Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is running its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.
It's nearly midnight on a Friday and Pamela Mhlophe is in a van with blacked-out glass, parked in a dark side street in one of London's most deprived areas. She winds down her window as she is approached by an exhausted young woman who has been walking the streets of Brixton's red light district selling sex, sometimes for as little as £5 a time.
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Shivering in the chilly autumnal night, the young woman pulls her coat more tightly around her shoulders, her breath visible. She accepts Mhlophe's offer of a cigarette and they begin to talk. As the encounter concludes, Mhlophe passes the woman a package from the van, which she has earlier carefully stocked with multi-packs of condoms, lube, tampons, clean syringes, crisps and sweets.
Perhaps one of the more surprising aspects of this transaction is the fact Mhlophe is a devout Catholic who has firmly believed in the teachings of the Church all of her life and regularly attends confession. Yet she will still advise the women on safe abortion, if that is what they want.
"In the Catholic faith they don’t encourage terminations of any sort, but where I am concerned, in terms of these women, my social work takes the lead. As much as I don’t personally believe in it, I want the women to make the right choice, and to know I will support their choice. I will never propagate faith to anybody.”
It is precisely this unwavering faith that brought her to work as a Women's Service Manager with Spires, a charity for homeless and disadvantaged people, with a dedicated outreach service for street-based sex workers in south London called Streetlink. Streetlink has been working with female and transgender sex workers, often one of the most overlooked and marginalised groups in the community, around Lambeth since 1999. The aim of the work is to empower women by giving them options and guiding them to make positive choices for themselves.
For nearly 16 years Mhlophe has been making three nightly and one early morning visits a week to local red light districts to distribute contraception, offer needle exchange, practical support, counselling, befriending and inviting them back to Spires for support with housing referrals, health and treatment options. A recent addition to her nightly haul are handy pink plastic bracelets featuring telephone numbers for Spires, should a client need help urgently. Her work challenges core aspects of her faith every day, including drug and alcohol addiction, prostitution and abortion.
Brought up in Zimbabwe, as a child Mhlophe witnessed the powerful influence of the Catholic Church when her mother tried to get a job with a local family planning clinic: “The clinic told her to ask her priest before they could offer her the job. And the priest said to my mum ‘No, you can’t, you’re a Catholic. How can you go and be offering people family planning when we don’t believe it in the Catholic Church?’ So my mum did not take the job, even though she knew we needed the money,” she laughs. Since then the world has changed, Mhlophe says, but she passionately maintains: “I believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church, but I also believe in the women I work with. As a social worker, the ethics and values I sign up to help and support individuals with are similar to the teachings of the Bible.”
When asked if she has ever felt the need to ask for "permission" from her own priest to work in such a field as her mother did, the 54-year-old replies: “No, I think I have a choice in choosing a job that I like. My faith doesn’t have to be compromised by the work that I do. I thank God every day for the job that I have, I thank Him for keeping it going. Half the time we don’t have funding and our jobs are threatened, but there are a lot of people out there who are suffering.”
Mhlophe has faced opposition from those left uneasy about how her role and her faith can peacefully coexist, most notably from a Catholic she found herself working closely with.
Ten years ago, she was training Renate Rothwell, who had been granted a divorce from a Methodist minister and had just joined the Catholic Church: “She came to Spires in her role as a drug worker. I told her: ‘If you are talking to women who are using drugs you’ve got to talk about prostitution, because one way or another some of them are involved.’ She found it incredibly difficult and couldn’t agree with me, she didn't know how, coming from the Catholic Church myself, I could be in the job that I am. I told her it is my job and I enjoy doing it but it doesn’t question my faith because I believe these people have choices and it’s like anybody else, those against the Catholic Church and those for it can say whatever they like, those are their opinions’.”
Rothwell says that conversation with Mhlophe changed her life. "At the time I felt that the ethics of the Catholic teachings were right, that God created man and woman for procreation and that entailed supporting that belief in a practical way, in the sense of advising women who wanted to have an abortion that God gave them a child and that it would be against God's will to take that child away," she said. "It was the same with condoms. I thought that if God wants a couple to have a child then that is how it is. I suppose I was very naive at that time because I was new to Catholicism, I thought it was all really wonderful."
Rothwell, who now volunteers for the Eaves Amina project for survivors of sexual violence, reveals: "I did take one woman for an abortion and looking back I wouldn't want to repeat that experience ever again. But I still felt I had to support the woman." Rothwell's time with Streetlink even led her to reassess her faith. The shift occurred, she says, via "the women themselves and the reality that they lived in".
"It was actually my faith which changed," she said. "In the end, I wasn't a person who believed in the institution, but rather I found Christ where I met the people. It says in the Bible, when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me water, when I was naked you clothed me. And that for me is the most important tenant. It's not the doctrines in the faith which they tell you to believe in but it's actually where we are, that's where I feel very much that I do meet Christ."
Now 68, Rothwell still considers herself a Catholic (albeit one who is "in exile") but now supports the St-Martin-in-the-Fields English Anglican Church, where a number of Catholics worship, having been drawn to the church's inclusive nature and its work with the LGBT community.
Though Mhlophe does not question her own faith, she does at times appear frustrated that the Church is not more progressive, despite the apparent efforts of Pope Francis: “The Catholic Church is so ingrained in itself. I think anybody who is going to make changes will always face opposition. I think the separation between the Catholic and Anglican Churches left the Catholic Church behind in a lot of ways. There are female priests in the Anglican Church and gay ministers, it is progressing. I think the Catholic Church is ignoring a lot of what’s happening in the world right now.”
Rothwell also has her own frustrations over the direction of the Church: "I felt that the Catholic Church is very 'say one thing and do another', I met a lot of priests who would preach from the pulpit and then maybe had a boyfriend on the side but didn't come out. It was two-faced. I also thought as long as I am on this Earth I would like to go to a church where a woman can preach, that's really important. The Anglican church is definitely more progressive, they have now voted on women bishops, and it's really beautiful to have a woman who preaches and gives us communion."
On reconciling her faith with her chosen career, Mhlophe highlights strands which indelibly link the two: “Right now the Catholic Church is doing a lot of work with asylum seekers who have no recourse to public funds and one of the things that we find is that women can be pushed into prostitution because they need the money.
"They need to feed their children. I’m not saying it’s the right way to do it and I am not saying I am going to stop that woman because I have nothing to give her.
"I can only say to her there are other ways of doing things and there are pathways I can guide her to. For her to have resorted to prostitution, which means she has actually had to think it through, and decide ‘I have to do this for my children’, well I don’t think I am in a position to stop or judge that woman in any way. I can only give her information and give her condoms and tell her to be safe.
“The woman must make a choice and in many situations they haven’t got as many choices as they should have. At the end of the day I can’t weigh one sin against another and say ‘This is an easier sin, go and steal instead of going into prostitution’, because at the end of the day she needs the money.”
The mother-of-one was formerly involved in the sexual health sphere for women and children with HIV and began working with Streetlink: “Because it felt like a logical step to make, sexual health and public health, it’s all in one dish.”
While contraception remains a divisive issue for the Catholic Church, she explains: “Yes I give out condoms, but they’re not only to protect the women. They’re also for the benefit of the public’s health.
"There are links, when I was working in sexual health many of the women had contracted HIV through heterosexual sex, some were married and the virus was being brought into the family and starting to affect the children. At the end of the day it’s not the woman alone in this thing. That person who comes and demands the service of the woman and who pays for that demand, if that guy is a Catholic, he will also be committing a sin. So it gets very, very complicated.”
As well as providing contraception, Streetlink workers keep records of women working in the area and makes notes of those who have not been seen for a while. A client may go “missing” because she’s in prison. She may have simply moved away, or she may have been injured or be being kept against her will by a pimp, boyfriend or punter. Many don't have family or support networks to report their absences, so this is one of the areas where Streetlink can step in by taking phone numbers, putting out feelers and gathering information.
Mhlophe will sometimes drive a client to a shelter or out of the borough if the police have asked for her to be moved for her own safety. As an unpaid volunteer working on Thursday nights with Mhlophe, I have often witnessed her calm and soothe countless clients, her soft voice with its rolling 'r's gently drawing them back from the fringes of panic or fear.
If a client has been a victim of violence, Mhlophe and her volunteers will ensure she gets medical care, or if she wants some food, a shower, a nap or to learn more about the rehabilitation or educational services available to her from the charity's partner agencies, she’ll be invited to visit the Spires day centre in nearby Streatham.
While she admits to occasional frustrations at the slow progress of the nature of her work, Mhlophe, who is a grandmother-of-three, points out: “I have been with Streetlink for 16 years and there are some women who are still where I found them. Yet there are a lot more on the way who have exited prostitution and made so many changes in their lives. Some people say ‘Prostitution is here to stay, why do you bother with what you are doing?’ But I just think, let it be there to stay for those who have a choice. And let those who don’t have a choice let them be aware there is help.”
To learn more about Spires visit the website or call 0208 696 0943
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