A Reflection on caroling in Bolivia’s most notorious red-light district, by former WMF staff member Heather Coaster Goertzen
Darkest Night of the Year. It’s the title of Over the Rhine’s Christmas album, but the words themselves seem to be the mantra to which I walk as I pass in and out of brothel doors. Every time I enter these places, I have let my eyes adjust to the dim red glow of the interior; I have tried to block out the mixed smell of alcohol, sex and urine; I have swallowed the never-dulling shock and disgust of passing an exiting client as I make my way toward one of my friends. Tonight somehow feels different, darker in a way that didn’t seem possible before.
I spent the earlier part of the day baking cookies, searching El Alto’s market for wrapping paper and reading e-mails of Christmas greetings from home that brought tears for the reminders of family and friends I was missing. Now I clutch my paper scribbled with newly-learned Spanish Christmas carols and follow this ridiculous-looking group of WMF Bolivia staff and volunteers sporting Santa hats, a guitar and recorder for accompaniment, a thermos full of hot chocolate, and a supply of plastic Dixie cups. We have been told the girls working tonight will be few but we find more than we expect. I am not the only one away from family tonight. I make eye contact with one of the men and wonder who might be missing him this Noche Buena (Christmas Eve). The music is loud, the request for temporary reprieve is granted, and we find ourselves in a suddenly silent brothel, under the gazes of clients and girls.
To the tune of “Silent Night” we sing, Noche de amor, noche de paz. “Night of love, night of peace.” It feels almost mocking. How can I sing of love and peace in this place where the most beautiful expressions of love are defiled, where peace is shattered repeatedly? I make my way to one of the girls in a doorway. I don’t know her well, can’t remember her name, but recognize her from lunches at the center. I receive a warm look of recognition from her as well, greet her with a customary kiss, embrace and find her falling into me, the jerk of a sob on my shoulder. She holds me for a moment then pulls away, wipes her tears, and I take her hand and lead her to where the rest of the group has gathered, pulling the song sheet from my pocket. I stand there with my hand over her shoulder, fingers intertwined in hers, and hear her voice join our little indiscriminate choir. O santa noche. How can this night be holy?
But these are the songs we sing, about silent, holy nights of love and peace. A night both dark and sacred. Quiet enough to crave the cry of a baby King, black enough to welcome the light of the star of Bethlehem. The Darkest Night of the Year. And into this night we are asked to bring Truth. Say to the Daughter of Zion, “See, your Savior comes!” (Isaiah 62:11). We are asked to carry light, to hold the hand of one of His beloved, to tell her she is remembered.
Back at the center, as the guitar is being packed up and hats are coming off, our friend and board director, Humberto, will describe this night as the most atrevido of his life. Atrevido. This one word holds implications of boldness, insolence, daring. And perhaps it is. Perhaps this is indeed the scandal of the Gospel. And perhaps tonight I understand it in a way that I never have before.
With tears in my own eyes, I had asked her to come with us. Begged her to leave. She stayed. We had continued on, singing those same carols a dozen times more, receiving skeptical looks from bouncers and applause from drunken men. The girls were quieter recipients, but in the weeks that followed we would hear gracias a hundred times or more. Thank you. Thank you for remembering us.
And He does. He remembers her. He comes for her, to her, into the darkest of nights, into her darkest of rooms. He stands with her there and holds her hand.
See, your Savior comes.