Following Jesus Back to the Streets
Interview by Kristyn Komarnicki
Derek Williams was a pimp on the streets of US cities for 32 years. Today, in a new life transformed and fueled by Christ, he reaches back out to the women he once traded for cash and to the men he once called clients and colleagues.
Please tell us about Back to the Streets.
Derek Williams: Back to the Streets is a ministry that targets those who are caught in the sex industry. We spend countless hours on the streets, partnering with other organizations to bring the love of Christ to women trapped in prostitution. When they are ready, we attempt to get them into good programs and the proper counseling, and we walk alongside them on their journey toward restoration. We also partner with a ministry called Serenity Steps, and we've launched our first social enterprise, called That Grace Restored. The women meet on Fridays to make paper products, like journals. They sell the products, too, so they are learning sales skills as well as management skills.
We also reach out to the johns and the pimps.
When were you first exposed to violence against women?
DW: In my neighborhood, where there was spousal abuse. I witnessed boys beating up girls, girls and boys fighting in the streets. When I was introduced to pimping I was taught that violence was one of the ways that you kept the women in check, that certain things warranted them being physically abused.
How did you get into pimping?
DW: I began shooting heroin at the age of 16. In the process, I got into a criminal lifestyle, but a lot of my friends and the guys I got high with got shot at, got arrested, and went to jail. So I looked for a safer way to fund my addiction, and I began to pimp out my then-girlfriend.
I knew of some men who were pimping, and once I brought my girlfriend to the streets I was quickly brought under the wing of older pimps who are more experienced in "the game," who taught me how it's done, and it spread from like wildfire from there.
I started with my girlfriend, but one of the pimps who had originally taken me under his wing persuaded her to leave me and to go be part of his stable. Another pimp told me, "You either get out of the game or go get someone else." So I went and got somebody else and started selling her. As I got more proficient, women who were already involved would sometimes choose me. I always presented it to them in the most inviting way possible. The women started choosing me, and I became proficient in what I was doing, so there was no looking back.
Did you ever sell underage girls?
DW: When I got into it I was 16, and my girlfriend was 14. But as I came of age I did not deal with minors, not knowingly anyway, because they bring a lot of heat from law enforcement.
What kept you involved in pimping all those years?
DW: The money, mostly. At least, I thought it was the money, but what I know now was that it was my feelings of low self-worth and the illusion of control that it offered. I stopped shooting heroin at the age of 28, after 12 years of shooting. When I got free from the heroin addiction, I was part of a 12-step program, and one of the sayings of the program was "You haven't done it until you've done it clean." That clicked off something in my head. I had made a lot of money with my $100-day habit. I realized that if I could do it clean, I could have a really profitable career.
So first I was addicted to heroin, but then I was addicted to money—and the whole lifestyle that goes with that, having nice things. I was the product of a single-parent home. My mother worked very hard to provide for us, but I longed to have big cars, nice jewelry, and things of that nature. I didn't see any legal way of earning that kind of money, and other criminal ways of making money usually meant jail. Pimping has become more of a high-risk enterprise recently, but when I got into it 30 years ago it was pretty low-risk—for the pimps, that is, not for the girls.
How many women do you think you recruited during your career?
DW: I would say hundreds.
What was your relationship with law enforcement like?
DW: In certain cities, we were tolerated, because we gave them their respect. Los Angeles, Boston, New York—they left us alone as long as we respected their position. If they told us to get our women off the street we would do so. In certain cities law-enforcement would harass us sometimes, but overall my relationship with them wasn't strained at all.
So they tolerated what you did even though it was criminal activity?
DW: To a certain extent, it was hard for law enforcement to prosecute, because even if they knew what you were doing, they couldn't pick you up for pimping unless a woman signed a statement against you saying she was soliciting and giving you her money. Otherwise they had no real evidence that would hold up in court. So sometimes they would harass me, tow my car, make me lie down on the ground in my suit; they would pull me over for little or nothing but nothing that was any real threat to my freedom.
In most cities prostitution was a misdemeanor, and the courts and the judicial system made money off of it, because an arrested women meant bail money and, when she went to court, a fine. They were making money off it. But every now and then you'd find a police officer who for one reason or another didn't want to do the paperwork, or maybe he liked the way the women looked. He would put a woman in a cruiser and take her somewhere and tell her he would let her go in exchange for a sexual favor. The women were accustomed to doing sexual favors, so they preferred doing one for a cop rather than going to jail.
Is that changing now? You said it's becoming more high-risk for pimps now. Why is that?
DW: It's the awareness being raised about sex trafficking, awareness that the women in the industry are not criminals but victims, that makes the risk higher for pimps today. In fact, a guy I know very well was just sentenced, last week, to 12 years in a federal penitentiary. That didn't happen 10 years ago when you could only get convicted if the woman was willing to testify against you. Now, because of the laws, any interstate trafficking makes it a federal case, and that's what happened with this guy—he met her in Massachusetts and took her to New Hampshire and Vermont, so it is automatically considered trafficking.
This case will help young pimps see what the consequences can be, and that's a very good thing.
What got you out of pimping, and what keeps you out?
DW: I began to get sick back in '07. I had high blood pressure and was in the hospital for a few days, and I almost died. Around that same time, in a three-month period, I lost five close family members. I ended up back in the hospital. I felt the Lord telling me it was time for me to get out. So I prayed and said if I could make enough money to get out, I would. God gave me the grace to put a few thousand dollars together, so I left Boston and moved to Atlanta. And I rededicated my life to the Lord and started working at church, but due to financial problems in the church my position was terminated. I was looking for work and was praying on what to do and felt the leading of the Lord to start this ministry full-time. I had already started it, but I felt the leading to go full-time, and that's what I did.
What keeps me out is working with the women, those still caught in the sex industry as well as those in recovery. I'm a work in progress myself, trying to get better and deal with the issues that kept me there for so long.
This is my passion, especially for the pimps. I did not realize how sick I was at the time, but I realize now that in order for someone to abuse women the way I did for so many years, he definitely has to have some issues himself.
You said you re-dedicated yourself the Lord? What was your experience with faith before that?
DW: When I first stopped using heroine I met a young lady a Narcotics Anonymous who I ended up marrying, and she introduced me to Christ. However, that didn't work out, because I was experiencing faith through my pastor and not having a personal relationship with Christ. So when I saw some things going wrong within the church, I turned my back on the Lord and went back to pimping. I was in my late 20s at the time.
At that stage in my faith, I thought pastors were perfect people and didn't realize that pastors, too, are a work in progress and that none of us will be perfect this side of heaven. So I was looking for perfection amongst men when the only perfect one is Jesus Christ, and when I saw problems with my pastor, I just gave it all up.
How would you respond to people who say that pimps are monsters?
DW: I would say that we can be; admittedly we can be. However, I am living proof that Christ died for pimps, too. I think that in order for a man to have the outlook on women that I had, he has to have some deep-rooted issues going on.
I am living proof that Christ died for pimps, too.
What approach do you use with the pimps you work with on the streets today? How do you reach them?
DW: I have daughters. And so do many of them. They all have, or at one time had, a mother. They have sisters. I try to get them to consider how they would feel if someone treated their mother, daughter, or sister the way they are treating these women. I try to help them see that they are abusing somebody's mother, daughter, or sister.
I also tell them that there are so few of us who have come out of the life and are willing to go back in and share what God can do, so they are badly needed. There a lot of women who have come out of prostitution who go back and try to help other women out, but there aren't many men who come out and are willing to do the same.
Why do you think that is?
DW: The number-one reason is pain. I see a therapist now; I've seen one since I got out of pimping. I have a very strong support system and accountability partners. You go through a lot of feelings, feelings that you so long denied as a pimp. When I look at some of the women I minister to now, and I hear some of the horror stories that they are going through, that brings back things that I have done. It brings up guilt, shame, and remorse. A lot of men aren't willing or equipped to deal with those feelings. And without a relationship with Christ, I don't believe that I would be able to do this either.
What do you think is the best way to lessen demand?
DW: Public embarrassment of the man. It has been my experience in several cities throughout the country that when a john is caught buying a prostitute his face and name are plastered in the newspaper. Because of their status in society—most of them have families, most of them come from corporate America—they don't want that stigma, so that greatly decreases the chance they'll reoffend.
Also, stiffer punishments. We need to stop treating the women as if they are the criminals, because they are actually victims. We need stiffer penalties for the pimps, as well as the johns. They have johns schools in some cities now, so when they get arrested, they're sent to a program that educates them about the consequences of their actions. There's nothing like that for a prostitute—she goes to jail, while the john goes to john school. I think it should be reversed, that the johns go to jail and the women get some education and learn that they are worth more than what they've believed. That would help the women as well as deter the men.
What do you think we can do on a cultural level to discourage men from exploiting women?
DW: We are involved in another organization here called FACE—Fathers Against Child Exploitation. We're trying to change our thoughts about women as a whole. We talk about how we're raising boys. For instance, when some boys turn 18 or 21, taking them to a strip club is considered a rite of passage into manhood. But that's not building a true man. That's fueling the fire for the sexual exploitation of women. We tell girls to save themselves for marriage, but why don't we tell boys to save themselves for marriage as well? We need to start putting more emphasis on what a real man is and not what society says that is.
I grew up thinking that, because I had all these women and was a popular pimp, I was not only a man, I was the man. Now I know that that is not at all true. A real man loves Christ and is faithful to one woman, and that's what we should be teaching young men as they grow up.
People talk about two different models for helping trafficked women: the rescue model and the transformation model.
DW: I believe that some kind of rescue has to come before transformation. A rescue is when you pull up outside a hotel room, the woman is running out with the pimp behind her trying to keep her there against her will, and you have to beat him back as she jumps in the back of your car. Maybe a woman calls you from McDonald's and says, "Come pick me up." Whether the woman runs away and is rescued or contacts you directly, her decision to leave the life begins the transformational process.
The real work is done after the woman comes off the streets, because many have very low self-esteem, a criminal record, and a drug habit. The vast majority of the women were sexually abused by a close family member or friend before they ever met their pimp. So once they come out of prostitution they have to begin to peel back the layers of the onion and get to the root cause, the root pain. Why did they think this was all they were worth? And what will they do for money now? Because whether they had prostituted for their pimp or were doing it to support themselves, now they're faced with the problem of how they can support themselves and where they're going to live. That's when the real work begins.
We try to walk alongside these women as they go through that restoration process and to help them get jobs, because many of them have criminal records. They have had to violently defend themselves from the pimps and from the clients, so a lot of them have violence on their records. Once the women come off the street they really need people and organizations to come alongside them, to retrain them, help them become successful members of society. That often starts at the level of their thinking, so you have to help them renew their minds.
Once they come out of prostitution and realize that they are not created to be controlled but to take control of their own lives, they begin to think and act for themselves. We point them to Christ, and then Christ through the Holy Spirit helps them discover who they are. I can never help them discover who they are, but Christ does, and as long as they stay on the path of truth, and off the path of lies where they once were, they'll be fine.
Once they come out of prostitution and realize that they are not created to be controlled but to take control of their own lives, they begin to think and act for themselves.
How much success have you had working with the pimps?
DW: We have seen some who have tentatively gotten out of the life, but I don't know where they've ended up. We've had success as far as some of them letting their women go. We try to stay in contact with the pimps, but it's hard. They're not out here with us trying to help someone like them get out. As I said before, there are very few of us are doing that.
What do you think about how the anti-trafficking movement is developing, both at large and within the church?
DW: It 's picked up nationwide, but the church is still one of those places where we don't want to talk about sex trafficking. There aren't many churches that have groups addressing it. The church as a whole in America still doesn't want to talk about this issue. We have had some churches let us use their facilities, we have spoken in front of some groups, and we have lots of individual volunteers; however, the church as a whole is very hush-hush on the subject. It's getting better, but I believe that as the church we should do more.
Why is it so hard to get pastors to understand and embrace the work?
DW: I think it's because it will shed light on some of those inside the church. We continue to see clergy exposed and arrested for sexual exploitation, not only of women, but also of boys and girls. So in order for us as the church of Jesus Christ to look at this problem, we have to first look at ourselves. We don't like to look at our own sins, only the sins of others.
To God be the glory for the great things he has done and continues to do in and through my life. I'm glad that he was able to take the mess that I made and turn it around. I am totally forgiven.
Is there anything else you want our readers to know?
DW: I would like people to know that sex trafficking—pimping and prostitution—is not something that only happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, for example. And it's not just folks from low-income families like mine. It's right in their own backyard, right in their own living room. Pornography is a gateway. A lot of men go from watching sex acts on the video screen to wanting to participate themselves, and then go out to look for it. For some of the young women, they see it as a way of making money, of being grown and able to make their own decisions. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that's the way it looks to them at first.
From Park Avenue to the park bench, it is happening, and we need to be aware of it. Everybody can do a little something. If you don't want to be on the front lines or in the trenches, we always need prayer. We also need financial support for this work.
You can contact Derek Williams at brod525 [at] gmail [dot] com.