Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Candle for Julissa

Today was quite busy for me at Arlington Street Church. Even when I’m not assisting the minister with worship, or coordinating the candles of joy and concern, I’m often there to help out. In the meditation right after the sermon, I often play the Tibetan singing bowl. But, today, there was much on my mind…

For one thing, there were the repercussions of Philip Markoff’s crime spree. If Internet chatter is any indication, his actions have raised the awareness and anxiety of sex workers all over the US regarding the risks they have to take just to make a living. Then there was the question of what to do if a sex worker came into Sacred Eros, the sexuality support group I run – would they find a safe space to share their thoughts and fears? Plus the group is meeting this week, with people from Boston’s kink community looking to attend.

I started by meeting with our assistant minister, who was preaching. Prior to entering ministry, he was a practicing attorney, and he’s drawn on that experience in the past. I explained my concern about having a sex worker come to Sacred Eros, and worry if there might be someone from law enforcement there. Of course, we consistently advertise that what’s said in that group is to be kept strictly confidential. Dan felt confident that such assurances, and other issues, would provide enough protection for people there. And he also agreed with something else I wanted to do.

At Arlington Street, our candles of joy and concern (sometimes called “prayers from the people” in other churches) are written on cards and read aloud by someone from the worship committee. Of course, we also ask and allow some folks to read their candle cards themselves, and I asked to do so here. So when the time in the service came, I followed John up to the chancel, and he let me read from the card I prepared:

“This is a candle of concern and support for Boston’s sex work community, facing renewed fear and anxiety after Julissa Brisman’s vicious murder, and the legal backlash which has followed.”

There was also a long-time parishioner there, who was there for a candle of his own; he smiled and offered his hand to me. Our music director led us in a song by Libby Roderick, asking us to think of someone who needed to hear the lyrics:

How could anyone ever tell you
you were anything less than beautiful?
How could anyone ever tell you
you were less than whole?
How could anyone fail to notice
that your loving is a miracle?
How deeply you’re connected to my soul.

Later on that day, a couple of other folks approached me to express their support and gratitude that I’d raised the issue. We’ve always had a reputation for welcoming people considered “on the margins” – and it was good to see that tradition kept alive.

After the service and coffee hour, there was another meeting we attended. Sure enough, I recognized one of the members of our Prudential Committee (our governing board). I made a point of talking to him, reminding him about Sacred Eros and how much it would mean if someone from the Pru could be there to listen to folks from Boston’s kink community. Mark said he’d be happy to shoot an email to the other members, so hopefully we’ll see someone there.

Now I’m back home, thinking of Julissa. Amidst the sensationalism, the web is full of stories from her friends and family, about the totality of her life, her caring spirit, and her dreams of being able to make a living caring for others. While many said that her work as an erotic masseuse was “just a way to make money,” I wondered if that spirit of love they talked about also came through in that work as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if it did – such spirits are hard to keep contained.

It worries me about the backlash which has come about because of her tragic death – the naïve belief that shutting down online erotic ads will somehow protect women in the trade, when it could instead make things much worse for them. Some in Rhode Island are now pushing to change the laws there, in the name of stopping “sex trafficking” – and forgetting that there are already laws against involuntary servitude on the books to go after traffickers regardless of the kind of work they extract from people.

Even if Julissa had not entered this trade, the life experiences and spirit which I read about from those who knew her best describe a woman who would have thought and felt deeply about what would truly be best for erotic professionals in this country. I hope that more people read about her life, and question the backlash against other sex workers in the same spirit.

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