by Dee Martin
“I know exactly where you are from! I used to travel down there all the time to pick up business,” exclaimed Karen (not her real name). “It’s a real hub for prostitution.” A church board member and I had met Karen while on break during an all-day seminar focused on domestic sex trafficking. Karen had just recently exited the sex industry. The keynote speaker that day, Mary Frances Bowly, stated, “Where there is a strip joint, within a 2-3-mile radius you will find children being trafficked. They are close to these locations because demand is present.” This seminar was three hours away from our home, and God had pointed us to our own back yard.
Six months earlier, Hollowell’s pastoral team leader, Blaine Lougheed, challenged the staff where I was serving to ask the Lord to reveal areas where our church should engage. A week later, two out of three staff members shared that the Holy Spirit had been pressing human trafficking on our hearts.
With the prompting of the Holy Spirit and clear confirmation at the conference, we took steps towards engagement. As we learned about human trafficking and sought practical ways to engage, repeated themes came to the surface to direct our steps, with the first step being education. The second step was to join forces with those already at work, and then lastly find the gaps and fill them.
We began educating our congregation. Kim Checkeye, the director of Truth for Women, spoke about human trafficking during a Sunday morning service. A fellowship meal and an informal Q & A with Kim gave those interested an opportunity to dig a little deeper. The congregation was also given The White Umbrella by Mary Frances Bowley, to increase their awareness of the issue. We also offered a Sunday school elective that used the book Undaunted by Christine Caine and a video series called Trauma and Trafficking: A Christian Response.
While the congregation was learning, we also canvassed the area to find other churches, nonprofits, and government agencies that were involved in the fight against human trafficking who we could join. We collaborated with another church to host a screening of the documentary Nefarious, produced by Exodus Cry. The Lord also called us to prayer, and we started a nondenominational prayer meeting every first Friday that continues to meet at our local truck stop. We discovered small organizations— like Compassionate Humans Against Trafficking (CHAT), She’s Somebody’s Daughter, Truth for Women, Stop Trafficking Our People (STOP), and Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST)—that were already making inroads into the issues of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. We became their financial supporters, prayer warriors and volunteers. The Lord also opened the door for us to engage with government agencies like Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans (PAATH) and the South Central Human Trafficking Response Team.
As we learned and engaged, we began to see a gap. We realized our small rural community believed this issue was more of an international issue, or at worst a big city problem and not a rural one. As our Sunday school elective ended, the burden to fill this gap compelled us into action. We wanted to protect the most vulnerable among us, the children, so we targeted educators and those who worked with youth and children. We created Hollowell Forums, and within eight weeks pulled together our first forum, “Targeted for Profit: An Educators’ Forum on Human Trafficking.”
A few months later came “Tricked: An Educators’ Forum on Human Trafficking.” We then decided to broaden the scope. A Nazarene church in Lima, Ohio had developed conferences for women called “Break Every Chain,“ which focused on equipping women with knowledge and resources to engage in the fight against human trafficking. The church gave us their materials and we started planning. Hollowell provided the initial launch point, but it went far beyond our walls. The core planning team represented 10 different congregations. The business community and other community members rallied with donations. The local high school allowed us to use their facility, and volunteers came out of the woodwork to help organize three events to help educate our community about the growing epidemic of human trafficking.
Over the last five years, we have seen a shift in our community. In 2014, the first comprehensive human trafficking law went into place and equipped Pennsylvania law enforcement with the tools to pursue and prosecute traffickers. Our district attorney hired a detective focused on the issue of human trafficking. A local human trafficking ring was shut down and prosecuted. Local reporting agencies have learned about human trafficking and opened the eyes of the community to this hometown reality. Local nonprofit organizations have thrived and helped to provide consistent awareness and educational opportunities to the community. A hotel minutes from our church known for being a hotbed for this activity changed hands with the new owner intent on changing its reputation. As community members have been informed, they have started to call in suspicions to the human trafficking hotline. Many churches have started to engage through prayer, financial support, and encouraging members to volunteer.
Wonderful things have been happening and God is at work, but the darkness persists. The call to engage is still strong. Engaging in this fight takes tenacity, flexibility, and a willingness to lay down what has worked in the past to meet the ever-changing needs of the moment. We don’t have a clear-cut plan for the future; however, we are willing to answer the call and follow wherever the Lord leads. We trust that is enough.
The following passage of scripture was read right before a day-long human trafficking training and has rung in our ears ever since: “But this is a people plundered and looted, all of them trapped in pits or hidden away in prisons. They have become plunder, with no one to rescue them; they have been made booty with no one to say, send them back. Which of you will listen to this or pay close attention in time to come?” (Isaiah 42:22-23). Father, please give us ears to hear the cries of the oppressed, eyes to see those who are hidden and hurting, the ability to pay close attention, and a voice to cry into the darkness.
Dee Martin attends the Hollowell Brethren in Christ Church, Waynesboro, PA. where she served on staff for 15 years. She is currently a stay-at-home mom.