Unbreakable

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It was the summer of 2007.

Deb Rapport was in between her second and third year of seminary and was spending the time interning at the Evergreen Centre for Street Youth, part of Yonge Street Mission in downtown Toronto.

On her first full day in the drop-in centre, she was shadowing one of the full-time staff.

“He told me we’d spend the majority of our afternoon taking care of a girl who came in regularly,” Rapport told me one day in her tiny office in East Toronto. “When she did, she was really high; I remember she wasn’t wearing any shoes so the soles of her feet were black. Her hair was partly shaved and partly matted. And she was sort of going through the symptoms of being high.

She had a hoodie on and it would fly open and we would see scars on her arms from drug use and self-harm. We were trying to get her to calm down and eat something and drink something—she was on a painful high, hallucinating and going through painful things. She’d go back and forth between apologizing and saying she’s not used to being like this, that she’s not normally like this, and then yelling at anyone who looked at her the wrong way.

“She wanted a joint. She said it would help her eat and sleep and calm down. And she was yelling at people as they passed by on Yonge Street. So the cops came and took her away. The whole thing went down pretty traumatically—the way they dealt with it, etc. That was right in Evergreen. We were trying to talk to them and say to them we can give support and help her. But they cornered her, and it was very traumatic for her.

“The staff person who was there is a dear friend and mentor still. So when we re-grouped and he shared her story, I learned she and I were the same age. I kept thinking of the things I was doing at the age when her mother’s pimp began exploiting her. At that age, I was unaware of anything negative in this world, and was surrounded by such love and had a happy, bubbly childhood, and she was going through those horrific, horrific things. And I couldn’t deal with it. It just broke my heart. I needed to do something about it, and needed God to do something about it.”

That “something” was ARISE Ministry (whose tagline, “Hope lives here” couldn’t be more perfectly said). It was started in 2013, with Rev. Deb Rapport as its sole staff person. Located near Regent Park, an oft-troubled area in the east end of downtown Toronto, and supported by volunteers, the Presbytery of East Toronto, and Canadian Ministries, it is a place where Rapport meets with sex workers who need various sorts of help and support, or who want to leave the sex trade and don’t know where to start.

“I had a lot of conversations with the staff at Evergreen. And they wanted to do something, too,” said Rapport. “How do we respond in a more meaningful way to individuals involved in the sex trade? And from that conversation we laid the groundwork for ARISE.”

I HAD MY FIRST REAL introduction to ARISE on a chilly night last November. I met Deb at the Salvation Army building where her office is located, before heading out on her weekly midnight walkabout. These nighttime walks consist of Deb and one or two others walking a usual path of about five kilometres, chatting with women they meet and asking if they’re okay. Slung over our shoulders are stuffed-full backpacks, heavy with the “pretty bags” volunteers help pack two or three times a year. The bags are filled with things a woman might need or want during a long night on the street—hand sanitizer, tissues, lip gloss, condoms, hair elastics and bobby pins, tampons, gum, chocolate and emergency numbers. (And this time we also happen to have some gloves to give away.)

“It might be the only nice thing they receive all week,” said Deb, noting that the bags are given in a spirit of complete non-judgment. Evangelism is not the goal.

On the night of our walk, the streets were mostly quiet. Deb told me with the weather changing, many of the women move indoors. I was wearing two layers, plus gloves and a toque, but the chill still wiggled its way along my neck and down my spine.

Eventually we started to see more women out—dressed in significantly less clothing than I was—and I watched many of these women greet Deb with smiles and hugs; a familiar face on a cold and lonely night. Often we stood and chatted for 10 minutes, listening to stories about their kids, discussing the day’s headlines, or making mental notes of supplies needed (including one request by a transwoman for winter coats and high heels in large sizes). I recall one person—slight and meek and new to the area from where we guessed was Montreal—who was trying on her new identity as a woman. She asked us if her look was convincing, seemed relieved when we said yes, and then thanked us profusely for the supplies we offered. It was hard to walk away. I, in my utter ignorance, wanted to put my arm around her and bring her to a coffee shop, finding just the right words to persuade her into another line of work.

“That is the hardest part,” Deb told me later in an email. “There is an urge to rush in and save. We have to trust the saving to God. All we can do is be present and actively wait. We believe in reclaiming through empowerment rather than rescue, by this I mean we build the relationship, providing the support, tools, help and encouragement to help those we journey with to reclaim their lives and be heroes in their own story. Christian discipleship prepares us to walk with hope, to pray without ceasing, and live in the already-but-not-yet of God’s kingdom.”

Three hours later, at the end of our walk, the streets of downtown Toronto seemed anything but God’s kingdom.

I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Even on a quiet night, I had seen enough—particularly as we walked by several strip clubs on Yonge Street—to tell my husband the next day that I was convinced of the total depravity of the male species (sorry, guys).

I have since come to my senses, of course, but ARISE has left its mark.

As it certainly has on Deb Rapport. Her fierce commitment to the women she serves (and the dizzying amount of knowledge she possesses of the business and life of the street) is key to earning the trust that can lead to real change. One young woman, who prefers to use her pen name, Angel, met Rapport several years ago at Evergreen and has continued meeting with her since. I met with both women one afternoon in March. Angel was friendly and articulate and ready to share her story.

When we spoke, she had just turned 30, but had seen and been through more than most people face in a lifetime: an abusive childhood thanks to a predatory father, teenage drug use, out of school at 15 and in an abusive relationship at 18, and life as a stripper before she even hit 20. Angel’s life seemed, for a time, hopeless. Originally from a small town up north, she came to Toronto to escape the life she was living. Ironically, when she finally managed to find housing (after a stay in a women’s shelter), her troubles worsened.

“I was really vulnerable,” Angel told me. “I was easily preyed upon. I didn’t know Toronto. When I moved into my building, a lot of predators were willing to give you drugs. They’d say things like, ‘Come with me, we can make a lot of money together.’ I knew one person through the strip club back home. I thought people would leave me alone if I stayed with him. But he pressured me to get into the sex trade, to do drugs. He blackmailed me and I was trafficked.”

Run-ins with the police that left her feeling more victimized than helped made life seem even more desperate. (Rapport has numerous suggestions for desperately needed improvements to our justice and corrections system, but that’s another story.)

Eventually, Angel wound up unconscious on the street, badly injured by the man who shuttled her from place to place, and with nowhere safe to go. Somewhat providentially, her case was finally assigned to a detective who believed in her and wanted to help.

“He actually cared and gave his time. He went above and beyond. Right through to the end he was competent and compassionate. He took me seriously.

“And [the trafficker] was prosecuted and convicted. He had been let off for many things before me. I was the one who held this guy accountable.”

Angel knows how crucial Rapport and ARISE have been to her healing journey. She plans on returning to school, has received victim compensation for the things she’s been through, has a safe place to live, has published a book of poetry, and regained her sense of self and purpose. She also connects with her mother on a regular basis—someone who Angel calls a “light in the darkness.”

“I could always find that light and go back to that. I could rejuvenate my soul. She’s a huge blessing, and I’m so lucky to have her.”

Angel now wants to be a role model to other women in her situation; someone they can turn to when they have no one else, and to help them get out of life on the streets.

“There’s a lot of wisdom to be learned; there’s also so much negative—you think you have to numb it or it can haunt you. But I’ve come through it, and I’m unbreakable. I’ve not been defeated. There’s still hope.”


ARISE 101 – What happens during daylight hours.

So what exactly does ARISE do?

Well, in addition to midnight walks and passing out pretty bags filled with needed supplies, they offer one-on-one counselling designed to help women who need practical support (due to abusive boyfriends and pimps, addiction, struggles with landlords or Children’s Aid, finding safe housing, etc.), and to heal and regain a sense of power and purpose.

“I ask them, ‘What’s your earliest memory of, what do I want to do when I grow up?’” said Rev. Deb Rapport, founding director of ARISE. “It gets them thinking—what were my dreams when anything was possible? And sometimes people don’t have a clear sense, so we talk about strengths. And as the conversation happens week to week, it becomes clearer.”

Preparing for employment and defining and setting goals are a large part of the counselling process, as is coaching around mental health and overall wellbeing.

“Just checking in and having someone else see your progress and the good you’ve done is helpful,” said Rapport’s client and friend, Angel.

“We work on all-around self-esteem, anger management, and self worth,” said Rapport. “We also talk about guilt and how to process some of that guilt.”

“Being able to talk about that stuff was really helpful,” said Angel. “Having someone there and that consistency—someone you can reach out to and talk to. There are not many people you can confide in, there’s so much shame, you don’t even want to admit half the stuff. But Deb doesn’t look at you any differently. That’s huge.”

ARISE also has a partnership with a local martial arts academy, where groups of women who come to ARISE can go for self-defense training.

And it’s not only the women who learn…

“When people are acting in very dehumanizing ways to people who are involved in the sex trade—whether that’s a bad date and they are treated in really horrible ways, or a drunk college student thinking it’s okay to grind up against someone because she’s on the street. Both are discouraging and frustrating to me in quite different ways. Both of those make me really angry,” said Rapport.

“I guess the reverse of that—what’s encouraging or hopeful, beyond just helping someone get out and see hope in their own lives—is seeing when men are having conversations with other men about this. It’s great for me to have conversations with churches, etc., but when I know that other men, and particularly young men, are going and talking to their friends about this, are saying this isn’t right and speaking out about this, that’s encouraging and gives me hope for the future. It’s been really great to have this partnership with the martial arts academy, and how supportive they’ve been. That’s really been a part of a culture that they’re trying to teach and present and go forward with. That’s an encouraging thing for me.”

How can congregations support ARISE?

First, donate! Funds to support the ministry are always welcome.

Second, volunteer to pack the pretty bags, or donate items to be used in the bags. (Contact Deb Rapport to find out specifics if you’re thinking of going this route.)

Third, volunteer to go along on a neighbourhood walk. It is an eye-opening, exhausting experience, where you will learn a lot and will want to share what you now know.

Fourth, consider accompanying clients to court hearings. “Court support is huge,” said Rapport. “There’s such a need, and sometimes I can’t be in court for all the cases.”

Fifth, invite Rapport to speak to your congregation or group.

Sixth, pray! Both Rapport and her clients are grateful for being remembered in your individual and corporate prayers.

Finally, if you feel called to work in outreach and counselling, ARISE is hiring! Visit ariseministry.wordpress.com to find out more.

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About Amy MacLachlan

Amy MacLachlan is the Presbyterian Record's managing editor.