'Disruptive women' leave 'church world' to reach the brokenhearted
You might think the last place you’d find a Christian anti-porn campaigner is in a brothel. But Letitia Shelton regularly visits the brothels and strip club in her hometown of Toowoomba in Queensland. In fact, she’s been visiting sex workers for years.
For the past 22 years, Letitia Shelton has been leading a radical movement. It’s a movement made up of Christian women from different denominations who, together, are ministering in the same way that Jesus did – moving beyond “the four walls of the church” to serve those in need in their local communities.
Shelton has even written several books about the kind of courageous, “disruptive women” she is bringing together. Her own gutsy faith and pioneering leadership are not surprising given her heritage. Her father Ian Shelton planted Toowoomba City Church with a vision to “see unity among all churches and Christians in Toowoomba”, and her brother Lyle Shelton is a conservative political activist (formerly with the Christian Democratic Party and the Australian Christian Lobby).
Letitia, in her down-to-earth manner, describes how her ministry, now known as City Women, began: “Back in the early 2000s, the Mayor of Toowoomba at that time, Di Thorley, was invited to speak at a Christian women’s event. She challenged the women who attended, saying, ‘You ladies are doing nice things inside your church, but why don’t you get outside the four walls and do something for the young people of our city?'”
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“It started me thinking about how do we mobilise the church to work together in the pain?” – Letitia Shelton
Shelton and a team of women from other churches took up the challenge and began organising weekend camps for girls from local high schools.
On the first camp, Shelton describes how her eyes were opened to the needs of girls in her own city: “We took around 20 girls away up to the mountains. One night, five of the girls were sitting around my table at dinner and all of them shared about being sexually abused. And one just looked at me, said, ‘We’ve all been abused. We need help.’
“You know when God’s really speaking,” Shelton continues. “I guess the penny dropped that we live in ‘church world’ over here and all this pain and suffering is over there, and the two don’t seem to always meet. So it started me thinking about how do we mobilise the church to work together in the pain? We knew whatever we did, we had to do it together as churches in unity. So that’s been our 20-year journey now of looking at what are the issues in our city and who has the passion to minister into the pain of their communities.”
While City Women was established to meet “the real needs” of the city of Toowoomba, particularly those of women and girls, it has since spread around Australia and the world. City Women groups now exist in cities across Queensland, NSW, ACT, WA, New Zealand and the United States, with a total of more than 200 volunteers.
“It seems that wherever I speak, part of my gifting is that a group will emerge,” says Shelton – although it’s clear her focus is on inspiring people to serve their local community, rather than counting the number of groups and volunteers.
“I say, ‘You don’t even have to call yourself City Women.’ I’m not trying to McDonald’s brand it. It’s just about unity in mission,” she adds.
“If you want to find Jesus, you go to the broken. I think I’ve learned more from them than from a trillion sermons.” – Letitia Shelton
Just as the growth of City Women groups is ‘organic’, so too are the ministries they spearhead. In the past two decades, City Women has run dozens of ministries that have influenced the lives of thousands of women and girls.
Currently, City Women and its partners run a pregnancy and early parenting support service in several locations; a ministry to refugees and a migrant support group; Rahab – a ministry to sex workers in Toowoomba; a support program for children in foster care; residential programs for women at risk of domestic abuse and those struggling with addiction; education programs for girls in schools; and a community food support program.
Then there’s the campaign to free Toowoomba from pornography, which began six years ago.
“I see that as driving a lot of these other issues,” explains Shelton. “So if we can have less porn, then we’ll have less [domestic violence]. We’ll have less rape. We’ll have less abortions. We’ll have less broken marriages. So it’s really preventative.”
True to her “Christianity with its sleeves rolled up” approach, Shelton is soon to embark on the second leg of an epic bike ride to raise funds for her anti-porn campaign. She completed over half of the 2240 km ride in June last year, but couldn’t finish the West Australian leg due to COVID restrictions. So, Shelton will set off on June 16 to ride from Kununurra to Broome. Her aim is to raise $200,000 to get copies of her book, How to Talk to Your Kids About Pornography, into 30,000 houses in Toowoomba.
But before her ride, this week Shelton will host a gathering of women from different City Women groups across Australia and New Zealand. About 50 women will come together at Toowoomba for a City Women forum, which Shelton hopes will give them “a bit of courage and a roadmap” for what ministering to their city could look like.
“We take them out on excursions and to some of the different ministries, so they get to see stuff firsthand,” says Shelton, who has held a number of these forums in previous years. “It just helps give them courage to go back and start something or it strengthens them in what they’re already doing.”
To women who feel called to serve their community but don’t know where to start, Letitia advises: “Look at where is there a need in your city that you have a passion for and then maybe begin to talk to not just women in your own church, but to women in other churches.”
She notes the impact that even small ministries can have. In Queensland’s Hervey Bay, which has one of the country’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy, the local City Women group has created a “mums and bubs hub”, where mums can connect and find resources.
“It’s only a small group and their leader has another full-time job … so she’s just worked out what she can do,” says Shelton.
Letitia also points to the humble beginnings of a local pregnancy support service: “We realised that 70 per cent of abortions happen because there’s no support. A homeschooling mother had a passion for this, but in her church, there was not necessarily anyone else who had the same passion. So because of our City Women network, she was able to stand up and share at one of our events. And suddenly she had a team of eight from all different churches, that included doctors and business people … And eight years later, we have babies alive in our city because the church has worked together.”
“I’m just so thankful that God saved me from a boring Christian life.” – Letitia Shelton
Just as Shelton can see the impact that City Women has made in local communities, she is also grateful for the way this ministry has changed her own life.
“I’ve grown up in a brilliant church and I went to a Christian school. So I grew up in ‘church world’. But the Bible says that God is near the brokenhearted. And if you want to find Jesus, you go to the broken. I think I’ve learned more from them than from a trillion sermons …
“It’s been exciting having to pioneer and step out and see God come through again and again and again. God is in the unknown. And there have been big highs and low lows as well. But I’m just so thankful that God saved me from a boring Christian life.”