Red lights go out

February 11, 2008

A miracle is unfolding in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light district, following the prayers and actions of many in recent years. Supported by two-thirds of the city’s inhabitants and all but two of his city council, Mayor Job Cohen is driving through a bold plan to replace brothel windows and sex-bars with fashionable stores, galleries, cafes, offices and inner-city housing.
A few months ago, Dutch headlines revealed a deal between the city and ‘Fat Charlie’, one of the district’s major brothel owners, with establishments adjacent to YWAM buildings in the neighbourhood. The city bought up 30 of his windows, on the condition that the money could not be reinvested in the sex industry.
Mayor Cohen then stated publically that the legalisation of prostitution in Holland seven years ago simply had failed. Instead of giving the authorities greater control over the industry, it had actually created more demand, and therefore more incentive for criminal networks to traffic women from eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America and Africa as sex-workers.
This unexpected news seemed to come out of the blue. In fact, just months before, Cohen had unveiled a statue of the ever-present prostitute right behind Amsterdam’s historic Oude Kerk (Old Church), witness to literally centuries of tolerant official attitudes to the ‘oldest profession’.
Red Flags
But it also follows decades of Christian ministry and prayer in the area. The Salvation Army has had a continuous presence there for over 150 years.
One of Holland’s best-loved figures, Salvationist officer Major Bosshardt, was nationally honoured on her death last summer after a lifetime of witness to the unconditional love of Jesus among the women of the Red Light district. Back in 1973, when YWAM was first established in Holland, Major Bosshardt took my wife-to-be to a Christmas party she held for the Red Light ladies-starting ‘after work’ at 4am!
Other ministries maintaining a steady witness in the district include The Shelter youth hostel, and The Cleft, YWAM’s ministry to both the women behind the windows and their male customers. Until recently, The Cleft was led by a young man who himself came out of the gay scene, and later married a former prostitute from Brazil. Together as a couple they now run a ministry to the sexually broken.
YWAMers have long referred to the Rosse Buurt (Red Light District) as the Promised Land, believing that years of persistent prayer would one day bring change. YWAM Amsterdam has been preparing a new ministry right next door to the Cleft-across the canal from the Oude Kerk and surrounded by several of Fat Charlie’s former locations. Called the Tabernacle of the Nations, this ministry will promote worship and intercession from the nations for the nations. Churches from around the city are being invited to sponsor timeslots for continuous prayer and worship in various languages and cultures in a ‘Babel of Unity and Diversity’.
One of the churches most directly involved in the Rosse Buurt in recent years has been God’s Embassy, an international fellowship which meets in YWAM’s De Poort. In a strategy conceived in prayer, they began sending out men in pairs to stand at each of the eleven entrances to the district, making an archway of red flags. The men silently prayed for all passers-by walking into the district. When asked by curious onlookers what this meant, they referred to the blood of Jesus. This sometimes caused the less-determined to turn around and seek another entrance, only to find another red flag archway awaiting them.
The red flags, it now seems, have prevailed over the red lights. Last month, the first of the new stores began displaying fashion clothes in two of Fat Charlie’s former windows.
Real tolerance
Not everybody is happy about this, of course. Those who stand to lose most from the clampdown on the €70 million-a-year sex industry are protesting noisily. Amsterdam without the windows is like Paris without the Eiffel Tower, they argue, and tourism will certainly suffer.
But Lodewijk Asscher, Cohen’s deputy and the architect of the clean-up drive, is quoted by Newsweek as saying: “When Rudy Giuliani started to clean up Times Square in the mid-’90s, some people were warning that no one would ever again want to come to New York City. But as far as I know, it has had record tourist numbers each year since.”
“People in Amsterdam and the rest of the country are starting to discern real tolerance from bogus tolerance,” Newsweek quotes Asscher.
Commentators recognise a current mood of reaction to the excesses of Dutch liberalism dating back to the ’60’s, including restrictions on marijuana sales and an upcoming ban on hallucinogenic mushrooms (paddo’s).
So where will the window ladies go to as business closes down? Most will probably be moved on to other European cities, while others not yet lured into the trade may be spared the hell of sex-slavery. We can only pray that Antwerp, Hamburg and other urban centres soon follow Amsterdam’s dramatic lead.
Till next week,

Till next week,

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