A friend introduced 12-year-old Anna to Derrick, who told Anna he was 16 and flattered her with his affection. But it was soon clear that Derrick’s intentions were less than innocent. Instead, Derrick and another man stole Anna’s innocence, tied her with ropes, and held her in a room for two weeks, beating her repeatedly. Anna glimpsed freedom when they removed her from the room. But with threats of killing her family if she didn’t cooperate, the men handed Anna over to a third man, who raped her and kept her locked in a room behind metal bars in the home of his own family.
This scenario evokes images of sex trafficking in Thailand or Bangladesh. But Anna was held captive not in some remote, underdeveloped country, but in Atlanta, Ga. Contrary to popular cultural images, sex trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children is not a problem isolated overseas—it is lurking in the shadows surrounding the schools, churches, and neighborhoods of American cities. Thriving in concert with Atlanta’s sex industry, the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta has reached epic proportions, with nearly 300 girls trafficked each month—to say nothing of boys. In the face of this sickening reality, Atlanta PCA churches are bringing hope and justice in the name of Christ to these vulnerable and exploited children.
The Monster in the Closet
For many in Atlanta, the monster of child sexual exploitation first raised its ugly head with the 2005 publication of Hidden in Plain View, a study of the sexual exploitation of girls in Atlanta, commissioned by the mayor’s office. Hidden in Plain View shocked readers by identifying Atlanta as an international hub of child sex trafficking. Spatial mapping linked child sexual exploitation with the locations of not only adult prostitution venues, but legal “adult entertainment” venues and some of Atlanta’s finest hotels. The same Atlanta attractions that contribute to its success and growth as a convention and tourist destination appeal to organized crime, which exploits children, selling sex as it does guns and drugs.
Clearly, this monster must be slayed. Yet, its complex tangle of tentacles and multiple heads make it extremely difficult to fight. Young girls—many as young as 10 or 12—are psychologically manipulated and physically coerced into prostitution and are almost always controlled by a pimp. First, pimps seduce these girls—often runaways from dysfunctional and abusive homes—with attention and validation, introducing drugs to foster dependency. Then, dramatically turning on their victims, they abuse and rape the girls, threatening death if they seek escape.
The girls themselves are often too fearful to seek help and even when arrested, they tend to be treated as offenders rather than victims, particularly because they often lie about their age. At the time of its publication, Hidden in Plain View revealed that even when girls were identified as victims, only one safe house for victims of commercial sexual exploitation existed east of the Mississippi: Angela’s House in Atlanta. For the 300 girls prostituted each month in Atlanta alone—to say nothing of those up and down the East Coast—Angela’s House offered six beds.
“Did You Know?”
When Amy Walters, a member of Perimeter Church in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, Ga., initially heard these stunning facts, she couldn’t believe that the monster she thought resided overseas had come to prey on victims in her own hometown. “When I went to bed and tried to sleep, I thought, ‘There are children who are being forced into prostitution right now,’” she remembers. “I spent many sleepless nights thinking about this.” But she started educating herself and others. “I asked myself, ‘Why haven’t I heard about this? How did I not know?’” She recalls contacting Perimeter’s Community Outreach staff, giving them statistics until they were able to make this issue one of their top concerns. It wasn’t long before the Community Outreach staff put Walters to work, serving as the Justice Team coordinator for Perimeter. “God had laid this on my heart and I could not not do this,” she says.
Over the past year, Perimeter’s Justice Team has involved more than 100 people in initiatives such as hosting showers for a new restorative therapy facility for sexually exploited girls, organizing informational desserts to build awareness, lobbying at the Georgia Capitol and writing legislators, raising money with a marathon running team, and hosting a “Pancakes and Porn” awareness breakfast for men. Walters says, “It’s amazing when people learn about this issue, how much they want to do to help. It’s what we’re called to do as believers—we’re called to stand in the gap.”
In addition to its own initiatives, Perimeter was instrumental in the formation of Street Grace, named for Galvanizing Resources Against Commercial Exploitation. When Hidden in Plain View was published, the study identified the corner of North Avenue and Peachtree Street as a venue for teenage prostitutes, much to the surprise of daytime residents of this corner: North Avenue Presbyterian Church (USA). Scott Weimer, North Avenue’s pastor, says that members of his church were appalled. “I didn’t know what to do,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But [our church members’] response inspired me to move forward.” Four years later, a coalition of churches has formed Street Grace with the goal of eradicating child prostitution from the streets of Atlanta.
Walters says that the beautiful element of Street Grace is that it involves different denominations around the city working together toward a common goal. “We might be from different backgrounds,” she says, “But we have one thing in common: Jesus Christ. We can let our light shine in the community.” Walters says that the church is fighting the fight that these exploited children can’t fight for themselves right now. “To me, as a Christian, I look at these children and think—there but for the grace of God, would be me. If it were me, Jesus would not love me any less and He doesn’t love me any more because that’s not me.” Walters continues, “We have an incredible opportunity to mirror His unconditional love to people regardless of their circumstances. Through that, we can bring the hope of the gospel to really transform hearts and lives.”
Crying Out for Freedom
This was the same hope that motivated Adam Young and other members of Church of the Redeemer in Atlanta’s Sandy Springs suburb to birth Freedom Cry Atlanta. “The niche we didn’t see being addressed was mobilizing people to ask themselves: ‘How can I respond to this reality in my current area of interest, expertise, and passion,’” says Young, assistant pastor of Redeemer. Freedom Cry hosted two events to facilitate this process. The first was called Dirty Little Secret: Sex Trafficking in Atlanta Exposed, which brought together representatives working with the issue of sex trafficking and child exploitation in Atlanta to illuminate the nature of the problem.
The second event, Dirty Little Secret: Ending Sex Trafficking in Atlanta, was designed to help people think through their personal response. During the second evening, groups brainstormed action steps based on their area of interest, including: legal/legislation/lobbying, business, mercy/safe houses, medical, schools/community, technology, and the arts. “We’re in the very early stages,” says Young. “The scope and hiddenness of the problem is so intense and vast that it is going to take a real comprehensive response from people in a variety of sectors,” he says. “We’re taking all the realities and brainstorming how we can overcome all the obstacles to make a difference.”
Young’s wife, Caroline, a physician’s assistant (P.A.), is spearheading the medical group for Freedom Cry. She has connected with another organization, Meet Justice, to provide training to medical providers throughout Atlanta so that they can recognize and respond to victims of child sex exploitation and trafficking. “It’s just so horrifying to me,” says Caroline Young. “I kind of expect human trafficking in Third World countries where there is so much poverty and corruption. When it happens in the Third World, I can’t do much about it. When it happens here, I can do something about it,” she says. “It’s not a big thing,” she says of her training sessions with medical professionals, “but it’s something. It comes naturally and easily to me. I can not not do this!”
Young conducted a training session recently with the Gwinnett [County] Medical Center E.R. staff. She’s also lectured at Mercer University’s P.A. program and at Emory University’s P.A. program. “The facts show that 28 percent of human trafficking victims encounter a health care professional while they are enslaved,” says Young. “People are in shock that this is happening,” she reports. “I talk about 200 to 300 girls exploited every month in Atlanta and their jaws drop.” Then Young tells medical professionals specifically what to look for: young girls controlled by an older man who is answering questions that he probably shouldn’t know the answers to. For instance, Young encountered a situation in which an older man answered a question about when a girl had her last menstrual period. Definitely a warning sign.
Young says, “It’s a gut feeling that this person has control over this child in a way that’s inappropriate.” She suggests that medical professionals try to separate the victim from her companion and ask questions that will reveal more: Where do you work, sleep, eat? Have you been threatened? Are you being harmed? If medical professionals conclude that there is a possibility of human trafficking, they can contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at their toll-free number and access victim assistance programs immediately.
A Voice for the Voiceless
John and Missy Bigham may not have contact with trafficking victims on a typical Sunday morning at Intown Community Church—an urban relative of Redeemer and Perimeter—but they’ve found a way to help nonetheless. About a year ago, John attended an informal gathering with Daniel Homrich of Meet Justice. “Daniel shared what he had experienced on a recent trip overseas and I heard stories of things I hadn’t even considered, I was shocked,” says John, who is Intown’s director of music and the arts. Shortly thereafter, Missy noticed in the church lobby a flyer for Intown’s Justice Ministries Team, which was formed earlier this year to develop strategies for ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta. “I saw that flyer and it just hit my heart. I couldn’t stop thinking about these children,” remembers Missy.
At the same time, John and Missy were also thinking about ways to be more proactive in using their musical gifts. While John uses his gifts vocationally, Missy is often asked by people around the country to sing and perform, but hasn’t found the right setting to use her gifts. Then she discovered the truth about sexually exploited children in Atlanta. “The image I saw in my mind was like those ugly dolls with the X stitched over their mouths. These children have been so dehumanized, marginalized, suppressed that they have no voice,” says Missy. “That’s the one thing I have: a voice. I want to sing and speak for those who can’t.”
To give voice to the voiceless victims of sexual exploitation, John and Missy are developing a CD featuring Missy’s music, with all proceeds benefiting ministries to these victims. “I know God has given me this gift, but I don’t really feel comfortable putting myself up front,” says Missy. “But this is a way that I can put these girls up front. It’s time we brought this problem out of the dark and into the light.” Music from the CD will premiere at a concert at Intown Community Church on November 29. Already, John is encouraged by the response. “Musicians have donated their time and the studio is giving us reduced rates—everyone is eager to get involved,” he says. Intown’s senior pastor says this is a natural outflow of the vision of Intown. “As our own hearts are transformed by the gospel, we naturally develop a desire to see justice and mercy played out in our culture,” says John Tinnin. “That calling takes shape differently for each of us. But, for some, it means ministering to the victims of sexual exploitation and bringing the light of the gospel to the dark places of our urban context.”
Susan Fikse is a freelance writer and member of Intown Community Church in Atlanta, Ga.