At the heart of a prostitution street in Brussels


Raphaël Buyse, priest of the diocese of Lille, tells us about his visit to Rue d'Aerschot in the center of Brussels, near the Gare du Nord. A prostitution hot spot. He comes here to talk about Madeleine Delbrel to our religious community who have lived in this neighborhood for a few years.

They are in their window, surrounded by a red halo. Almost naked. They are constantly moving. They get up and sit down again. They take three steps. They pace but they seem to be bored.

With a lot of suggestive gestures, they tempt those who seem to slow down in front of their display. I can't help but see them, but I hardly dare look at them. I would not like a misunderstanding to arise between them and I.

I am in the Rue d'Aerschot in the center of Brussels, near the Gare du Nord. A place which is considered a prostitution hotspot.  I come here to talk about Madeleine Delbrel to a religious community who has chosen live in this neighborhood for a few years.

On the sidewalk opposite, men are posted. Like frozen vigils, they watch the merry-go-round of potential customers coming and going. Would they be pimps? It is always good, for those in the trade, to watch their goods.

The cars pass on the street, then they pass a few minutes later without the need for any signs to slow them down.

The door of a house opens. A gentleman comes out, his face low. He rushes into the station. Almost running.
A man in his thirties wearing a tracksuit and sneakers, bike in hand, goes from window to window, stops, backs up and seems to negotiate a price. The exchange is not very expensive, one of the sisters will teach me. It is also possible to negotiate according to whims.

Another door opens! A man in need of love crosses the door. The lady who welcomes him is all smiles: this must be included in the price. I cannot help but think that behind this casualness, there are doubtless tears.

Where do these women come from? Eastern countries, Africa, France and Belgium.
On the windows, it says "looking for waitresses, immediate start.”

In this surreal street where solitude and sexual misery are displayed and where the madness of money and power is hidden under the easy slogan of "my body is mine, I do what I want with it", I come and meet some "good sisters" who have chosen to be there, with a few lay people. I write "good" sisters with infinite respect: they will understand it well. That is what this is about.
Their large house is set between a church and a brothel: it is a "third place", as we say today. The oratory in the basement adjoins the cellar of a brothel. Who could know that there, in a humble prayer, they lead to the source of the cries, the tears, the laughs, the secret hopes, the distresses, the violence, the secret solidarities of the men and women who are all around them .
These sisters and their friends are there to be there. Without pastoral project, without action plan, without judgment and even less pretension. You shouldn't question them too much about what motivates them: you can't explain people's love.

Randomly in life, these sisters and their friends come together and meet the "chaperones", those brothel keepers who manage the flow of customers and knock on the doors of the alcoves when the antics seem too long: "It must finish, sir. There are customers waiting ”. In this sordid street of Brussels, the song "Next one"by the great Jacques Brel still echoes.

The sisters and their friend meet a few of the "girls". They have too much work: clients are needed to pay what they have to pay each day to the owner of the place as rent for a stool in the shop window. Not to mention what they owe to those who "protect" them. One should say those who exploit them. And business is difficult. Demand is falling: the cause being the internet and naughty applications that hide price-based meetings.

Not to mention that the "girls" do not dare to reveal too much to these sisters who could very well open the doors for them to freedom. We are watching them. We must be careful.

With their friends, they have to offer to these women who are considered as objects of pleasure, only smiles, a neutral word which will not put them in discomfort, and a kindness which is read on their face and in their discretion. Their sober and silent presence, however identified, carries the message, “you are kind, we love you. We also know that you are capable of love ”. Their presence is Word even when they have to wipe away the waves of insults and threats.

Tonight I tell them about Madeleine. I’m moved.
They are of the same temper. They come from the same Lord.
They are there. Powerless before the violence that oozes in their street, attentive to little things.
Poor. They are there. Faithful.
Peering into each other's slightest desire to live and be free.
"You led us, Lord, to this street of Aerschot, because You wanted to be there, You, in us ..." In them, mysteriously, the sacrament of His love takes place, Madeleine would say.


The testimony of Marie Hélène after the article:

Yes, I sometimes come too, to Rue d'Aerschot… and share as much as possible of this “being with” which is our part of Incarnation: they are our sisters in humanity, someone must have their say, walk their sidewalk without greed and haggling, and choose to live with them in this street that nobody wants to live in.

But when I leave the Rue d'Aerschot, it is better to try to fight alongside others against these inhuman conditions in which they are uprooted from their "real life", hidden yet in a window, a display of this commodification of the human person that invades our world.

When Sr. Eugenia Bonetti, after 25 years of mission in Nigeria, returned to Italy, she kept inviting all religious congregations to mobilize against the Trafficking in Human Beings: traffickers are everywhere? the nuns too. Are they network experts? Nuns have been in all parts of the world for centuries and the presence of vulnerable women and young people is most of the time at the heart of their charisma.

So, networks of nuns have sprung up all over the world to fight against the exploitation of their fellow people! Our congregation responded immediately to this call. By 1994, we were a European group of sisters in apostolic situations and after seeing for the first time an article entitled: “500,000 women in the East fall victim to trafficking”, we identified a reality that touched our hearts!  We started to explore together the so-called “original” European countries, to understand the phenomenon and to warn others. At that time, I also took over from Sr. Magdalena at the “Collective Together against Trafficking in Human Beings” piloted by Caritas (France and Europe) and coordinated by Geneviève Colas. With others (associations and lawyers) we work with the government to change and apply European and national standards to combat trafficking.

Since its foundation, I have also been part of the RENATE Network (Religious in Europe Networking Against Trafficking and Exploitation) which currently operates in 31 European countries. We share our practices, skills and experiences, at the service of people caught in the nets of trafficking. We take our pilgrim's staff to denounce what Pope Francis calls "a crime against humanity" and to talk about it in schools, religious gatherings and anywhere that we can say that it is inhuman to exploit one's similar, in whatever form!

Because the Trafficking is not only for the purpose of sexual exploitation, it also includes forced labor, domestic slavery, forced begging, obligation to commit crimes and organ harvesting… it is each time that a profit is the objective; I am struggling to write it, but the human person is the cheapest "raw material" to acquire, and we can resell it several times ... My heart heaves to write such realities, but that's why I fight, alongside others, so that by all possible means, people can regain their dignity, and so that the number of victims does not continue to increase… I also try to bring the voice of all to the Council of l 'Europe, where RENATE is accredited, to the Conference of INGOs.

Talitha Kum - the network that brings together all the continental networks of nuns who fight against trafficking - is 10 years old this year. I went to Rome for the General Assembly, delegated by RENATE, admiring all the efforts made by the congregations that were present!

Do you remember what Sainte Marie Euphrasie said in the 1850s?

 "A child of God, sold on the market like a goat, I will never accept that!" »