In 2009, when Wendy Wood opened her front door to a stranger, she had no idea she stood face-to-face with a modern-day slave. Disheveled, disoriented, and thirsty, the young woman wanted a drink of water.
Curious, Wood asked questions. “Emily” had met a charming guy on the Internet. Following weeks of interaction, he bought her a plane ticket from the Midwest to Southern California.
After weeks of hanging out with her new “boyfriend,” she’d wound up in the hospital. Upon her release, she’d wandered around, finally knocking on Wood’s door.
Emily had no identification and didn’t know where she was. But she hoped to find her “boyfriend” at a nearby truck stop where they often hung out. The truck stop was known for prostitution and the trafficking of young women.
Wood put two and two together. She convinced Emily to call her father. He came to get her the next day.
Months later Wood’s church, Purpose Church in Pomona, California, started an abolitionist group to fight modern-day slavery in their community. That’s when she realized Emily’s story bore characteristics common to many trafficking victims.
Modern-Day Slavery’s Ugly Reality
Human trafficking occurs when those most vulnerable are exploited for financial gain, whether it be the young boy in Pakistan forced to work in brick kilns or the teenage girl in California being trafficked for sex by her boyfriend.
Forced labor and human trafficking make up one of the largest criminal enterprises in the world, generating $150 billion a year, according to the International Labour Organization. Roughly two-thirds appears to come from the commercial sexual exploitation of women, children, and men.
Although human trafficking is found in many trades, the risk is more pronounced in industries that rely on low-skilled or unskilled labor. In America, the high demand for cheap labor creates trafficking opportunities in such diverse places as restaurants, nail salons, oil rigs, agricultural fields, and garment factories.
If you think this can’t be happening in your town, think again. Trafficking occurs in all 50 states and in most zip codes, according to Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization.
Sex trafficking is defined as a commercial sex act induced by force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion. Under U.S. federal law, any minor under the age of 18 induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking—regardless of whether the trafficker used force, fraud, or coercion.
Sex trafficking occurs on the street and in strip clubs, massage parlors, and hotels. Pimps market girls at truck stops, music festivals, sporting events, and on websites such as Backpage.com.
The U.S. Department of Justice estimates about 300,000 kids in the United States are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation. Because most trafficking crimes go unreported and the industry is so clandestine, no one knows exactly how many victims there are.
Poverty, disregard for the value of human life, ideology, and the breakdown of family relationships have created a perfect storm for modern-day slavery.
At the same time, this appalling backdrop presents tremendous opportunities for churches wanting to eliminate exploitation while reaching their communities for Christ. The overwhelming nature of this travesty has made city and county governments, public education, and foster care systems eager for partnerships with neighborhood churches.
Deploying God’s Army
At the beginning of Purpose Church’s abolitionist effort, the church partnered with Oasis USA to start a community group known as Every ONE Free. The group narrowed its primary focus to sex trafficking.
Because each city faces different challenges, the group enlisted the assistance of a church member who worked in law enforcement. He helped identify Pomona’s struggle with street prostitution.
The group recognized it didn’t have enough resources to rescue and rehabilitate victims, which helped ONE clarify its primary objectives: “We want to stop trafficking before it happens, so a lot of our efforts go into prevention,” says Tamiko Chacon, who leads the justice ministries at Purpose Church. “We also raise awareness and support survivors.”
To accomplish these goals, ONE members operate according to their strengths and frequently within their existing spheres of influence. Here are some of the ways Every ONE Free is working toward prevention, awareness, and supporting survivors.
In the school district, an educator helped start a poster campaign, which evolved into prevention curriculum presentations at junior and senior high schools. “We talk about what a trafficker looks like,” says Chacon. “Using students, we demonstrate tactics used to lure victims into the life.” This empowers students to reject the traffickers’ lies.
In a group home for survivors and girls at risk, volunteers taught the teens how to bake cupcakes. Hearing about an employee’s involvement, a restaurant supply company donated an electric mixer, mixing bowls, and other baking utensils. Volunteers have also led Bible studies, taught social skills, and orchestrated special events.
“We did a princess tea for the girls,” says Chacon. Using a biblical theme, ONE explained how because Jesus is the King, His daughters are princesses. “Each girl received a tiara when she entered the room and learned how she is a princess because she’s a daughter of God, the most High.”
The church has continued to cultivate relationships with these girls, Chacon says with a smile. “Some of the girls from this home have accepted Christ, been baptized, and attend our youth group.”
Fair trade bazaars on the church’s campus educate congregants while drawing people from the neighborhood. “We encourage people to purchase items certified fair trade or made by [sex-trafficking] survivors,” says Chacon. Handouts offer ideas for getting involved.
Movie nights also promote awareness within the church and to the surrounding area. After the film, a survivor usually tells her story. According to Chacon, “hearing a personal testimony deeply impacts the audience and often results in adding members to our team.”
40 Days for Freedom features prayer and fasting for victims. This daily guide unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit not only to free slaves but also to transform the hearts and minds of participants.
Several years ago, the Pomona Police Department introduced ONE to the federally funded Innocence Lost Task Force led by the FBI. “Because traffickers move victims constantly, task forces from different counties work together to rescue these girls,” says Chacon.
Those rescued girls need everything, so ONE started supplying freedom bags—backpacks filled with treasured items. The victims quickly exchange stiletto heels for flip-flops, suggestive clothing for flannel pants and T-shirts.
Handwritten messages offer hope, and Bibles speak of Christ’s love and redemption. A police officer tells how one young girl broke down and cried when she was given a stuffed animal. She’d had only one toy as a child; her mother had burned it.
Occasionally ONE assists Christians Actively Demolishing Exploitation (CADE) in San Bernardino County. After a wealthy businessman donated a house to be used as a shelter for survivors, various churches and individuals volunteered to create a cheerful environment for victims. ONE completely outfitted the “Jubilee” bedroom used to welcome new guests to the long-term residential program.
Because small shelters have only a few beds, finding the resources necessary for helping victims like Emily can be a challenge. Emily’s father had begged Wood to keep his daughter safe until he arrived. Yet Wood realized allowing this young woman to spend the night could be dangerous.
Wisely, Wood procured a hotel room for Emily despite the risk she might flee. (After suffering traumatic physical, emotional, and psychological abuse, many trafficking victims don’t want to leave their “boyfriends.”)
Girls like Emily frequently require temporary emergency placement. Through the collaborative efforts of CARE 18, an 18-month program in Los Angeles County focused on serving victims 18 and younger, ONE connected with Saddleback Church’s Human Trafficking Initiative.
This volunteer group provides short-term care until a long-term rehabilitation program can be arranged. Church members from Saddleback surround each trafficking survivor with love, never leaving her alone, driving her to court dates or medical appointments, and assisting with other needs.
Sometimes law enforcement offers victims a choice—going to jail or an emergency shelter like those offered by Saddleback. While in these private homes, girls hear the gospel and see Jesus at work. One of the initiative’s leaders said understanding Christ’s love is the way most victims find the road to recovery. For churches wanting to make a difference in their community, the first step is opening that outreach door.
Tackling an issue like sex trafficking has helped Purpose Church realize the value of partnering with other local churches and faith-based organizations.
“Jesus taught us to fight the evils within society, and this new generation challenges the Church to do just that,” says Glenn Gunderson, Purpose Church’s lead pastor. “Working together on justice issues bridges the gaps between old and young, different ethnicities, economic status, and even denominations. Abolitionist efforts unify the body of Christ.”
If you suspect trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Trained hotline volunteers ask questions to determine whether a specific scenario warrants involving the local police. If it does, they’ll notify the appropriate authorities.
Learn how to identify and respond to those being exploited. “Recognize the Signs” is a helpful overview posted by the nonprofit Polaris anti-trafficking organization at PolarisProject.org/recognize-signs.