It was just another night in the big city, walking home with the throngs of others in Queens, New York. I glanced up as we passed the park, and noticed a young girl sitting with a group of drunk Hispanic men in the corner. Red flags started waving in my mind, and I went over to introduce myself. She was just a small town southern girl, and her story was familiar: she was raised in a dysfunctional household, homeless at 18, and was later lured into a false job opportunity that resulted in forced prostitution in the south. That first meeting resulted in many others. She was desperate for safety.
The safest place she could find in NYC was in the corner of the park, surrounded by a group of seemingly harmless drunk men. She laughingly told me she was Snow White, with her seven dwarfs. She didn’t know what trafficking was, and after she recounted her trip to NYC, I realized she had been trafficked for sexual exploitation to my borough. After repeated encounters, she disappeared. I went to find her behind the Chinese supermarket one day. A man came out of the tent structures the homeless had rigged and told me she wasn’t there.
We’ve made progress in our studies on trauma and the effect on the whole person. Professionals have compiled wonderful resources for working with women at risk globally. In the States, we have a label or diagnosis for every sort of mental dysfunction possible, and often an accompanying program or rehab center. I have my head in the books and the articles and study the programs and have gleaned much from the research and compilations of professionals.
But there are many days I wrestle with questions about the outcome of our strategies.
The girl in the city called me two years later on Facebook Messenger. She was ready to get out and get help. We made an appointment, and she showed up, shaking with nervousness. We started the search for a decent shelter the next day. After hours of waiting the social worker said, “Yeah, you basically have to have kids to get a room right now,” and sent us to the worst part of the city to the worst shelter. It was the only one with space. I left her in that huge concrete space that night, scanning all her bags to join the others.
In 2016, I was working in Moria camp on Lesvos as it turned into some sort of detention facility for refugees. Before then, we had fed and clothed thousands of immigrants who had quickly moved on. We rarely had more than a few days with anyone. A change in regulations on March 16 changed everything, and suddenly thousands of people were stuck, waiting on documents. Homeless.
My friend Kendi and I emptied and cleaned one of the blanket rooms, put down a rug and lots of pillows, and set up a tea stand. It was a desperate attempt to create some sort of safe place in the eye of a disaster. Kendi would invite the women from the DR in, and we would sit there and drink tea and listen. It was there that the first survivor of trafficking admitted to the truth of her story. She pulled up her pant leg and showed a large raised scar where she had been tortured as punishment for an attempted escape.
I resumed my quest for answers.
The women we work with are in every kind of crisis. Some of them have just escaped Turkish brothels. Some climb out of doors and windows to flee. Many are in crisis pregnancies. Their back and faces are scarred. Their spirits are scarred: they have often been abused under the name of some kind of religion. Their emotions are locked in a prison of disassociation, longing for freedom but fearing the risk. So they often go back and do what is normal, selling their beautiful bodies to the men who come for them.
Greece is the entry point for thousands of women traveling alone in the refugee crisis. Many of these women have been offered false jobs in Turkey and upon arrival have been sold into forced prostitution. Some of them served 20-40 clients a day. Others were gang raped along the refugee route. Most of them are fleeing domestic violence, poverty, or abuse. In the camps, they are forced to sit with their memories, through long days of waiting on their documents. Frustrated and depressed, they jump at the opportunity to go to Athens, even with falsified documents. Traffickers offer them work in Athens, and often speak their language and know their vulnerabilities. In desperation and because the trafficker is supplying some need for them, they are often led back into lives of exploitation.
Athens holds around 600 brothels. Many of them function illegally, although prostitution under certain parameters is legal in Europe. The street behind me even now is littered with brothels, with the signature white light welcoming in clients. The largest brothel district in Athens is a few metro stops away, with around 95 brothels in a few short blocks.
My interactions with these women has brought me face to face with hard questions. When we have so many projects and programs, how can a homeless woman in NYC be so desperate for safety that she huddles in a park with a group of drunk men? How can the safest place for these women here in Greece be going back to a life of exploitation?
Our labels and programs and rescue attempts haven’t kept 99% of rescued survivors of trafficking from going back. There are multiple reasons as to why that statistic is so large, including the very real trauma bond that often develops between victim and perpetrator. But many days I am left wondering if it is also partly because we have gotten so caught up in the labels and the programs that we have forgotten some of the core needs of the human heart.
Perhaps some of us have bought into the sensationalism of sex trafficking and thrown around stats and articles that ignite fear and anger in all of us. We’ve watched movies that dramatize the effort to rescue women from behind locked doors, throw in a little romance and violence, and leave us superficially passionate for something we don’t understand. We hear more about trafficking then we ever have and read more about it than we ever have and are more aware than we have ever been and are left more handicapped than ever because we’re often not really committed to the vulnerable.
Please hear me here. Most survivors were homeless and facing extreme vulnerabilities before they were trafficked and when they leave “the life” they are facing extreme terror and vulnerabilities. To make that practical, they don’t have basic needs like a toothbrush, ID, and a bed to sleep on. If they have a bed, it might be in a large institution with concrete walls and no one to trust and a weekly meeting across the desk with their psychologist who hands them a few more labels in the form of mental health diagnosis, medications, and an appointment for next week.
God didn’t create us to heal like that. None of us gets better like that.
The early church seemed to understand that. They broke bread in each other’s homes. They made sure the widows were cared for. Throughout history, the values within Christendom gave rise to hospitals, homes for the poor, and rehabilitation centers.
Then the church began depending more and more on the government to supply the needs of the vulnerable, and we learned so much about boundaries and professionalism that the doors of many homes slowly swung shut. We learned a lot about mental health issues and substance abuse. We raised awareness on social justice issues. We enacted over seventy welfare programs in the States to ensure the vulnerable are cared for. (And somehow the poverty line stayed the same, which means we still have the same vulnerabilities.)
Christine Pohl writes, “For the early Christian, the church as the household of God was a powerful theological and social reality. The church was made up of family households, but it was more than the sum of all those households. The church was a new household, God’s household, and believers became family to one another. Early Christian hospitality was offered from within this overlap of family and church… Although the developments of hospitals and hospices emerged from early Christian impulses towards hospitality, these institutions were unable to capture and express some of the most fundamental and personal dimensions of hospitality. Poor people and strangers were cared for at a distance and in large numbers. Personal hospitality was increasingly reserved for visiting dignitaries.”
Slowly, we distanced ourselves from responsibility. Slowly, we started walking past homeless people and deflecting their gazes with a shrug. “Why aren’t you in a shelter?” or “Are you using that money for drugs?” Somehow we lost the art of getting on eye level with them so that we can understand their vulnerabilities. We began reserving hospitality for visiting dignitaries.
The girl in the park in NYC told me over and over, “I have no one.”
The girl sitting on the street in Greece a few weeks ago told me, “I have no one.”
Those of us who have someone don’t recognize the impact of having no one. As a child, I woke at six o’clock in the morning to watch my mother fry eggs and pancakes in our big kitchen. We recited scripture and prayed together every day. Mom would start the scripture CDs in the hallway at night and that’s what we fell asleep to. Dad would drop wood scraps in the yard at night and play baseball with us five youngest. We’d lean on the kitchen counter late into the night eating big bags of tortilla chips from Sam’s Club and canned salsa from our garden. I didn’t realize what my parents gave me back then.
The institutions of family and church were the pillars of my upbringing. I recognize now that we cannot discard these institutions in our endeavors to help the vulnerable. Our Creator himself designed them and proclaimed them good. None of our manmade endeavors will be enough to rescue people at risk. None of our projects and programs alone will supply the deeper needs of the heart unless we recognize our Creator’s design and function in cohesion with it.
The doors of our homes and churches need to swing open just a little wider.
If you are working with vulnerable populations today, in the form of a kid’s club, teen group, or brother-sister program, I applaud you. You are doing anti-trafficking work. If you are learning how to approach a vulnerable individual on a church pew and ask hard questions, or inviting a struggling young girl into your home every week for tea, you are doing the work of anti-trafficking. If you have a spare room that is open and ready for someone in need, you are combatting the risk of someone being exploited. If you are fostering children from your local communities you are doing one of the best preventive strategies. If you are aggressively fighting the impact of pornography in our homes and churches, you are standing in the gap for little girls who are raped every day.
It’s a lot more practical than the movies, and a lot harder than tearing into brothels and physically removing someone from their misery. It is hours of time devoted to becoming a place and space for that one in your community that has no one, because you recognize that when someone has no one they go looking for someone. You become that someone that stands in the gap.
The work of anti-trafficking starts right inside of us. It asks us to give up our time, unhealthy motives, and adrenaline to faithfully serve the next vulnerable person God brings us. It asks us to open the door of our homes and hearts wider than what is comfortable. It asks us to love unconditionally and without preconceived ideas. It asks us to give up our sensationalism and our cynicism and operate humbly within the structures our Creator designed.
Jesus walked among us in a human body, addressed our feelings and emotions, and died so our spirits could be free. He addressed us with personhood. He left to prepare a place for us, leaving us to prepare a place for them. It’s hard to give personhood across the desk in an hour’s time to an individual the devil has ravaged for years. It’s hard to convince a traumatized individual that love is real and God is alive if they do not see and feel and touch and hear that God over and over again, louder and stronger than they felt and heard and touched evil.
Trafficked individuals are so often homeless people, caught in our foster systems, in and out of our rehab centers, and sitting on our street corners. They have programs they can go to and shelters they can collapse in at night. They can make an appointment for an hour with a psychologist. But do they have an open church door to enter where they are embraced? Do they have at least one open door to a home that welcomes them, where they can sit around a family table and be one of us?
There are other doors that are open for them if ours aren’t. The girl from the park told me a man circled around the shelter inviting the women into his car. The girls without basic needs here in the camp are sometimes provided for by the individuals who will use them the most. Perpetrators open their doors and seek out vulnerabilities.
I ask myself now, am I willing?
The initials behind our name give us the tools to understand more. The certifications on anti-trafficking work help us understand what survivors face. Professionals can provide helpful tools and strategies to overcome the psychological and emotional damage. But the church can provide something that is desperately missing in our endeavors today: community, unconditional love, and belonging, the very incarnation of the Father. The institution of family can provide something every lonely person is craving deeper than anything else.