When he left home at the age of 13, a boy I’ll call Jonah found shelter with a couple willing to help him – or so it seemed. The couple gave Jonah housing and food, but there was one condition: he was required to have sex with them and their friends.
Edie Rhea was in fourth grade when she was first molested by her mother’s boyfriend. One thing led to another, and Edie was ultimately trafficked by him as a way to support his business. By the time she was 17, Edie had been sold to approximately 150 men and women. It wasn’t until she left home that Edie first experienced freedom.
Nicolás (name changed) was just 13 when he was first sold for sex. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. The trafficker – his mother – continued to sell Nicolás and eventually his friends for profit.
These stories are horrible and hard to hear, but people of faith must listen. Why? Because we hold the keys that can offer freedom to the men, women and children hurt and trapped in sexual slavery in America. In the coming months, the faith community must renew its commitment to ending human trafficking.
Around this time last winter, a wave of protests and confessions swept the faith community, as #ChurchToo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual started bubbling up on Twitter. Across different communities, networks and denominations, Christians began sharing stories of sexual abuse from pastors, ministers and youth leaders. While not all the results of the movement were fruitful, it nevertheless began a long overdue conversation about what faith leaders could do to protect their congregations.
These conversations are of vital importance. Every community of faith, without exception, should continue to develop systems of accountability and transparency to prevent abuse. But we must continue to build on this good work in the coming year, looking beyond our doors and outside our walls to the individuals in our community where sexual abuse and trafficking occurs. There are more human beings enslaved now than there were when slavery was legal in Western nations. It impacts individuals of all races, genders, classes and nationalities, and it happens in every region and area – cities, suburbs and rural communities alike.
However, while it’s certainly true that no demographic is immune to trafficking, it’s also true that one group is especially vulnerable to being sold into sex slavery: low-income individuals, and low-income children in particular. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, homeless youth – among the most impoverished populations in America – are particularly vulnerable to trafficking. As Jonah’s story makes clear, financial desperation often drives the trafficked to suffer what no human being should have to bear: the sale of their bodies, and the resulting psychological, spiritual and emotional trauma.
While the sheer magnitude of the problem is a recent phenomenon, the interlocking realities of poverty and slavery are nothing new. All we need to do is look to the words of the prophet Isaiah, who describes the Lord’s anointed thus:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,the oil of joy instead of mourning,and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1-3a, NIV)
It’s a powerful image – and one that we as people of faith must claim as our own mission. By combating human trafficking, we live out our calling as Christ’s co-heirs and coworkers in redeeming the world, proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted and proclaiming freedom for captives and prisoners.
There are dozens of ways faith communities can get involved in the fight against human trafficking. Even just publicly acknowledging that it happens – and that it likely happens close by – goes a long way toward reducing the shame, fear and discomfort that surrounds it as a topic. But as you and your community look for ways to stop trafficking, here are some ideas to keep in mind:
Conduct an awareness campaign. The grisly, sexually graphic realities of trafficking mean that it’s a topic few faith communities – particularly those with young families – want to acknowledge. But it is precisely this refusal to confront trafficking that allows it to continue to flourish in the midst of our neighborhoods and cities. By strategically implementing an awareness campaign that harnesses social media and raises awareness among local businesses and organizations, you can empower others not only to confront this ugly trade, but enlist them in working to end it.
Support a safe home. Non-profits across the nation have created safe homes for men, women and children transitioning out of trafficking. These homes not only provide shelter to formerly trafficked individuals, but they also often provide psychological support as well as educational and job-seeking assistance. Committing to support one of these organizations – whether financially or through volunteering – helps formerly trafficked individuals reclaim their identities and redefine their lives as survivors.
Create a TraffickingFree Zone™. While rescuing victims is important, equally important is ending the demand for commercial sex and holding the buyers accountable. A TraffickingFree Zone is a county-wide initiative in which faith leaders, schools, businesses and media collaborate to reduce demand by conducting local research, raising awareness and working to arrest sex buyers. Although a church or faith institution cannot create a TraffickingFree Zone on its own, it can lead outreach and harness its influence to get other local institutions involved. Counties that adopt the program can expect to see a significant decline in trafficking.
Leading the fight against trafficking is a high – and a weighty – calling. It involves looking the ugliest and most sinful parts of human nature full in the face and nevertheless proclaiming the Gospel truth that God forgives and redeems anyone who calls on his name.
It’s a truth that Edie learned from personal experience. After she escaped trafficking, she and her live-in boyfriend eventually married, and both came to faith. Ultimately, it was her faith that saved her. But He still had greater plans for her.
Years after she had left home, Edie received a phone call informing her that her mother’s boyfriend was dying in the hospital. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, she visited him and he begged for her forgiveness, finally admitting that he had committed heinous acts against her. Through God’s grace, she not only forgave him, but was able to share the Gospel with him – a formerly trafficked woman sharing Christ’s saving power with her former trafficker. Shortly thereafter – on the day of her first speaking engagement in which she shared her story – the man died.
Eventually, the Lord called Edie to open a safe therapeutic home for women who have also been victims of human trafficking called Healing Root Ministry. Today, she has changed the lives not only of the women who have passed through this home, but the untold number of women who have heard her speak and may have experienced similar abuse.
Edie’s story testifies to the extraordinary power of God to redeem all things and cleanse the world of unrighteousness. Let us recommit ourselves to being agents of this redemption, working to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor in the months and weeks to come.
Kevin Malone is the president and co-founder of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, a nonprofit, faith-based organization committed to ending human trafficking in America. He is also the former executive vice president and general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.