In 2008 Iryna, a 19-year-old girl living in New York City, was approached by a charismatic young man at a subway station. He asked for directions, but continued to ask about her life. The young brunette was charmed. He asked her for a date, and the romance intensified. “He swept me off my feet,” Iryna says. “He kissed my hand in public and opened car doors for me.” He was her first boyfriend. He made her feel special.
Little did Iryna know that he was a pimp on the prowl. The charming suitor didn’t want to love and cherish her, but to manipulate her vulnerabilities in order to control and exploit. He wanted her to trust him so that he could sell her services to other men.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Although teenage girls are especially susceptible to traffickers’ wiles, the victims are diverse and widespread. In New York City, human trafficking cases and trafficking-related arrests are up more than 50 percent from this time last year. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center estimates that more than 4,000 cases of sex trafficking were reported in 2016 across the country.
In New York City, human trafficking cases and trafficking-related arrests are up more than 50 percent from this time last year.
Raleigh Sadler, founder and director of Let My People Go (LMPG), moved to New York City with an anti-trafficking mission. LMPG aims to show Christians in the city that human trafficking is happening in their neighborhoods, and to empower them with the skills and know-how to combat it where they live.
In September LMPG hosted a panel discussion on sexual exploitation in the city, “Collaboration for Change,” and invited anti-trafficking non-governmental organizations, NYPD detectives, and various religious leaders. An NYPD lieutenant noted how much he appreciated the invitation: “We see this as an important outreach because the faith-based groups, the churchgoers, you are our favorite people. You live up to that ‘if you see something, say something,’ because you look out for each other.”
“We unknowingly interact with those vulnerable to human trafficking on a daily basis,” Sadler said. As the church cares for the vulnerable, they serve the very people traffickers identify, target, and exploit. “Who are the people being trafficked?” he asked. “It’s probably the kid smoking in your parking lot, the kid you don’t want your son or daughter dating, the people we’re pushing aside, those who don’t have the protection of family, especially the homeless. These people are hidden in plain sight and easily exploited because they are on the fringes of society.”
As the church cares for the vulnerable, they serve the very people traffickers identify, target, and exploit.
Sadler and other anti-trafficking activists say that to save youth from trafficking, we must welcome the vulnerable into the folds of our Christian communities. “It’s a story not many are telling, but many want to,” Sadler said. “If you want to stop human trafficking, love the person in front of you.”
Depth of Self-Deception
Iryna admits girls are often too engulfed in the prior affections and kindnesses of their “boyfriends,” as well as inner senses of shame, to believe they can escape. Amid the dehumanization and trauma that occur with rape, their minds become fixated on survival.
For Iryna, now a friend of Sadler, the abuse eroded her confidence and sense of self-worth. The pimp isolated her from friends and family, phoning her numerous times a day to ensure he knew her whereabouts. Friends commented on the strangeness of Iryna having to pick up the call on the first ring to report where she was and who she was with.
He said he had complete ownership over her body, possessing her head-to-toe. He exerted his control by setting her up with partners, pimping her out of a no-frills motel in Brooklyn.
She never pressed charges for fear of retaliation.
Help from the Outside
Iryna’s life was changed when a woman who lived beside the Brooklyn motel noticed her vulnerability and befriended her. The neighbor—a professing Christian—waved at Iryna each time she passed the motel, acknowledging her humanity and dignity. “She said that she knew something was not right, that I was not okay,” Iryna says, recalling the beginning of their friendship.
On the day Iryna fled her exploiter, she ran to the woman’s home. Although others in her community warned her against any connection to the hotel and what was happening inside, when Iryna knocked on her door, the woman opened it and welcomed her. She listened to Iryna without judgment or blame, assuring her that what had happened to her wasn’t her fault. This bold act of love and acceptance helped Iryna to begin the long journey of leaving her pimp’s coercive control.
Though years recovering from her victimization weren’t easy, Iryna recalls that a sense of hope came into her life soon after the woman did. She was no longer alone. And soon, a new church community surrounded her.
‘The church doesn’t need another program to fight human trafficking. We need motivation to love those most vulnerable, just as Christ loved us.’
A vibrant church in Brooklyn welcomed Iryna, speaking truth to her about her identity and worth. Rather than re-exploiting her or treating her with judgment or exclusion, they jumped to include her. In her church community, she learned why and how to depend on Jesus Christ.
Motivation to Fight
Only the power of the gospel can give churches the desire and ability to do the hard things needed to fight for freedom in our communities. As we ponder our own spiritual vulnerability, as well as the unconditional love of the One who became vulnerable for us, we can be propelled into lives marked by loving the broken and unconventional around us. “The church doesn’t need another program to fight human trafficking,” Sadler said. “We need motivation to love those most vulnerable, just as Christ loved us.”
Iryna, now 26, experienced this love and wants to share it. She is now enrolled in a master’s program for social work, hoping to address the vulnerabilities in young women and girls headed down the path she once took.
Editors’ note: To learn more about Let My People Go and its founder, Raleigh Sadler, a graduate of Southern Seminary, read Let My People Go: SBTS Alumnus Raleigh Sadler Leads a Ministry Aimed at Equipping Local Churches to Fight Human Trafficking (Southern Equip).