I don’t remember when the tragedy of human trafficking first gripped my heart like it did, but I know that when I learned about the issue it was a suffering that didn’t leave my mind. A lot of Americans are not aware that slavery is alive and well, with something like 27 million people around the planet being enslaved. They’re making our clothes and our chocolate. The particular trafficking that has always gotten to me most is sex trafficking. There are women, girls, boys in every place of the world who are begging God to rescue them because they are forced to sexually serve vile men over and over, day after day, year to year. Who is rescuing them?
The Exodus Road was an organization that quickly caught my attention, a network of surveillance teams and individuals whose mission is to empower the deliverance of sex slaves. They support a number of teams in various countries that investigate areas to locate victims, and then work with local authorities to free them. What attracted me to support The Exodus Road for myself largely was how they invite the participation of its supporters. I get text updates from the teams that I support when they’ve made new rescues, or are about to do a new bust. I know when and what to pray for, and I have confidence that my money is going to something good!
Their offices have recently moved to downtown Colorado Springs. The Exodus Road keeps jars of rocks each marked for a victim that has been rescued by their teams. It really helps to illuminate the reality of tangible individuals being trapped, and saved from, these horrors.
I got to discuss this topic more with Sam Stephenson, at the time the director of fundraising at the time for The Exodus Road.
How many rescues thus far has The Exodus Road been a part of?
We’ve been a part of 284 to date, and growing.
How involved if at all is The Exodus Road involved in the aftercare of victims, how does that transfer work of them being rescued to where they go?
The Exodus Road operates on a coalition model that states our mission is intervention; that said we have cultivated strong intervention and aftercare partnerships. So while we hone in on intervention, we rely on our partnership core to take care of the aftercare piece for the girls who are rescued.
What are some of the biggest obstacles to rescue?
Everyone would agree that corruption is an issue. I think one thing we face regularly is a need for strong, trustworthy partnerships—with authorities or even with fellow upcoming organizations. it takes time to get a strong feel with who’s in line with their vision and will be effective in their future. Partnerships are a big value of The Exodus Road and something we’re working on. There’s any number of things that can throw an investigation off in a manner of minutes. Lastly, another major obstacle is that everybody is overwhelmed with the problem. It’s huge, it’s 27 million people, a very rough estimate, so you can never do enough for the cause and you can always do more. And that’s an ever pressing reality across the earth.
What is the vision of The Exodus Road?
Our one liner these days is “We rescue many, one at a time.” I think one of the key elements of The Exodus Road and why I’ve loved working here is that we believe in the value of the individual. So we have this saying, but what that really means is that the rescue of one is as important as the rescue of 20. When I started here, I was really moved by a scene in this comic book, The Fantastic 4, where the gods are deciding the fate of the earth and they’re deciding, “Shall we destroy this place?” One of the gods says, “Of what importance are brief, nameless lives to me?” I think here at The Exodus Road, we say that every life is not brief or nameless—it matters and is worth investing in and going after. Our vision is to go after these masses utterly aware of the one person that is in need of help and the strong language around rescue we use.
How did your passion for human trafficking develop?
I’m a person that’s very motivated by literature, like I just mentioned with this comic book scene. Another scene in a story that has been important to me was in a short story called “A Good Man Is Very Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. The way this story goes is that there’s this family on a road trip whose car breaks down and along comes this serial killer called The Misfit who escaped from prison. On the roadside there he kills the whole family and that’s how the story ends. On my first reading, I thought I’d finally met someone who lets horrible things be horrible, and then I did another close reading of it, because Flannery has said, “all of my stories look for glimmers of grace”. I noticed a conversation between the grandmother and The Misfit. Throughout this story she tells him, “You’re not a bad guy”, and he keeps saying “Yeah, I am.” She says, “Your family wouldn’t have raised you like this”, and he says, “They didn’t, they’re a great family.” She says, “I know you wouldn’t kill an old lady”, and he says “I probably would do that”. Finally, she has this moment of epiphany where she says to the Misfit, “I get it, you’re one of my sons, you’re one of my babies,” she reaches out and touches him, and he recoils back and shoots her.
I think what Flannery O’Connor is trying to say is when we accept the stranger, it will require our lives. For us, it may not be so dramatic as a gunshot, but it will take all that we have. Counter human trafficking offers this opportunity to do this: first, to say that lives are not brief and nameless, and second, to say that when we recognize the stranger and identify them as our own, it both takes our life and puts a requirement on our own lives that’s substantive. And I believe that working in this sphere creates this powerful opportunity to be a part of the earth, to claim the whole world as our family.
How important is it to reduce the demand for sex trafficking and how is that being combatted if at all?
I’ll start my answer by sharing a couple of stories with you.
When we were in Thailand, we were in this part of Thailand where it’s just a mile long brothel land called Walking Street. One night we bought two girls to interview them and record it, to create this space for them to talk about their stories. Right off the bat both of them, two separate girls were from the same town. A strong majority of the girls we’d met in Walking Street were from this particular town, so immediately we’re seeing there’s a social problem; it’s a lot bigger than trafficking.
These two girls start to tell us their story, and the first girl says, “When I was 14, I got pregnant, and my mom kicked me out of the house, and said, ‘If you’re going to have sex, do it for money.’ And so I left—this big 14 year old girl blow out. I left the house, I’m storming around town, and this man comes and exploits this tenderness and takes me to Bahrain with him. Takes my passport, and it takes me 12 years to get home.” So the first girl right off the bat has been very exposed to trafficking.
The second girl comes in and says that the same thing happened to her, but it was in Singapore, and she doesn’t like to talk about what happened. She says, “I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’m 3 months pregnant, and I have to work through 7 months or I can’t be with my baby.” She looks at us, kind of teary eyed, and she says, “But I know the dad doesn’t love me, because…”—and she points at me—“if you loved your wife, would you let her do this, would you let her be fucking?” I answer, “No, no, no”. She says—and I don’t think I’ll ever forget this, “See, that’s the thing, so many men come to Thailand, fucking, fucking, fucking, all I’m doing is fucking, 6-8 guys a night. Men come to Thailand and they stare at our tits and they forget that we have hearts. If you’re told you don’t have a heart enough, you become an addict, and so every girl you meet is an addict. She’s either addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, or love. And I say that love is an addiction because I know that I’ll never receive it.”
And that story to me speaks to your question “What’s done on the demand side?” right now. Men, like she said, all over the world are in this tiny little town for one thing, to buy people. And the whole town has made a commodity out of people so you walk around the street and you’re given little tickets that say come watch this live show of this for $2 or take this girl home tonight for this much money—we’re not talking substantive money here, it’s $20, $30 dollars for a girl for a night. It reduces the person to a transaction. When you’re in a brothel, you just call a girl out by her number…there are probably things being done to address this, but I haven’t seen much of it. I think the start is reminding people of the humanness that is before us, these two girls that say “I have a heart that matters” and I at The Exodus Road am interested in that piece, that says these girls have hearts, and inch by inch I think we can remind people of our own humanity.
What kind of progress is being made against human trafficking?
I think that the government is stepping up to the plate. There have been a lot of new initiatives around human trafficking stateside and international that matter, I think one of the more profound things being that January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. President Obama has done a great job putting that on the forefront of people’s agendas. He has a beautiful speech on human trafficking in which he says effectively, “To all of you, we see you, we hear you.” The Colorado state government has done a great job moving forward police departments in this area as well. The religious community is starting to jump on board. We’ve seen great strides with international folks like Pope Francis, Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb (Imam of Al-Alzhar, and Archbishop Justin Welby—they started an interfaith coalition (Global Freedom Network) that is focused on human trafficking, and that is really neat.
What are Americans doing or not doing that might be enabling or supporting the slave trade?
We’re quick again to reduce people to transactions, we have a highly sexualized culture, and the truth is for westerners travel is available so if you want to go to Thailand to do these things, you can. We’re quick to devalue the human experience and we’re readily able to go after whatever we want to go after. As a country we’re not as sensitized to freedom and that makes us quicker to be dismissive of huge issues. A lot of the answer is that Americans are buying these girls. One of the girls we interviewed said our clientele comes from America, England, and Russia. That’s largely western cultures, I think that we also enable slavery by just not delving into what it means to be a slave as a community; I believe we’re dismissive of America’s own slavery story. Even though this has existed in our own country, we choose not to be sensitized to the trauma that is slavery and as a result decide not to participate in the redemption process.
How can individuals practically help The Exodus Road?
As director of fundraising, it would of course be to my shame not to mention the search and rescue program, where you can join one of our teams here or internationally. The other way is we’re rolling out what’s called Charlie Team, which is effectively a neighborhood watch centered around human trafficking. What we’re going to do is get small groups of people together and assign them an area of Colorado Springs, they’ll collect information on possible trafficking situations, report that to our staffing here, and our staff will report that to the Colorado Springs Police. People will be trained both by The Exodus Road and the police department on effective techniques; how to look, where to look, what’s safe and what isn’t. It’s looking like a once a month commitment on the weekends, and that will be rolled out later this fall. We have online trainings on how to be aware of human trafficking scenarios. Anyone can get involved in Charlie Team. We hope to have it in major cities in the coming few years, so this is our trial run.
Other volunteer opportunities?
Always looking for people to help on the fundraising front of course but Kevin Campbell our VP of operations is working on unraveling a couple of internship opportunities where you can get involved in the day to day stateside effort. So that is on the horizon, almost in reach but not quite yet.
Pray for this issue, but don’t just pray. If you are a Christian, you are Christ’s body to this earth and He has called us to ACT, and His heart is clearly redemption. Learn more about The Exodus Road’s search and rescue program on their website. I’d also recommend reading these posts from bloggers’ experience tagging along on some investigations. Very great reads and eye opening to this issue. Don’t ignore it:
I’m walking into a street in SE Asia where girls are sold. It’s late, but everything is lit up and loud and neon. This is a party scene. “Despite what you see, you have to look like you’re having fun.” I nod. We stop in front of a dark doorway, and I’m greeted by a beautiful young girl with fake eyelashes and a maxi dress. She takes my hand and starts to pull me inside. I look at Andrew. He gives a slight nod, and I follow her. We’re led to a velvet bench, and I ask her name. It’s May… Read the whole post
I’ve spent a year trying to get my head around the evil of it all, trying to figure out how anyone with an ounce of decency could treat another person – especially a child – like an object or an animal, a thing to be bought or bartered, used up, and eventually discarded. I’ve tried to understand the mentality of the mother who willingly sells her daughter’s virginity, or the father who hands his son over to a sexual predator. I’ve tried to learn about the minds of the men and women who are drawn to the impoverished and needy the way vultures flock to the weak and dying. I’ve tried to find some sort of Grace for people who profit off the bodies of the young and vulnerable. But, I’m still confused… Read the whole post