The Bidlisiw staff have a tour in mind. We head out to a clutch of red-lighted bars, karaoke clubs, a host club full of grinning, pirouetting men who cater to foreign tourists--women and men--and "carton city," a weed-ravaged field where women used to provide sexual services on flattened cardboard boxes before a police raid earlier that year.
Our final stop is the town square, where many of the city's underage prostitutes are waiting for customers. An oddly named Orange Brutus lords over one corner of the square--evidently Orange Julius had been shanked long ago--along with an immense church, a raggedy park and an amphitheater. No less imposing is Grace, who is presiding over the scene.
Pam introduces me to a young girl Bidlisiw is trying to reach out to--M, a 16-year-old with hair so thick and curly that it seems like it has drawn all the vigor from her too-slight shoulders. Perhaps five feet tall, M is dressed in an ashy-pink one-piece, her small feet slipped into rubber flip-flops, her dark eyes alternately careless and curious. She started working the streets when she was 15. "My boyfriend took my virginity, and then left me," says M. Her voice is unexpectedly deep, a husky alto. "So what else was I good for after that? Anyway, boyfriends don't pay." She drags on her cigarette and then flings it into the street.
M has six siblings--most of them live with her mother and father, but she, as the oldest, lives with her grandmother. She went to school for a while, and liked it, before money got too tight and she had to quit. Working the streets isn't so bad, she says--she has her friends, the 'manager' who finds customers for her and another girl, and the small room they rent together for encounters with clients. She spends her days in the streets or the square, which she prefers--the open-air restaurant down the road has a jukebox, and she can listen to music. "I'll play my favorite song for you," she says, taking a few pesos from Pam. She runs over to the restaurant and returns to explain the lyrics of the song, "Sana." "It's about love, how you lose it but have to keep enduring." Her eyes turn toward a small boy who is frog-hopping near her, jumping but careful to keep a purple ice-cream cone from falling to the pavement. "My brother," she says. "I can actually pay for him to go to school--he's in first grade now, and if we keep it up, maybe he can actually finish..." Her eyes shine with pride, and she smiles down at him.
The look on M's face strikes me as familiar. It mirrors the IJM staff's faces when they speak of the symbolic culmination of their work: looking into the face of a rescuee, "that 15-year-old girl," whom M had been when she started working the streets. While the rescuers would never claim to impart a godly gaze, the moment of looking into that rescued girl's face seemed to reflect their own relationships with the divine--the desire to see and be seen in the light of goodness, healed and saved in the loving gaze of their creator. Each rescue was the proof of the goodness of God; each rescue described as the turning point in a life of possible redemption. The moment was a transcendent one--one that redeemed the law from being a tool in the hands of clumsy, imperfect humans and made it one that flowed out of divine authority, a moment that enabled the rescuers to feel as though they could save a girl from being an empty vessel or a dismembered body and restore her essential dignity as a child made in the image of God.
But the look on M's face also reflects the intensity of conviction with which IJM staff have spoken of their work. Her mission is to care for her brother, just as their mission is to try to save her from doing so by making a grievous choice no child could consent to under international law. They would try to offer her the safety and stability of a shelter, but it did not seem likely that she would accept rescue should it jeopardize the welfare of her family, or that she would settle for being a witness to the rescuers' good deed, or a witness in a case. The stories both the rescuers and their would-be rescuee tell about their respective roles in alleviating suffering are powerful and difficult to relinquish. M was the closest person to "the one" I would find, but her face held a tale her rescuers would be hard-pressed to unravel--the ways she'd struggled to find meaning in her own life, and sacrificed herself to become a rescuer in her own right.