On my laptop screen is the grainy image of a child’s polka-dotted pajamas, marred with a blood stain. The seven-year-old Cambodian girl that wore those pajamas, was a victim of sex trafficking. The shirt and pants, discovered in a brothel raid, are laid flat on the floor, like the chalk outline of a crime scene. A body was here, and in that body a soul, but the image is a hollow shell next to her reality.
Tears well in Don Brewster’s eyes as he recounts how he discovered the pajamas. For him, a co-founder of Agape International Missions that’s been working to rescue women and girls from sex trafficking in Cambodia for over 10 years, it’s personal. “I can’t get the pictures of those girls’ faces out of my mind”, he says as he recalls trying to rescue a group of girls from the brothel where they were being exploited. For me, someone who’s lived in the United States her entire life, sex trafficking seems more like those blood-stained pajamas: an image of an image, a remnant of an injustice happening far from my reality, to faceless and nameless victims.
I recently stepped into the role of volunteer at Catalyst Ministries, admittedly, knowing little about human trafficking. After attending one of their monthly café nights, I became aware of the work that Catalyst was doing, and I was struck with the sense that this was a mission field that was urgently in need. To become better informed and equipped, I was encouraged to watch Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, a documentary produced by the non-profit organization, Exodus Cry, which, like Catalyst, is also engaged in the fight against sex trafficking.
Much of the film is centered around stories like that of the nameless seven-year-old girl, who is one of an estimated 21 million people who have been trafficked worldwide. According to the International Labor Organization, most of these victims come from Asia and the Pacific region. For those of us in America, this geographical and cultural divide can prove difficult to cross. In an increasingly globalized world, we are exposed to injustice on a scale and with a frequency that we could not have experienced even twenty years ago.
Our ability to take action to help the poor and the oppressed half a world over is limited, but our exposure to their needs is on overload. Even more, I would argue that our capacity for empathy was not designed for the demands of even a brief scroll through Facebook. It is easy for us to throw money at a problem on another continent, but truly making a difference often requires a level of understanding that takes much more time and energy.
Nefarious addresses this issue when the director and his team learn that children in Cambodia are often sold into slavery by their own parents. The founder of Chab Dai Coalition, Helen Sworn, explains that, contrary to popular belief, this phenomenon was not strictly related to poverty, rather it resulted from what she termed a “culture of complicity”. The problem she describes cannot be solved with money.
So, do we need to travel to a country like Cambodia, and become long-term missionaries in order to fight sex trafficking? “People assume that girls are sold into prostitution by their parents in other people’s countries”, says clinical psychologist Melissa Farley. She explains that she believed this too, until she came across a young woman in a legal brothel in Nevada that had been sold into exploitation by her parents. While they raised her children, she sent them the money she earned in prostitution. “This was another wake up call for me—that the same abuse that we think happens in someone else’s country is happening right here at home”.
Near my own home of Bloomington-Normal, Catalyst Ministries operates a safe house for women who have been sexually exploited. The problem is so close, in fact, that there are multiple brothels operating in town, disguised by innocuous storefronts. I had walked by those doors before, unaware of the abuse happening inside, but I can no longer claim ignorance—can no longer hide behind the belief that the problem is too far from me. Beneath the din of calls for more of our money and “likes”, is God’s call in Matthew to “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]”. And this means loving the victims of human trafficking, no matter where we live.