It's midnight in Las Vegas. And along that famous boulevard known as "The Strip," a most unlikely group of women is doing something utterly contrary to the city's proud nickname, Sin City.
In front of the entrance to Caesars Palace and under the flashing lights of advertisements featuring enticingly posed show girls, they huddle together, holding hands, heads bowed. "Right now, God, I just ask that you use all of us as a tool, Lord, that you can help us spot some girls that need some help," Annie Lobert prays. "If it is just one girl that we get to reach, or if there is 25, we don't care, God. Just do your will tonight."
Annie Lobert is the founder of "Hookers for Jesus," and her mission is to save prostitutes; to save them from the streets and, if possible, bring them to church and to God. A one-time escort, Lobert now enlists other ex-prostitutes and volunteers from a local church to reach out to working girls on the street, in the casinos, even over the Internet.
On one particular night, she approaches likely targets armed with a gift bag filled with Bibles, invitations to church and contact information for help to get out of the sex industry. Walking up to one young, thin women, she doesn't hesitate to share her story. "I used to be a bad girl. I was here in Vegas working and stuff. And I just want to let you know God loves you. He loves you very much." The girl accepts the bag and a hug from Lobert.
"Some people think you can never go to church again. I was working for 16 years and I had a pimp and everything. But you just have to take that step of faith and reach out." Lobert gives her another hug and watches her go off down the sidewalk.
Lobert, who is in her early 40's, started selling her body as a teenager through escort services, Web sites and walking the street. "I know what it's like to be where they are. I know what it's like to be with a pimp and not able to come home because you don't have enough money."
Her journey out of the industry began with a terrifying moment. "One night I was just so desperate, I was telling God I hated him. 'I hate you. Look what you did to my life." By this point she was living in her car, using cocaine. "[It was the] very lowest point of my entire life. Just hitting rock bottom. I took a hit of [cocaine]. I didn't mean to try to commit suicide. It just kind of happened. I had a heart attack and I remember everything turning black. Fading to black. And just this total emptiness and there was nobody there."
Thinking she was surely going to hell, Lobert's instincts kicked in. "I said 'Jesus, please help me. I am alone. Please help me.'"
After surviving the overdose, she began to turn her life around and formed "Hookers for Jesus." But it took her a while to find a church that she felt comfortable attending. "I felt like I was being looked at, that I was being stared at. I just felt uncomfortable like everybody was talking about me."
Coping with shame and judgment is a struggle for many ex-prostitutes. "Certain churches judge girls and they don't let these girls in. Even if they do let them in, they walk in feeling shamed and judged and they feel like they can't really measure up."
That changed for Lobert when she met Pastor Benny Perez of the Church at South Las Vegas. "I came and I sat down and I heard him preach and I was just blown away. People in the seats next to me embraced me."