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."
"For me, this is what pastoring is about," Perez says. "When I read the Gospels I see Christ reaching out, loving these people. Loving them where they are and loving them enough to point them in another direction."
He says that while his congregation was surprised to hear the word "hookers" said out loud in church when he announced that he wanted to partner with "Hookers for Jesus" and support Lobert's work, the majority of his flock supported his decision. "We are in Las Vegas. This is Sin City. And these are the people God has asked us to reach."
It all sounds so easy. The beautiful former prostitute as a messenger for God and her spirited young pastor. But the truth of how it all happens to bring women out of prostitution isn't so pretty. Leaving "The Game," as they call it, usually means taking a beating from a pimp and giving up all the money, clothes and worldly possessions they have. Not an easy leap to make even when they have faith.
Take Tammy's story, for example. A prostitute for 24 years, her name has been changed because she fears the pimp she walked away from three months ago.
"My pimp had broke my jaw and I was on my way back to him." Her concerned mother got her in touch with Lobert. "She would call me on the pay phone every 30 minutes all night. And then the next morning, she came and got me and we prayed and we talked and we got something to eat. And I was just really shocked that here was someone who had been through what I'd been through, did what I did, and she was so happy and talking about God and showed me that she really cared about me."
With two young children to raise since leaving prostitution, she's also been diagnosed with cancer. Yet, she is hopeful. "I've never in my whole years of living, my whole life that I have lived, never been more happy or more at peace than I am now," she says, wiping tears away. "I'm not getting beat up. I'm not selling my body. I'm not feeling dirty."
For Lauren, whose name has also been changed, there are very practical concerns of rebuilding a life after a decade of being a high-end call girl and a few more years of being supported by a former "John." "For the first time ever, I put on a suit and applied to a food service position. I went with a Christian friend of mine. I told him I was shaking so hard that morning. This is just our worst fear. What do I put on the resume? Strap down the boobs. Pull the hair back."
To help women and girls transition out of prostitution, Perez and his church have donated a house, tucked away in a quiet Las Vegas suburb, to be a first stop for prostitutes trying to escape their old lives.
"We are starting this house for girls to come out of the industry," says Perez. It's a transitional house. It's not a permanent house for them. But it's a place for them to actually run to, get them here, and from here we can figure out what their next move is."
The church and Lobert also help to support Stephanie, who left prostitution 17 months ago, after 6 years. In addition to helping with diapers, clothes and formula for her 3-month-old son, Stephanie says they also help her by holding her accountable for her actions.
"If I didn't have Annie and the church behind me keeping me accountable, telling me it's going to be OK, you don't need to go back, I would have gone back a long time ago."
In addition to her infant son, Stephanie also has daughter, 3. The temptation for quick money is always there, even when she is out helping Lobert with her "Hookers for Jesus" mission. "I was tempted last night. I'd seen a couple of guys walking by themselves looking at men and I was like, 'oh, he looks like he got some money.'"
Stephanie kept her mind on the task at hand, but it wasn't easy.
"I went from making $1,500, $2,000, $2,500 a day in just a few hours to making $8.50 an hour. That's what -- 50, 60 buck a day?" But because she wants to set the right example for her young daughter, she knows there is no going back to that life. "It's not worth going back. It's not worth losing the self-respect that I've gained."
On a recent Saturday night, Lobert, Tammy, Lauren and Stephanie shared a pew with other former prostitutes. Following the service, both Tammy and Lauren were called to the front of the hall for a special prayer, each one surrounded by fellow church members who supported them as they gave in to the blessings bestowed by Perez as he asked for God to bring them peace.
Tammy summed it up. "You walk in the door and you just feel loved."
For Lobert, bringing these women of the night off the street and into church is her life's calling. "They are still daughters. They are still sisters. They are human. They are real. They are not some rejected tramp or some rejected leper that can't be loved."