On a road trip across the state, three friends stopped for gas. With limited money for food, one of the girls decided to sell herself to truckers to pick up some extra cash for gas. She broadcasted herself over a trucker’s CB radio, but the plan wasn’t that easy. She was left beaten behind the gas station with several broken bones.
Healing was slow, but the bruises and scars faded, and the bills piled up. Jennifer was introduced to a group of kind, older men who “took care of her” as long as she “took care of them.” It was prostitution, but she believed that as long as they were paying her for just her “time,” then it was legal.
“I felt cared for, needed, and wanted,” said Jennifer.
Finally, Jennifer found a man who wanted to marry her. She quit prostituting herself until he went to jail, and she couldn’t pay the bills.
In the spring of 2015, Jennifer found herself sitting across from two neatly dressed women. Jennifer had spent the last twelve years doing cocaine and had recently tried prostituting herself to pay for food. If she got a job, she would have $1000 of child support taken out of her check. Prostitution was an easy way to make money under the table.
Jennifer hadn’t eaten in days, but the only thing that she could think about were the drugs that the officers had taken from her. The withdrawals would start within a few hours.
From the moment of her arrest, Jennifer knew that something wasn’t right. Instead of jail, the cops had taken her to a house where two ladies immediately hugged her in her street clothes, and then fed her.
Investigator Terry Buckley, from the Internet Crimes division of the Jackson Police Department, found Jennifer’s ad for sex on Craigslist, but his plan from the beginning was never to keep Jennifer in jail. He wanted to give her something that she had never been offered before: a chance to escape.
In the months leading up to the arrest, Investigator Buckley had heard a sermon at his church about Jesus rescuing an adulterous woman from being stoned. The story resonated with him like never before as he thought about the adulterous woman’s relief and subsequent change in heart.
Buckley suddenly found himself in a unique situation. He had the perfect occupation to find prostitutes and the approval of the new police chief, Chief Julian Wiser, to create a new program to rescue prostitutes. After a providential meeting with Debbie Currie, the Scarlet Rope Project was born.
Buckley laid out three paths for Jennifer to choose.
The first path was the easiest. Jennifer could pay a $100 fine and be back on the streets of Jackson in the next hour. If she went back on the streets, she could easily make $100 in about 15 minutes and the withdrawal symptoms could be alleviated by the end of the night. Clients were only an online ad and a text message away.
Or, she could go to court and fight the charges.
The third option was not appealing at all.
It involved living at the Care Center for six months with dozens of other homeless and convicted women, following the rules of a large, bald man with an intimidating persona—Nathan Young, the director of the Care Center.
Jennifer was introduced to two other prostitutes who had chosen to participate in the Scarlet Rope Project. With their encouragement and over time, Jennifer discovered that Young was not what he seemed.
Young used oddly phrased terms such as, “work on yourself” and “change your heart,” and, as he heard her story, he cried with her.
In the end, the word that Jennifer clung to was “escape,” and she chose the rocky, precarious path of healing. She moved into the Care Center and began the process of understanding how to feel after years of hardening her heart to prevent feeling abuse and rejection.
“I had always wanted a way out, but I didn’t know how to stop or what to do next,” said Jennifer.
Most people think that prostitutes choose to live this lifestyle; however most prostitutes are coerced either physically or financially, said Investigator Buckley.
Jennifer was taken to a white house on top of the hill behind JEA on North Liberty Street. At the Care Center, Nathan and his wife, Susan, have taken in the homeless, the convicted, and the unwanted for 23 years.
“No one is immune to living the life of a prostitute. We have seen women with bachelors degrees, nurses, college students, and stay-at-home moms,” said Julanne Stone, the volunteer administrator for the Scarlet Rope Project.
Buckley and Currie teamed up with Stone and Young to create the Scarlet Rope Project, but they needed volunteers who were willing to invest time and resources to make the project successful.
“Women in Jackson are rallying around these women and loving them for who they can be, not for who they were,” said Currie. “The process that many of the Scarlet Rope women go through is painful, and having women walk alongside them can give them the strength that they need to believe that they can make it.”
As a volunteer, I have seen the plot of women’s lives unraveled revealing something that is true of all of us; our possessions, our relationships, even our community cannot make us whole. Their story is the same as mine. While I may not have sold my body for money, my heart is familiar with guilt. But the darkness of my past isn’t a red letter ‘A’ embroidered on my clothes for all the world to judge.
If I had to choose the path of long days uncovering and remembering my own darkness, I doubt that I would last long.
“The Scarlet Rope is only for the courageous, even if they don’t make it,” said Currie. “This isn't the easy way out. And, if they don’t make it, at least they were loved and cared for.”
Sitting on the front porch of the Care Center, with Bibles open in their laps and cigarettes hanging from their lips, the women dissect the stories of their lives and dream about a different future.
The Youngs have not only taken in prostitutes for the Scarlet Rope Project, but they have also spent the last two decades taking in women who have been beaten, thrown out, abused, forgotten, and convicted. Nathan peers through their messed-up, dirty lives and sees a potential future. It’s a future that the women hardly dare to think about.
From the moment that they walk through the door, Nathan guides the women through the process of “working on themselves”: digging up memories, feelings, and people that have contributed to distorting the person that they were meant to be.
Local judges rely on Young to house convicted felons who may benefit from Young’s counseling. Women fight to get back their children. The addicted find something else to live for. The homeless find shelter, and the hungry are fed.
Young requires the women to fill out job applications, learn how to use the bus, make a budget, do household chores, and learn other life skills. With a front row seat, Young watches hardened criminals learn to love and the homeless and addicted discover their worth. But Young is clear that the recognition for the change in their lives doesn’t belong to Nathan Young.
“Nothing gets done here if God doesn’t do it,” said Young. “The Care Center is just a place where we get to see God at work.”
Many of the girls wear a red rope bracelet on their wrists to remind them of who they were and what they can be. The bracelet is reminiscent of the scarlet rope from the story of Rahab: a prostitute who became one of God’s chosen people and entered the lineage of Christ. At the Care Center, the girls cling to the story of Rahab, rather than rehab.
“I believed that I was important,” said Jennifer. “I was getting so many calls that I needed a secretary. It was exciting, and I thought that those men really cared about me.”
On the front porch of the looming, white house on the hill above North Liberty Street, the homeless, the beaten and the immoral are discovering their true worth.
“This is not rehab,” said Jennifer. “Nathan dreams for me. He sees what I can be and not who I was. When he looks at me, he doesn't see me as a prostitute. He sees a person that can raise her children. To know that someone is dreaming for me has given me an unshatterable hope.”
Proud to be a local Jacksonian, Ginger Williams tried to move away in college, but Jackson has that magnetic quality that pulls you back. As a child she lived in the trees, read lots of books, and wrote stories, and not much has changed. Ginger is a writer, a journalist, a volunteer, a homeschool mom, and a marketing associate for Reed Marketing. Her husband Matt and sons Blake and Ethan love living in Jackson and enjoying ice cream at the Old Country Store, soccer at North Park, and being only ten minutes from everything so that they are almost never late. She loves to tell the stories of Jackson so that others will become endeared to the city that she loves.