In 1996, my life was dramatically changed after reading a New York Times article titled “Children for Sale,” which exposed a massive sex-trafficking operation in Svay Pak, Cambodia. I felt God tugging on my heart to see the area for myself, and soon after the article’s publication a missionary friend invited me to tag along on his trip to the area. In July, I arrived in Svay Pak and came face-to-face with the trafficking industry.
Within hours of landing, I stumbled upon a horrific scene in the middle of the street as we made our way to the hotel: children, sitting in plastic chairs, lining the street and waiting to be sold. The road looked as if it would never end. My head was spinning. Where to start? Who to contact? What to do? How can this be?
We returned home excited to rally our fellow Christians to this cause. Later that year, I founded World Hope International (WHI), a Christian relief and development NGO, and the official development arm of The Wesleyan Church, as a way to help put an end to trafficking. I was convinced our donor and church audience would be receptive to my story and join me fervently in this effort.
Instead, I found resistance from people in the church — not only The Wesleyan Church, but within Christianity as a whole. It seemed as if everyone I turned to was forgetting a clear injunction from scripture:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17 ESV)
Many church members chose ignorant bliss because they had a hard time hearing about the abuse. Others saw it only as a foreign issue and preferred to focus instead on local ministries. But I couldn’t erase from my mind what I’d seen in Svay Pak, and I was determined to inspire others to act. I knew that the foundation of human trafficking lay in issues widely decried throughout the Bible — exploitation, oppression, abuse, violence, and more. It was clear to me that no matter how much church people feared the subject, this was a problem the church was called to take a stand against.
Still, it took nearly three years for the fight to gain momentum within the church.
Finally, in 1999, more than 130 religious leaders from various denominations signed a letter in support of anti-trafficking legislation sponsored by Representatives Chris Smith and Marcy Kaptur. The next year, Congress passed anti-trafficking legislation known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Then, in 2003, President George W. Bush announced a $50 million initiative to combat trafficking in persons and NBC’s Dateline went undercover with International Justice Mission to Svay Pak, Cambodia — where I’d first encountered human trafficking — to expose the massive sex trade taking place in the area. An influx of NGOs and human rights groups moved into to Cambodia. The issue was starting to get the media and public attention it deserved.
At the time, I remember feeling encouraged by how far we had come, but knew we could still do more. In 2005, WHI, backed by the U.S. Department of State, opened an emergency aftercare and assessment center for survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The center acted as a catalyst for stronger church involvement — those who had once told me that they viewed human trafficking as an unspeakable evil now saw the potential for hope and healing. Stories of restoration from the center — former victims now healthy, happy, and working at restaurants, bakeries, and data processing centers — inspired more people in the church to take action. That same year, a group of organizations formed and funded Chab Dai (“joining hands” in English), a coalition created to coordinate these and other efforts by Christian NGOs committed to ending trafficking in Cambodia.
Two years later, one of Svay Pak’s vilest brothels was converted into a church and community center, offering education, medical care, children’s ministries, and more to the formerly ravaged community. After fighting for a great cause for so long, it was inspiring to finally see the church become more conscience of this devastating injustice.
As general awareness continued to increase, churches began making anti-trafficking a priority issue in their congregations by supporting justice-seeking ministries and heralding local public awareness campaigns. In 2008, the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking (FAAST), a coalition of Christian NGOs, hosted a Hands That Heal training program that brought in church leaders from around the country. The newly minted trainers then engaged their own churches and communities with the same training and education.
Today, churches around the nation continue to work together to amplify anti-trafficking efforts. Last December, the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium, a body comprised of 16 Christian denominations, issued a Declaration of Freedom to help guide the efforts of the church on issues of human trafficking.
I am encouraged by how far the church has come. But we can still do more.
Previously an issue people avoided discussing, human trafficking now has the widespread attention of churches around the world. New organizations and ministries join the fight every day, which can be both a blessing and a challenge. As our fight grows, it’s more essential than ever that the church approach this problem together. We’ve learned through alliances such as Chab Dai and FAAST that by relying on each other’s expertise to address the problem, we become a more holistic — and effective — agent for change.
Our goal is one: eliminating trafficking in persons in our lifetime. We still have a long way to go. The U.S. Department of State estimates there could be as many as 27 million men, women, and children worldwide caught in the cycle of human trafficking today. But I’m inspired to see the fruits of our efforts — laws passed, children protected, justice served — when we join together under God’s direction. Scripture tells us we don’t need to be ruled by evil, but can overcome evil with good. We do this best when we do it together.
All images via World Hope International.