Recently a nightclub by our IRD office in Washington DC became renowned for selling marijuana edibles. I suggested at an IRD staff meeting that we pray for this market’s closure. Some weeks later I was providentially walking by the nightclub on a Saturday evening and observed the street was clogged with police cars. Several days later news reports confirmed what I joyfully, bemusedly assumed: 22 pot venders were arrested. I excitedly shared with our staff the good news about the potency of their prayers!
Charges were later dropped against the 22 arrestees, but presumably the point was made. The primarily young night club clientele will have to shop elsewhere. Hopefully they might even reconsider their need for such edibles. At least it’s not in our neighborhood any more, for the moment.
I recall not many years ago when DC was seedier, more dangerous, and more drug infested. Our downtown neighborhood of office buildings used to become an open market for prostitution immediately after nightfall. The police rather than combatting the selling of human flesh instead put out orange traffic cones to steer the late night leering traffic. DC’s main red light district, which included openly advertised brothels and bath houses, until the 1990s was only a few blocks away. All of that is now thankfully gone, at least in its open display.
The building now housing the nearby nightclub, before its renovation, for decades housed a mysterious upstairs presence featuring a disco ball and late night music emanating from the always open window. First noticing it as a college student, it was oddly open all night but inexplicably I never saw anybody entering or leaving.
About ten years ago with two friends I finally summoned the courage to investigate. The bartender effusively invited us to sit in the “VIP lounge,” which was an alcove of ratty sofas surrounded by aged calendars with pics of biker women in bikinis on motorcycles. At the bar were several silent, sullen inebriates who seemed collectively to represent every form of fallen, depraved humanity. We declined to stay.
The mystery continued until one day, not long after our perplexing visit, the disco ball and music disappeared, suddenly, after decades. I asked at the restaurant next door what happened. The waiter laughed. After months of surveillance the police finally had shut down this brothel. The mystery was now solved. Soon the building was revamped into a restaurant, then a series of night clubs.
Such vices nearly suffocated DC. From the 1960s onward open drug markets and prostitution, accompanied by predictable murders and other violent crimes, chased several hundred thousand people from the city to the suburbs. Once grand neighborhoods became unlivable. And literally thousands of Washingtonians were killed as homicide rates soared, while tens of thousands were spiritually destroyed.
In recent years crime and open vice have receded, allowing communities to revive. Tens of thousands have moved into the city. Crime is at an historic low. The schools are improving. Real estate, restaurants and shops are booming. May it continue! Every city and community has a spirit, sometimes oppressive, sometimes life affirming. In many ways, for all its many remaining problems, DC as a place to live has resurrected.
But this resurrection, enacted through labor and prayers from many thousands of residents who never gave up, is reversible. Vice and its suffocating impact could again advance. Every community must be vigilant.
Some dismiss vices like recreational drugs and prostitution as victimless, therefore meriting legal protection. But these vices if publicly affirmed will ensnare and destroy far more widely than if at least contained by law. Churches and civil society importantly must shape and lead public attitudes against permissiveness towards destructive community vices.
It was sad recently to read of a Methodist church in South Africa that publicly displays a banner (video here) affirming legalized prostitution, which absurdly declares: “Jesus was the first to decriminalise sex work.” Ironically, Methodism traditionally has specialized in reforming society by transforming individuals, not celebrating their captivity.
Clearly this particular Methodist church is both morally numb and biblically illiterate. Christ of course didn’t sanction prostitution but liberated prostitutes from their bondage. One activist there complained to a reporter that “there are religious leaders in Cape Town who think it is evil to do sex work” and who even “pray for sex workers to leave sex work.”
Such pro-prostitution advocacy also is present in the fringes of American church life. It pretends that the commodification of human beings is benign and ignores that most “sex workers” are abusively trafficked into prostitution when still underage. Societies and religious institutions that esteem human dignity know that neither prostitution nor recreational drugs, and the spiraling subcultures they spawn, are compatible with a flourishing and humane civilization.
I hope flagrant prostitution and drugs don’t return to downtown DC. Their open presence signifies a spiritual darkness enshrouding the whole community and not just the most immediate victims. The IRD staff meeting prayers will do our part!