Shona Stewart is walking a journey of redemption, and she’s inviting others to join her.
The Briercrest College and Seminary graduate just began a new job as the pastor of women’s outreach at Cornerstone Alliance Church in Winnipeg, Man. where she will be working with women who are at risk.
“Ninety-five percent have been on the street,” Stewart said.
Her focus is crystal clear.
“To help women out of the sex trade – period,” she said emphatically. “Freedom from prostitution through faith in Jesus Christ. It’s good to feed (people), to give help, but without Jesus, what good is it really?”
Stewart isn’t just preaching. She knows the truth of her words first-hand.
“For 16 years of my life I was enslaved in the sex trade as a prostitute,” she said in an email. “I had experienced sexual molestation as a child. I had poor self-esteem. At the age of 10 I started smoking, by 11 I was drinking and at 13 I began using drugs.”
Stewart’s teenage years were spent on her addictions. At the age of 21, she moved home hoping to get clean and sober.
“I tried to find work but it was difficult with only a Grade 9 education,” she said.
This situation made Stewart open to an offer made to her one night by an acquaintance in a bar.
“(He) told me I was sitting on a gold mine,” she said. “He showed me the penthouse they had, and told me how I could live like that. I thought it would not be so hard after all I had done in the past, and in light of how poor I was it sounded like a good idea to go to Vancouver with him and work as a prostitute.”
Stewart understands how difficult it is for a woman to leave prostitution.
“In spite of how it looks, 96 percent want out,” she stated. “There’s very few who want to stay in. I wanted to do something different but I thought, ‘What do you do?’ I never got an education.”
Stewart found her way out in a phone call from her mother saying she had lung cancer.
“I said, ‘Then I’m coming back to look after you,’” Stewart recalled. “(Mom) said her dying wish was I’d get out of the trade.”
Stewart and her youngest son relocated to Victoria where her mother lived. There a neighbour invited her to go with her to a banquet at church.
“I said, ‘You mean a lightning-would-strike-me kind of church?’” she said with a chuckle.
In spite of her concerns, Stewart decided to go. She found that the banquet was an introduction to Alpha, a course designed to help people explore the Christian faith.
“This old couple that was at our table was like angels to me,” Stewart recalled. “They didn’t know about me but to me it was like they accepted me for who I was. I thought, ‘These people are pretty cool.’ I decided to take Alpha.”
Stewart became a Christian during the 10-week course.
“Right from the beginning I wanted to learn as much as I could about Jesus,” she said. “I joined a Bible study and read books galore. I also read the whole Bible in a year. God showed me His love and peace which I had never before experienced.”
Stewart received training and worked as a counsellor for a government organization called PEERS (Prostitutes Empowerment Education Resource Society) which seeks to help sex workers transition to healthier lifestyles.
“I spent two years there which taught me a lot,” she said. “I was then laid off because of government cut backs.”
After her lay off, Stewart asked God what was next for her life. She felt led to come to Briercrest. She applied and was accepted into the distance learning program and later moved to Caronport in 2005 to complete her degrees.
Stewart found the atmosphere at Briercrest very healing.
“You know what I still love to see?” she asked. “The students stopping and praying for each other in the hallways. The chapel – I love the chapels. The worship – that’s when God really speaks to me. I’d cry in worship.”
During her time at Briercrest, Stewart began to feel the desire to start a Christian ministry to help women leave prostitution and to help make the church more aware of this issue.
“In the meantime I had been going to different churches to speak and through that I met up with a lady named Glendyne Gerard,” she said. “She’s with the Alliance Church. . . Glendyne decided to create a campaign and it’s called ‘Defend Dignity’ and it’s to end prostitution.”
It was ultimately Stewart’s relationship with Gerard that helped her get her new job at Cornerstone Alliance Church. Cornerstone serves as the home church for the women and children that seek help at The Care Center at Winnipeg’s Union Rescue Mission. Many of these women return to the streets after they leave the mission. Cornerstone wanted to do something about that problem.
Gerard suggested Stewart could help with the task. Stewart took a bus to Winnipeg, toured The Care Center and met several of the women there.
“On my way home I was praying, ‘God, if this is of you, I need you to show me that.’ Because I thought (my ministry) was supposed to start in Saskatchewan!”
Stewart decided God was calling her to Winnipeg.
“We’ve been offered a five bedroom home,” she said explaining the safe house she’s starting for women wanting to exit the sex trade. “So I will have a bedroom. We’ll put in four women to get this started.”
As Stewart extends a hand to women wanting to leave prostitution, she knows from her own experience that a personal relationship with Jesus is the only thing that can ultimately bring lasting freedom.
“I have experienced more peace and joy in my life now than I thought possible,” she said. “No money or sex or material things can do what Jesus did for me.”