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Agent of Change

Why former U.S. Congresswoman Linda Smith is compelled to combat sexual slavery—one young woman's life at a time

Linda Smith motions to the radiant young faces captured on the framed photos that line her office hallways.

"That's a picture of Renu; she's working in one of our safe houses … here's Mannisha, who was a brothel baby, holding her first doll … ," she tells me. Linda knows all the names of the women in the photos; she knows the intimate details of their stories, too—tales of abandonment, torture, rape, despair, and then unexpected hope and healing in Christ.

These pictures hang on the walls of Shared Hope International (SHI), the Vancouver, Washington-based nonprofit organization Linda founded in November 1998 to rescue and aid women who have been trafficked as sex slaves. The passion Linda has for SHI is obvious. But it's still a bit surprising to hear the 53-year-old former U.S. Congresswoman from Washington State express joy about the event that helped her launch SHI: losing an election.

"When I ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998, I didn't win—which was God's great plan!" Linda proclaims. In fact, Linda says everything in her life up to this point has been readying her for her role as executive director of Shared Hope International.

Linda launched her political career in 1983 when she defeated an incumbent to become a member of the Washington State Legislature. A doggedly determined prolife, anti-euthanasia, and campaign-finance-reform advocate who subsequently won several state elections, Linda, her husband, Vern, and her two children often were the target of smear tactics because of her conservative Christian views. Then a remarkable write-in campaign in her home district catapulted Linda into Congress in 1994. Never one to shy from tackling a human-rights issue, Linda was a rare female prolife voice in Congress, fighting girl infanticide and defending females sold and marketed as commodities to human brokers around the world. Today Linda has become the nation's leading nongovernmental activist in the issue of sex trafficking.

The statistics on this evil are sobering: The United Nations estimates that annually 700,000 t0 4 million women and children worldwide are sold and traded like slaves for forced prostitution, labor, and other forms of exploitation. Nearly every country—including the U.S.—is involved either as a country of origin, destination, or transit.

But Linda didn't stop with the establishment of SHI. In 2001, she mobilized a concerned coalition that includes The Salvation Army and International Justice Mission into the War Against Trafficking Alliance. And she was the prime mover behind the February 2003 World Summit on Human Trafficking, sponsored by the U.S. State Department. SHI, in concert with outreaches such as Teen Challenge International, helps fund and build shelters for victims in areas such as Nepal, India, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Fiji, offering women healthcare, education, and the promise of a future.

Linda's organization also works with the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University and the Department of Health and Human Services to establish comprehensive services for trafficking victims in several major U.S. cities. And last year, Linda tirelessly traveled around the world educating government officials about international laws on sex trafficking. She went to countries under threat of U.S. sanctions due to violations of these laws in an effort to help them create plans to bring their nations into compliance.

"My titles and political connections have opened doors for me around the world that wouldn't have opened otherwise," Linda says.

But the individual girls her organization redeems—literally and, through Jesus Christ, spiritually—are wrapped around Linda's heart. Girls such as Ghanga, a former prostitute, who now reaches out to those in the brothels to tell them about Jesus. Or Pooja, the child of a prostitute, who was brought to a safe house in Nepal and reunited with her mother, also rescued and now battling AIDS.

While Linda works on national and international levels, she also "rescues" women in her own backyard by offering an internship program through SHI called WIN. Through it, women struggling to get back into the workforce because of a family crisis receive six months of training in basic office skills and job placement assistance.

"Now that I'm out of Congress, I share how God's worked in my life—and how powerful we women really are," Linda tells me as we settle in for this exclusive TCW interview. "Everything I've gone through, from an impoverished childhood to brutal political campaigns, prepared me for this."

Where did your passion for victims of sex slavery come from? I've always been passionate about protecting the rights of God-created individuals. But while I was still in Congress, my husband, Vern, and I viewed a video at our church about Project Rescue, a joint Teen Challenge and Assemblies of God ministry in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai), which brings children out of prostitution.

Then in October 1998, a man raising money for Teen Challenge's outreach in that region invited me to India to attend an international conference on sex trafficking. Vern and I had been planning a trip to Hawaii—I desperately needed a break after our grueling Senate campaign. But when a nonprofit group that ran a hospital in Calcutta offered to fly me out, we changed our plans immediately and I went that week. The night after I arrived, I was driven to the infamous brothel district in Bombay.

What did you see? I wish I could explain the smell, because that's what overwhelmed me—raw sewage and hot, stinky flesh. Think about going into an outhouse in extreme heat. That's what it smells like.

Diesel fumes pollute everything. The brothel streets are narrow, gray alleyways where thousands of men roam nightly, "shopping" for prostitutes. Down each side are four-story stalls filled with women and young girls. The youngest are kept in the top level until their spirits are broken; that way, they can't run away. I saw little hands that looked as though they belonged to girls younger than my six-year-old granddaughter poking through the windows.

As I toured the area with K.K. Devaraj, who oversees Teen Challenge of Mumbai, India, tears rolled down his cheeks. It was as though K.K. was saying, Even though I've been here before, I can never get used to it.

How young are these girls? As young as six.

That makes me ill. I know. But because of AIDS, there's a big demand for virgins; some brothel customers mistakenly believe sex with a virgin actually cures the disease.

We've rescued girls who were locked up for a year, one girl nearly ten years because she kept trying to run away. One said she didn't remember ever seeing sunlight.

How do they end up there? Destitute families usually sell them. For example, Renu's stepbrother tricked her into thinking he was taking her away to school. He drugged her and dropped her off at a brothel hundreds of miles away from home. Another, Ghanga, was only a young girl when she got lost at a train depot in Bombay, only to be kidnapped by a sex broker who sold her to a brothel for $1,500. Once ensnared, these girls undergo a barbaric "seasoning" process that includes torture, rape, isolation, and starvation. Once beaten into submission, they endure as many as 45 sexual encounters a day. They often die young from tuberculosis, drug addiction, or sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.

It sounds so hopeless. Yes, but Teen Challenge befriends these prostitutes and their children, offering them medical care and sharing the gospel. But the problem is, even if they escape the brothel, they have no place to live. Their families reject them.

That night in Bombay, K.K. asked me to speak to these women in their little church in a rundown building, and hundreds came. Afterwards, he asked if I would pray for them. I knew praying for them meant touching them. I thought, I can't stand the smell. I'm going to throw up.

What did you do? I stood there, thinking, God, you can't expect me to touch these women. Then the Holy Spirit convicted me. So I put my hand on the shoulder of one little girl, and she just fell into me. The moment I let her go, another was there. I don't know how many I prayed for that day, but by the end of our prayer time, the smell no longer repulsed me.

As soon as I returned home, I founded Shared Hope. Within a month, we opened our first "safe house" in Bombay to provide shelter for these girls; before six months were up, we'd opened nine. Today we have the capacity to care for about 500 girls.

How could you arrange that so quickly? During my 1998 Senate race, 35,000 people contributed to my campaign. After I lost the election, I sent letters to everyone saying, "We didn't win the U.S. Senate race, but I've started this other organization. This is where I'm going to invest my life." I sent the contributions back, but many people signed them over to Shared Hope. I was able to raise a half million dollars immediately. God prepared me for this opportunity.

What specifically does SHI do? We selectively partner with Christian organizations, such as Teen Challenge, who already effectively minister to women. SHI offers paths to freedom, which sometimes includes paying off their debts. We provide places for them to flee to, which is why they'll come out of the brothel. We help with their lodging, education, clothing, food, healthcare, and job training.

In some cases, we actually buy property and build safe houses. We recently completed construction of our Village of Hope, two hours away from Mumbai, which houses 300 women. We facilitate everything from the number of bathrooms to the actual outreach. We purchased motorcycles for two women who ride into the isolated areas of Nepal to warn mothers that their children are being kidnapped for the brothels. They chase down the traffickers because they know what will happen; they were trafficked. What gutsy ladies!

Sadly, in most countries there's a greater penalty for dealing drugs than for dealing in human flesh. Even though laws against sex trafficking exist, it's hard to fight the bad guys if they're government officials or part of the elite.

Donations to SHI are used to bring girls out of sex slavery and provide for their needs—both immediate and long-term. It doesn't matter if they're HIV-positive, as so many are. They still have worth in God's eyes. Many are trained as cosmetologists. Others work in the safe houses. One's become a professional driver in Mumbai! I see these women as great examples of what God can do.

Why should the average Christian woman be concerned about sex trafficking? Because not one of my girls is any different than one of us. God made them, and Jesus died for them, too. If we think of the victims of sex trafficking as "those girls," we're not being Christlike.

It was a shocker to this American woman to learn about the atrocities that occur around the world. For example, if for some reason a Nepali woman gets lost or is injured and can't get home by nightfall, she's considered unclean and unmarriageable. If she's pretty and young enough, she'll be sold into a brothel.

In the Ukraine, sex brokers play on a woman's desire to earn income for her family. So they'll entice girls with ads for jobs in America, and these 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds go with them. Sex traffickers fake papers, take these women into Jamaica, Fiji, or America, put them into strip clubs, and then sell them as prostitutes.

So this is happening right here in America? Unfortunately, yes. Before Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000, the bad guys simply would be deported. Since its passage, we prosecute them. More importantly, the victims of this hideous crime in our country are no longer treated as criminals. They're no longer re-victimized by being jailed and then deported to their home country only to be rejected by their families—or worse, put back on the streets.

How did you get into politics? I'd spent 15 years fast-tracking in the business world as a licensed tax consultant who managed nine offices for an H&R Block franchise. But then, in 1983, the state voted to double the small business tax. I was upset that I had to cut entry-level people to keep my business afloat.

At the same time, my husband, Vern, became involved in the prolife movement. He came home one day after hearing a speaker at a church-related men's event and told me he'd committed himself and our family to the prolife cause. "Linda," he said, "I told God that even if I'm the only one standing for life, I'll do it." I thought he was crazy.

Why? It was inconvenient. We had a growing family; I had a growing corporation. We were very involved in our church. I just couldn't see how there was room for one more commitment. Vern started assisting community prolife groups, and one of them met in our house. I'd come home to a house filled with volunteers and their children, so I'd put on my jogging suit and head out for a run.

I didn't respond well to Vern's decision. I think if he'd said, "I want us to do this, would you pray about it?" I wouldn't have been so resistant.

So what turned you around? Vern jokes with me and says, "Linda, you were so liberal then. God knew where you needed to go." At that point, I was what I'd call a conservative feminist. I knew I wouldn't take the life of my baby. But how could I tell someone else not to? I bought that logic—until as a believer, I decided God either created life, or he didn't. I thought, There's no way I can argue with the Word. God knew me in my mother's womb. I wasn't a blob. Practically overnight I became strongly prolife.

Vern and I realized the incumbent running for state senate wasn't only unacceptable from a business perspective, but he also was pro-abortion. So we talked seriously about how one of us should run.

That seems bold! Well, we were pretty naïve. But Vern and I prayed extensively for about a month about what we should do. It became clear to us I was the one. I had the public relations background, the business background. I'd taught tax law. But taking this step meant I would have to give up my successful career. I cried and prayed for a month that God would let me off the hook.

Finally, as I sat in our church balcony during the praise service one Sunday, I whined to God, "I'll do it, Lord. But remember, we have no money. We don't know anybody. There's not enough time. And I don't work on Sundays." What a thing to say to God!

And did God respond? I felt the Holy Spirit tell me, Walk with me. I'm here, and I'll fulfill your needs. I ended up beating my opponent handily. But that moment at church was a turning point; I changed from wanting to get rich to wanting to be obedient to God.

This was a difficult change because when I was a child, I always felt people looked down on me because my family was so poor. I grew up determined to make money so others would accept me.

When did you become a Christian? When I was seven. My biological father left my mother when I was very young. We lived close to my grandparents in Colorado, but then my family moved to Oregon, where we lived in the low-income part of town. Although my mother didn't walk with the Lord, she taught my siblings and me biblical principles. Mother found a church within walking distance, and I attended Sunday school there. That's where I asked the Lord into my life.

My heart was so heavy then because we'd moved away from my grandparents. I missed them terribly. My stepfather didn't work during most of the winters, so times were very hard. We lived in a transients' area in Washington up in the mountains. Then we moved to an abandoned farm. It was so cold in the winter, and packrats kept hauling things off. Mother would blame my brothers and sisters and me! Then we moved again.

Although I graduated from high school with a full political science scholarship, I never did go to college. During most of my teen years, my mother struggled with her health, and she eventually died of cancer in her mid-forties.

My childhood shaped my belief that children need permanency. And that impacts what SHI does for my girls. They're mine forever.

Is it possible for these broken women to heal? Most are taught to believe this horrible life is their karma, or fate. But once these discarded, brutalized girls discover there's a God who says, You're beautifully and wonderfully made. I loved you enough to die for you, and I love you enough to send others to love and care for you, it fills them with hope. It's wonderfully healing.

Are you explicit about Jesus Christ? Absolutely. And they learn that no matter what's happened to them, God only sees who they are in Christ—and what he can do with their lives.

That's a good message for us all. God's shown me it's not what you've done or what's happened to you that makes you you. It's what you can be through Jesus.

When they make bricks in India, they mix dung with mud and straw. Then they put the bricks under heat and pressure. The finished bricks are so strong, you can't pound them apart. The rain can't come through. And the smell of dung is completely gone.

That's what can happen to the dung in our lives. Maybe you've had an abortion; maybe you were molested as a child, as I was. It doesn't matter; God can turn it into something useful the moment you surrender your life to him.

I understand what these girls go through because of the bad things that happened to me growing up. Even those brutal political campaigns in which I was hit so hard because I was conservative, or those times in Congress when I felt so lonely as a believer—God took the doo-doo and transformed it.

So it's been worth it? Yes. But I can't imagine doing what I'm doing right now—or what I did while in office—without the Holy Spirit. For example, the euthanasia initiative in Washington State would have passed if I and many others hadn't stood against it. I was reelected time and again because God wanted me there. But the elections were never easy. I was always a target.

Is that why some Christians steer clear of politics? Well, if we're not willing to get bloodied in the battle, then we've given up the war. We've bought into the lie that if it's loud, if it's bloody, if it hurts, if you feel tired or under pressure or alone, then you're wrong. But God says he'll never leave or forsake us, that he'll bless our obedience in taking a stand for what's right. And sometimes being obedient means getting criticized.

Politics is corrupt; I don't even try to argue against that. Throughout the ages, the devil's loved using money and power as a way to direct people away from God. But we know that ultimate power comes through Christ.

But isn't it easy to get overwhelmed by the size of the problems in our world? The reality is, we don't have to solve the problem, whether it's sex trafficking or AIDS in Africa. Mother Teresa once said something to the effect of, "I serve the face God places in front of me each day."

For me, those faces have been as far away as Pooja's and Mannisha's, or as near as that of Jennifer, a friend of my daughter's, whose husband was paralyzed through a freak accident. Jenny needed to earn income but she didn't have the skills. She was the first to go through our internship program and did so well that when we had an opening, we hired her to be our office manager. She's now able to provide for her three children since her husband passed away.

We each need to say, God's going to bring a face in front of me today. Then we need to fold up our Day-Timer, turn off our computer, or ignore our to-do list, and focus on that face. That's the heart of God. And he promises he'll bless our obedience.

For more information on Shared Hope International, write to P.O. Box 65337, Vancouver, WA 98665, call 1-866-HER-LIFE, or check out its website at www.sharedhope.org.

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Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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