If you would have told me two years ago I'd be doing tattoos for Jesus, I would have laughed at you, but the fact of the matter is, that's exactly what I do every day, and I love it. I got laid off from my full-time job at a technology business about five years ago and was doing tattooing part-time to make money. When my family moved to Chicago from L. A., one day I went out to the woods to spend some quality time with God, and a very clear message I got was, "What do you enjoy doing more than anything else?" and then, "Would you do it for free?"
Besides hanging out with my wife and kids, I realized I loved tattooing, but I thought there was no way it was God's work. Most people were cool with my tattoos at church, but others would say things like, "Tattoos aren't biblical." As I went back and forth praying to God, I started having little clips of my life replay in front of me. I grew up in L. A., and it's no fun out there. I saw far too many friends die, and far too many of my friends were put in prison. It's just depressing. As I remembered the gang funerals I'd been to, and several of my friends who had told me, "Man, I'm out of a job because I've got these gang tattoos . . . I just can't seem to move past this life," those memories made me realize—this is it.
I love being able to do what I do—not because I get to tattoo every day, but because I get a front row to watch God fix people every day. We started out helping former gang members who wanted to get their acts together and change their lives by getting rid of tattoos they'd gotten on the streets. At first we were doing 500 a year, but now we're up to 1,400—we've done 900 so far in year two.
A few years ago, I started building this huge local network of Chicago police, probation departments, and ministries. Then about a year into it, a guy from church who's with the Department of Homeland Security came up to me and asked me to speak to their gang unit. When I got to the event, he told me he'd invited the trafficking unit as well, and I wanted to know what drug trafficking had to do with covering tattoos. That's when he told me, "No, this is human trafficking." And I got really quiet, and I was like, "Please God, tell me that doesn't happen here." But it does.
Sex trafficking: a "recurring revenue stream"
Right after I agreed to start working together with the gang unit, I said, "You guys have to teach me about this human trafficking thing because I'm completely clueless." I found out Chicago is the third worst city in the U. S. for trafficking. Then they started laying out these 8x10 photos on the boardroom table of bar code tattoos, pimps' names tattooed on victims, and gang symbols tattooed on them because the gangs unfortunately are very smart and they've seen how lucrative this industry is. In the gun and drug trade, a guy can go out and sell 10 bags of crack, but then he has to get 10 more bags of crack to sell, while if he has 5 girls, he can send those 5 girls out to make money again and again. It's a recurring revenue stream. Law enforcement is so focused on the drug wars, or on getting illegal guns off the street, that these women, men, and even kids are being trafficked under the radar. The victims are teenage American kids. People don't hear about that here. At first I thought they were trafficking kids in from other countries, but the pictures they were showing me all looked like my 15-year-old daughter.
That's what I tell people when I speak—trafficking goes on everywhere. The problem is, Hollywood tells us what trafficking and prosecuting should look like visually, and it's nothing like the TV portrays. It's not Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman—it's kids on CraigsList.com, backpage.com, and all the other websites. It's important to let kids know where they put themselves at risk of being targeted.
My wife Lisa and I have this saying: "We stalk because we care." We watch everything our three kids and their friends post on social media because they don't think about it. They think it's innocent. Our teens never think it could happen to you, and as parents we never think it's going to happen to our kids, but on Facebook I see this all the time: "Can you please post this, my son or daughter is missing." Sometimes we'll get a message a week or so later saying they're back, they're safe, but that's not always the case. It's ugly.
Trafficking is one of those things you can't discount and say, oh, someone else will take care of it. Even just educating your friends, families, and coworkers about it to say, "Do you know this happens here?" goes a long way because so few people really know about it. Doing cover-ups for trafficking victims is mentally tough. I still see my counselor a lot. The only thing I ask the victims I work with is, "What can I tell my kids and the youth group kids about how to avoid this?"
Whenever I do a cover-up with a trafficking victim, we're here three or four hours depending on the size of the tattoo. Once they start getting comfortable, they start telling me stories, and I kept thinking, there's no way this could possibly get any worse. Then I stopped thinking it because every time the stories would get worse.
Solving the problem at home
I've spoken at a lot of churches and events, and it's great to see thousands of people who want to learn about trafficking and what they can do to help end it. But looking in the crowd, I notice it's always about 98 percent women, and this is a huge part of the problem because men are at the center of the demand cycle of this disgusting crime. And until we start educating young men and boys about how they're supposed to treat and respect women, this problem is not going to shrink. It's just going to keep growing at the pace it is currently.
We can't bury our heads in the sand anymore and pretend law enforcement is going to fix it. Everybody's got to be a part of this fight. And while the growth of people talking about fighting human trafficking in the past year has grown immensely, we still need to look around, get up, and go do something about it.
Allison J. Althoff is the Editor of Wheaton Magazine and the former online editor of Today's Christian Woman. Follow her on Twitter @ajalthoff.