There’s something that happens with social justice movements, and sometimes especially when it comes to trafficking, which is that so often the reality gets glamourized. I’m still fairly new in the field compared to many, having been serving with Word Made Flesh Bolivia for three years now; but working so closely with the issue of sex trafficking you come to realize that all too commonly we resort to romanticizing the issue to feel good about ourselves or better about the world we live in. The truth, though, is that the issue is ugly and sometimes the solutions are boring and discouraging. The day-to-day of life in this ministry can become meetings, budgets, endless reports, and hearing stories of women struggling to move forward no matter how many supports you offer… I often struggle to remember the real issue at hand. But it has a name. Several, actually. So let’s call it what it is: Its name is commercial sexual exploitation. Slavery. Human trafficking. Manipulation of vulnerability. Injustice. And the way we fight it? Persistent hope, with evidence-based expectations. Creative outreach, followed by budget meetings. Surprising friendship, paired with lots of professional boundaries. Praying for miracles, and preparing ourselves for the long, hard fight that miracles often present themselves as.
Recently, I joined our outreach social worker and a local volunteer to visit some of the private “clubs” in downtown La Paz, as we often do. But for whatever reason, I needed to be shaken up. I had probably been in a rut of a few too many strategic planning meetings, needing to be reminded of the real issue at hand. Lots of times, brothel and club outreach can be fun, even. I love to greet the women with a smile, to make them laugh, to see how their kids are doing since the last time we talked. The highlight of my career thus far has probably been teaching Zumba in the brothels, and most of the time I almost feel like I’m in my element. But here we were, in the lounge area of a private club I had never been to before, talking casually with our amigas, and the doorbell rang. They quickly ask us to go into the other room and wait for just a moment. We did, but we could just see around the corner that a man, probably a businessman that you would never expect from off the street, came in and sat on the main lounge couch. All of a sudden, the women we had just been laughing and talking with walked into the lounge again in a single-file line, this time their robes and towels off. The man took a look at each of the seven women, and within a matter of 15 seconds chose which one he wanted. They went off into the room next to us, and the other six women told us that we could come back out. I did my best to pitch them our spiel as if all was normal – “Next month we’ll be doing jello art! Have you ever seen jello with a flower in it?! And we have a birthday party coming up, too!” But internally I was shaking.
This can never be normal or casual, but it can’t be romanticized either. We have to remember the reality of why we’re here, what we’re fighting for, and prepare ourselves for the long-haul. I’m fighting for the 18 year-old I saw that day, smoking a cigarrete while she put on a face of disinterest in what we were talking about. I’m fighting for the mom we met whose abusive ex-husband had gotten her kicked out of her last three jobs by manipulating her employers, and who was in her second day in the life because she didn’t know where else to go. I’m fighting for our program participant that’s fighting to not go back by running her own salon, making all of her effort to keep up in psychoeducational groups even though she never made it past elementary school and doesn’t know how to read or write. Each of these women, amongst the millions of people affected by exploitation around the world, will have a different process toward for their restoration. That last program participant I mentioned has been in the thick of it since she was trafficked at 14 years old, and now she’s 32. The 18 year-old smoking the cigarrete could be in the life until she’s over 60, forced out for her age having never worked another job, as many of our friends here in Bolivia have experienced. And yet we whole-heartedly must believe that not only does God yearn for and cry out for their restoration, but She makes it possible. That can be a new reality; but it requires a people mobilized and committed, facing bleak realities without losing hope, praying earnestly and supporting or creating concrete action. Freedom and restoration are promises that the Lord has given us; part of the question is if we’re ready to let Jesus carry out the ugly, challenging work that it requires in us and through us. If you’re there, thank you. I may be here walking alongside survivors, but I still need the encouragement to keep doing that work in myself and so many others do, too. Let’s pray together.