She waved when she recognized me. A large smile streaked her face, her arm suspended above. Do you have more of those cards? Everyone wants one! Thrilled, I nodded positively and made a beeline for her, intent on handing off the pink gift bag.
Only later do I replay the scene in slow motion, noticing that she looms above me on a platform in front of a small “stall” with three sides. I see now that she’s topless, arm snaking through the air, mechanically seductive for her audience of one. While she dissociates, I do too, carrying on our conversation, losing time and clarity.
Another blurry night at the local strip club.
How did I get here — to a life of code words and hiding places as I parent three kids and minister to women caught in the sex industry? The books that arrive on my doorstep need to be tucked away before the school bus comes by and drops off my oblivious children. The YouTube documentary must be shut down before homework can be done on the same computer. How did a naive and prudish girl become this?
At first, friends pressed into my story and questioned my background. What secret past breaks my heart for broken women? Why would I be so drawn to darkness without similar personal trauma? Recently, my own mother asked if there was something about me she didn’t know. Wasn’t I the one still confused about basic male anatomy on the eve of my wedding, the one who only recently has been able to even use proper terminology?
After a decade of ministry to the privileged future leaders on university campuses in the Middle East, my husband and I sought a new purpose in graduate school. Burned out and bored, we knew that to continue in ministry for the long haul would require some serious retooling and re-visioning. We laid bare our hearts before God to direct us.
I did not expect to encounter sex trafficking. Initially, I couldn’t even say “sex!”
I enrolled in an MA program in International Community Development, which could have been called, “Marred and Marginalized of the World.” I confronted more human suffering than I could handle, yet I found Jesus deeply. In fact, the more I entered the world’s brokenness, the more I experienced Jesus. That which had become boring in my faith was replaced by a communion with God’s compassion and mercy. He gave me a new vision.
My thesis combined my need for creativity and passion for photography with a growing interest in community development. Based on Participatory Research Methods, I studied the use of photography in community development in Turkey. Eventually, a nonprofit formed, called A Face to Reframe. I was determined to find a way to combine the empowering tool of photography with what I had come to grieve most: sex trafficking.
"Empty Railroad" by a JG, 15-year-old youth participant."This is a lonely picture. The railroad of life. I've always walked it alone and I probably always will."
There are no clean organizational boxes for the work I do, yet the community development, the photography, and my grief for the trafficking overlap and open doors. They all inspired my vision to galvanize my community to respond.
As a result, I joyfully found myself eating pancakes with Tanya a few months ago. Reeking of smoke in the warmup suit our anti-trafficking team provided her, she nearly inhaled breakfast. It had been a long night. She was skittish that her “boyfriend” would come for her and not notice the trap — the cop car in the parking lot. Of course, he never came.
The previous evening we met at the county sheriff’s office. She was one of the first “victims” police arrested at a motel after ordering girls off an online website. They hoped to arrest pimps and recover minors. Tanya resolutely believed that her pimp loved her. She couldn’t see the warning signs of trafficking: traveling state to state, accruing arrests, the cigarette burn on her body, the psychological bondage.
A classic story, Tanya was kicked out of home at age 15 and had found “love” in the man who sold her night after night around the country. The hours we spent together at IHOP, the medical clinic, and police station broke my heart for this young woman. I received only one sliver of her heart, which I now hold up in my prayers. I asked, “I hear you like the benefits of the money and what it does for you, but I have to ask, what does it do to your soul?”
Tears filled her eyes and the hardened attitude cracked. “You have no idea how dirty I feel. How long my showers are. You can’t even imagine.”
And she’s right. I can’t even imagine.
Day after day I read the stories. I train local service providers and facilitate preventative arts projects with teens. I sit in police stations and enter strip clubs and pray at truck stops and stake out “massage parlors.” I put to good use my Masters in Community Development as I facilitate an Anti-Sex Trafficking Community Response Team. Yet for whatever reason, I have been spared the trauma. I have enjoyed a monogamous relationship for 18 years. I am a symbol of sexual purity, burdened for those who wear the scarlet letter.
I can’t even imagine.
But I try. I’ve woven an odd life of stay-at-home-mom who goes “places” some nights and writes and speaks and uses photography to try to imagine better. I no longer see the topless chest, I see the young college student selling her body, hoping to be a nurse one day. And in her face, I see Jesus.
I see his image imprinted on her. His love and care. His fatherly concern. His disgust at evil’s lusting eye. I absorb his anger at the lie: You are not worth more than this. And I embrace his hope for her future: I have plans for you. Plans to prosper you.
How did I get here — to this life with the broken and marginalized? I laid bare my heart to be directed and discovered an invitation instead. He whispered to my emotions, moved in my justice gland, alleviated the fear, and beckoned me. He awakened me to passion through my graduate program and brought alive a creativity I had never before honored.
And through it all, I realize I do have a past. While I cannot imagine her trauma, I embrace my own. We are all broken. We are all marred. We are all in need of a Savior, whose tender mercy holds out hope for us even when we’ve despaired. And thankfully, we have one.