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Not in My Town

How 3 women (and you!) are fighting sex trafficking

Stephanie Voiland prayed one day, "God, I feel like I'm just going through the motions." The next words of her vulnerable prayer surprised her: "Make me radically obedient." She wasn't quite sure where those words came from. Perhaps God gave them to prepare her for an invitation she'd receive later that day, shattering her spiritual lethargy.

Sandie Morgan went to Athens, Greece, 12 years ago to serve as a missionary and a nurse. In that ancient city, she discovered that the world's oldest profession still thrived—exploiting women and children in terrible ways.

Sandra Bass traveled to Bombay, India, where she saw the brothels of the commercial sex trade. "Until I was there, I had no idea how horrific this evil is," she says. Soon after that 2005 trip, Sandra learned that sex trafficking doesn't just happen overseas, but right in her hometown of Houston, Texas.

Partnering for Prevention

After returning from Greece, Sandie Morgan worked as an abolitionist in the U.S. The former director of the Center for Women's Studies at Vanguard University, she now heads the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, a federally funded coalition of local and federal agencies. She's building a team to educate and enlist her local community against the modern slave trade.

When Morgan began taking educational materials to local medical clinics in Orange County, helping them learn to recognize the signs of commercial sexual slavery, they rescued five women trafficked from outside the U.S. within just a few weeks.

But the girls who are seduced into trafficking aren't always from foreign countries. Morgan tells of a public high school in Orange County, where most of the students are from low-income families. Girls are approached outside the school by sex industry recruiters who offer money or other jobs (which often are only bait to trap them). Sometimes these recruiters threaten the girls. "One might say, hey, I know your uncle is here illegally, and if you don't want me to report him, you'd better come with me," Morgan explains.

Morgan focuses on prevention. "We need to intervene before a girl gets recruited," she says. "Instead of building another rescue center, we should be building a job training center right across the street from that high school. Teach a girl other job skills before she gets lured into commercial sex."

Because of the scope of the problem, Morgan favors working both inside and outside the church to combat trafficking. "We need to join existing tutoring services and community programs, rather than start our own in the church. We need to keep working through our churches, but also work in the public sector. We need not just an either/or effort, but a both/and effort," she says.

Ministering in Our Own Backyard

Sandra Bass, women's ministry director for Assemblies of God South Texas district, was no stranger to the issue of sex trafficking and slavery. She'd gone to Bombay to see a residential rehab center, called Home of Hope, which she'd helped build by raising funds in the U.S.

Bass returned from the trip with a fresh awareness. Several months later, while watching a news report of a prostitution-ring bust, she saw the images of Asian women being taken from a house, and realized these women weren't choosing to sell their bodies. They were slaves living in the Houston suburbs.

Houston is a sex trafficking hub. Since 2001, 20 percent of victims rescued in the U.S. have been located in Texas. Often, girls from Mexico "are brought here to be conditioned, or 'seasoned,' as they call it," Bass says. "Their captors get them addicted to drugs; they're raped and beaten. Their will is broken. From here, they're trafficked all over the United States."

Bass said she couldn't stand by and do nothing while this was happening in her backyard. So she put together a board of directors and started raising money. In July 2008, they bought 20 acres of land with a few existing buildings. Once they raise funds and build this Home of Hope, it will provide shelter, medical care, psychological counseling, and addiction rehab to up to 16 women. "In a Home of Hope, we can give these women individual attention" to help them recover from the trauma of sexual slavery, she says.

Setting Captives Free

Though Stephanie Voiland didn't know why she prayed for radical obedience, she received a quick answer.

"I got an e-mail that day about a group from our church that was going on a two-week mission trip to Bangkok, Thailand, to work with victims of the sex trade," she says. She'd read about sexual trafficking before that and says the issue broke her heart. "But it seemed like such a big problem, and I didn't think I could do anything about it."

Voiland, who works as an editor in Illinois, now realizes there's plenty anyone can do. She took the trip, where her group worked with The Well, an organization that provides job training, spiritual guidance, drug rehab, emotional and financial counseling, and even parenting classes.

"We'd start at midnight, in groups of three," Stephanie says. They'd talk to women who stood outside of bars and clubs, soliciting customers. "We would befriend them, tell them about The Well, and that there was an alternative to what they were doing. And we offered to pay their bar fee, which was about $20 U.S. (what they owed 'the house' for their night's work)."

Their fee paid, the women were free to go, and The Well volunteers offered to take them to a movie or out for coffee. The girls, many of whom were just teenagers, often agreed to go with them.

"They were so surprised we'd be willing to pay to set them free for an evening, even though we didn't know them," Voiland says. "It was really powerful. It gave me a new and profound understanding of redemption. I was struck that God paid so much for me to be free."

Keri Wyatt Kent is an author and speaker. She's working on a book about social justice and compassion. www.keriwyattkent.com.

Doing Likewise

Like these three ordinary women, you can easily do small but significant things to combat sex trafficking.

Raise awareness. January 11 is International Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and many organizations need volunteers for related events. Sandie Morgan notes that while a trip overseas can be eye-opening, it's an expensive way to educate yourself and your church group. You don't have to go to a third world country to see the commercial sex trade. Find an organization that ministers to sex workers in your own town or in a larger city nearby.

Keep your eyes open. "These women are often hidden in plain sight," Sandra Bass says. Become aware of the signs—a lot of people coming and going from a house in your neighborhood, perhaps in a van with no windows—and report suspicious activities to authorities. Learn about and report suspicious behavior at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, 888-373-7888. www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking/hotline/index.html

Volunteer your talents. Many ministries need help, such as building and maintaining a website. Or if you're a doctor, nurse, social worker, or lawyer, you can offer a few hours of pro-bono work to local organizations that fight trafficking. After her trip, Stephanie Voiland served on The Well's board of directors, which is something anyone, especially those with business and financial expertise, can do.

Empower survivors. A number of ministries train rescued women in new skills so they have an alternative to the sex trade. You can buy jewelry and cards handmade by women who were formerly trapped in Thailand's sex industry, and even host a jewelry party so others, can do the same. Visit www.narimon.org for details.

Join prevention efforts. If rescue efforts only focus on those already victimized, rather than prevention, the problem will never be solved, Morgan says. Discover what tutoring or other programs exist in your area—especially those that serve low-income and at-risk populations—and volunteer your time.

Pray for God's saving power. Morgan, Bass, and Voiland all attest to the power of prayer. Pray for victims, for traffickers, and for God's guidance in how you can get involved. And then obey his leadings. "We're to be a voice for those who have no voice," Morgan asserts. "When people cry out in the dark, 'God, where are you?' the church is supposed to be the one to answer."

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

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