On Sunday, October 29, 2017, Morgan Swank shared a testimony about what God taught her through her time in Bolivia last summer. The text of her testimony is below. We hope that her words will continue to convict and inspire you this week.
In July of this year I had the privilege of traveling to Bolivia to work with Sutisana, which is a part of Word Made Flesh – a mission Kingsway partner with in El Alto. Sutisana provides dignified employment for women attempting to leave prostitution by teaching them to sew and create accessories and clothing that is sold internationally. I was there for two weeks designing and creating samples for their upcoming Spring/Summer 2018 collection.
My journey to Bolivia starts about a year ago when Anna Rogness came up to me in church one Sunday and said, “I think you should pray about going to Bolivia, and I feel like God put it on my heart to tell you that.” My response to her was less than enthusiastic. I had never desired to go to Bolivia, I had thought about it before and was not even vaguely interested. Even though I knew some Spanish and enjoyed travelling, nothing in me wanted to go.
Then we had our missions weekend here at Kingsway the beginning of April and I heard Andrea Baker, one of the founders of Sutisana, speak. As she was talking, I was beginning to get the feeling that I should talk with her about possibly helping.
Over the next month or so it kept returning to mind and I started the process of reaching out to Word Made Flesh to discuss a possible trip. They were excited for me to come, but all other logistical information was pretty limited and I still wasn’t sure if this was a good idea. Through prayer and the provision of a reasonably priced plane ticket, I decided to go.
When I arrived in Bolivia it was amazing how God clearly layered timing and my skillset to meet Sutisana’s needs. Right before I had arrived, they had found out they would no longer be able to work with their previous designer. Also, my ability to make production patterns and my construction knowledge added a new element that they had previously been missing. We were also able to talk about cost-cutting issues in design and ways to cut down on labor costs for specific pieces to increase their margins.
By the end of the second day of work I realized that I was not feeling well and that the headaches I had been experiencing had escalated and my stomach was distinctly agitated. I had my suitcase with me as I was supposed to move to El Alto to live with another couple for the remainder of my stay, and since the oxygen tank was at their house, I went there – hoping some oxygen would help.
I ended up getting violently ill and my hosts quickly sent out an SOS to the team to see if someone in La Paz could take me in, hoping that the lower elevation would help alleviate some of the altitude effects. A team member Ariel and her husband Ger graciously opened up their home to me.
My hosts gave me a bucket and we took a taxi down into La Paz. Hands down this was the worst taxi ride of my life. I can definitely say that God’s strength was sustaining me during the windy and bumpy ride, getting lost on the way to the apartment, and the steep climb to the top floor of their building – all of this while generously using my borrowed bucket. The next several hours were excruciating, but the kindness and care of the team in Bolivia was amazing.
The next few days I spent sleeping and trying to regain some of my strength.
Going to work on Monday was really tough. Somehow, I had the strength to sit at my desk, make patterns, give corrections to the samples being made, close my eyes for a bit, open them, and do it all again.
Wednesday night I ended up going to do street ministry with three of the staff – two from the area and Ana, who was from Spain. We waited until it was dark, spent some time praying, and went out to the street armed with invitations for a second hand clothing sale at the ministry and some chocolate. We visited around seven to eight brothels that night. We went into a brothel as a group and then broke off into pairs of two. The two other women were in charge of going to see the owner and telling them we were handing out invitations to a clothing sale on the street over. While they were doing that, Ana and I were going door-to-door and saying hi to the women, handing out invites and chocolate, asking if they had children and what their ages were, and talking a bit about life if they were willing… all the while having men walking in a line past the door and peering over our shoulder to check out what they would consider to be “the merchandise”.
Most brothels were set up in a similar fashion – a main dark room lit with red light and doors to the women’s rooms around the perimeter. Some of the large places had strobe lights, loud music, and giant tvs. The sights and smells were overwhelming. The moment you walk in the door the stench of urine hits you. This smell quickly combines with others smells you would expect at places like this. I think Miranda, who works at WMF, put it best when she said, “When you go in you feel like you can’t trust your senses, because they are completely overwhelmed.” The men would line up single file and parade past the doors only stopping when someone of interest caught their eye. There would be a whispered exchange over prices and either they would agree and enter the room or continue in the line looking for a better deal. Usually we had to join in the line to get through the masses of men who were crowded around.
While some of the women were happy to see us, some wouldn’t look us in the eye and would hide under the brim of their hat, or the mask they would use as part of their costume. In order to talk to the women, we had to aggressively block doorways and push past men loitering about to see what other doors would open and if there were women they were missing out on. Outside on the street the mood was like a party. The street was lined with men and we were the only women walking about. Ana told me that this was a light night due to such cold weather, yet I still saw hundreds of men walking around, gathering around heaters, TV stands showing porn, food carts, and vendors selling “aphrodisiacs”. Men were peeing in the streets and the whole attitude was jovial and upbeat.
I can’t explain the deep grief and sadness I had over all the women I met that night. A few of their faces stick in my mind more significantly, and I pray for them regularly. I have a hard time understanding the depravity of the world, and how anyone can consider this to be right or acceptable behavior on the part of men. I don’t think you can walk into a brothel in El Alto, Bolivia, or anywhere for that matter, and say that people are born good or that something didn’t go horribly wrong at some point to get us here. I wanted to hug the women and tell them that they are so precious and valuable and that there is One who loves them so much that he left his position of power and became a servant who cared so deeply for those who were marginalized and outcast that he died for them. That desire was paired with the desire to yell at all the men, “Go home to your wife and kids!” I wanted to tell the men who walk through line after line, brothel after brothel, peering over our shoulders as we talk to the women that they weren’t going to find what they were really looking for here. What they really need – salvation – isn’t found in one of these rooms.
When I was talking with Cara, the operations manager, the next morning, I apologized for crying as I was speaking, and she said, “Morgan, nothing is more worthy of crying about than the sin that breaks God’s heart.” She also talked about how she never understood lament as a form of worship until she came to Bolivia. There is nothing right about what I saw that night, and only the knowledge that God came to save us from this and will one day set things right, makes me able to live in a world that says what goes on in the red light district is okay and acceptable.
Going to work Thursday was difficult – emotionally and physically. It was my last day and we had a few things to finish up, but by the end of the day Cara looked at the list we had complied at the start of my trip, and everything was done. Miraculously, everything we had wanted to accomplish was finished. Despite missing two days of work time and having four days of working with no energy, it all got done.
Through this whole experience I felt like I learned so many things, but I had a few main takeaways that I want to share.
The first is that God can use you even when you don’t want to do what you are doing. I didn’t want to go to Bolivia. I didn’t like Bolivia when I was there. I find nothing about Bolivia appealing – it was cold, dirty, disorganized, and all the furniture and rooms were made for short people – but God made it evident to me that I was to go and I went, and there was grace there to do what God had called me to do.
The second is that God is going to do what he wants to do regardless of how much strength you have to give. Between the headaches and the sickness and subsequent lack of food, and brain fog I felt ready to go to bed right after getting up in the morning. I had to pray almost moment by moment for energy to get through the day. Realistically, the majority of things should not have gotten done. I have no clue how I made patterns and corrected samples, and communicated with the production manager Abram. It should not have happened, but every day I made it up to El Alto and back down to La Paz and work got done.
The third is that, sometimes, horrible situations actually are for your best. I did not want to get ill. I do not remember the last time I was in so much pain and felt so sick, but looking back, I see how God used my getting ill at that point in time in order for me to stay with Ariel and Ger. I was supposed to be up in El Alto with another couple, but I came to realize over the next week that God knew I needed to be in a different place. Ariel and Ger are an amazing couple who quickly felt like family. We had great conversations and they helped me process a lot of my thoughts and emotions. Their house became a safe place to unwind after difficult days. I can actually say the sickness was worth the change in housing and I know that God knew that… even though I wish he would have used a different method.
The final lesson is that community is so important as a believer. I saw this in two ways. The first is the community in Bolivia. When I was ill, the team rallied around me, dropped plans, and helped me in whatever way they could. I really felt God’s care through them. They never once acted like I was a burden or inconvenient… or that it was gross that I was throwing up in a bucket every few minutes. They were all praying and went out of their way to make me comfortable.
The other aspect of community was my community here. The texts, WhatsApp messages, and replies to my daily email were sometimes the only thing keeping me going. Waking up to new messages or going to bed hearing an encouraging word or Bible verse was so important and the thing that I held onto. I felt so cared for by my church family.
Bolivia for me was quite the roller coaster, but I came away with a better understanding of God’s provision and a bigger view of what he is doing in the world. I can honestly say that I would go back again if God calls me to go. Not because I had an amazing time or because I love the place, or the culture or the climate. I didn’t and I don’t. But I know that the verses he put on my heart as I was flying out of Dulles from Psalm 61 are true – He heard my cry and listened to my prayer, from the ends of the earth, when I called to him. When my heart was faint, he led me to a rock that was higher than I. He was my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.