By Kirk Petersen
Alice Garrick is working to liberate sex workers in Pakistan, with the support of the Church of Pakistan. But the support has not always been there.
“My priest, my pastors, my bishop, they always work against us” in the past, she told a small gathering at Episcopal Divinity School on April 26. “They said, sister Alice, you know you are not doing good things in church. Church work is spiritual growth. Church work is praying, singing, worship. But you are bringing prostitution to the church.”
She would point out, to no avail, that Jesus Christ did not shun prostitutes.
In the late 1990s, a group of women approached Samuel Azariah, who was then the Bishop of Raiwand in eastern Pakistan. “Bishop, you must do something for us. Please, we want to be free, because we are in sex trade, forcefully,” Garrick recounted. “We don’t want to live in it.”
The women persisted long enough that the bishop asked Garrick, who already had worked for the diocese’s Women Development and Service Society, to become executive director and address the problem.
The Women’s Desk, as the group informally is known, started a rehabilitation center in 2004, and invited commercial sex workers to “share their stories and pain, and together find a solution,” Garrick said.
Out of that came a midwife training program that so far has trained 6,500 women as midwives. During the question period after Garrick’s presentation, it became clear that a midwife in Pakistan is roughly equivalent to a nursing assistant in the United States — a role with duties and capabilities beyond delivering babies. The 18-month program involves a year of classroom instruction and then six months of training at a teaching hospital.
Young men and boys also are at risk of being pushed into commercial sex work, and a separate but equivalent program has trained four young men as clinical assistants.
She said graduates of the program are readily able to find jobs, despite their past history as sex workers, and have “a source of income, and dignity.” The program has been so successful that other dioceses are looking to replicate it. The Women’s Desk also is involved in other social justice efforts, working with persecuted trans people and HIV AIDS patients, and in opposition to anti-blasphemy laws.
“Social justice isn’t an add-on — it is the Gospel,” said the Very Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of Episcopal Divinity School, in introducing Garrick. “Religious institutions that are part of the Anglican Communion that shun that work, shun those people – they aspire to be church, but they aren’t church.” EDS formerly was an independent seminary based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 2017 it has been part of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
These days Garrick has the full support of the current Bishop of Raiwind, Azad Marshall, who also serves as moderator (primate) of the Church of Pakistan. The diocese has sent her on a two-month expedition to the United States, to make connections, raise awareness, and gain support. She said the cost of the midwife and clinical assistant programs is $2,100 annually per student.
Unfortunately, the program cannot easily accept donations. The Rev. Bruce Woodcock, the Episcopal Church’s partnership officer for Asia and the Pacific, explained that Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, makes it difficult for Christian organizations to have bank accounts. For now, he said, the best way to offer support to the Women Development and Service Society is to contact Garrick, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Church of Pakistan combines multiple Protestant denominations, and has about 500,000 members in a country of more than 220 million people, 96 percent of whom are Muslim. It is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion, and also a member of the World Communion of Reform Churches and the World Methodist Council. Presbyterians and Lutherans also were founding members of the unified church in 1970.