Julie Waters was awed by the shimmering skyscrapers and fantastical resorts rising from the desert sands of Dubai. But she noticed something strange: swarms of men—Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians—everywhere. And no rush-hour traffic, just “buses packed full of migrant workers going to their job sites.”
Right across the street from the conference she attended in 2009 were row after row of trailer homes, crammed with indentured laborers—on whose backs the tiny emirate had built its modern-day pyramids. Often housed in horrific conditions, the workers toiled long hours for low wages and had little recourse for employers who mistreated or cheated them by continually adding to their debt.
It was in Dubai that Waters, an attorney and DTS student at DTS’s Houston campus, came face to face with human trafficking. But when she got home, she found that human trafficking was all over, hidden in plain sight.
Underage girls peddled sexual services through Craigslist, pressed into prostitution by boyfriends who turned out to be pimps.
American men would log into chat rooms and learn, in sickeningly precise detail, how to purchase a six-year-old girl for sex in Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam.
Right in Houston, authorities had broken up a human trafficking ring that lured impoverished young women from Central America with the promise of good jobs, then put them to work in cantinas where they were forced to drink all night with patrons and offer their bodies as prostitutes. The leader of the ring, a cantina owner named Mondragon, threatened to kill the women’s family members if they didn’t cooperate. Among his employees was a staff abortionist.
Waters delved into the many facets of human trafficking, the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, second in size only to drug dealing. Human trafficking encompasses not only forced and debt labor but also sex slavery in India, child soldiers in Uganda, children who work the cocoa plantations in Ghana, and minors lured into the United States’ huge commercial sex industry. The United Nations estimates the total market value of illicit human trafficking to be in excess of $32 billion.
The same month she returned from the conference in Dubai, Waters founded Free the Captives—a ministry that mobilizes churches against human trafficking and takes direct aim at a homegrown form: teenage girls at risk for prostitution. “People who are passionate about this issue, it’s something that God has placed on their heart,” Waters said. “It’s something that they can’t quite shake.”
Waters’s background is in law, but her convictions are rooted in Scripture. “We should care about human trafficking,” she said, “because God cares about the oppressed, the widow, the alien, and the orphan.”
Dr. Stephen Bramer, Professor of Biblical Exposition at DTS, points to God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants as well as the Old Testament prophets for a theological perspective on human trafficking. In the Noahic Covenant, “If a person’s life is taken, whether by a man or an animal, that person or animal’s life must be forfeited, because man was created in the image of God.”
Human life, then, has inherent value and dignity. “It’s a basic theological principle of the prophets and throughout Scripture: people are not things. People are to be treated properly,” Bramer said.
The prophet Amos pronounces judgments against six Gentile nations because even though they weren’t subject to the Law of Moses, God held them responsible for how they treated people. “They treated people as things, they treated people as dirt, they treated people as less than of value,” Bramer said.
While Moses’ law allowed forced labor and even debt slavery, the practice was limited and afforded certain protections to the enslaved. It was not to involve unfettered abuse or racial motivations, such as the forced relocation of millions of Africans to North America solely for commercial reasons, Bramer says. Prostitution was never sanctioned in any way.
A biblical understanding of the need to speak out for those who have no voice motivates Christian ministries such as the Washington, D.C.-based International Justice Mission (IJM) and ALERT Ministries of Dallas, which fight human trafficking. IJM, which has offered training for students at DTS’s main campus, works to change laws in several countries, including Cambodia, where a “rescue and relief” worker, Christa Hayden, helped children and women trafficked for sexual exploitation. Here, Hayden saw “whole communities utterly destroyed by generations of sexual violence and trafficking.” She came across “children who were befriended and groomed by international pedophiles who traveled to Asia specifically to abuse children,” and parents who prostituted their own daughters and sons. Worldwide, nearly two million children are employed in the commercial sex trade, Hayden said.
IJM worked with Cambodian pastors who learned about trafficking and began to minister in at-risk communities, and helped U.S. churches open aftercare centers for human trafficking victims. Hayden said, “Broken justice systems, poverty, high demand, and social instability all contribute to the prevalence of trafficking,” making it a major source of human rights violations in Southeast Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world.
Julie Waters and ALERT Ministries’ Christina Mackenzie have found opportunities for anti-human trafficking ministry right here in the United States. The New York Times reported that a 22 percent increase in revenues for Craigslist, the online purveyor of classified advertisements, was fueled largely by its paid “adult services” ads, where “younger sells,” Mackenzie says. Some of the girls pictured in the ads are minors.
When she got started with ALERT, Mackenzie cold-called one Craigslist-advertised girl. The young woman, who claimed to be nineteen, told what has become a familiar story: She “met a guy, thought he was great, said ‘this is my boyfriend,’ and then she realized he has a lot of other girls and says we’re a family and this is how we make money.”
Her boyfriend was, in fact, a pimp.
After talking to young women in Dallas-area strip clubs and brothels, ALERT devised a strategy of going into juvenile detention and ministering to teenage girls, some of whom are already involved in the sex industry. The common thread among the girls in juvenile detention, Mackenzie discovered, is sexual abuse, “whether it’s by a family member or a boyfriend of a mom.”
One girl confessed she was a pimp. “The first two times we met,” Mackenzie says, “she couldn’t really share anything. She’d just draw pictures and hold them up, and tears would be streaming down her face. And these pictures would be of the violence that had happened in her family. Just a lot of hurt, a lot of pain, a lot of abuse, a lot of drug abuse.”
Mackenzie saw it as an opportunity to show love and pray for God’s intervention. “No matter how bad the situation is, I just turn to the Bible and see that hope,” Mackenzie says.
“We’re not fighting a fair fight. I can’t imagine doing this without God.”
Julie Lyons (Larry, ThM, 2001) is the former editor in chief of Dallas Observerand is the author of Holy Roller.