Some of my friends have been talking about giving up the “evangelical” label, because of what it has come to be associated with, in this year’s political campaign. I’m not ready to make that move. I spent a good part of the 1960s trying hard not to be an evangelical, but without success.
When I marched for civil rights during my graduate school years, I helped to organize “ban the bomb” marches and protested the Vietnam War. I was clearly out of step with much of the evangelicalism of the day.
To leave the trafficked sex industry is to encounter many barriers. Among those is the need for employment opportunities and the opportunity to learn a trade while gaining skills to earn an independent income.
Consider this: A woman leaves a trafficker, through his arrest or her own personal escape. This trafficker created total dependence — someone who, amidst abuse and exploitation, provided for her. She usually had no control of this money, and gave over anything she made for his earnings. Her needs are met — but she is completely dependent on him for survival.
Then she is separated from her trafficker, and she has nothing: No income, usually a limited education, and at times minimal job skills to report on a resume. Her survival reflects her strengths and resources — but how does she capture resilience for prospective employers? What does she do when she carries a criminal record history?
One survivor described this experience to me, saying, “I look horrible on paper.”
My difference catches me off-guard. Entering into new situations, I’m just being myself — not suspecting anything, doing the things that I do — when an odd, slightly off comment, a stray remark makes me realize that the person across from me is not interacting with me. Instead, they are interacting with a perception of who they think people like me are: Asian, woman.
And usually that perception does not include “leader.”
I’m different sounding. I’m different looking. I’m different leading.
As a leader, one question has helped me try to stay in my sweet spot and stick to my true voice, even when it’s different from those around me. What is the unique joy that I bring to God’s heart? When I feel the blister forming from too many frictional interactions, it’s this question that takes me back to my center.
Embracing the differences God gave me to steward, to shelter in my body, I continue on, knowing that perhaps for someone, somewhere, this will be a good fit.
Human slavery has been in existence for thousands of years and unfortunately still flourishes today. An estimated 36 million slaves exist — perhaps more than any time in history —in countries around the world, even the U.S.
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge.” —Deuteronomy 24:17
This verse names the three populations most vulnerable to exploitation: those living in a foreign country, children without parents, and women without protection. These populations have always been the most vulnerable to human trafficking, and they remain so today.
Hope for Justice aims to end human trafficking in our lifetime. And one priority to achieve that in the U.S. is training healthcare professionals to recognize victims of human trafficking. Almost 88 percent of victims of domestic sex trafficking encounter healthcare professionals while they are being trafficked.
January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, but my wish is that we all work to make a real difference every month and every day of the year. I am a survivor of child sex trafficking. But there are other forms of modern-day slavery, like labor trafficking, that are just as evil. Human trafficking affects vulnerable women, men, children, and adults in both developed and emerging countries. Whether it is a 12-year-old runaway — like I was — or a 35-year-old man looking for a better job, vulnerable people are exploited and coerced every day.
Children who have been trafficked — as I was — often do not recognize themselves as victims. It took me decades to begin to see myself as a victim. The manipulation, exploitation, and fear put in place by my trafficker set about normalizing my trauma and also convinced me that it was all my fault.
My greatest hope and purpose in life today is to reach others in as many ways as I can so that they may never have to experience what I did for so long. We must ask important questions in order to really begin to make a difference. Here are a few of the most important questions to be asking.
The 2009 movie Taken throws its audience into the world of human trafficking. An American teen girl and her friend are taken while on a European vacation and sold into the sex trade through a multinational mob-ran human trafficking ring. The girl is ultimately rescued by her secret agent father played by Liam Neeson. With an estimated gross profit of $145,000,000, it is clear that audiences liked this action-packed thriller. While entertaining, unfortunately, Taken dramatizes and stereotypes traffickers. Contrary to what's portrayed in popular movies, there are many types of traffickers beyond the stereotypical pop-culture swarthy, heavily accented, and foreign organized crime ring.
First, many corporations participate in human trafficking by turning a blind eye to the working conditions of either their workers or the workers of their suppliers, vendors, contractors, and subcontractors. For example, the chocolate and fine jewelry industries are notorious for using slave labor. Beyond these well-known industries, exploitation occurs in the garment making trade, unscrupulous adoption agencies, and agriculture.
Diedrich Boenhoeffer wrote about it. Pastors preach about it. Churches strive for it.
It is a concept that has had a long history in the American church. It can come in many forms. Bringing a meal to a stressed out new mother. A church ice cream social. Youth group. Singles ministry.
But what does community look like when working on a social issue?
For human trafficking, that community comes in the form of partnerships. The 2000 federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) originally addressed human trafficking by creating the three 'Ps': prevention, protection, and prosecution. But after implementation occurred, the anti-trafficking community realized there was something missing. Thus, in 2008, the fourth 'P' —partnership — was added.
James' assertation that "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress"(1:27) is nothing new in the church. This verse gets pulled out on service days and when seeking funds for short-term mission trips. Its widespread usage makes it easy for us to see the orphan and widow as abstract conceptions. At best they are just another good we should do and at worst, we see them as an outdated notion that does not really apply to the modern American church.
However, the plight of these two underrepresented and often ignored groups — women and children — has modern impacts. These two tell the tale of human trafficking today. Human trafficking is an emerging human rights issue both globally and in the United States. With an estimated 14,500 - 17,500 trafficked through the U.S. each year, it is essential for the church to take notice. The orphan and widow make up the majority of human trafficking survivors.
Currently there are more people in slavery than any other time in history. In response to this, there are hundreds of anti-human trafficking organizations throughout the world. People are working tirelessly for justice and restoration for the victims.
There are the men and women who are rescued, some are just children. There are also the rescuers, the judges and lawyers who bring justice, and the psychologists who help to rebuild wholeness. Countless numbers of people support the end and rescue of those enslaved by trafficking – especially sex trafficking. But where are the “Johns” - the men who play the role of Demanders in the Supply and Demand economics of this billion dollar international industry? I’d like to put some money toward restoring them.
Aren’t they an important aspect to this equation? Women and girls would not be victimized sometimes 40 times a day without those who pay for it. The captors would move on to more lucrative business ventures if there weren’t men willing to fork over money again and again for something that the world has decried as both illegal and immoral.
I’m surprised that this plays little to no role in our larger conversations about being serious in ending the sex slave trade. What is it that these men are seeking? Why are they paying for sex? Why are they choosing to have sex with someone who is clearly not there willfully? How much is power at play in this situation? What about the men’s ability to be in stable relationships? Why is there still a demand for enslaved persons?
Buying sex from enslaved people does not happen in a vacuum. There is a progression that includes various aspects. If we are serious about ending the sex slave trade we will need to address some serious issues within every nation in the world, particularly those with male-dominated societies that promote male aggression, provide women with limited or no educational and economic opportunities, and deprive men of solid and symbiotic relationships where they can find genuine intimacy and self-expression for their feelings.
Might I suggest 10 ways we can fight sex-trafficking:
At the beginning of the 21st century, Americans are used to thinking of slavery as a horror, yes, but one that was banished from these shores nearly 150 years ago. If only that were so.
The trafficking of men, women, and children for labor or sexual exploitation — or both — fuels an underground economy of misery in our midst in many major metropolitan areas and even in rural America. Immigrants without legal status, children in foster care — all those with tenuous community roots — are particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that more than 300,000 children are at risk of being prostituted in the U.S. and that the average age of entry into prostitution for a child victim here is 13 to 14 years old. According to the DOJ, a pimp can make $150,000 to $200,000 per child each year, and the average pimp controls four to six girls. The United Nations estimates that traffickers generate more than $9 billion within the U.S. for both labor and sex trafficking.
Twelve year old Kathy* became caught up in a web of violence and forced participation in the commercial sex industry. She was taken from city to city and serviced many, doing what they wanted. Pregnant with her son, she found a way out or as she says, “God reached in and pulled me out of hell.” Now, many years later, she gives testimony to her story and strives to help other women “out of the business.”
My experience is with women like Kathy. By federal law, any minor exploited by prostitution or pornography is considered trafficked, and I am amazed at the courage of these survivors.
January is the National Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Have you been made more aware or knowledgeable? Do you know that human trafficking is defined as “modern day slavery” because it controls a person through force, fraud or coercion — physical or psychological — to exploit the person for forced labor, sexual exploitation, or both? Women, children, and men are all affected by this crime.
A small delicate silver cross hangs around Mint’s neck, a charm she reaches for nervously from time to time as she speaks.
Mint is her nickname, an Anglicized version of the long Thai name she was given and would rather not make public. As a former prostitute, the 24-year-old is concerned about bringing shame to her family, though she says everyone in her village in the northeastern province of Issan — a poor agricultural region along the border with Cambodia and Laos — would assume, or simply know, she had to be doing sex work to send money back home.
Everyone in Bangkok knows how it works. Many of the countless massage parlors, go-go bars, and karaoke joints peppered throughout the city are frequently thinly veiled fronts for prostitution. Heavily made-up girls hang around in the periphery of joints catering to Western tourists.
The rhythm of the skies and seasons — the rhythm of the church year — both are ancient interlocking symphonies of light that call us to watchfulness and mindfulness. A small light can illumine vast spaces and dark corners of our selves. A light can reveal new aspects to things we thought we knew about our world. And, the light of knowledge can change perceptions about things we thought we understood.
As you read these words, there are tens of thousands of homeless children (perhaps more) on the streets in the United States. Reliable numbers are hard to find, because these children for the most part are invisible. You would probably not notice them if you saw them. Nevertheless, from law enforcement and other government reports, hotline statistics, and the experience of agencies such as youth outreach ministries, we know that homeless, runaway (or “thrown away”) children are part of our communities — eating at McDonald’s, riding the subways and buses, hanging out at the mall, talking on cellphones, and sitting in the park. What we don’t often see about their lives is that, as homeless youth, they are always vulnerable to the worst kinds of danger — from inadequate shelter, to sickness, to malnutrition, to physical violence, to terrible sexual exploitation.
Eight years ago I left my dorm room, humming the hook to “Till I Collapse” on my walk to the bathroom. When I returned a new song was playing on my laptop. Ludacris’ “P-Poppin’” pierced through the thin walls and echoed down the hallway. I bobbed my head along and then sat down to finish my homework. I looked at the screen, and I thought I saw my sister.
One of the women on the screen in the strip club swinging around a pole trying to seduce Ludacris looked like Jennifer – my older sister.
And something began to shift.
Days after a cross-country FBI operation arrested 152 sex traffickers across the U.S., Joel Osteen, senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, announced his support for a bill in the House of Representatives aimed at eliminating human trafficking rings. The Christian Post reports:
The bill, which is supported by both Republican and Democrat lawmakers, is intended to help eliminate human trafficking rings by "targeting the criminals who purchase sexual acts from these organizations and ensuring that they are prosecuted as human traffickers."
"The suffering associated with human trafficking resonates strongly within the Christian community, and we know of many churches, like our own, whose compassion for its victims has moved them to act," said Joel and Victoria Osteen in a statement.
As our nation celebrates the legacy of Martin Luther, King Jr., I can’t help but wonder what injustices Dr. King would fight against today.
Would he rail against the “New Jim Crow” of mass incarceration, which disproportionately targets African-American men? Perhaps he would continue to speak out against the “most segregated hour of Christian America” — 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. After watching Les Miserables, I’d like to believe that Dr. King would focus on abolishing modern-day slavery.
Known as ‘Humankind’s Most Savage Cruelty,’ human trafficking is a global phenomenon driven by the profitability of sexual exploitation. From China to Washington, D.C., millions of men, women, and children are forced into sexual slavery each year.
Likewise, in Les Mis, we meet Fantine who unjustly loses her factory job and then, out of desperation, turns to prostitution to support her child. While she chooses to sell her body, the realities of poverty do not leave her with other options to earn a living. Not much of a choice, I’d say.
Freedom is hummus. Perhaps not to you. But to me, hummus is what freedom tastes like. The relationships I have built with survivors of human trafficking have propelled me to redefine freedom, as it exists from their perspectives.
Watching a survivor taste hummus for the first time brought so much joy to me. In a room of 25 survivors, no one had ever tasted it; many were hesitant to even dip a chip in it, let alone a carrot stick or pita bread. But the wide smile on the face of the first survivor who ‘dove in,' was all they needed to form a new love for this strange chickpea blend. And that one smile led the rest of the women into a new world of ‘healthful’ eating. It was a bold move early on by one of our volunteers — but she knows that part of her volunteer work is to continue to introduce the survivors to freedom and choices that have been unknown and unavailable to them.
The Disease: Modern Day Slavery
Human trafficking is a worldwide enterprise in the 21st century. In the United States, USAID has reported that between 12 and 27 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide.
Even in our American society, men and women are being sold and traded for labor or sexual purposes every day. According to the Freedom Center, three out of every four victims are female and nearly half of modern-day slaves are children. It is hard to imagine that this problem could go unnoticed for very long. The good news is that on Sept. 25, the president took notice of the disease that affects 17,500 American people each day.
President Barack Obama stated that slavery, “is barbaric and is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world.”
The difference between sex trafficking and freelance prostitution is who has the control and who is keeping the money, said prosecutor Lindsey Roberson, an assistant district attorney in New Hanover County. If a girl or a woman is being forced or coerced by a pimp to perform sex acts without monetary gain, that’s trafficking.
The North Carolina Coalition to Combat Human Trafficking ranks the state among the top 10 states for the problem. North Carolina’s three major highways connect much of the East Coast, and the state has a large transient military and farmworker population, and international seaports in the Cape Fear region.
In May, Roberson helped start a deferred prosecution pilot program for first-time offenders with prostitution charges, partnering with a local rape crisis center.
As a Christian, Roberson is also on the board of a new faith-based effort called the Centre of Redemption, which is scheduled to open in December to help pregnant teens and teen moms who are also trafficking victims.