Sonja’s Escape

It was 2:00 am and I was leaving Ben Taub Hospital filled with peace and hope and in awe of the Lord’s deliverance. It’s the second hospital I’d been in that day. Earlier in the morning, I joined Methodist Hospital’s Community Awareness Campaign and learned about the link between human trafficking victims and healthcare providers. In fact, 80% of victims have seen a healthcare provider in the previous 6 months. Little did I know I’d be a part of one victim’s experience that very day.

While hosting a Rescue Houston booth at Methodist Hospital, I received a call alerting me that a victim of trafficking, Sonja, had been assaulted and needed medical attention. Immediately my colleague and I left Methodist to extract her and bring her to Ben Taub.

During her exit and the hospital in-take process, Sonja’s phone continuously lit up; several Johns (buyers of sex) and her pimp were trying to solicit her. The phone is a trafficking victims’ tether to her traffickers. Her phone emotionally and physically attaches her to everyone who uses her. I tried to gently persuade her to give us her phone so she could rest, yet she refused, frantic and anxious to hold on to her phone.

Wanting Sonja to have the freedom to make her own choices, and having helped her settle into her room, my colleague and I left Ben Taub around 8:00 that evening. Yet at 10:00 pm the ER nurse called to let me know that Sonja’s pimp was actively calling to find out where she was hiding. Without question we needed to get that phone out of her hands.

I called Sonja and told her I would love to get her a new working phone and a charger. If I could deliver on that, would she let me have her personal one? To my disbelief, she agreed.

After standing in the longest line in my life at Walmart for a new phone in the middle of the night, I finally arrived to Ben Taub to make the trade.

I walked in to find Sonja looking and acting like a completely different person. It was if the anticipation of releasing her phone ushered in hope. Instead of crying in the hospital bed, she had color in her face, was sitting up and ready to chat. At one point she didn’t hear what I said and politely asked “Pardon?” My mind was blown in disbelief.

We talked for a bit and she remarked that she couldn’t wait for her new life to begin, yet she couldn’t understand why we were helping her. And without any resistance, we switched phones.

To highlight how available we are for her, I had her call our number and test it out. Our colleague, Naomi, answered on the first ring and asked how she was doing. Knowing that we are reachable 24/7 brought her even more assurance.

As I was leaving, I saw the blue ribbon I had given her earlier still pinned to her hospital gown. It was from the morning’s panel at Methodist. When I gave it to her, I shared that it represented the darkness and trauma that’s inflicted on those like her in this city and that we are committed to their freedom and healing. Jokingly, I told her the pin looked much better on her than it did on me, and of course, she agreed. Now, walking out the hospital doors in the early hours of morning, I am so incredibly grateful to see Sonja cut ties with her past and begin healing.

Called to Fight

Often times we have certain expectations or assumptions of where our life is headed. How does the saying go? “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” 

It was June 2009, and in six months I was going to graduate college with a degree in Criminal Justice. Yet, I really had no idea what life looked like post-graduation. Criminal Justice is a tricky degree when finding a job post-college (or that’s at least what I was telling myself and my parents at the time). It’s a very specific “industry” and I was struggling to understand my place. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to interview with Texas State Law Enforcement that I gained perspective. 

The position, based in Laredo, Texas, focused on combating drug trafficking along the border. The idea of a high-profile position with state law enforcement was thrilling to me. As my interview drew closer, I found myself romanticizing the job more and more.

When the day finally arrived, the recruiting officer walked me through the in’s and out’s of the job and what my position would entail. I mentally checked off the boxes that sounded “really cool.” Then he closed saying, “Now I want to be clear. If you take this job, I can’t guarantee your safety but can guarantee the likelihood you will burn out within a year’s time.” Whether or not that was true or a great tactic to thin the herd, I felt my perspective shift. Was I called to die for this job?

What I thought was “really cool” or thrilling was no longer the gauge for where I felt called to work.  I felt a recalibration of my priorities towards what I was deeply passionate about. On the five-hour drive back from Laredo, I wrestled with the question, “If I had a year to live, what would I want to fight for? How would I spend it?” Let me be clear, it’s not that I believed then (or now) drug trafficking wasn’t worthy of my time or career. I do feel that it aligned with my heart at the time, but I felt there was something else

Another month passed, and I was still praying about where I felt called to serve. Then I had the opportunity to hear a man by the name of Gary Haugen speak on the epidemic of Human Trafficking. For those not familiar with him, Gary founded International Justice Mission. IJM is a nonprofit that specializes in combating human rights violations through their 17 field offices around the globe. It was that night I learned about the 40 million people held in modern-day slavery. With an annual revenue of $150 billion, it is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. 

Hearing these facts coupled with survivor’s testimonies and Gary’s insight, I had my first glimpse into the jarring reality of human trafficking. In that moment, I felt the writing on my heart to combat human trafficking and God directing me to my next chapter. And with God’s sense of humor and grace-before graduation-I was blessed with the unique opportunity to work in IJM’s Kolkata, India field office in the Investigation’s Department.  

Looking back and revisiting my former perspective, I can’t help but laugh with God on the drastic change of plans within months of graduation. It brings to mind some other wisdom that rings true for me, “Dream a dream so big, it is doomed to failure without God’s intervention.” 

In the fight against sex trafficking with Rescue Houston, we have the opportunity to contradict the idea of hopelessness with rescue and restoration. Whether it’s with one year to live or many more (I’d like to think more), there is no other place I rather be

It Takes a Village Fighting Human Trafficking Together

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village”, right? If you are like me, you’ve heard it in the context of raising a child. Recently, Rescue Houston participated in an event where that proverb took on an entirely different meaning for me.

On Thursday, November 8, The Story Houston hosted Freedom’s Fight, a night dedicated to raising awareness of Houston’s human trafficking epidemic. Anti-slavery organizations from all across the city came out to share their insight and experiences in what they’ve seen and learned firsthand, and most importantly, what can be done to fight back. Those who shared their story were Elijah Rising, United Against Human Trafficking, The Landing, Free the Captives, Freedom Place and Sergeant John Wall-who oversees the Houston Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit. Sgt. Wall began the evening with a presentation detailing the realities of the sex trade in Houston. During his presentation, he shared that there are over 500 active establishments in Houston alone where the sex trade operates. The highest group trafficked persons were girls between 14-17 years old. I will never forget when he said that in all of his years of police work, he has never encountered a harsher reality than that of human trafficking.

After his presentation, the panel of organizations explained their angle in fighting trafficking and gave the audience the opportunity to ask questions.  It was incredible to see so many passionate advocates-skilled and committed in their strategy-combatting trafficking. We all attack a different side of battlefront, yet are fighting the same war.

All too often it’s easy to feel the weight of what we are up against knowing there are 500 brothels operating in this city. It can be difficult not to lose perspective and to remember we aren’t alone. How crucial it is to know we aren’t in this alone. Rescue Houston isn’t fighting alone. We have been blessed with fantastic partners, advocates, and supporters who each bring something to the cause. Looking at the alliance of partners, I was humbled to know that while none of us have the monopoly on the solution, we do have a village. A really big village. It’s village of diverse people with multiple skill sets and specialized responses to meet the needs of those exploited. We are fighting on multiple fronts to bring the number of brothels in this city from 500 to 0.I hope you know you possess the ability to join the fight alongside us. You are a part of our village. Whatever experience or skills you have, there is an opportunity to serve. I encourage you to check out how to get involved with Rescue Houston by clicking here.  Whether praying, serving as a volunteer or donating, there is a need and place for you here with Rescue Houston.