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Amy L. Sherman

The Church on a Justice Mission

On the front lines of the battle against sex trafficking and forced prostitution.

When he invited former strip club dancer Harmony Dust to address Phoenix's Bethany Bible Church, outreach pastor Brad Pellish raised a few eyebrows. But Pellish had been learning some harsh truths about the commercial sex industry in Phoenix. He thought his flock should know about the despair the women behind the Nude Girls signs felt. That they would probably be horrified to know that the average age of entry into prostitution in Phoenix is 13—and that brutal pimps forcibly kept many in this lifestyle. He wanted his church to join him on a new mission into some dark and scary places.

In August 2007, Pellish had attended the simulcast of the annual Willow Creek Leadership Summit. There he heard Gary Haugen, founder and CEO of International Justice Mission (IJM), a Christian human rights agency, talk about combating the large-scale problem of sex trafficking and forced prostitution in south Asia. "It was the first I'd heard of IJM and I thought, 'Ok, we will add them to our missionary support list and I'll feel better,'" Pellish admits sheepishly. Within days, though, he received an email invitation from Food for the Hungry, a Christian relief and development organization headquartered in Phoenix, to attend a meeting with other church leaders about child rape for profit in the city. "I'm not such a simpleton that I could miss out on this one," Pellish laughs. "When God did both these things in about a week or ten days' time, I knew in my heart he was saying to me, 'Brad, you've ignored these issues for too long.'"

At the meeting, Pellish and the other pastors watched Branded, a documentary on child prostitution in Phoenix. (The title refers to the fact that many pimps use heated wires to physically mark "their" girls.) "I heard that those things Gary [Haugen] talked about were happening right here in my own city," Pellish says. "I left the meeting that day resolved that Bethany Bible Church would be involved."

Pellish designed a short preaching series called "Enough is Enough." Then-senior pastor Dave Gudgel delivered brief messages on God's heart for justice and Pellish conducted interviews with guests like Harmony Dust and Food for the Hungry's Pat McCalla, who had helped to spearhead the Branded initiative with multiple churches and public officials.

"I knew we would need an action step," Pellish recalls. "And I knew we weren't Willow Creek, so we couldn't do something on a grand scale. But we needed to do something." Bethany Bible decided to begin by supporting local vice squad officers.

Church members were encouraged to purchase gift cards to 24-hour fast food restaurants. When the cops picked up underage girls working the streets, the girls were typically hungry. (Though they might have cash on hand, they didn't dare risk their pimp's wrath by spending their earnings on food.) So the vice cops paid out of pocket for burgers or tacos. "We decided that needed to end," Pellish reports. "We did a gift card drive and had over $3,000 in cards come in." Vice Officer Chris Bray, a 20+ year veteran of the Phoenix PD, was shocked. No church group had ever done anything like that before. Now Bethany has launched a new prayer initiative called Vice Undercover, to "keep the vice squad under the cover of prayer."

The church has also launched a new outreach to exotic dancers. Several women from Bethany traveled to Harmony Dust's "Treasures" ministry in Los Angeles, receiving training on effective ways to communicate Christ's love to strippers. Through the new program, the church volunteers will deliver cards and gift bags on weekend nights to the dancers. They hope to jumpstart conversations and new friendships that could help these women find a way out of the commercial sex industry.

In May, Bethany hosted a fundraiser featuring nationally renowned comedian Carlos Oscar. Pellish had shown Oscar the Branded DVD; deeply moved, the comedian had pledged to help. "The church underwrote the event," Pellish reports. "We sold more than 2,000 tickets and raised over $35,000." The money will support the counseling ministry at a new safe house for girls rescued from forced prostitution. Streetlight, a new nonprofit formed largely through the efforts of Christ Church of the Valley, a megachurch in northwest Phoenix, recently purchased the property. Leaders there had watched Branded and immediately determined to act.

"Since we've decided to do this, God has brought some new people to our church," Pellish reports. "We couldn't have orchestrated it. We've got people in the church from the commercial sex industry and they feel comfortable here because they are loved. Two years ago," he admits, "I'm not sure Bethany would have welcomed them."

"We're a different church, now," he says. "I'm a different a person."

When it comes to talking about justice, the whole evangelical landscape is different today, Gary Haugen says. Looking back to the mid-1990s, when IJM was being dreamt up, Haugen recalls, "there was no teaching on this. I'd heard thousands of sermons by then in my Christian life and not one on justice. There were no books. Can you imagine how impoverished our faith would be with no books on love? On evangelism? On marriage? No one was telling the stories of Christians doing the work of justice—except for William Wilberforce's story, which was a hundred and fifty years ago." That gap motivated Haugen to write Good News About Injustice , his first book, which IVP released in a 10th anniversary edition last fall.

Today, Haugen asserts, "the obstacles of going into the church and speaking about injustice have been almost entirely removed from mainstream evangelicalism." God has a plan for fighting injustice in the world, Haugen often says, and "it's us." That message has resonated, and he is excited that "there's a whole generation of young Christians for whom the Gospel in the absence of justice is just not interesting or compelling or tolerable."

Haugen laughingly remembers having merely a handful of students at his workshop at the massive triennial student conference, Urbana 2000. Now, IJM can't keep pace with its speaking invitations. Haugen has been on the platform at mega-events like the Willow Creek Leadership Summit and the Catalyst Conference. Rick Warren plugs Haugen's books in his pastors.com newsletter. Prominent Christian musicians are producing a CD to raise money for IJM. Campus Crusade's national leadership has invited senior staff from IJM to equip them for justice mission and has plans to second a staff member to IJM to foster a deep partnership. Youth with a Mission's Discipleship Training Schools now give a prominent place to biblical teaching on justice. IJM was one of the most frequently named organizations from the stage at Urbana 2009, and over 250 colleges nationwide boast IJM student chapters. The agency's work has been featured in every major Christian media outlet (and a host of secular ones, including CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, Forbes, and Oprah). IJM interns reviewing a decade's worth of back issues from Christianity Today found a 500 percent increase in the number of articles devoted to violent injustice. As Haugen puts it, a "sea change" has occurred.

Today, more than 250 nonprofit organizations in the United States are focused on the problem of human trafficking. Nearly 60 percent are faith-based—and a significant proportion of these are evangelical. Fifty have some kind of affiliation with IJM. These groups do everything from raising awareness to providing aftercare for victims. Denominations like the Salvation Army and the Evangelical Covenant Church sponsor church-wide initiatives and campaigns (launched in 2006 and 2007, respectively). In 2008, the World Evangelical Alliance appointed a fulltime spokesperson on trafficking issues. More trafficking occurs in Texas than anywhere else nationally, and within the Lone Star State, Houston is the hottest site. The local Rescue and Restore Coalition there is one of the country's most active, and 33 of its 69 endorsers are churches.

Crossroads Church in Cincinnati may be the best example nationwide of a church committed to the fight against human trafficking. Their journey began when then-teaching pastor Brian Wells read Haugen's Good News About Injustice in 2005. He'd seen Dateline NBC's report on IJM's work freeing children in forced prostitution in Cambodia and then heard of the book through Rick Warren's e-newsletter. "Our teaching team takes study leave in the summer to recharge, catch up on all that reading that piles up," Wells says. "Reading Good News About Injustice really challenged me." He'd digest Haugen's interpretation of a text, then check the verses in his Bible. "I'd read it in context and I'd be like, 'That point he's making—it's exactly right!' " Wells recalls. "How come I've never stopped and really read that before?"

"It really messed with me," he admits. "I came back from that experience and met with some of our leaders at Crossroads. And I said, 'You know, I just want to confess, I've been preaching an incomplete Gospel.'"

Crossroads leadership felt God was saying something to the church through Wells. When he indicated a desire to meet with Haugen in Washington, they sent him off with a $25,000 check to IJM. "I told Gary personally, 'I believe you are a prophet. You've given the church a word that we need to hear,'" Wells says. "'Now how can we help without getting in the way?'"

Subsequent conversations led to a Crossroads team accepting the task of composing a comprehensive briefing book on Sri Lanka, where IJM was considering opening a new field office. Wells traveled there, and eventually the church funded two staff to conduct onsite research. Some lawyers and businesspeople from the church came onboard as well, and within seven months they completed a detailed assessment of local and national laws and of the scale of the problem of child prostitution and other violent forms of injustice. Unfortunately, around the same time civil conflict in Sri Lanka became so intense that IJM reluctantly decided not to pursue the new field office.

Undaunted, the Crossroads team continued dialogue with IJM. Together, they concluded that the church's efforts could best be focused on victim aftercare. "IJM had developed significant success criteria on the legal and interventions fronts but there needed to be more attention and a lot more resources put toward aftercare," Wells explains.

Since 2006, the church has invested over half a million dollars in helping IJM's various aftercare partners to provide quality residential counseling and vocational rehabilitation for children and women rescued from sex trafficking in Mumbai, India. Nearly 100 volunteers from Crossroads have come onsite, doing everything from painting murals and making repairs at the facilities to researching gaps in the aftercare system to leading photography workshops with teens rescued from the brothels. The hands-on engagement has turned some parishioners' lives upside down.

Todd Bretz says that his wife "dragged" him to Mumbai in February 2009. The burly, 31-year-old salesman admits he was full of fear—and not particularly interested in what was happening half a world away. When he arrived in India, he encountered "poverty like I've never seen before. Mumbai is hell on earth."

The 22 young teen girls at the aftercare center melted Bretz's heart. The last night of the trip, one of the women from Crossroads asked the center director if she thought her charges would be up for a foot-washing ceremony: the Crossroads team wanted to show their love and respect for the girls in a manner radical in the caste-conscious culture. This act of servanthood by the Americans would make a loud statement about the young women's value and dignity. The director gathered the girls upstairs to consult with them—and soon the team heard weeping. The teenagers were overwhelmed that their new foreign friends would want to do this for them.

Bretz washed the feet of three of the girls. And then they undid him by asking if they could wash his. "I started bawling. It was the most holy moment of my life," Bretz told the congregation on an emotional Sunday morning after the trip. "These little girls who had been raped by people like me—a man who comes from a world of excess, and I can't even imagine the life they've been through—and they're telling me 'it's going to be OK.' And for me, that was the moment I met Jesus face to face."

Andrew Peters heads Crossroads' justice work, and thinks the church's deep commitment in Mumbai stems from congregants' ability to "really identify" with these girls. "Not that we've been raped hundreds of times, but from the standpoint that we've felt written off—we've been told we're not redeemable." Crossroads loves to welcome those who've felt shunned by traditional churches. Peters continues: "We know the feeling of not having your stuff together. We have people here who thought, 'I can never be loved, accepted, encouraged, or any of those things.' And then we actually met Jesus. We've experienced a level of freedom here—and acceptance—and discovered a Jesus who can change screwed-up lives."

Crossroads members are active in justice work not only overseas but also locally. "We love our city," Peters emphasizes. "We say that our city has value and importance—so we want to focus the best of what we've got right here at home where God has placed us. That's not an excuse to not get involved with our neighbors that happen to live in India," he says, "but it's simply a recognition that we can do both."

Crossroads provides substantial support to End Slavery Cincinnati, a coalition of secular, faith-based, and public agencies raising awareness about human trafficking in the region and providing training to police and "first responders" to recognize and assist victims. Over 25 volunteers from Crossroads, led by attorney Deborah Lydon, conducted research and interviews to assess both the extent of the trafficking problem regionally and the adequacy of existing state laws addressing it. Lydon was part of the team that wrote the Sri Lanka briefing book for IJM. She hadn't been aware of the extent of sex trafficking until she read Good News About Injustice. Family circumstances prevented her personal involvement in Crossroads' Mumbai work, but she responded eagerly when the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati sought out Crossroads' help in investigating domestic trafficking. End Slavery Cincinnati's coordinator, Jessica Donohue-Dioh, says the religious community is at the forefront in drawing attention to domestic human trafficking, and Crossroads has been a lead actor.

Crossroads' youth have embraced the justice mission with particular enthusiasm. Youth pastor Justin Wolfenberg handpicked about twenty high school students to attend IJM's Global Prayer Gathering in spring 2008 in Washington. There, the youth joined over 800 adults to hear firsthand reports from field office directors and engage in intensive, intercessory prayer. "We came out of this saying, 'We need to get kids like us aware of these issues, because our friends at school don't have any idea about most of this stuff,'" junior Katie Landgrebe recalls.

She and several other students spent the next several months planning a weekend "justice issues exposure event" they called Unbound (unboundmovement.org). Attendees filed through various "vision rooms" upon arrival Friday night. They listened to monologues from black-clad student actors playing the parts of modern-day slaves, speaking from inside large bamboo cages. They tramped through a room designed to imitate a brothel cell, where grainy footage from an undercover video shot by IJM investigators in Asia played on a TV. Later, attendees watched Call and Response, a "rockumentary" directed by musician Justin Dillon that is part rock concert, part social commentary, and part documentary about contemporary slavery worldwide. The following day, IJM's Bill Clark spoke and then attendees fanned out for intercessory prayer in four different rooms. The weekend event culminated in a "freedom march" from Cincinnati's Fountain Square to Sawyer Point, a landmark from the days of the Underground Railroad where slaves from Kentucky and further south crossed into the free state of Ohio.

About 300 youth and adults from around the region participated in the Unbound "immersion." Wolfenberg knows of numerous youth groups that committed to doing new justice-oriented activities as a result. At Crossroads, the number of students actively involved in justice work doubled. Some began planning Unbound 2, while several others launched a new project to develop a short curriculum on contemporary slavery for use in high school classes.

Important as it is, the shift in American evangelicalism from ignorance to awareness of the centrality of God's call to justice in the Scriptures is just the first step in actually reducing injustice worldwide. Practical action and substantial investment in on-the-ground work to free victims must follow. As Gary Haugen writes about the justice mission in his 2008 book, Just Courage:

[T]here is no other category of Christian calling in which there is such an enormous disparity between the need in the world and the actual ministry addressing the need …. While the number of people suffering from injustice is similar to the number of people suffering because of hunger, homelessness, sickness or a lack of access to the gospel, there are literally a hundred times more people and resources devoted to the latter than the former.

We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that God's justice is comprehensive, whereas our human perceptions of justice and injustice are always limited, partial, flawed. In one church, "reducing injustice" may mean working on behalf of immigrants. In another church it might mean working on behalf of the unborn. What is high on the justice agenda of one congregation may not even merit a mention in another congregation just down the street. But to acknowledge our limitations and proceed with due humility is not an excuse for inaction. Rather, it should spur us to recognize that there is more than enough for us to do: there isn't likely to be a shortage of injustice anytime soon.

A well-functioning public justice system is taken for granted by most American evangelicals. Our justice system has its flaws, to be sure, but it works predictably well for most middle-class believers. It's the air we breathe, and it's hard to imagine life without it. As a result, we do not sufficiently appreciate its value or recognize how relatively rare a gift it is. By contrast, most poor people worldwide live outside the benefit of the rule of law, under justice systems that do not protect and sometimes actively harm them—systems where, whether because of corruption or lack of capacity, the policeman is definitely not your friend. The ancient words of the prophet Amos describe contemporary realities for millions, where the state "oppresses good people by taking bribes and deprives the poor of justice in the courts." Part of the reason American evangelicals are rightly concerned about hunger, poverty, and AIDS worldwide is that these problems are tangible. The equally horrific problem of broken public justice systems is much harder to grasp.

Even the global aid community—secular, governmental, and Christian—has been slow to acknowledge the importance of public justice reform. Vastly fewer resources are invested to combat this woe than are spent on the "concrete" problems of AIDS and hunger. Recently, though, there have been signs that this is beginning to change. Last year the United Nations released a wide-scale assessment of the problem and concluded that nearly three out of every five people on the planet are not adequately protected by their own justice systems.

These broken criminal justice systems seriously impede efforts to alleviate poverty and promote health. As Haugen argues in the new edition of Good News About Injustice, "If the poor are not protected by the rule of law, few if any of the other humanitarian investments we make on their behalf will be sustainable. We may provide better food, shelter or medicines, but there will always be another bully to take them away." Healthy justice systems, though they are a good less tangible than food aid or debt relief, must be recognized as irreducibly important in the struggle for a better world.

Western Christians need also to attend to what Crossroads' Brian Wells calls the "demand side" of the problem. A former advertising executive with Procter and Gamble, Wells was struck by how often in meetings with government and secular groups in the anti-trafficking movement he would be told, "We don't think anything will significantly change in this arena until the U.S. entertainment industry stops sexualizing little girls." Wells took that insight so seriously that he left the church staff in 2008 to help create better television programming—"with all the humor, action, and adventure but not the sex and violence." Bo White from Phoenix concurs. As he and others involved in the Branded initiative have found, the horror of child prostitution isn't just that it exists, but that there's such a ready market for it. It's one reason the coalition there is working with state legislators on a new, tougher "Johns bill" to strengthen penalties against adults who solicit kids for sex.

New books by American evangelicals are also urging changed consumption patterns as a key ingredient in the justice mission. Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice (2009) defends the premise that "our local, everyday choices reverberate around the world." For her, acting justly means "changing how we shop, how we dress, and how we drive; it means starting to see our each and every action as an ethical choice."

On a flight to Portland last fall, Bethany Bible's Brad Pellish found himself sitting next to a 25-year-old science teacher. She asked the inevitable "What do you do?" question and Pellish replied that he was a pastor. "She couldn't have been less interested," he chuckles. "It was like she was writing a large zero on my forehead." Then he felt prompted to tell her about the church's justice work. "I told her, 'We're trying to rescue kids who are being raped for profit in our city.' And her whole countenance changed. She turned and looked at me and said, 'What?' And I said, 'Yeah. There's approximately 80 pimps forcing 300 underage prostitutes in our city to live like that, and our church is saying, 'This shouldn't be happening right here in our city.' So we're trying to raise funds and awareness to stop it." Pellish told his seatmate about Bethany's ministry to the strip club dancers as well.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Pellish recalls. "It was an amazing conversation." They talked justice for a bit, and then she asked him about the reliability of the Bible—and then started questioning him about Jesus. "She brought it up!" Pellish exclaims with wonder. "Now this isn't the reason we're doing this justice stuff, but I couldn't believe how this conversation went from slammed-down shut to 'If your church is doing that, then I want to know more.' I'll never forget it."

Once again, IJM has been at the forefront of this learning. After spurring the church to action with Good News About Injustice, Haugen published Just Courage in 2008 to describe what he was discovering about the spiritual effects of joining Jesus in his mission to set the captives free. He writes:

Churches are finding not only that their witness is strengthened through their justice work, but also that the effects of the justice mission can be as dramatic for the rescuers as for the rescued. Certainly the work of justice brings marvelous rescue and joy to the victims of injustice, but God wants His people to know that the work of justice benefits the people who do it as well. It is a means of rescue not only for the powerless but also for the powerful who otherwise waste away in a world of triviality and fear.

Haugen's words ring true at Bethany Bible, Crossroads, and other congregations I've visited that have invested in the justice mission. Perhaps the best evidence is the invigorated prayer ministry at these churches, with more members—including teenagers—praying more and praying differently. These intercessors have learned that the justice mission requires deep courage because the evil being confronted actively fights back. Slave masters, pimps, and brothel owners are making big money: according to the U.S. State Department, human trafficking is the world's third largest criminal enterprise, after drugs and weapons. Violence and deception deployed by perpetrators create unique challenges for justice-seekers. On this mission, God's power, protection, and provision are irreplaceable; hence the urgency for prayer.

Crossroads members who've traveled on the frontlines of the justice mission in Southeast Asia have lived the work's highs and lows and know the irreplaceable role of prayer. Andrew Peters recalls a particularly intense 48-hour period from a recent trip. One afternoon he was in Cambodia researching aftercare models that offered potential lessons for the work in Mumbai. Local staff took him to a brothel from which girls had been rescued. Disbelieving, Peters stared through a 50-foot-wide panel of glass at some 70 young girls wearing black numbers on their skimpy clothing. From this "fishbowl," customers could select the girl they wished to enjoy and take her upstairs for sex for a few bucks. The next day, haunted by all he'd witnessed, Peters reached India. That night he got word from IJM operatives that a rescue operation in process was not going well. Discouraged, but convinced of prayer's efficacy, Peters quickly sent an email to the 600+ congregants who follow the church's justice work closely, seeking fervent intercession. The next morning, he learned from the IJM investigators that things had taken an inexplicable, but positive, turn in the operation—just after the time Peters had called for prayer.

In Just Courage, Haugen writes that Mother Teresa could not imagine doing her work for thirty minutes without prayer. He suggests that if the church isn't doing work that requires such radical dependency on prayer, it's probably not work relevant to Christ's kingdom. But as individual Christians and whole congregations give themselves to "the things that matter to God," spiritual health and dynamism follow. As Tim Senff, director of outreach at Crossroads says, the justice mission "stoked passion in our people that was untapped. It's allowing us to do actually do something about enacting the kingdom here and now."

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities.

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