikinis, girls in lacy lingerie and even a girl, bored, standing against the door frame in what looks like a Comfort Colors tank top, scrolling on her phone. There are girls playing music, with handheld stereo systems dancing around their allotted square inches of window space, and girls who lean back behind the divider to converse with companions. Each one of them is a sinner loved by the Lord–just like I am. Some of them, to my shock, choose prostitution willingly.
I looked for Sodom and Gomorrah in this place and I got a good, long look at my own homegrown sin. I looked for a place I could point a righteous finger at, call it wrong, and leave. I got a reality check and a deeper understanding of the Lord’s love for us.
The discussion surrounding the sinfulness of buying and selling sex is not my concern, the life-rocking understanding of the humanity of the people who walk and pose in these streets is. There are always going to be people crying out that we the people–we the dirty, stinky, grubby people–are, by our sin, destroying morality and Biblical values and chastity but when the Lord tells us it is finished, it is.
In the end, He wins. It is finished.
It is finished, which means God’s going to use our world, layered in grime, to glorify himself in ways we can’t imagine. Our surface-level analysis of the ways we’ve failed is the deluded science fair project to his NASA-sized love and redemption.
To me, that means less judgment when I see a girl standing in an outfit I couldn’t dare to wear in public and more understanding that this girl’s heart is being pursued by the Lord. She is valuable; she has something to offer; she might not benefit by my patronizing, unwanted opinion, “Do you know how much you’re giving away when you let all these men touch you?” Maybe I went to Amsterdam not to teach prostitutes how unfortunate their lives are but to trade in my judgment for a kind smile, my righteousness for understanding and the respect a woman loved by the Lord should always be offered.
I choose to believe that the Lord is working in the hearts of all people, including the women who stand in their windows in Amsterdam day after day. By this belief the Pharisee in me no longer has to run through the streets with shouts of “Repent!” on my lips. I am free to value them as women and people and friends, to walk knee-deep into fellowship rather than making myself the savior of their lives.