By Jose Gaspar
One of the things I enjoy about my job is the firsthand look at so many different aspects of life in Kern County. Most are positive experiences and I walk away with another perspective.
Recently, I was invited by a local pastor to witness efforts of his congregation to reach out to women of the night. I wasn't quite sure what to expect.
Twice a month, Pastor Doug Bennett and his flock at Magdalene Hope Ministries hit the streets contacting females who ply their trade along the numerous motels on South Union Avenue. The group meets them on their own turf.
"Our ultimate goal is to get them off the street," Bennett said. "We're not here to point fingers at anybody."
Before heading to the streets, however, the group first organizes gift bags containing items such as candy, hair bows, the group's business card, Tampons and a pocket Bible. These will come in handy to break the ice when approaching a woman on the street.
Then the group discusses its mission for the evening and prays for guidance and safety. It breaks into two, going in separate vehicles with about four in each one. Right before heading out, an emblem with the words "Magdalene Hope" is placed on each vehicle. It has the silhouetted image of a hooker whose shadow makes a cross. Then as the sun about disappears, Bennett and his flock hit the streets.
It doesn't take very long to come upon women walking or standing on the sidewalk drumming up business. Pastor Doug pulls over the SUV and co-worker Dina Bond, who is seated in the front passenger seat, initiates contact with a woman.
"Hi friend, can I give you a gift bag?" Bond asks. The woman accepts, looks in the gift bag and says thank you. It's a chance for Bond to engage the woman in talk, telling the woman the group is from Magdalene Hope. "Is there anything we can do for you?" Bond asks. "Pray for my safety," says the woman who appears to be in her early 20s.
The night is still early, about 9 p.m. But business is thriving at numerous motels, which have only one driveway in and out. As we drive into one, a series of scantily clad women stands in front of their room with the door open. And then a steady line of customers starts arriving, most in late-model cars. I remain in the pastor's vehicle so as not to attract any suspicion. A downside of being a TV reporter is that you are easily recognized in the most bizarre places. I watch Pastor Bennett and Bond approach some familiar faces.
"What's up, girl?" Bennett says to a woman. "How are you guys doing tonight?" she answers.
She appears to be in her 20s and says she is from the Bay Area. In town for a few days, she tells Bennett she doesn't know how much longer she'll be in Bakersfield before she is sent somewhere else. After some talk, Bennett says goodbye and then she too asks the group to keep her in their prayers.
Just down the street at the corner of Brundage Lane and Union Avenue, Bennett spots a very young looking girl pacing the sidewalk and drives up next to her. Despite her make-up, her young teen features are apparent. This sight weighs heavily on Pastor Bennett and he loses it.
"You haven't been out here long, have you?" Bennett almost yells at the startled girl from inside the car. "Listen to me, go home! This money, this lifestyle are not for you," Bennett tells the frozen girl, who is clearly caught off guard. She answers in a meek voice, saying thank you as she accepts a gift bag, and walks away. Bennett confesses the sight of such a young girl reminds him of his own daughter.
The contact with hookers isn't limited to the streets. Once Magdalene Hope gains their trust, the group stays in contact with those who wish to start a new life or at least break away for a while. Volunteers take the women to court to take care of any warrants, doctor appointments, church or to lunch. The aim is to plant a seed in hopes the women will grow the courage to leave the streets.
It's hardly easy.
"These women are bound by addiction," Bennett said. "I'd say 90 percent of them want to get out of the business."
The group then heads to the home of a 52-year-old woman who has made friends with Magdalene Hope members. I tell her I'm a reporter and ask if she'd mind some questions. Go ahead and ask, she says.
Originally from New York, she says she willingly became a hooker four years ago and it hasn't been a good life.
"A lot of my friends have died, been murdered, beaten to death. I'm still here," says the 52-year-old mother of two grown children. She still walks the streets, but attends church and Bennett hopes that with help and encouragement, she will leave the street life.
The group is also actively involved in trying to stiffen sex trafficking laws. It is part of a larger coalition endorsing Proposition 35, an initiative on the November ballot called Californians Against Sexual Slavery and Exploitation. Any chance he gets, Bennett promotes the initiative. Proponents claim it would strengthen state laws and punishments for human trafficking. The initiative aims to: increase prison time for human traffickers; require convicted sex traffickers to register as sex offenders; require all registered sex offenders to disclose their Internet accounts; require criminal fines from convicted human traffickers to pay for victim services; and mandate law enforcement training on the issue.
After a few hours of hitting the streets, the group from Magdalene Hope goes over its work and discusses ways it might improve. I thank the group and walk away with mixed emotions. A sad situation to be sure and a difficult way to survive.
At times, the work appears to be overwhelming, but Magdalene Hope is undeterred. "I'm going to keep doing this until God tells me stop," Bennett said.
To report sex trafficking, forced labor or to get help call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888. It is not a government entity, or associated with law enforcement or immigration authorities. Help in English and Spanish is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round.
-- Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.