Over the past few years I have become increasingly aware and personally invested in the fight to end human trafficking: an ugly crime enslaving 27 million men, women and children today. I have read books, completed a graduate course (Child Trafficking in the U.S.), examined reports, attended workshops, watched films, browsed websites, and cried tears here and there in between. The more I learned, the more I wanted to be on the front-lines confronting the terror. I sought opportunities to do so and then God dropped one right in my lap.

Equipped with the education I had gained, God placed me in a position to lead a team on a short-term outreach to victims of trafficking. If you read my previous post you know that our team was called “Authentic Justice” (AJ) and it was during my first outreach with this group of women that I had my first face-to-face encounter with a woman who was a sex slave in Italy (if you missed it, you can read about it here: Authentic Justice: 27 Million Reasons). But that is not where the story ends.

We traveled on together from Italy to the Near East where we combatted trafficking with assembly lines, treasure hunting and by falling to our knees. What does that mean? Allow me to elaborate.

Our main task while in the Near East was to do what we could to support a long-term project there, “Authentic Justice”, which our team was named after. They exist to nurture women rescued from life in the sex trade by equipping them with skills that enable them to grasp freedom. They do this in a variety of ways but in short their purpose is to “do justice to those due justice”.

A woman who has been subjected to the trauma of sexual slavery has learned from experience to expect the world to be unsafe and for people to be untrustworthy. Physically she has been violated in unthinkable ways but the damage reaches beyond the physical to the very fiber of her being. She is conditioned to question her worth not only as she measures up in the lustful eyes of potential customers, but as a person. She is treated as less than human and she can begin to believe that such a life is all she deserves. The goal of Authentic Justice is to help victims of trafficking and abuse like her to regain their self-image as children of God created in His image and to foster independence from the lifestyle that has enslaved them.

In effort to protect the women who participate in the AJ project and their healing process, it was best that our team not interact with them directly since we would only be there short-term. So we found other ways to support them. For example, the women who participate in the AJ program are trained to make necklaces, bracelets, scarves, purses and more and are given space to make these beautiful items at a place called the Wellspring House. When they weren’t there working, we spent some time (and sweat) there scrubbing away mold, reviving the garden (a.k.a. yard), bleaching nursery toys, and helping the long-term workers to get things organized! Additionally, after their hand-made products are finished, the project packages them and sells them on their behalf all over the world. Our team had the privilege of handling the finished products to get them ready to sell. This is where perfecting the art of assembly lines came in handy for our team. Some inspected the pieces, some labeled them, some arranged them just right, and some sealed them into their packages. But we were all privileged to handle each piece knowing it was made by a precious woman who was working hard to remain independent from the life that had previously enslaved her.

The necklaces pictured above are called the “Abolitionist Necklace”. It has 27 tears to represent the 27 million caught in slavery, with a key to show the wearer’s commitment to abolition. This piece and numerous others are available for purchase at the Authentic Justice website.

When we weren’t doing practical work to support the project we were doing what we called “treasure hunting”. In the Near East, sex workers are often hidden in an underground industry and they can be difficult to find. This meant our team went searching for “treasures”, women, who God would lead us to. We were always praying as we went and trusting God for divine appointments when He would open the door for us to show someone love and share the Truth. While we didn’t always know if the women we met were involved in the sex industry or abused at home, we found many opportunities to encourage women young and old, of different creed, and color.

We would approach women and children (only if given permission by the parents as otherwise it is illegal to evangelize to children) such as these with a smile and an outstretched arm with our own hand-made gifts to them. Cards. We made hundreds of cards over the course of our time there and they were a big hit! We did our best to beautify them but the most important element was the Scripture that was included in each. We created cards in various languages that were predominant in the area and always with the message “Jesus loves you!” in the appropriate tongue.

During two special nights, the cards were also used to accompany boxed meals and invitations to a soup kitchen we co-facilitated along with partnering churches. Each of the two nights we used our assembly line skills to prepare the food, package it, attach the cards, and bag them for distribution. Then we set out in small groups with believers from the church to invite community members to the meal we were offering (where more assembly lines for serving ensued) and to give sandwiches to those who would be unable to attend.

One night, two of the women on our team found a precious treasure. Here is an account of the story from one of the AJ team members. “One of the sub teams met Melek* in the street and were struck by the seeking, vulnerable look in her eyes. After praying for her as she cried, the team invited her to the cafe where it transpired (via translators) that she had been crying out to God for a change in her life. Furthermore, the team discovered that she was a prostitute and had been suffering horrific abuse from her partner for some time. Melek shared that she felt sure the girls had been “sent by God” and was able to share her contact details with women from the church [in the area]. As they prayed one more time, the tears flowed once more. Praise God for this open heart and mustard seed-sized faith. Please pray that contact will be maintained with this broken lady and that she’ll have the opportunity to learn more of the restoring message of the gospel.” (*name has been changed to protect the identity of this woman)

During our last scheduled treasure hunt (though we were always searching for God moments), a couple of us found some families who quickly warmed up to us. Before long, we were surrounded by children who ate up our attention and affection as the mothers smiled in approval. They wanted to learn English and so we taught them the most important phrase we could think of, “Jesus Loves You!”. We also taught it to them in their language and to our delight these Muslim children, with approval of their mothers, repeated the words to each other and to us over and over. May God protect and cultivate the seeds that were planted in their sweet hearts!

As I mentioned, we spent a lot of time on our knees in prayer or to be more accurate we spent a lot of time prayer-walking. So I will end with one last story about how God answered prayer. One afternoon we focused time prayer-walking in the red-light district where our accommodation was located. In pairs we each spent dedicated time praying for a mysterious massage parlor we noticed just a few doors down from our own. We felt burdened about what was going on behind its walls. Then later that night the door to the parlor was open and a small group of women from our team (accompanied by a local believer) were able to go in. As we feared, they discovered the massage parlor was really a brothel. Scantily dressed women were reclining in the main room and one even had an ice pack resting between her legs. Our team members were able to give cards to each of the women before the man in charge angrily asked our team members to leave. This encounter was a good start but left our team longing for another chance to speak with the women. And God gave it to us on one of our last nights there. It was just a normal walk home down the street past the parlor to our front door, until part of our team came upon a few of the women sitting outside on the sidewalk. It was as if they were waiting for us and they warmly received our greetings! Some of our team members were able to hold short conversations with them reiterating that God loved them and ensuring that each woman had a card with the gospel message inside. Praise God!

So there you have it: a taste of our time in the Near East and how God used assembly lines, treasure hunting, and prayer to combat human trafficking. I am thankful that God chose to use me and my wee team with huge hearts to minister to His treasures. Now back in Italy I am seeking His will about implementing what I’ve learned so far to develop a ministry to the victims who live and work here. It will likely be a very gradual process, but maybe someday God will make my dream, to personally provide socio-emotional after-care for victims, a reality. Because I know He hears their cries and often uses vessels like me to encourage, listen, and defend them that they “may terrify no more”.

“You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.”
(Psalm 10:17-18)

In His grip,
Erika Tello