Pink Door Berlin

As a gray rain raps on a window overlooking the ruins of Berlin’s once impervious wall, Maria Andrews takes a sip of her steaming tea.[1] She’s just received a call from a German police officer asking her to come sit with a Hungarian prostitute taken into custody after a police raid on a brothel suspected of human trafficking. It is not an unusual call for Maria. As she looks down on what remains of the wall she wonders, Is this the kind of woman who is ready to leave the industry? To escape to freedom? Or will it be too much for her traumatized spirit?

She may hesitate for a moment, but then she remembers a quote from her devotion that morning, “Jesus loves across every boundary.” She can see Jesus embracing a leper, praising a woman of ill-repute, and dining with Matthew and his cronies. One more sip, and then off to the police bureau to see about this risky and tumultuous business of loving beyond the world’s walls. Door Berlin

Maria works for Berlin’s Door—a recovery home and integration program for women escaping the sex industry. It’s a holistic program of physical, mental, and spiritual recovery and reintegration into society. The in Door stands for “personal ink,” a reminder that every woman’s story is different, and the staff’s job is to help women fashion their own new and healthy story. “These women are strong, you have to be to survive the trauma they’ve endured. And when given the help they need, they can be the kind of citizens Germany really needs—any country needs,” says Maria.

The staff of Door and their clients face nearly insurmountable obstacles. The trauma associated with exploitation runs deep—altering neural pathways, harming hormonal systems, and shaping every fiber of a woman’s self-perception. Women who come to the home grew up in almost exclusively abusive families. Many come from war torn countries, places where they lost any innocence in childhood. Several were victims of child pornography—their caretakers realizing early on the cash potential of their bodies.

Escape from the industry does not come easily. While they may quickly free themselves from the control of a pimp, the heavy hand of trauma controls much of their early days at Door. “The first few months we keep very simple. We try to be present, building trust, and just work on keeping a healthy daily schedule.”  Trust is key to the journey of recovery. These women come to Door rightfully harboring a distrust of people—a constant suspicion of intentions—and a maniacal view of God. The staff estimates It takes about three months for women to calm down . . . to be able to hear, notice, and become alive enough to start thinking and dreaming again.

With this in mind the spiritual side of Door is offered slowly and gently. Every resident knows that Door is a Christian organization, but their first conversation about God doesn’t occur until they ask about it. This helps the women feel honored and trusted. They know nothing will be pushed on them. This is their journey. They get to decide, in a way the world has never let them before.

Their German Context

"The German People," inscribed on the edifice of the 
German parliament building in Berlin.

Aside from the emotional and spiritual obstacles to recovery, Door is also up against a culture moving in the opposite direction. In 2002 Germany legalized all forms of the sex industry. At the time, and for proponents today, the legislation was billed as a good move for women. Germany’s prostitutes had long played the pawns in an illicit trade rife with criminal activity. Legalizing the industry would give the women rights like healthcare, fair wages, safe work environments, and legal recourse against exploitative employers. In reality, of the nearly 400,000 sex workers in Germany only 44 have ever registered with the government for these protections. Organized crime rings remain the key players behind the many brothels and bordellos. Incidents of human trafficking have risen since 2002—the narrative of Eastern European women traveling to Germany for what they thought was a legitimate job only to find themselves ashamed and threatened in a brothel remains common.[2]

Despite the culture actively working 
against them, I'm struck by Door's 
love for Berlin.
In recent years, German officials have attempted to crack down on abuses in the industry. In 2008 German legislators raised the legal age at which a woman can engage in prostitution from 16 to 18. In 2016 the law code was updated to include procuring sexual services from a trafficked woman as a crime.   

Germany isn’t the only country to experiment with legalization. Denmark affirmed the industry in 1999, the same year their neighbors to the north, Sweden, outlawed the purchase of sex. The result couldn’t be more different. One study confirms that instances of sex trafficking in Denmark outpaced Sweden by thirty percent, even though Sweden’s population is twice that of Denmark.
All the while, the sex industry in Germany proliferates. Charlotte Britz, the mayor of the relatively small German city Saarbrücken (180,000), told the Telegraph in 2014 that there were more than 100 brothels within the city’s limits. The industry is estimated to be worth 15 billion euros a year. And the number of sex workers in Germany has more than doubled since 2002.

A Formidable Resolve
Meanwhile, the staff of Door tries not to lose themselves in hopeless numbers.
In a vaulted Berlin flat, a former home for Nazi officers, I sit down with staff members to talk about trafficking in Germany and Door. The building creaks, as if it’s trying to tell me old stories. I imagine the rumble of Soviet tanks on the streets, or screaming Allied bullets on their way to scarring the building’s nineteenth-century façade.

These people make me curious. I want to know why they do this work, which must be both difficult and thankless. “Jesus saw tremendous potential in women—no matter their pasts. He gave them the opportunity to use their gifts to make a difference. And that’s what we’re doing through Door,” after these words settle a bit I see faces of formidable resolve—numbers and obstacles no matter.

Recovery and Integration
The road out of the sex industry and into an independent life is long. Door helps women journey through recovery with a meticulously planned but flexibly scheduled program. In the beginning, Door relies on referrals to find women interested in escaping. One place women go is the Neustart Café in Berlin’s red light district. Neustart is a women-only coffee shop run by local Christians. It’s become a haven for women looking for a moment’s break. In the café they encounter listening ears; people who deeply care about their welfare. As women learn to trust the café staff they often ask for help. From there a team may design a plan for getting women from the horrors of the street into the safety of a place like Door.

Once at Door, the women begin by disconnecting from toxic relationships. “Their social network is a big part of the reason they were trafficked in the first place. So we require them to break ties with people from the red light district before entering the house.” The fracturing of unhealthy and exploitative relationships is difficult, and many women turn back, but the cloistering allows for a new sense of self to emerge—an identity built in the safe environment Door provides.

After the initial shock of settling into a place where they won’t be sold or trafficked, women receive help from the staff at Door to sort out the trauma the industry has dealt them. Trauma harms the brain, blocking healthy pathways and making new untrustworthy ones. “So we have to come alongside and slowly help women relearn.” The Door staff assists women in recognizing their specific triggers. “We have to get them to slow down. Maybe it’s a count down, ‘3, 2, 1,’ then saying to herself, ‘I’m safe. I’m safe.’ It’s very difficult work, but we help them over and over again for as long as it takes.” This neurological rewiring helps women gain a new sense of inner safety that paves the way to entry into German society.

The next phase sees women reimagine what relationships look like. “Even after seven or eight months, women are often very uncomfortable with healthy relationships. It’s inevitable that they see us, the staff, interacting with one another and they’ll say, ‘Wait, is that really how friends treat each other?’” The staff at Door understand that healthy associative skills are central to each woman’s hope of an independent and flourishing life. They will need healthy relationships—relationships that they add their gifts to without manipulation or intimidation, friendships that involve both innocent teasing and direct communication without debasement or humiliation.

These friendship and relational skills are at once therapeutic and key to holding down a future job. A healthy and safe position at a reputable business is an imperative big picture goal. When women move on from Door they have to be able to provide for themselves. “But we never cut them off. We’re always in contact and there for them,” they reassure.

Where does God come into all this, I ask. “We start by showing them what God is like, because they’ve been pushed and told what they have to believe and do for their entire lives. Now is the time for making their own decisions. One hundred percent of the women who have come to Door had either an abusive, exploitative, or absent father. And how they view their earthly father shapes their view of God. So we take it slowly.” Yet, even though the Door staff does not talk much about God, women inevitably ask their own questions. “We are patient and kind with them. We give them dignity. We let them seek their identity.” And by emulating God’s character to them, they open the door to spiritual matters. “Women ask for prayer, they ask for a Bible, and many of them begin discovering what it means to become a follower of Jesus.”

The women of Door don’t always find wholeness and peace. The appeal of the easy money and strong bonds with old friends draw some women back to the industry and away from the arduous road to recovery. But whether they stay with the program to the end or leave early, the story is their own. In a world where the decisions are made for them, Door insists on instilling a sense of authorship, free will for women from whom such luxury has been previously robbed.

Talk About Healthy Sexuality
What can Christians of goodwill do to help in the fight against sexual exploitation? “The Church can turn the tide, especially in America.” But first, they urge churches to take a step back and evaluate their approach to sex. “Talk about sex. Help teenagers gain a definition of healthy sexuality that’s rooted in God’s heart. Challenge the objectification of women’s bodies. Teach boys to see girls as gifted equals in God’s kingdom.” I can almost hear people squirming uncomfortably in pews.
But, if ever the Church had reason to heed these words, one would think it’s now. A new report just came out outlining sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Church. Women across the continent have outlined heart wrenching episodes of abuse within our churches followed by exclusion after raising concerns.[3] Meanwhile the widespread use of pornography continues to blight every congregation’s shadow.

I mention these sinister symptoms and they acknowledges them all. Even so, they, and the thousands of Christian abolitionists like them, continue to believe the Church can be a place of crumbled walls—a place where women, and men, of all pasts walk unencumbered toward a present and redemptive Father.

“But we have to talk about it,” they say, and I wonder if we will.

Missing Nothing
As our time comes to a close, I ask the question I find most interesting, “what are you afraid of?” The
silence cloaks our table, but I can see an answer coming. Soon Maria speaks up, “I’m afraid I’ll miss something. Like I’ll miss a trigger or overlook some area of their trauma. I can’t miss things—sometimes I do, but I . . . I can’t.” She stops and affectionately turns her head toward the door, as if she can see the women standing there and says, “It’s difficult work, but giving up is not an option.”

The next day I learn the Hungarian woman decided not to come to Door, though not because the staff missed something. She simply wasn’t ready to break ties with the industry. She returned to the familiar, even if abusive, intrigues of Berlin’s red-light district. But should she choose in the future to take the risk and cross the wall to freedom, the staff at Door will be waiting, ready to carry God’s love across every boundary.

Like to help? Give to Door here.

And here’s their English language website:

[1] Door requested that I obscure the identities of the staff people I met while in Germany, because of recent threats made against them by organized crime rings in Berlin. I’ve gone to great lengths to ensure this story’s factual accuracy, but Maria isn’t so much a real person as a symbol for each of the courageous people who work at Door.
[2] Recent events have shown that the same things happen in the United States. Police in southern Florida recently operated stings at multiple massage parlors throughout the state where women from China had been forced into prostitution after having come to the U.S. with the promise of a job in a nail salon. You can read a grisly account of the crimes and investigation here.
[3] For a powerful example read Christianity Today’s interview with Rachel Denhollander—specifically about how her church community treated her when she raised concerns about abuse.


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