“Katie” met him at the mall. Though she was only 15, she knew that there was something different about this one. From the start, he showered her with kindness and attention. It wasn't long before she was falling for him. However, Katie was not prepared for what would happen next.
After dropping out of school and moving into his place, she noticed that the status of her relationship had changed. She was now being forced to prostitute herself.
Katie explains that her “boyfriend” kept her confined in his bedroom. She told WFTV news that “all I did was sit in bed and wait for another client to come in.” Without knowing it, Katie had been lured into a life of sex trafficking. Though she earned as much as $2000 on some nights, she was never allowed to keep the money. She was kept penniless and dependent on her pimp.
Afraid to run, she became trapped in a cycle of exploitation. Instead of having a way out, she was forced to become more involved. He would tell her, "If you get another girl, you don’t have to work as hard." So Katie would recruit other girls through Facebook and other social media channels. Like a twisted pyramid scheme, Katie's recruits would then recruit their friends at high school. The result was an ever-growing cycle of exploitation. This particular sex trafficking ring was not in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia, but in suburban Central Florida (this happened in the quiet community where I grew up).
But though this account is horrifying, it is not an Isolated incident. There are stories like Katie’s being reported everywhere. Last year human trafficking was reported in all fifty states. Human trafficking is not a problem relegated to developing nations. According to the FBI, “an estimated 293,000 American youths currently are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.” With so many youth at risk, we can begin to see why the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12-14 years old.
Let's be honest, this is scary. Sex trafficking can happen when any one person exploits the vulnerabilities of another for commercial gain. However, there is hope. The turning point in Katie's story came when a pastor opened his eyes to her suffering. The report explains that Katie’s situation changed when a local Brevard County pastor began to help. Though he was not in law enforcement, he recognized that he could care for those trapped in forced prostitution. His compassion is a stark reminder that the church has a vital role to play in seeing human trafficking eradicated.
In a conversation with Carol Smolenski, the Executive Director of Ending Child Prostitution And Trafficking USA (ECPAT), she told me that the local church can and must engage in the fight against domestic sex trafficking. Smolenski explained that every pastor and church leader needs to know about human trafficking "because they WILL be first responders. It doesn’t take a lot of training to realize that ‘something is wrong here,' because people will naturally have that instinct. With just a little training, you can mobilize an army of volunteers to know the signs and to know how to respond to them.”
Matt Jackson, a youth pastor in Brevard County, is aware of the red flags of commercial sexual exploitation. He explains that "when you hear stories like this, it makes you feel that much more responsible to bring this stuff to light. As a father of two girls, I think 'what if that were my kid in the mall being recruited.’ Jackson believes that he is not simply responsible for the spiritual well-being of his children and students but their physical well-being, as well. He has some advice for fellow pastors. "Know where your kids are hanging out. Know their friends. Talk to them about this stuff. Your kids can be a great asset to finding others who might be in trouble. Be aware of the signs within social media. Create an atmosphere where kids can talk freely about human trafficking and where they want to do something about it. They will be watching for signs that you will never see as an adult."
Ultimately, Jackson believes that the church should "do whatever it takes to get up to speed on what is going on in the world around you and call your congregation's attention to the problem. God has called the church to be His hands and feet and that especially means to those in slavery, the widows, the orphans, and to those who feel there is no hope.”
However, no one will ever be the “hands and feet” of Jesus until they have become His eyes and ears. In other words, we will never even attempt to care for someone if we do not know that they exist. We can no longer claim ignorance. We must do something. With that said, here are a few easy steps to start you out:
First, become aware of the problem. First, you can take the US State Department’s Human Trafficking 101 training. To learn more you can read books that address the issue.
Second, learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
Third, if you suspect that child trafficking is happening in your community, learn how to report it to the authorities.
Finally once you become aware, you can start making others aware. Here are a few easy things that you can do: Start conversations in your small group meeting or sunday school class; show documentaries on human trafficking; talk about the subject on Sunday Morning; bring an abolitionist as a guest speaker; lead your church to financially partner with like-minded non-profits that are making a difference.
Though on this side of heaven injustice will be alive and well, we can rest in the fact that Justice will come completely when Christ returns. For now, we as pastors and leaders must join Christ on the "Already" side of the "Not yet" Kingdom. While we eagerly await Christ's second coming, we have the unique opportunity to see people set free physically and spiritually until that day. I pray that there would be more stories about pastors that care enough to notice people like Katie.