The Girl Next Door: A Christian Response to Human Trafficking

by Tally Flint | illustration by Debbie Lee

She rises before dawn to begin her work, preparing for her employer’s day. She packs lunches, cleans rooms, scrubs floors, washes clothes, cooks meals. She’s grown accustomed to hunger; her meals consist of quickly eaten bites in the solitude of her quarters. She labors dutifully and silently for upwards of 16–18 hours a day with little to no contact with the outside world. She’s long since given up hope of earning her family’s financial freedom. In all her years here, she’s never once seen evidence that her family even knows where she is, much less receives payment for her services. She feels lost, forgotten, and as she collapses onto her cot after another exhausting day, she listens to the sounds of the city outside her window and knows she is utterly alone.

Every day, more than 100,000 people live similar experiences not only in remote cities like Bangkok and Moscow, but also in more familiar places like Orlando, Denver, and numerous towns across America. The 2009 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, published by the U.S. Department of State, names the major forms of trafficking as forced labor, involuntary domestic servitude, sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, bonded labor, forced child labor, child soldiers, and debt bondage among migrant laborers. In almost all cases, victims are held captive by abuse, rape, threats to selves or families, and even fear of death. “The common denominator of trafficking scenarios is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit a person for profit” (TIP Report 2009).

Human trafficking violates the sanctity of human life, demanding attention and action from Christ followers. Azusa Pacific University provides both through the passionate work of its community of disciples and scholars. The Center for Student Action, an interconnected network of student-run clubs, the Department of Social Work, and the American Language and Culture Institute (ALCI), to name but a few, harness the energy and commitment of faculty, staff, and students to raise awareness and find solutions.

The U.S. Department of State estimates that about 600,000–800,000 people, mostly women and children, are trafficked across national borders annually—an estimate that does not include those trafficked within national borders.

A Personal Journey For Sue Clark, M.A. ’02, a doctoral student in intercultural studies and the director of APU’s ALCI, the journey to end human trafficking stems from personal experiences. As a missionary with her husband and children in Thailand, she saw firsthand the problem of prostitution and poverty. Moved by what she witnessed, Clark and her husband started their own mission organization in 1995 and have been leading teams of students and church people to do evangelism and church ministry ever since. “In 2008, we founded Worldteam Foundation, which exists to fight human trafficking and sexual slavery,” said Clark. “Our first projects have been in Thailand supporting safe houses for young girls who were rescued or are at risk, a hill tribe school of 350 at-risk children, and a few other projects to support a local pastor who is engaged in this battle.”

Locally, Clark fights sex trafficking by focusing on education, advocacy, connecting partners for support, and most recently, creating a plan to start a children’s restoration center in Southern California to provide services to minors who have been rescued. “It’s the worst pandemic of the century—the second largest crime in the world behind the trafficking of drugs, and the fastest growing because human beings can be sold and resold countless times until they die,” said Clark. To combat ignorance, Clark hosts briefings, film screenings, panel discussions, and training at APU. “Cases occur weekly, even in our own backyard,” said Clark. “As members of the APU community who seek to live Christ in the world according to our mission statement, we must be involved with the brokenhearted, the blind, the poor, the enslaved, just as Jesus anointed us to do in Isaiah 61.”

Additionally, Clark serves as the faculty advisor for the campus chapter of the international organization, Stop the Traffik. Founded two years ago, the student-run club raises awareness of human trafficking both nationally and internationally through emails to interested students as well as articles and local events posted on the club’s Facebook page. In spring 2010, the club, with financial sponsorship from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Behavioral and Applied Sciences, and several academic departments, held a training session for 100 students, faculty, staff, and guests in trafficking in persons identification (TIP-ID). The eight-hour course is certified by the Center to Restore Trafficked and Exploited Children (CRTEC), a national antitrafficking movement.

Raising Awareness One Fund and Film at a Time

Currently, Stop the Traffik partners with two students from APU’s School of Business and Management who want to do an exposé on human trafficking through film and fundraising. The money raised will go toward freeing refugees in North Korea. “We are also focusing on the L.A. sex industry, including strip clubs and nude bars,” said Kristen Muche ’11, a social work major and club copresident. “These are the very places that perpetuate the objectivity of men and women in addition to harboring the very dangerous stereotype that this industry is always joined ‘by choice.’” In addition, Muche recently attended the 2010 Global Forum on Human Trafficking through the Not For Sale Campaign in Yorba Linda, California. Representatives from international organizations listened to and discussed approaches to battling the trafficking industry.

According to Muche, two main factors contribute to the prevalence of human trafficking. First, she cites a lack of appropriate legislation. Presently, the crime receives a lenient 5- to 15-year sentence on average. She would also like to see legislation that allocates more funding for safe houses and rehabilitation centers. Second, she identifies an inadequate understanding of what constitutes trafficking. “Most of the time, the definition of trafficking evokes the mental image of a slave chain of immigrants walking through a rural area,” explained Muche. “But it can come in many forms . . . a man or a boy working in the back of a restaurant, a girl hanging around the same bus stop, a woman working at a strip club who seems to ‘like’ it, or even the isolated girl or boy at school who looks scared, as if they’re being watched. Human trafficking almost always begins with coercion, sexual violence, and threatening to go after loved ones if compliance is not attained; therefore, it is not a ‘choice.’” Traffick includes trading, dealing, buying, and selling. People are viewed as cash value and a renewable resource. Anyone of any race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level, religion, physical capacity, and age can be a victim. Human trafficking defies stereotypes.

Deb Baker, MSW, a faculty member in the Department of Social Work, comes to the same conclusions through her work with the San Bernardino County Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation (CASE). Baker serves on a subtask force focused on stopping human trafficking in the westend region of San Bernardino County. She teamed with Clark in December 2010 at a meeting of the California Chapter of the North American Association of Christian Social Workers in an effort to educate the social work community about the human trafficking issue.

A Global Approach

Rhoman Goyenechea ’08, an applied health graduate, takes a more global focus. He works with a nongovermental organization to prevent trafficking across the Nepal-India border. Spurred by the call in Isaiah 58, Goyenechea helped create a survey of the border’s most troubling locations. After fasting and praying with believers in Nepal, the U.S., and Bangladesh, his team took their results to local churches and doors started to open. “We were able to start new border monitoring stations in 10 areas along the border with committed believers from those areas that wanted to be a part of the fight against trafficking,” he said. “It was truly amazing and we are so thankful for continual protection and courage.”

Across the board, people working to end human trafficking seek not only to educate, but also to encourage others to join the fight. Muche suggests starting small. “Be an advocate for women or men working in clubs by not immediately coming to conclusions about why they are there,” she said. “Read a book by a modern-day abolitionist and educate yourself. Support local safe houses for minors and women who have been trafficked, and keep up with legislation that is in progress for furthering advancements in addressing this crime. Lastly, talk about it. We were not put on earth to think comfortably or ignorantly. It’s going to be hard, but it’s worth fighting for, and the more knowledge you have about something, the more power you feel you have to work with.”

Doing Immeasurable Good

R. York Moore, the national evangelist for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA and a nationally known modern-day abolitionist, points to human trafficking’s $32 billion industry as cause for financial advocacy. “As Americans, we often too quickly discount financial support, wanting instead some tangible or personal involvement,” said Moore, who visited APU’s campus last January to speak to faculty, staff, and students committed to the eradication of this plight. “But fighting trafficking is incredibly dangerous and complex work, requiring highly specialized gifts, training, and skills. Because of this, frontline work is not for everyone.” Regardless of a person’s sphere of influence, Moore believes an informed individual can do immeasurable good. “Whether someone serves in the medical community, law, government, sports, entertainment, business, or an academic institution, or runs the most important institution, the family, there’s something for every person in every sector of society to do,” he said. “Sponsor a village or treatment center through Hagar International. Choose to sponsor a Compassion International or World Vision child in a highly trafficked or at-risk location like Cambodia or India.”

Bottom line? Do something. “Modern day slavery doesn’t just represent a human catastrophe on a global scale; it is an affront to the Gospel and the mission of the Church,” said Moore. “Slavery not only creates a new class of unreached people, but also a class of unreachable people kept out of the light of civil society, and sometimes even turned into illegal commodities—bought, sold, and exploited. Christian colleges and universities provide the hope that we will be able to stem the tide of the domestic or foreign trafficking in persons because on these campuses we draw from the heritage and transgenerational spiritual wealth of the American Church. Without this wealth, presence, and core group of value-driven moral voices in our society, American people will grapple without direction with the ultimate question, ‘Is it inherently wrong for some to live as slaves?’”

Originally published in the Spring '11 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.