November 2017 – I grew up in a white-collar home with two loving parents … I was a good student and a well-behaved kid, so everyone was surprised when I eloped at age 16 with my older boyfriend. It was rocky from the start – as any teenage marriage would be. He wasn’t faithful, and over the two-year period we were married, he left many times. By the age of 19, I was a single mom, working two jobs to make ends meet and staring at a stack of unpaid bills.
One night, I went to a club with some friends to hear a local band. This particular club had girls dancing from 5 to 9 p.m. before the band came on. One of [the dancers] struck up a conversation and, by the end of the night, she had convinced me to come back and audition for a job.
— Jani Lewis
Jani Lewis went back for that audition and secured the job she thought would be glamorous and lucrative. But her fantasy and reality were poles apart.
“I felt degraded, abused, and alone,” she told AFA Journal. “And I had to get high to even face getting on stage.”
After two years of “hell on earth,” Lewis applied for a grant, completed cosmetology school, and worked as a hairdresser. Soon after, she attended the University of Kentucky, and later worked in advertising, public relations, and community development, before joining the staff of Southland Church in Lexington, Kentucky.
Believing God had orchestrated her rescue, Lewis never forgot her brief but dark existence in the world of “adult entertainment,” nor could she forget the women still tangled in its web. In 2000, after being encouraged by her son who worked as a bouncer, she began taking food into the strip club where he worked. As the outreach grew in numbers of volunteers and clubs, the ministry of Bruised Reed was birthed under the umbrella of Southland Church.
“We were there to love them, serve them, and develop a relationship of trust,” Lewis explained. As trust was slowly established, some of the women began to ask for help getting out of the industry.
God’s plan revealed
Meanwhile, Ked Frank, a pastor at Southland, was experiencing a perplexing sense of restlessness. When Lewis told him about the Bruised Reed ministry and the need for a “next step” – a residential program specifically for women who had suffered sexual exploitation – he was taken aback.
“Being a good Nazarene holiness boy all my life, I was blown away when she was telling me this story of church women going to strip clubs,” he told AFAJ. “And I was thinking, Is this OK? Should Christians be going to those kinds of places?”
After exhausting all efforts preparing for the pastorate, a job at a megachurch had seemed like a dream fulfilled. But eventually, Frank was forced into the stark realization that he just didn’t fit the mold of serving within its four walls.
“I just felt really smothered and claustrophobic,” he explained. “And I started a lawn care business and cut grass for four years while asking, God, I trained my whole life to be a pastor. What am I supposed to do with my life now? God, I will literally go anywhere. If I have to travel to Africa, Korea, I want to go somewhere where I can be in the middle of your work.”
Frank didn’t have to go to Africa or Korea. He was already exactly where He was supposed to be. And God had already begun to show him the way years earlier in that conversation with Lewis at Southland Church.
“A few years after that conversation, my best friend bought a 50-acre farm and wanted to show me the land,” Frank said. “So, we went to breakfast that morning. And as we were sitting there, I just kept feeling this longing in my heart to ask, ‘Do you think that God would want to use that land for a ministry?’”
He blurted out the question. Astounded, Frank’s friend responded, “You’re not going to believe this! This morning at four in the morning, I woke up – and I’ve never heard the voice of God more clearly. He said That land you just bought isn’t yours. I’m going to put a ministry on that land.”
In amazement, the two walked the property, and their families met that night to talk about the old farmhouse on the land. They knew they were in the middle of something bigger than themselves.
Man’s faith responds
With a budget of $1,000, a retired contractor, and a portion of faith, gutting the old house began. Soon, the Franks held a coffee and dessert night at Southland where they sat before 400 people sharing the vision God had given them for rescuing exploited women. Gifts of over $70,000 got them well on their way.
The Refuge for Women, a 9-12 month program for sexually exploited women, was formed in 2009, and the first residents were received in the summer of 2010. A family in town heard about the need for more beds and provided 12 townhomes. Soon after, another old farmhouse on 80 nearby acres was provided, along with a gift of $50,000 for renovation.
Churches and groups in other parts of the country have caught the vision and worked directly with RFW to develop franchise model programs under the same name in Atlanta, Chicago, Emerald Coast, North Texas, Las Vegas, and Southern California.
Frank and Lewis work together as the two interconnected ministries have continued to grow in scope and size. With the expansion of RFW, Lewis had felt God calling her to do more on the front end. For months, she and the volunteers prayed fervently for direction. Then in January 2012, Natalie, one of the ladies served through Bruised Reed, was found murdered.
“That solidified our next step,” Lewis explained. She started a new nonprofit called Natalie’s Sisters, which replaced and expanded Southland’s Bruised Reed ministry. Local police began referring women from the streets to the old crack-house Natalie’s Sisters transformed into a welcoming place for at-risk women to sleep during the day, receive food and clothing, take life-skills classes, and be referred for long-term help when ready.
“Getting them out of the environment is the first step,” said Frank. “It’s the most exciting for us. But the restoration piece is difficult. It’s often two steps forward and one step back. One person comes in for a week and says, ‘I miss my lifestyle,’ or ‘I miss my boyfriend.’ As difficult as it is, it’s their journey. We don’t try to control them but to walk alongside them. Sometimes they are just not ready. But then, they might call back in six months and say that they want to try it again.”
One young lady who recently graduated from the Refuge told AFAJ, “I would be gone without the Refuge. I’d be dead without them – there’s no doubt in my mind.”
Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby, the study that God used to prompt Ked Frank to respond to God’s plan for the Refuge for Women. Experiencing God is available at blackaby.net
Refuge for Women