English for Sex and Migrant Workers

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Yesterday night, I went out with a group of Christians for an exposure walk around Geylang. For those not familiar with Singapore, Geylang is Singapore’s infamous red-light district – although also famous for its good food! Each group spent about 40 minutes walking along 4 streets. We also entered the alleys. It was definitely an insightful experience for me.

This group was a bunch of progressive-leaning Christians from the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and Free Community Church (FCC).They’re hoping to start a ministry to the sex workers in Geylang and so this was an awareness trip organized for people interested in the ministry.

I brought an East-Timor missionary friend I met at the YWAM gathering I attended two weeks ago. Incidentally, YWAM has also been working with sex workers. Just before that gathering took place two weeks ago, YWAM held a mooncake party for sex-workers in the same room. Both FCC and YWAM are situated in Geylang and so it’s good that they’re working with these people.

Anyway, this group hopes to use some form of English classes to reach out to the sex workers. That’s definitely interesting and it’s been done before. For example, there’s an x:talk project in London which gives “free English classes for sex workers by sex workers”. A Thai NGO, Empower, also offers English classes to sex workers. From a Christian bent, you have Rehab Ministries.

For these people, improving their English empowers them:

Many foreign sex workers struggle to string a sentence together when they are negotiating prices and sexual acts with clients. When men put pressure on them to provide sex acts without a condom, it is much harder to refuse when they are unable to cajole punters into accepting something safer. The language barrier means they also fail to secure themselves the best possible deals and working conditions with brothel owners.

But of course there are many important issues to think about. For example, by teaching English, are we thus “encouraging them to do the work”, which was a criticism of the Thai NGO Empower (see Robert Preece’s “The Edge of ESP: English for Sex Workers” article in the Aug/Sep 1997 edition of TESOL Matters). That is, are we legitimizing their kind of work?

And if we see this as “ministry” to sex workers, what is the purpose of our ministry? What are we trying to help them for? Should we even be seeing what we do as trying to “help” them? Is that being too condescending? Or should our work been seen as more of coming alongside them? x:talk quoted Australian Aboriginal activist Lila Watson in their website:

If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

How do we define our success? Do we seek that they quit their jobs and find a new one? But what if they can’t find a better job – in their home country or here? The problem is definitely more complex than just getting them to quit their job, if indeed that is one of our goals.

Do we see this from a moralistic (“oh, sex work is really bad and it’s a sin!”) point of view, or do we see this from another perspective? And very importantly, because we’re Christians, how does the gospel of Jesus Christ fit into all this? A lot of tough questions to think about. And how we answer, I would argue, depends a lot on our ideology and Christian beliefs. The more progressive SCM/FCC would view their ministry differently from how YWAM views their ministry. I’m sure both will have similarities, but also differences. For me, I’m more progressive in relation to most evangelicals, but more conservative in relation to SCM/FCC.

Anyway, this last month or so has opened up my eyes to the opportunities in using teaching English to reach out to people beyond international students. I’ve been working with Christian friends over the past few months to start a weekly free English class for international students. That’s been going well, but we still need more support and help so if you’re reading this and would like to be involved in any (however small) way, do get in touch with me! But along the way I’ve come across people who have asked me to consider free English classes for migrant workers and now I’m thinking about how such can be done for sex workers. I’m not sure I’ll really get into working with migrant or sex workers just yet because working with international students and working with migrant/sex workers is very different. At least I can relate better to the international students who are around my age and with whom I have a lot in common. But I definitely want to move towards working with the migrant and sex workers in the (hopefully near) future.

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  1. Interestingly, I was also at Geylang just 2 weeks ago. U may be interested in this:
    A clinic which offers services at minimal consultation costs for migrant workers, located at Geylang (next to YWAM @ Highpoint). They also give english lessons to foreign workers.

    Got to know another lady who walks the streets too and befriends people there. =p There’s a grp of them that seeks to bring worship into Geylang. Another grp she introduced me to- a house church, has daily worship at another Lorong in Geylang.

    Encouraging right? I find God is so present in Geylang, and like hanging out at Highpoint. It was warmed my heart fellowshiping with these ones there.

  2. Hi Lois,

    Thanks for your message. I am a bit familiar with Healthserve, having met Peter at the YWAM gathering. I do believe they also have a free clinic on Sundays in Little India (with AEF?). I’ll definitely find out more about the English lessons!

    It’s indeed good to hear that there are Christian groups involved in these areas :) I was in Little India last night (Sunday) with some friends and the place is super-duper crowded. So many opportunities around…

  3. I just stumbled across your blog, and have found it to be well written and balanced, for the most part :)

    I am fully supportive and empathetic to your views for the need of ministries for the poor and needy. Although I am equal passionate about the urgent need for authentic and intentional disciple making :) The need of sex workers (particularly the Chinese) strike a cord with me because many elect to come in the hope of a better life, less so because of extreme poverty.

    I was surprised with the position of FCC, a position I would assume you are fully aware of. Written in their website and stated by their pastoral adviser, FCC supports the GLBT movement and believe that homosexuality is not a sin. Is this what you agree and subscribe to as well?

  4. Hi Tav,

    I suppose you’re from CEFC? :) – Intentional Discipleship Making! Yes, I am familiar with FCC. I attended it for about a year or so (maybe less) and I have good friends from there. I know what they believe and I know they are not really regarded as Christian by most (if not all) evangelical churches in Singapore.

    My thoughts on FCC are here. You’d probably find me even less balanced after reading that ;) Anyway, I didn’t agree with FCC because I thought they were theologically too liberal for me and that’s one of the reasons why I left the Church. But I’m supportive of what they are doing to an extent. I don’t think any church is perfect and while I’ll disagree with them in many important theological points, I also agree with them in a lot of areas and I think the conservative evangelical church has a lot to learn from them – even as I think the opposite is also true.

    I do believe homosexual acts are sinful, but I’d disagree with the response of most conservative evangelicals. An article I think expresses my present view to quite large extent is this one.

    I’m not sure what you mean by whether I agree with their support of the LGBT movement. I’m very sympathetic to the LGBT community, but don’t agree with everything. On the other hand, I certainly would not identify with the Christian Right’s response to the movement. So far, what I’ve seen from Christians in Singapore (and some have spoken out very loud over the past few years) in response to the “movement” here is nothing different from the Christian Right in America or anywhere else. I don’t agree with either side fully. I think both sides are reactionary.

    It’s so sad that Christians have reacted the way we have to the LGBT community. Young non-Christians see us as judgmental, anti-gay and hypocritical, as this study found out last year. We don’t have to be known as judgmental and anti-gay even if we disagree with their beliefs and actions. The fact that we’re known for these things means that our approach to the LGBT community is clearly wrong. Jesus was against sin, yet he wasn’t here to judge or condemn people, but to love and save them. He wasn’t known for his judgmental attitude and definitely not for his anti-gay or anti-adultery stance; He was known for His love ultimately. He was love personified. Love, grace and acceptance characterized Him and His ministry, but sadly not the Church today.

    If I had to choose between supporting the Christian Right (or Christians who adopt similar tactics, attitudes or actions) and the LGBT movement, I’ll clearly support the latter. Not because I agree with everything there. But because Christians are known so much for their anti-gay and judgmental actions that if I were to err on one side, I’d err on the side of the LGBT movement any day. While I don’t think Jesus would agree with everything there, I’m quite certain that He’s definitely on their side on certain issues. And I’m quite certain He’s on their side on some issues against the church too! The Jesus I know and the one I worship would always stick up for the marginalized and the LGBT community is one of the most marginalized communities in the world today. That doesn’t mean that He would agree with their lifestyle or agree with everything about them, in the same way he didn’t agree with the lifestyle of the woman who committed adultery, but still stuck up for her against all who wanted to judge and condemn her.

    I wish the church would not speak up much about this issue because whenever we do speak up, words of judgment just come flowing out. We can argue that we are actually loving these people in all our protests and pronouncements and condemnation of their acts, but I think if we actually believe that, we just deceive ourselves. I can’t judge the hearts of individuals who say they are genuinely concerned and love the LGBT community. But I think as a whole the Church has gotten a bad reputation and justly so. As a whole, for many years we have not been loving the LGBT community, only judging them. We have not tried to understand them, but only tell them that they are wrong and need to change. We have not bothered to listened to them, but only speak down to them. Thus our well-deserved reputation.

    I think we should keep quiet and just show love and love and more love and pray and pray and pray. Maybe until we’re known as lovers and givers and sacrificers for the poor, the lost and the marginalized, rather than hoarders of money and self-righteous hypocrites who love to point out the sins of others – maybe then can we speak out and the world will listen and God’s love would truly transform people. Apart from the theology of grace and love, I don’t think more theology or better theology or a louder proclamation of right theology and what sin is is what the world or the church needs. Rather, what the world needs is the preaching of the gospel of grace (which is all about love and acceptance, not judgment and condemnation) and us seeking to live out out lives of grace and love.

    Sorry for this long response. The question touched a nerve ;) Cheers!

  5. You are right Bro!! I too hope that the Church world stop talking about this issue. Whenever Christians open their mouth to express their judgemental opinions they are making the situation worst. I’ve had some conversation with few members of LGBT community, (here in the city of Toronto) I came to learn that most of them are broken people. I pray that the Church takes some time to understand this group of people instead Condemning them to hell.

    Peace be with you :)

  6. Hi Suyin,

    Good to meet you yesterday too! Haha, I’ve been writing for about 10 years plus and it’s all on this site! I believe we have much to learn from each other and also from the people who have been doing great work reaching out to the ladies in Geylang yesterday. Tremendous stuff!

  7. Hi: I searched on internet and saw there is some interest in the topic. So I typed in a bit of a shocking section that was editorially cut out of the interview–word count and it probably would have freaked out a lot of readership. I remember showing this to colleagues at my university–we were in complete shock. (I still have the original interview tape.) The addition is in [brackets].

    Personally, looking back to the interview and the visit to the school, I still don’t know what to think of it all. I’ve always been more of a journalist than an English teacher. At the time, no article had been published on it, so I saw my role as making more people aware of the impact of globalizing English and to raise difficult questions about the marketing language of English for Specific Purposes and teaching English always being a good thing.

    Later on, I recall a journal editor colleague encouraged me to write an academic article on ESW. I recall saying, “No thanks–I’ve had enough! I’ve done my job– now (more) people know this exists. It’s up to others to take it further in that academic way if they choose.”

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