In a one-room home with colorful fabrics covering the mud walls, Naomi Duff sits with Fiona,* a 25-year-old Chadian woman. One of Fiona’s daughters sits in her lap, eating beans from a tin bowl. Fiona wears a ruffled purple blouse, her head wrapped in a faded scarf.
Duff and Fiona converse intently over an illustrated Bible story booklet. They’ve met weekly in Fiona’s home to study the Bible since the day they met in 2009.
On that day, Duff stumbled into Fiona’s compound, looking for someone else. After apologizing, she felt the need to explain herself. “I’m a missionary,” she said. “I’m here to pray with women and to share God’s Word with them.”
“Well,” said Fiona, whose headscarf indicated her Muslim background, “you’re welcome to do that with me.”
Fiona is one of the women TEAM missionaries Duff and Anne Hoyt work with in N’Djamena, Chad. Although many of the women they minister to are in prostitution, they prefer the term “vulnerable women.” This includes those who aren’t in prostitution and more accurately describes the majority, whom Hoyt says were forced into prostitution by circumstance and are not what Chadians call femmes libres, or “free women.”
“The majority of them are girls who have fallen on hard times,” Hoyt says.
Each woman has a different story. Some were kicked out of their homes by angry husbands and forced into prostitution to survive. Others came to N’Djamena, Chad’s capital, for school or work, only to be abused while living with relatives. When they fled those homes, their dignity destroyed, prostitution seemed the only option. Some women, Fiona included, are still married but have husbands who are unfaithful, exposing them to diseases like HIV.
From a Chadian perspective, these vulnerable women are worthless. Recently, Duff asked several of the women what gives them value.
“We have no value,” they responded.
“What?” Duff asked. “Where does your value come from?”
Each woman answered in typical Chadian fashion: “It would come from a husband — especially a rich husband — but I don’t have one.”
These women struggle to get jobs to support themselves and their children, and their status invites physical and verbal abuse from men on the street. Even the church often responds with the dominant cultural view, seeing these women as unclean rather than women for whom Christ died.
Duff, who grew up near Belfast, Northern Ireland, had been burdened for the unreached in Chad since 1999. On a short-term trip to Nigeria in 2001, she visited a ministry to women in prostitution. There Duff met Sonia, a meeting she says turned her life around.
“From that day, the burden in my heart for the unreached in Chad merged with a clear call to minister to women caught in prostitution,” Duff says. She arrived in Chad in 2008 with Africa Inland Mission. At first, Duff worked alone, but she quickly recognized that she’d need a partner in ministry if she was going to have longevity on the field.
“Just when I was reaching the point of exhaustion... Anne Hoyt approached me out of the blue and asked if there was any way in which she might be involved in the ministry,” Duff says. That led to Duff and Hoyt working in partnership together with TEAM.
Hoyt and her husband, Rich, came to southern Chad with TEAM in 1988, and in 2008 they moved to N’Djamena. Hoyt’s ministry in southern Chad included teaching HIV awareness classes in local churches, challenging societal norms with the truth about HIV and biblical truth about marriage and women.
In the villages, Hoyt says, Chadians marry young, and after a few years, the men get restless and go “adventuring.” When a husband returns, his wife has no choice but to accept him back, though everyone knows adventuring includes sex with other women.
Hoyt saw her teaching bear fruit in the community: When two Christian women asked their husbands to be tested for HIV when they returned from adventuring, the men took their wives to court. The court, however, ruled in favor of the women.
Although they are not trafficked or controlled by pimps, the vulnerable women rent rooms in clusters, essentially turning their neighborhoods to brothels. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Duff and Hoyt visit the women there. They sit and talk, then share God’s word through chronological Bible stories.
Hoyt says the women love when they visit, though the time is often interrupted by clients. The women won’t allow the missionaries to leave without praying for them. “They think our prayers are magic,” Hoyt says, “that we have a hotline with God, if you would.” The other days of the week fill with whatever the women need when they call. Often Duff and Hoyt sit in hospital waiting rooms with them and their children. Occasionally, some need assistance through micro loans, and sometimes Duff and Hoyt host parties in their homes for the women. But Duff says that even the women recognize that what they really need is God.
“One girl phrased it this way,” Duff says. “She said, ‘Naomi, I’m like the prodigal son that you talk about, but I’m still far away. I haven’t come back yet. Please keep coming. Please keep visiting me.’”
The story of the prodigal son is the first that Duff shared with Fiona, the Muslim woman she met by accident in 2009. After hearing the story, Fiona asked, “How do I become a child of God?”
Surprised, Duff explained that Fiona didn’t need to say a prayer or recite something to please her. She emphasized that Fiona’s response to the story was between her and God.
“No, Naomi, you don’t understand,” Fiona replied. She shared that a few months before, two Chadian women had come and shared the same story with her. When she asked them her question, they told her they would come back, presumably with an answer.
The women never returned.
So Duff and Fiona went to God in prayer, Fiona asking God to forgive her and change her.
Though Fiona has experienced great transformation, success in this ministry is usually a series of small steps in the right direction. Hoyt tells the story of one woman who attended an event that featured a DVD with the testimony of the first African pastor to announce he was HIV-positive. Shortly after the event, the woman was feeling ill, so Hoyt encouraged her to be tested for HIV.
Later, after receiving a positive diagnosis, she told Hoyt that before the event, she would have killed herself after learning she was HIV-positive. “But then I remembered the testimony of the pastor,” she said, “and that gave me hope.” Now taking antiretroviral medications, the woman has completed a culinary course and works as a cook at a hotel.
Ministry is often difficult, with calls from suicidal women, women who have overdosed, women with illnesses brought on by prostitution. One woman had a client lock the door to her room and put a knife to her throat. In Hoyt’s first three months of working with the women, three of them died.
In the midst of suffering and evil, Hoyt emphasizes the need to build on “firm foundations” — the truths that God is good and sovereign. She recognizes that she does not have to understand how everything works together.
“This is not a question of God not being good,” Hoyt says. “This is a fallen world, and God in his goodness has given us a way out. But we have to choose it.”
Duff must constantly remind herself of truth and look at the bigger picture. “I have no simple answers,” she says, “but what I do know is that God is faithful, just, and good, and the pain that we see around us is the result of a fallen, twisted world, not an unjust God.”
“If you take God out of the picture,” Hoyt adds, “there is no hope at all.”
Later this year, Duff and Hoyt plan to start a rehabilitation program for women who want to leave their current lifestyle. They’ve rented two rooms in the neighborhood where some of the women live, and Duff, who has a master’s degree in counseling, is writing a curriculum based on biblical counseling.
They hope to provide babysitting so the women can study hygiene, parenting, job skills, and budgeting, as well as biblical approaches to topics like anger, addiction, and HIV/AIDS. To staff the program, they need workers willing to faithfully love and serve these women and their kids.
But most of all, they long to see the Chadian church grow in its compassion for vulnerable women. “We would long for more Chadian people to join us,” Hoyt says. “These are their girls, their aunts, their sisters, their nieces.”
Outside her home, under the shade of a spreading tree, Fiona sells rice and beans, peanut butter, dried fish, and stock cubes for soup. In the afternoon, she goes to school. She wants to be a teacher or a midwife someday.
Since meeting in 2009, Fiona and Duff have worked through much of the Bible together. Their studies and prayer have transformed Fiona. Though her life is difficult, she says God has taken away the anger she felt toward her husband and others who’ve hurt her, replacing it with compassion.
“God has done lots of things for me,” Fiona says. “Everything that he has done makes me very happy. I know that I was born a sinner, but he sent his only son to save me.”
“When he came, what did he come to do for us?” Duff asks.
“He came to save the world,” Fiona says, “and everyone who believes in him will go to heaven.”
“That’s right,” Duff says. “So we can say that we are really sisters, can’t we?”
*Names changed to protect identity.
- By Esther Kline
- Photographs by Robert Johnson
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