If I were to describe my 12 years ministering to prostitutes, I would have to say I felt truly powerless on the one hand and deeply aware of God’s presence on the other.
The area I visited in downtown Seoul, Korea, had nearly 200 brothels with around 1,500 young women working in them. The streets were too narrow for any kind of transport which meant that when walking past the brothels you were very close to the girls. They were sitting in what only can be described as large shop windows, right on the narrow streets.
I used to visit every evening. I will never forget my very first visit to the area. Embarrassed, uneasy and even ashamed, I wanted to run away. Looking at ranks of young girls sitting in neat rows, waiting for some man to come in and pick them out from their companions, to take them into a back room and there to do as they pleased with them was horrifying.
I knew from the beginning that I was not welcome but on the third night I was questioned by three different people in that notorious red-light district. I thought, ‘They’re on to me’. They had to be the men, maybe pimps, on the lookout for intruders and no doubt I fitted that category. But I also felt that the only thing to do was to take the bull by the horns and go again the next evening even though my legs were shaking. But nobody stopped me and I never again got the feeling I was being followed.
Many of these young girls came from broken or abusive families. One girl told me of how she was gang raped. She was one of the few who went to the police. When her family heard she had gone to the police they totally rejected her. She was sent away and with no place to go, ended up in a brothel.
And so there was I, in this hellish place, like some kind of mad woman saying ‘Hello’ to this most uninterested group of women.
Slowly more and more people began to accept me and even look forward to my coming.
One night a girl ran out to me and asked if I would teach her English. “Of course,” I said and invited her to come to the small shelter where I lived in community with girls like her, all hoping for a way out of prostitution. She came and when I told her she was welcome to stay she was so surprised, she could not believe it was really happening to her. We were able to help her recover her true self and then get her a job and a new beginning in life.
I was probably a good while in the area when some of the women started calling me Angel. “Here comes the Angel,” they would say. One evening one of them said, “You will surely go to Heaven.” “Not without you,” I answered, “I won’t go to Heaven alone.”
Sr. Miriam Cousins is a Columban Sister and has served for almost 40 years in Korea. She was also honoured by the Korean Government for her work with HIV/AIDS patients.