In the early to late-mid nineteenth century, New York City was at the center of the abolitionist movement to abolish slavery and Christianity was at its epicenter. Today, a new abolitionist movement is emerging in the city, this time to abolish the global trade of women and children for sex, and committed Christians are still centrally involved key players.
Over 150 years ago, New Yorkers were motivated by outspoken religious leaders, religious groups, and organizations involved with the Underground Railroad. The fiery sermons of Brooklyn's anti-slavery preacher Henry Ward Beecher received international attention. His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, authored the best-selling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which became the longest running play at the time, rousing even those on the Bowery to participate in the abolitionist movement.
Today, there are more slaves than at any time in history – an estimated 27 million worldwide are trafficked for sex, the majority of whom are women; 2 million are children. Every hour 34 children are forced into prostitution in America.
Among those leading the charge to abolish the sex trade are evangelicals. They seek, through the power of the Gospel, to restore survivors to wholeness. While there are Protestant and Catholic organizations deeply committed to this issue, one in New York is a pioneer.
Restore NYC was founded by Christian social worker Faith Huckel in 2009 with the help of a grant from the Entrepreneurship Initiative of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and from generous donations from 25 churches in and around the five boroughs. Working with federal and local law enforcement, RestoreNYC helps to rescue trafficked women and offer them long-term aftercare, reintegration into society, and emotional and spiritual healing.
Huckel's heart was burdened to provide a safe haven for survivors, so she set about to create one. By 2010, Restore NYC opened its first safe house for survivors in New York. And in 2013, another house in New Jersey was opened, also the first of its kind. Today, survivors have a refuge with live-in support staff that provides compassionate assistance with immigration paperwork, counseling, job training, and companionship.
Huckel explains that a safe house is "more than a shelter – it is a place of peace, love, and rest, of community and safety … it is truly a home."
Today, RestoreNYC's executive director Jimmy Lee attests to how critical the organization's partnership with its 25 churches and their parishioners has been, not only for financial resources, but spiritual support as well.
Lee says, "RestoreNYC is an arm of the church on special assignment to deal with the issue of sex trafficking. We exist to help victims. Being part of a citywide Christian community informs our identity. It doesn't mean that we don't work with non-Christians, but our commitment is to Gospel-centered work."
Prayer is at the center of RestoreNYC. It's team, all born-again believers, meet for prayer once a week and regularly meet for fellowship with others working at organizations like World Vision or Intervarsity Fellowship's Urban Project. "Our team sees our efforts as a mission of God that we are stewarding, which gives us the right perspective, motivation and passion," Lee adds.
While Lee expresses gratitude for how the organization has grown and has been able to help many women in a few short years, he admits that challenges exist. He estimates they are only reaching perhaps ten percent of victims in New York City. They work with federal agents and the local court systems, but have found that many women forced into prostitution can be non-cooperative. They seldom self-identify – they don't know the term "trafficking victim" and they are afraid. Most of the Asian women are illegal, who were lured to America by men promising them jobs. Latinas are smuggled in by traffickers who profess their love for them. Once they arrive, they are forced into prostitution and threatened that they or their family back home would be harmed if they told anyone. Worse still, they fear deportation or death.
RestoreNYC has counselors who meet with women to find out their story. Often the survivors experience Stockholm Syndrome, expressing dramatic bonding with their pimp who they think loves them.
One of the challenges, Lee says, is fighting existing cultural stigmas that contribute to the problem. One very non-biblical norm, Lee says, is that today's culture believes it's "OK for men to party sometimes and buy sex." Another is that "prostitution will always be with us." Lee also says that Americans believe "trafficking only happens in the developing world," and that "prostitutes do this voluntarily."
Worse still, the nation's lack of border protection enables trafficking to take place in the same manner as drug trafficking. People are smuggled into America, or overstay their visa, and are never found.
Despite these challenges, Lee explains that RestoreNYC's staff is characterized by joy because "we are able to witness restoration in a woman's life. And it's not us who are doing the restoring. It's God. He's doing something we can't do ourselves. It's so much more than getting a woman out or getting her a job."
Lee points to the admonition in Romans 8 to be "more than conquerors." "My greatest desire is to be a conqueror of sex trafficking, but what does being more than a conqueror mean?" he asks. "What does that look like? Seeking glory for God, not for myself."
Lee emphasizes "at the core of what we do is to help restore women. To be able to witness restoration is remarkable."