What is happening in the dark?
We dared to ask that question as we searched for a local cause that we could expose to the light of God's love for a women's event. None of us were prepared for the answer: Local children, American boys and girls, are being sold into sex slavery.
Having recently moved from Chicago to rest in paradise (a.k.a. Florida), this was not what I expected to hear. The fact that our area was part of a major hub for sex trafficking was shocking, but the truly difficult thing to grasp was that no one locally seemed to be doing anything about it.
A ministry is born
Once this real and present darkness was exposed in our own backyard, we were in. We decided to be doers of the Word and not just hearers (James 1:22). We knew we were being called to confront this hideous darkness, and a new ministry called Selah Freedom was birthed. God called this ministry forth by making his vision our own.
Initially, it felt like we were wading into a sea of tragedy as we attended national conferences and began to learn how to help the least of these. We gleaned knowledge from FBI agents and national rescue agencies. With each connection we made, the stories we heard were unbearable and the facts we learned were unfathomable. We learned that the average life span of an exploited child is just seven years. Every child exploited can be sold 15–40 times in a 24-hour period. Between 100,000–300,000 American children are sold into sex trafficking each year and the average entry age is 12–14 years of age.
The steps that unfolded as we launched our ministry can only be attributed to God and his favor. At one point, a precious woman approached us at a conference and asked if we were "the ones." We hesitantly replied that yes, we would be giving the survivors a home. She then revealed that she had "prepared the way" and proceeded to usher us into every political and legal connection we needed to make in our area. Another meeting with a local political leader brought a face to our cause. This woman's own niece had been trafficked in our area, and she vowed to champion our work. We entered a whole new realm as we met our first family—our first chance to walk a survivor into recovery.
Victimization starts early
What surprised me most was to learn how deeply and early evil had entered the picture in this global tragedy. We learned that 99 percent of all sex trafficking survivors were victims of childhood sexual abuse. As we began working with women, their unique, tragic stories had the same root attack. At an innocent, precious age—sometimes as young as three or four—they had each experienced sexual abuse by someone expected to protect them. The abuse usually continued for years, often resulting in their being given or sold to others. And all that time, they were led to believe that it was their fault it was all happening.
When the voice of truth is replaced by lies like this, children end up believing, deep down, that they have no value or worth. Many children run away to escape the pain, and statistics show us that within 48 hours, 80 percent of runaways are coerced into some form of sexual exploitation. Once again, they land in the hand of an abuser disguised as a protector.
The cycle can be broken
By the time survivors of sexual exploitation reach Selah Freedom, they are often in their early twenties. The women come to Selah Freedom for healing, hoping to break free of the cycle of abuse and violation. When they join their first support group, called HOPE, they can barely believe they are worthy of being present. When we start to speak truth into them and encourage them to share the pain of their childhood, they need to be given permission to remember and to realize there is so much to grieve.
Grief is an amazing thing; when a person's chance to grieve is stolen, truth cannot reach their heart. False beliefs covering their deep pain and shame then lead to choices and symptoms drastically off of God's path for their life. Survivors of chronic abuse often have no sense that they were designed for more, with great purpose and beauty. There is no greater gift than being able to be part of that discovery in another's life, joining God as he awakens a heart to his love and his truth.
"You mean it's not my fault?" These words are uttered in disbelief, as tears finally fall and begin to wash and heal the deep scars of abuse. What the Enemy meant for harm, the Lord will use for good (Genesis 50:20). Once the truth makes its way in, and the heart begins to hope, the future is limitless.
Be a light
One survivor who is on the other side of her abuse is now helping our team with outreach. She knows what it's like to be sold at the young age of 11, and she knows just what kind of predator preys on the young girls out there. She knows at any moment they can fall victim to the worst kind of recruiter. But the Lord has done a work in her life, and she now joins us to reach these girls. She knows where to find them and what to say to earn their trust. What she learned from encountering evil, she now uses to attract the girls to freedom and safety. She is now a recruiter for light and healing. She roams the streets with new purpose: as one who gives life, speaking a message of truth and hope.
Selah Freedom exists for this purpose: to confront this very real issue of sexual exploitation. We confront it with the knowledge that God is bigger than evil. He is the one who goes before us, and he is the one that brings every single girl through our door. These are his daughters, not just yours and mine. Together we can make a difference—we only need to move forward in his vision! Now that you have seen it, what will you choose to do?
Elizabeth Melendez Fisher is the founding President/CEO of Selah Freedom, a non-profit organization based in Sarasota focusing on ending human trafficking and sexual exploitation on Florida's Gulf Coast.