Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The orphans we don't want to think about

I just returned from a heart changing trip to Atlanta.  This was supposed to be a missions trip where I would use my gifts and abilities to impart my wisdom on several teenagers rehabilitating from sex trafficking who needed life skills training.  Missionaries are supposed to use the skills they have obtained and language they've learned to make a difference, right?  While I was there I was planning on going out in the community as well, maybe finding a Spanish speaker or someone in need of medical care, and help them.  Of course I don't go on trips just to do trainings and teachings.  They are my "platform".  My abilities give me an edge to give people what they need.  When using these abilities I can share Christ and demonstrate love through my time spent working with people.

THIS TIME I WAS SO WRONG

      The coordinators let me slip through the cracks.  They kept forgetting to call me back and set up my "trainings" I was supposed to do.  Week after week passed, and I never heard from them.  It took until Monday to get on the phone with someone who would schedule my class time for Wednesday to Friday, and by then, all but one two hour workshop was filled in for the girls' summer camp (this is misleading because they don't go anywhere).  I wanted to get angry.  I had no time to prepare.  I thought I'd teach a Bible Study on dignity and reflecting who we are in Christ in our modesty ( I was told this was a need), or teach on women's health but there was no time to fit it in the schedule.  Instead, I was asked to cook.

     COOK?  I'm going to drive 6 1/2 hours, book a hotel for three nights, leave my children with a babysitter, just to COOK?  Anyone can cook!  My self-righteous pride tried to take control.  The coordinator told me I could insert talks into down time and I could hang around the entire time apart from sleeping for the 3 days I was spending there.
     So I packed my bags and headed to Atlanta.  When I arrived and was let into the door, I was met with indifferent stares.  A houseparent (they are called coaches and take shifts with the girls) asked me "are you here to cook dinner tonight?".  I introduced myself and told them I'd be hanging out for the next couple days and yes, I would be cooking.  Another coach volunteered to give me a tour of the girls' home and told me briefly about some of the situations they had been experiencing with some of them.

I WASN'T READY FOR WHAT I HEARD

     The security in the building is very tight.  Every hallway, exit, classroom or bathroom door had a lock or required a card to swipe in order to pass through.  It functions like a prison with beautiful decorations and living spaces.  Everything sharp was behind locked doors, including scissors and kitchen utensils.  This was to protect the girls from themselves.  If you know anything about troubled teens, sharp objects can be used to help relieve the pain inside.  Most of the girls wore long sleeves to cover the scars of their pain.  I was told many of them did not want to be there.  Many were given a choice: either you go to prison or you go to the home for about a year until you are determined ready to live a normal life in a family again.  The most common way to be rescued when one is a minor is to be caught up in a police sting.  The girls are found to be minors when they are booked at the station and then get processed through several channels until they end up in the home.  The manipulation and degradation that they receive from their captors make them feel that this is the only life they are capable of living.  They are required to have three "tricks" per night, and sometimes it is as many as 10-20 tricks/night to be fed one meal that day.  If they try to escape or do any other unacceptable behavior, they are beaten.  Often, they are not only beaten by their captor but by the other girls in the "stable" (they are treated like animals, so have an animal-type name as well).  This is to put pressure on all the girls to be loyal only to their captor.
        So why do I call them orphans in this post?  The answer is simple.  These girls have no real family to begin with.  They are products of a system and society gone bad.  The majority of minors who find themselves in sex trafficking begin as children with either biological parents who abuse and/or neglect them or children with foster parents who don't love them.  They become resentful, angry, and empty.  Then they run away.  Desperate for someone to help them and love them, when approached by a friendly, sweet guy at the bus stop or somewhere similar which gives them away as a runaway, they agree to go with him.  He may take her shopping, treat her affectionately, and behave like he really does care about her.  Then the men start arriving.  He asks her to do "tricks" out of her loyalty to him.  She will not be fed or treated "well" if she doesn't do what he demands.  Most girls are so brainwashed and manipulated into thinking this is a worthwhile life to live that they don't even realize what is happening.  They become shells of a person, obeying their captors demands and becoming the equivalent of an animal, feeling they have no value or worth.  When they arrive at the rehabilitation home, they often rebel.  They don't understand why someone insists they have potential and value, or why the women there insist they are loved and cared about.  The center aims at getting the girls caught up in school through online courses and an onsite tutor; they go through counseling and therapy on a daily and weekly basis, get proper medical care, get their own private, comfortable room to restore their dignity, and they receive life-skills training to prepare to meet the world again when they are released back into a foster family or even their biological family (if they are wanted).  Since this organization is founded by Christians, there are several Christian staff and volunteers from local churches who try to instill Biblical principles into their process.
     Now for some statistics.  Just how big and serious of a problem is this in the United States?  We hear about sex-trafficking being a huge issue in places like India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, China, and other third world countries, but the United States shouldn't have much of an issue with it, right?  Wrong.

     Fact: In the U.S., 1 in 3 runaway children are lured into prostitution within 48 hours.  450,000 children run away per year.  You do the math.
   Fact: In the U.S. the average age to be caught up in the sex trafficking industry is 11-14 years old.  Some children are as young as 9 years old.
   Fact: The life expectancy for a child, once they enter this life, is 7 years.
   Fact: Atlanta is known as the sex-trafficking capital of the United States.
  Positive Fact: Girls and women who are rehabilitated through the Christian programs offered to them have a 60% success rate of not returning to their old lives once they are released back into society. Similar secular programs produce a 40% success rate.

    I'd like to share some stories now.  As I cooked some of my favorite meals and desserts for the girls, some of them got involved and wanted to learn my recipes.  Some even volunteered to help me cook and were able to talk privately with me.  The two hour session I was given was used to teach them how to make fancy fruit skewers with cut out shapes and designs to make a beautiful display in a watermelon cut into a basket.  They worked on it for an hour without complaining.  We watched "Soul Surfer" and discussed how Bethany Hamilton's story is similar to theirs (and most other people who have had their lives given a curve ball) and how Christ can help us overcome our pasts and pursue our dreams and goals.  I sat on the couch and watched them play Mario Brothers on the Wii, we enjoyed painting each other's nails together and making bracelets, picked items for their boutique time to purchase with the bucks they earned through behavior and completed chores (it's some pretty nice donated girly stuff!), and witnessed outbursts of hurt and anger and was able to have some deep talks.  Here are some snippets of some of the best conversations that I'll treasure.  I was told that they usually don't want to talk about their pasts to most volunteers.  They must feel comfortable and safe to discuss their pasts and trust the person they are talking to.
 
     "I was sexually abused by four of my family members.  Has anything like this ever happened to you?".

    "When I get out of here I'll be in the foster system and eligible for adoption.  Will you adopt me?"

     "When I was __ yrs. old my mother was murdered.  She was pregnant" (I've hidden details to maintain her identity, but the story was very traumatic).

     "I had an abortion and a miscarriage.  My baby (I aborted) would be _ yrs. old in ___" (abortions are very common with trafficked girls).

     "What is REAL love like?  How can you tell?" (I had just told them Kris and my love story and how we saved ourselves for marriage).

      I witnessed a very emotional blow up by two girls as well.  There was lots of foul language coming out of their mouths for several minutes as they released frustration.  One girl became violent and injured herself.  She was brought to the hospital that afternoon and returned that night.  This is common.

The hardest thing to witness wasn't their words or actions, but their eyes.  While these two girls were yelling and throwing things, their eyes were full of pain.  The pain was coming out in an immature way, but it was the only way they could get it out at the time.  I hurt so badly for them.

Each of these quotes and snippets have deeper stories behind them.  Each time I was able to share with the individual some about either hope, restoration, or salvation in Christ.

     I came into this trip thinking I could "do" something to make a difference.  But Jesus doesn't call us to primarily be workers, He calls us to be lights in the darkness.


 If I speak in the tounges of men and of angels, but have not LOVE, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not LOVE, I am NOTHING."
1 Corinthians 13:1-2

   You know that quote "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care"?  I witnessed that in a huge way this week.  I had to become NOTHING.  A menial cook and culinary art teacher, and opener of the lock to the bathroom, a clean up assistant after art and beauty sessions, a pusher in of the DVD for the night, a carrier and shopper of the groceries.  These actions meant more to these girls than any fancy study or class.  They didn't see education or wisdom, they saw love.  I received huge hugs and words of thanks as I left.  The coaches told me this doesn't normally happen with a typical volunteer who comes in to do classes or events.  It wasn't my flamboyant personality or charm, or even my witty sense of humor (I'm using sarcasm here, just to be clear), but LOVE for these girls.  That's what they need.  That's what they are worthy of.


I cry to you, O Lord; I say "You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living." Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need; rescue me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.  Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name.  Then the righteous will gather around me because of your goodness to me.
Psalm 142: 5-7


A pilar at the Atlanta Dream center filled with quotes of survivors

So how can you be involved with a ministry like this?  The ministry I was a part of is called Wellspring Living.  Another ministry I was able to work with on Friday night and Saturday morning was Out of Darkness.  They are a branch of The Atlanta Dream Center, a rather charismatic church planted in the heart of Atlanta (I got my first oil anointing while there, by the way!).  The staff and workers in that church are passionate about rescuing all prostitutes, whether trafficked or those who chose the life out of desperation.  They are offered a way out and hundreds have been taken off the streets and rehabilitated since the ministry has begun.  On Friday nights one can choose to stay for a worship and prayer time, go out prayer walking in the hub of where the dark practices of prostitution take place, such as strip clubs, brothels, adult shops, Asian massage parlors, and gay/lesbian bars, or be a part of Princess Night, where a small group goes out with roses to tell the prostitutes that they are loved and beautiful, offer prayer, and given a card with a way of escape and rescue out of the life. Some have been known to jump on the van with the women and be taken to a safe house.

One would think that these ministries are very dangerous.  To the rational human being, they are.  To we who have been there, we feel protected by the grace of God.  The ministry has established a presence of love and hope.  The most violent people who are present often are tolerant and sometimes even ask for prayer themselves!  This alone is evidence that God is at work in hearts.

On Saturdays the Out of Darkness ministry goes into communities.  I chose a group that went to the neighborhood where many of the women in the prostitution community live.  We passed out groceries, hygiene items, and cards with a number to call if they wish to get off the streets.  Within an hour a bus will pick them up and take them to a safe house.  They will be given a year to rehabilitate and find a job with skills they obtain while in a safe home.  While we were visiting in this neighborhood I got to pray with and read Scripture with a woman who was having a rough time.  We helped a woman who recently got out of jail to find a way to get her power turned on for her and her two toddlers.  We prayed with a man who just got out of prison and didn't want to get into trouble and go back again.  We prayed over a chronically sick woman in bed.  We loved on multiple children who are a part of a ministry of the Atlanta Dream Center as well.  They are picked up for church every Sunday.

Here are some links to get involved with these ministries: 
atldreamcenter.com/



Here are links to nation-wide ministries that work with international sex-trafficking.

www.polarisproject.org


If you want to know what ministry is located near to your city, try to google it.  If nothing turns up, contact the Atlanta Dream Center.  They have resources that may help you find a group local to you that you can be involved with.

Sex Trafficking is very real.  It happens under our noses every day.  Whenever you watch or look at something pornographic, whenever you sneak into a strip club,  you are contributing to this industry.  If there wasn't demand, there wouldn't be trafficking.  Just to give an indicator of how many people are trafficked in and out of Atlanta alone, I was shown that in the community where much prostitution occurs there is a small airport.  This airport is used to traffic the girls in and out of Atlanta.  There's no telling how many people there turn a blind eye to what is occurring.

These are the orphans we don't think about.  These are girls without families.  They want love, hope, and acceptance.  They are created in the image of God.  The next time you see a lady of the night walking down the sidewalk in your city, don't look at her with disgust.  See her through the eyes of Christ.  The next time you drive by a strip club, massage parlor, or adult store, don't cringe and judge the people inside.  Pray.  Pray for the darkness in that place to be swept away by light.  Pray that one day a church will meet there in that building instead.  Pray for hearts to be turned to truth and for opportunities for those individuals to come to Christ and be healed.

My heart is changed.  If you become involved in this unique ministry, I guarantee that yours will be too.

On the bus to go prayer walking






    


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