Deep breath, Sherry whispered to herself. Deep, deep breath.
The audience was not larger than normal. About 300 people inside the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel. Just another summit Sherry was a part of where she was the keynote speaker to talk about the ministry she was spearheading. But no matter how many times Sherry stepped on stage to talk, the nerves were always there. Three years of public speaking never gets easier. It was almost strange because she was never nervous until the 10-minute marker. That’s when the heart would race, the stomach would drop, and breathing became something to think about.
While this may seem annoying to some, Sherry actually relished this nervousness. It helped her remember the passion and drive for why she does this. A story that started in her teens, but never had the courage to say much until three years ago. It’s crazy to think about. How random of a decision it was to finally speak.
It was three years ago, sitting in a coffee shop studying for her upcoming exam in U.S. History. As a 37-year-old in her first year at the local community college, Sherry definitely felt self-conscious. Proud to finally be doing this? Yes. Judged by others in public with their not-so-hidden glances at her? Quite often. So whenever she studied at a coffee shop, she dressed professionally, lipstick and eye-shadow on, a little bit of blush rubbed in. Maybe she’ll look like an attorney getting some work done outside of the office?
“This next speaker coming up is one of the bravest women I know…” Sherry was startled out of her daydream-reminiscing as Todd, the MC on stage, began to introduce Sherry. This was her two-minute mark. Todd always liked to talk her up as much as possible—perhaps a little too much, in her opinion, but part of her still enjoyed the compliments.
Another deep breath. Now it was time to focus…but she was still stuck in the moment at that coffee shop…
“Ma’am, I understand your frustration, but that’s just how it works,” the barista said to the customer at the counter, starting to raise his voice a little louder while she mumbled an argument back. It caught Sherry’s attention, but she couldn’t hear what the young lady at the counter was saying. Just the judgmental voice from the barista.
“I know, I know…but that’s just how it is,” the barista continued. Sherry heard, but kept to herself…until she heard a whimper escape from the young lady. It was a whimper she had heard before—a whimper that opened up a portal in time to her younger self with a flood of pain and emotion.
Sherry stood up from her table and walked over to the counter. There were some annoyed customers behind the lady. They continued scrolling on their phones, gave a little tap to their feet, and sighed in exasperation rolling their eyes as the young lady at the counter made obvious attempts to hold back her tears.
“What seems to be the problem?” Sherry asked the barista, now standing at the counter. The lady began to try to gain exposure. Her cry stopped, but not her tears. Probably due to embarrassment because she caused a scene – not something she wanted to do.
The barista started to answer but was embarrassed, himself. Then began to respond “She…she wants flavoring in her coffee, but it costs extra. She doesn’t have enough for the flavoring.” The barista was embarrassed because it was such a simple request that caused the scene.
Sherry locked eyes with the lady as she slowly turned her head toward her.
“I…I just wanted some vanilla…” the lady said very softly obviously embarrassed.
The lady was wearing very short shorts…short enough to where her large V-neck t-shirt covered them. Her shirt was so baggy that she had to wear it sideways across her shoulders to keep it up, exposing her bra strap. She had a lot of makeup on. Her hair was done, but partially in a mess. She wore high heels and had long, polished fingernails.
“Make that two vanilla coffees,” Sherry said, handing the barista a $10 bill. “And keep the change.”
“…and without further ado, let me introduce our keynote speaker! Sherry!” Todd belted, excitedly in the microphone, extending his hand out to Sherry from the stage.
Sherry took one last deep breath. It was time to go on. As she walked over to the center of the stage, she paused and smiled politely as she waited for the clapping to stop. Once the audience settled in, Sherry began, “Three years ago, I found myself in a coffee shop where I met a woman who needed help.”
She paused for effect.
“This young lady was not homeless, but she was dressed rather strange for the cold weather that day. She was judged by everyone around her. It was understandable. Our culture tells us ‘we must help those who help themselves.’ This was obviously a woman who made her own choice. Or at least it seemed so.”
This next part of her speech was the part she hated the most. As she stood before a captive audience, her mind traveled back to the coffee shop.
“So, I have to know…why the vanilla?” Sherry asked the lady while they waited at the other side of the bar for their coffee.
“I just needed it,” the lady answered quietly.
“I hear ya. I can’t drink coffee without flavor,” Sherry answered. The lady didn’t respond. She just kept looking straight ahead, almost as if she was ashamed. Sherry tried one more time to break the ice. “Now are you the type of person to have a little bit of cream with your coffee or a little bit of coffee with your cream?”
The lady didn’t look up or answer. The coffee came, they both picked their cup up. The lady then turned toward Sherry and locked eyes with her.
“It’s not for me,” she mumbled to Sherry, then walked out the door.
A cough echoed in the quiet ballroom. Sherry gained composure, adjusted her microphone, and then continued.
“This young lady was a prostitute…” She explained to her audience. “Likely being told to get coffee for her pimp…or possibly her client.”
Ugh. Those words felt like vomit. The name “prostitute” is so degrading. And calling someone her “client” seems as if this is an actual job with a promising career and 401K plan. “Client” is never the right word– but she wanted to give context that everyone understood the true spirit of her story.
“I understood her situation right away, for I had once been in her shoes for some time. For almost 20 years of my life, I, too, was what you would consider, a ‘prostitute.’ I have been to jail several times in my life, the last one being for five years. Luckily I was able to get out of that situation, unlike many young women—victims—who were pulled into that life.
“Most people don’t understand the situation you are in and they disguise it as ‘choice.’ But you see, I never wanted that life. At first, it was a temporary gig when I had aged out of the foster system. As an 18-year-old, I needed clothes, a bed, food… When the opportunity presented itself, it seemed like my only option. I could have probably argued that it was my only option if I wanted to survive.”
The painful memories still gnawed at her. Sherry continued, “The reason I was able to justify this type of ‘work’ was because when I was ten years old, I was repeatedly sexually abused by a relative. Because of this, no foster home wanted me, as they were too afraid for their own, biological children. So I bounced around a lot. Spent a few years at a group home, but never truly had a home.
“When this young lady walked out of that coffee shop, a fire started in me. These women are stuck in horrible situations and they are scared to tell anyone. So I began to share my story and speak out for the women who are in this young lady’s situation and my previous situation.
“People make rash judgments when they see a woman hardly dressed in a public place. Maybe that is her true choice. But I guarantee you that, most of the time, it’s due to much worse situations.
“Now, I am not saying that every woman who has been sexually abused or goes through the foster care system inevitably becomes a prostitute or trafficked in the sex industry. But I am stating that most women in those situations have struggled with self-worth. Feeling neglected. Feeling like they never really were anyone’s princess. That they were too damaged to belong to a home or hope for anything better.”
You could hear a needle drop in the room. Sherry placed a trembling hand on her heart.
“I am, now, a foster mother to three children. Years after surviving and escaping the sex industry, I discovered the true hope, found in Jesus Christ, and realized how the Heavenly Father not only loved me but demonstrated it through the cross to call me His daughter. His princess. His beloved. Not because I was already whole, but because He could make me whole.
“I decided to foster because I wanted each child who comes into my home to know their worth. To know that they’re loved. Not only by me but most importantly by my God.
“Those of you in this room: you don’t have to share a story like mine to become a foster parent. Yes, almost three years ago I started a ministry, of which I will unpack more in this presentation. But my first decision before starting my ministry was to minister to these young children. Many of them already have a tragic story to tell, even as a young child. I was ten when my story began. But loving them with the love that comes from the Father is the first step to give them courage, and teach them that they are truly God’s masterpiece – a work of art. And they are worth so much more.”