Set Free

God is using Chris & Maylin Hartwick to share His love with at-risk women in Hong Kong

From Message magazine issue "Set Free"

Ruby* thought God had abandoned her.

Growing up in the Philippines, her mother left her, her step-mother physically abused her, and when her father died, she went to live with her uncle who sexually abused her. She ran away to the city of Manila when she was 15 years old, and with no other way to support herself, she fell into the world of prostitution.

“I felt God had left me to fend for myself,” Ruby said. “I didn’t know where to go, so I sold my body to make ends meet. As long as the men paid, I didn’t care who I gave myself to.”

After a few years in Manila, a “recruiter” told Ruby about a domestic helper job in Singapore. It seemed like the answer to her prayers, and the end to her nightmare of abuse at the hands of strange men. But when she got to Singapore, it was not the Eden she had envisioned. Her employer sexually abused her regularly and refused to pay her.

After two years, a friend told her about opportunities for domestic helpers in Hong Kong. While she was hesitant to leave her friends and feared her next employer would be as bad as her last one, she found another “recruiter” and went to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, her employer was fairer, but she felt very alone and afraid in her new country. Eventually, she was befriended by a Christian woman. As their friendship grew, so did Ruby’s stomach. Ruby had been told during her recruiting agency’s physical that she had a stomach tumor, so she was surprised when that tumor started moving. Ruby was fired by her employer when they found out she was pregnant.

“I asked God where He was, but He was nowhere to be found,” said Ruby

Seeking help, Ruby’s friend took her to church and introduced her to ABWE Missionary Maylin Hartwick.

Maylin, her husband Chris, and their two sons first arrived in Hong Kong nine years earlier. They knew the country’s need for the gospel, but they had no idea how deep that need really was. During their years of ministry in Hong Kong and through their travels, they learned more and more about the epidemic of prostitution and human trafficking that was rampant throughout Asia.

71% of victims experience confinement, confiscation of documents, or verbal, physical or sexual threats and abuse.
Far Sight Institute

According to research by the Far Sight Institute, modern slavery is a major global issue, particularly in Asia, and 71 percent of victims experience some combination of confinement, confiscation of documents, or verbal, physical or sexual threats and abuse. It is a tricky issue as victims of modern slavery are often hidden, which is especially true for the world’s estimated 52-million domestic workers who live and work in the privacy of their employer’s homes.

“Most people have turned a blind eye to these issues and these women, so we started praying that God would lead someone to reach them,” said Maylin. “But instead of sending someone, God called us.”

Since then, God has given Chris and Maylin many opportunities to shine His light into these dark places and to help women like Ruby.

When they learned that Ruby was pregnant and homeless, Chris and Maylin immediately took her into their home. And when they learned that Ruby would be deported without a job to support her visa, Maylin helped fight to extend her visa until the baby was born. Maylin was successful, and as they waited for the baby to be born, she was able to demonstrate and teach Ruby about the hope of Jesus Christ.

“Maylin and her church slowly opened my heart to God after it was closed for such a long time,” said Ruby. “I can’t explain to you how the words of Jesus suddenly changed me.”

I can’t explain to you how the words of Jesus suddenly changed me.

When Ruby welcomed her son into the world eight weeks later, she was excited to bring him up in the ways of the Lord.

While she was forced to return to the Philippines after her son was born, Maylin continued to disciple her, and with the aid of other prayer and financial partners, she helped support Ruby through midwifery school.

Today, Ruby is a midwife and has started Bible studies to reach women in the slums where she lives. As part of her ministry, she also uses her midwife training to help pregnant women who can’t afford medical care.

“For other women who are in the same situation I was in, I want to tell them not to let anger destroy you. Trust and surrender everything to the Lord because you will only suffer if you allow yourself to be driven with anger,” said Ruby. “Jesus is knocking at your heart. Let Him come in because He is the Only One you can lean on. Those sad circumstances that occur in your life, allow you to remember Him. Christ died for you because of our sins, He has forgiven you, and you need to forgive yourself.”

Red-Light Ministry

Maylin’s passion for helping women began when she was a child, so when she discovered widespread sex and human trafficking in Hong Kong, it broke her heart. She told a friend about her desire to do more and her friend connected Maylin with a local organization that ministers to workers in the red-light district.

In the last five years, the organization has established a group of strong Christian volunteers who meet every Thursday for a time of prayer and worship before setting out in teams to build relationships in Hong Kong’s red-light district. The teams visit the same area of the neighborhood each week and work to form meaningful connections with the women working in the bars.

“Because we go out in teams on the same street every Thursday night, the ladies and everyone else who works in the bars know our routine. Once trust has been established, we are able to let them know that there are other options available for them if they are willing.” said Maylin. “When we show our care and concern, reaching out to them and asking to pray with them, many of them can’t hold back their tears.”

Many of the women they meet in their street outreach are from other South Asian countries, and they come for a variety of reason, but their predicaments are not unique. There are three kinds of women Maylin frequently ministers to: women, like Ruby, who came to be domestic helpers; women who knowingly came to work in the bars; and women, who were promised a good-paying job and then were tricked into working in the bars.

“Regardless of how or why they came to Hong Kong, even the women who knowingly came to Hong Kong as prostitutes, have their freedom taken away,” said Maylin. “The bar owners and the mamasans take away their documents until their debts are paid.”

That is exactly what happened to Isabel.

Isabel* was a single mother living in the Philippines with four children, and she was desperate to find money to send her drug-addicted, 15-year-old daughter to a rehab center. Isabel was already struggling to make ends meet so the cost of rehab seemed beyond her reach until a “recruiter” told her about a good-paying restaurant job in Hong Kong. The “recruiter” promised her that they would take care of everything including money for her airfare, hotel and visa. It seemed too good to be true — and it was.

When she arrived in Hong Kong, she was put her up in a nice hotel for three days, and then she discovered there was no job, but she still owed all the money for the ticket, the visa, and the hotel. She was told she had to go work in the bars in the red-light district.

“Many women who are trafficked to Hong Kong are promised a job, but when they get here, there is no job and they find out they owe money,” said Maylin.

According to Anti-Slavery International, debt bondage, also called debt slavery, is the least known but most common form of modern slavery. Debt bondage occurs when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt. They are tricked into working for little or no pay, with no control over their debt. Most or all of the money they earn goes to pay off their loan. The value of their work becomes invariably greater than the original sum of money borrowed, and they face violence and intimidation if they try to leave.

This has happened to almost all of the women Maylin ministers to. They are forced to live together in run-down apartments that are overseen by a female pimp, who goes by the term “mamasan.” The women are trapped by the debt they owe for getting to Hong Kong and then they owe more money for food and living in the apartment. The mamasans hold the women’s debt record, but often the women don’t know how much they owe or how much they have earned.

“To pay their debts, girls are told they need to dance in the bars or they just need help encourage patrons to drink more, but then they find out later they are expected to sleep with the men,” said Maylin.

When Isabel found herself trapped in this situation, she was devastated. The mamasan told her that she only had to stay in the bar and drink with customers, but that her debt must be paid. Isabel already knew the hope of Christ, but with no other way out, she agreed to go to the bars.

“I didn’t go have sex with the men but many have embraced the lie that they are doing the right thing for themselves and their families.”

“I didn’t go have sex with the men but many have embraced the lie that they are doing the right thing for themselves and their families. Many have gotten into gambling and drugs and done other bad things for the money,” said Isabel.

It was at the bar that she met Maylin during one of her Thursday night outreaches. Maylin and her church family welcomed Isabel, prayed with her, and helped support her as she worked to survive her situation and pay back her debt.

Then one night at the bar, Isabel met an Australian business man who offered to pay off her debts and help her get home to the Philippines. Leary of such a generous offer, Maylin and Chris met with him to ensure his intentions were pure, and he confirmed that he was asking for nothing in return. Through the man’s generosity, Isabel was able to return to her family in Manila and send her daughter to rehab.

“I am back in the Philippines now and it’s been hard to provide for my children without a job. We had to relocate to a different slum area. We would like to just have a place where we don’t need to have to move again. It’s been a hard life after my husband left me, but in faith, we keep hoping and praying,” said Isabel.

While life is still hard, Isabel has the prayer and support of Maylin and her church in Hong Kong. Isabel dreams of having her own small business selling vegetables and cooked food from her home, and Maylin recently went to visit to see her vision. Now Maylin is working to find supporters to help Isabel start her business so she can safely earn an income while raising her children.

The Hands & Feet of Christ

When Maylin got involved with the red-light district outreach, she brought her passion and the need to her church. They whole-heartedly embraced the idea, and every Sunday, their congregation of about 60 people prays for persecuted Christians and people trapped in human trafficking and slavery. Then, when their church’s lease was up three years ago, they felt God calling them to move their church to the red-light district in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district. Despite its high-end restaurants, it is home to thousands of modern slaves and a large Muslim population in need of gospel.

Moving their church to this area has allowed them to live alongside people in deep need and their church members have become missionaries in their own neighborhood. Their church quickly became known as a place where people in need could go to get help.

Many of the church ladies minister to their community by cooking for the red-light district outreach. And in 2016, their church partnered with a new culinary training ministry, Taste of Hope, to help refugees, domestic helpers, and at-risk women learn marketable skills that they can use to build a better life for themselves and their families.

Together, Maylin and her church continue to minister to women trapped by debt bondage and sin by sharing the hope of the gospel with them and by helping them navigate their situation and their options. They help teach them about the local laws and their rights in Hong Kong. Their church also created a small shelter where these women can stay for a short time if they lose their job or need emergency housing.

“Many trafficking situations stem from a dysfunctional family, coupled with a lack of opportunity and a need for money. These women are vulnerable to deceivers,” said Maylin. “We teach them that Jesus is the only one who can provide, and He will provide.”

While Siti* was a Christian before she met Maylin, she was still deceived and trapped.

“I grew up in a Muslim home where I was treated like I was just a shadow compared to my brother and sisters,” said Siti.

When Siti was 14, a “recruiter” came to her village in rural Indonesia and told people about a well-paying opportunity to work overseas. Siti, feeling neglected, jokingly told her father she was considering it, and he told her she should go.

“I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought my parents didn’t love me anyway, so I decided to leave,” said Siti.

Siti contacted the “recruiter” and signed up, secretly hoping her parents would love her enough to stop her. They did not, so at just 14 years old, the recruiting agency gave her a fake I.D. with a new name and her new age, 22.

Despite being a child, she was sent to Singapore as a domestic worker where she was treated appallingly. She was physically and emotionally abused by her employers. She was on call 24-hours a day and typically worked about 16-hours a day making about a dollar an hour. She was given less than 10 percent of her meager earnings and the rest was taken by the agency to pay back what she supposedly owed.

“I worked in a country where I didn’t know the language or the people. Even though I was treated badly and was not paid the salary I was promised, what was most painful was that my parents didn’t even care where I was,” said Siti.

After her two-year contract ended in Singapore, she applied to work in Hong Kong where her employer was also cruel to her. Luckily, she met Maylin who prayed with her and helped support her until she was able to find a kind and fair employer.

“Maylin and her church helped me stay spiritually strong through a tough time and learn how to forgive my family and my employers,” said Siti.

Maylin continues to disciple Siti, and with the help of their church, they are reaching more domestic workers who are struggling.

While some may be wary of having prostitutes or at-risk single women in their church, Maylin says, “Jesus loves them. There is risk with anyone, but I think the key is remembering God’s grace. Every day is a blessing that we are not in their situation.”