published Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Cook: Women helping women

To Get Involved:

Contact Gloria Lloyd at gloria.lloyd04@gmail.com or 615-418-1803 about ways to help.

Donations may be mailed to:

Naomi Project

St. Mark's United Methodist

701 Mississippi Ave.

Chattanooga, TN 37405

We left downtown just before lunch, the three women and me. The grandmother drove, the real estate agent rode shotgun, which left me in the back seat, next to the preacher. Behind us, in the way back of the Honda, were the Bibles and condoms.

We headed south, past the $20-a-plate restaurants, then east, near the Stop 'n Save.

Down the thin streets and back alleys. Behind the abandoned buildings. U-turns, then back again. The women kept looking left-right-left, heads turning, searching, the way someone might for lost treasure.

"Turn here," the real estate agent told the grandmother. "Let's go by the trap house."

They were looking for prostitutes.

"We love them," the real estate agent said. "Wide open arms."

Dozens of times this summer, these women have left their middle-class worlds and driven into the hot streets, befriending the women that work them. They know them by name. Know their shoe sizes, their dress sizes. They buy them lunch, then dessert.

At each encounter, they hand them a lavender-colored bag with gifts of love and survival: Body wipes. Toothpaste. Condoms. Mouthwash. A Bible. Lotion. A candle, or maybe a necklace.

"I want them to know they are daughters of God," the grandmother said.

It's called the Naomi Project -- a female-led initiative to build relationships with local prostitutes. Its long-term goal is to give them a way off the streets. The project has two dozen or so women involved, but mainly, these three:

Gloria Lloyd, the grandmother, is also a retired schoolteacher and has that easy-hug warmth that can be so disarming.

Amanda Cordell, the real estate agent, a mom and wife, has a fearlessness matched only by her compassion.

Annette Flynn, the pastor, also a mom and wife, prays for and with the prostitutes.

This summer, they've given out probably 150 love bags, and spoken with as many as 30 women.

"There," Cordell said, as we drove through east Chattanooga.

The woman was walking slowly, a little crookedly, down the hot sidewalk. We pulled over into the empty lot. The woman on the street recognized the women in the car. They began laughing and easy talking. The woman on the street pulled out her phone; from the front seat, Cordell and Lloyd ooohed and aaahed over the picture of her baby.

"She's 1 month old," the woman said. "I had her by myself on Rossville Boulevard in a trailer I broke into."

"Well, here are some baby wipes," Lloyd said. "Do you need any baby clothes?"

They are inspired by the work of Becca Stevens, a Nashville priest who founded the Magdalene House and Thistle Farms, which provide housing, safety and work to women off the streets. Their intent is to replicate that here.

They already have earned the support of many, especially two churches and one nonprofit: St. Mark's United Methodist, Christ United Methodist and the anti-trafficking Second Life.

In June, the Naomi Project hosted a Spa Day for as many women as they could find. Served them lemon-butter Tuscan chicken and sauteed mushrooms. One of the women put down her fork, began to cry and couldn't stop.

Why? Why us? she sobbed. No one does anything nice for us.

The moment transformed Lloyd.

"When you are having one of them cry on your shoulder, and you realize this is a human being, saying 'Help me, I don't want to live this life anymore,' well, then there is no excuse," she said.

Lloyd and Cordell can speak at length about Chattanooga prostitution. Most sex workers are addicted to drugs -- "crack," said Cordell -- which creates a vicious cycle of sex-drugs-sex-drugs.

"On a good day, they'll see 20 men," Cordell said. "On a bad, five."

Few have pimps. If they are coming down off a high, they may charge less ("Five bucks," Cordell said) just to get money to get high again. Many are homeless, and have endured hell-and-back suffering: male violence, guns to the head, escaping half-naked from men who might have killed them.

They work mornings, afternoons and nights. Often, their customers drive through from other neighborhoods.

"I see a lot of old white men," Cordell said.

Years ago, Cordell began visiting strip clubs -- here, Knoxville, New Orleans -- asking if she could talk with the women inside. She'd bring them food, help clean them up, eat with them.

To her, their pain is familiar. Years ago, growing up in Mississippi, a neighbor got her hooked on drugs, then withheld drugs while making her a devilish offer.

"He presented his proposition to trade my body, a gift from God, for the filth of the world," she said.

Lloyd, too, feels a connection with these women. She grew up in an abusive family, knows the metal taste of fear.

"I myself have felt alone, with nobody to help," she said.

So each week, they drive, rolling down the window, giving instead of taking. Women, helping other women.

"They saw me down by the liquor store," said a woman named Tonya. "They see me out here and tell me how much they love me."

Tonya is 43 and a grandmother. She grew up in Chattanooga. She sleeps in an abandoned house with no running water. At night, she has seizures.

When she spotted Cordell and Lloyd and Flynn, she crossed four lanes of traffic to get to them. We sat together on the back of Lloyd's Honda.

They laughed and joked. Tonya showed off her homemade jewelry: an old watchband as an anklet, some plastic rings from bottles laced out like charms on her bracelets. From the boxes they'd brought, Tonya picked out clothes: a brown sleeveless dress, a pair of comfortable shorts, a blue Koret top.

"Will you all pray?" Tonya asked.

The women held hands. Flynn prayed: "God, we thank you for your love."

Eyes closed, smiling, Tonya held tight.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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