The Big Ask: How can I help fight human trafficking and slavery?

I sat across a table from a man I can tell you almost nothing about.

He's an undercover investigator working with The Exodus Road, and I was truly impressed by him. I don't want to get all gushy, so I'll only say that he was a total effing badass. (Like if Chuck Norris and William Wallace had a baby and the baby grew up and married John Wayne and they had a baby, that baby would be this guy.) So, anyway, he spends time doing surveillance and gathering evidence against pedophiles and traffickers. His nights go to looking for underage sex workers in brothels, taking covert video and detailed notes, he and his teammates carefully follow the trails that lead to the traffickers of children, and assist the government (when needed) in sting operations to bust them. Bad. Ass.

He took us for a drive in a car with dark tinted windows, and it didn't take long to get to a little karaoke bar on the side of a dirt road surrounded by a high wall, its big metal doors open for business. He and El Chupacabra went in for a bit, then texted Matt and I to join them. We found them at a small table with a bench on each side. A few teenage girls were seated around them, while a pretty girl with braces and chipped nail polish was pouring them drinks. And, there, pressed in against my hulking husband was a girl no bigger than my 13 year old. A tiny delicate thing.

The girl didn't speak, didn't smile, scarcely made eye contact, unless prodded by the obviously more seasoned girl next to her. After a little conversation and a few seemingly casual questions, our tour guide learned that she didn't speak the local language. “Maile” was her name, and she'd only been there for three days.

Now. Everything in me wanted to jump up and scream, “THIS IS TOTALLY A VICTIM OF TRAFFICKING!!! QUICK! LET'S GRAB HER!!!" - But I kept up appearances, as instructed to “just party”. Because that's what the beginning of rescue looks like -- it looks like average, every day dudes going to strip clubs and gay bars and brothels looking for a good time, when, in actuality, they're super badass mofo's looking for underage sex workers and victims of trafficking.

As we finished our drinks, a couple of the girls took their leave, disappearing into a back room, but not until she was waved in by an older girl did the little one make her hurried (and clearly relieved) escape. We got up, paying our tab and leaving a tip, and headed for the car. But I watched that hardened investigator linger. He pulled a bill out of his wallet and put it in the pretty girl's hand, pointing toward the door the other girls left through, he said, “This is for Maile.”, and she nodded understanding.

I was completely undone - but wanting to sound like I, too, was a stone cold badass (and not some shuddering, traumatized suburbanite), I tried to say something aloof and appropriate, like, “So, you'll go back and investigate that, right?”

"I could tell you, but then I'd
 have to kill you."

First he said something about not jumping to conclusions (the mark of a good investigator). Then he said, “Yes, I'll go back." and "It's hard to walk away when you have an idea of what could happen to them, but you could pull boys and girls out of brothels all day long and there will be 10 more to take their place.” And then he talked about the importance of getting to the root of the problem and the need to prosecute the pedophiles who create the demand for children and the traffickers who supply them.

Ugh! For real, I wanted to stand and clap.

There are millions (MILLIONS, you guys!) of men, women and children around the world, who, are hopelessly enslaved. They're in dark places; in brothels and bars, brick factories, fishing boats and slums. They live and breath in places the American Church is afraid to go. They're hidden in the shadows of a world that doesn't care for them or about them.

But rescue is coming...

I was invited to SE Asia by an organization called The Exodus Road, a non-profit coalition that empowers freedom from sex slavery through investigation and rescue. Just “come and see”, they said. “no strings attached.”, they promised. I felt it brave for a group who knows my penchant for harsh scrutiny of overseas NGO's to invite me in to have a close look around. If I'm being honest, I was prepared to be disappointed. I was expecting “Look at us, we're the Saviors of South East Asia!”. I was expecting a short-sighted plan to do irrelevant work led by unqualified people. Because I'm a jerk.

I know, I know. I'm an ass! A cynical, pessimistic, hyper-critical ass.

Which is why I'm pretty excited to say that I fell in love with The Exodus Road and the work they are doing around the world. Smitten. Seriously.

2 investigators and the national
leader of a group home for victims
of sexual abuse (33 boys & 8 girls),
looking over a pedophile's case.
Over the course of a few days, a few beers, and more than a few bowls of spicy papaya salad, Matt Parker, CEO of The Exodus Road, answered every question El Chupacabra and I could come up with, even the weird, dumb, and awkward ones. The perception I walked away with is one of a young but healthy organization, with a big picture mentality. They honor the local government, and value partnership with sister organizations (including those working in outreach and aftercare) who agree to high standards of practice. Pushing the long-standing but broken Christian model of “good intention” aside, they've carefully chosen trained investigators with unique skill sets to do the best work on the ground, contracting men and women with a wide range of ethnic, religious, and professional backgrounds.

It was terrible and wonderful to see and hear about Rescue in SE Asia. I was deeply moved, and I was certain I wanted to help. Having just heard from those specializing in aftercare about the difficulties getting victims rescued in order to help them move forward, I knew this is where I wanted to join the fight.

Now, I know some of you want to tell me that I didn't need to fly to SE Asia to find sex for sale, pedophiles, ping pong shows, and trafficking. I totally get that. But the U.S. economy doesn't rely on tourism generated by selling our sons and daughters. Our children's bodies aren't counted as part of our Gross Domestic Product. Our government (while super flawed) has the will and the means necessary to investigate, arrest, and prosecute criminals who sell, enslave, or traffic human beings. So, yes, the problem exists in the U.S., but, no, it's not the same. Regardless, we, the Church, must take both to task—not choosing one as more important than the other, but by realizing that we have the financial and human resources to address both, wisely and fully.

So, this is the part where I ask you to get involved. (Oh c'mon, you knew it was coming.)

My approach will be to invest financially in global rescue, and physically in local anti-trafficking efforts.

Locally, I'm meeting with several organizations who are working in rescue and restoration of victims of sex trafficking in my region. I'll fill you in as those details emerge, but it wasn't hard to find interesting groups to consider volunteering with - I just googled it and invited some friends to check it out with me.  I challenge you to do the same.

Globally, I'm pledging $35 a month to sponsor an investigative team in SE Asia, through the Exodus Road.

But my gift, alone, is pretty insignificant -- that's why I'm asking you to join me in the full financial support of an entire investigative team focused in one SE Asian city, notorious for sex crimes against underage boys and girls.

My gift is small, but if 200 people come together at $35 a month each, we can fund a whole damn team! And that's HUGE. If we pool our resources, we can make a significant contribution that puts pedophiles and traffickers behind bars, rescuing current victims and helping to prevent future victims.

We CAN help. We can empower rescue and prevention. We can RESCUE A CHILD.

To protect the investigators, I can't publicly name the country or city of the team we will be sponsoring. (Though, I will say, it's a city I visited on my recent trip and the investigators I met.) So to make this fun, I'm creating a private Facebook Group where up to 200 donors can join me in a safe place to talk about, celebrate, and pray for the work we're conspiring to fund. The Exodus Road will provide us with covert footage and other super-duper-top-secret info from investigations and arrests as it comes. And we'll even have an occasional awesome give-away. (The first one will be next week!)

Over 100,000 people will likely see this post, more if you share it *wink wink*, I only need 200 of you to join me, please be one of them! I honestly believe we can make a difference.

To join the team, click here:  http://www.theexodusroad.com/donate/ 
and put "DELTA TEAM - JAMIE" in the comments section, along with the email address you use for Facebook so I can welcome you to the private group. 

…     …..     ...

I wrote this in my notes, sweating in bed after that hard night out with the investigator: 

What if a little band of merry men gathered their resources to empower the rescue of trafficked and enslaved women and children? What if we supported and encouraged the men and women on the ground in just one city in SE Asia? What would happen if they had everything they needed to investigate and prosecute those who prey on the weak?…Word would get out if more bad guys went to jail, and traffickers disappeared, and brothel doors closed... What would happen if we came together from all over the world to shine a bright and focused light in the dark? ….Perhaps it would create a ripple of Hope where once there was none, as rumors of escape spread and one child turns to comfort another, whispering with assurance, “Rescue is coming."

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$35 a month (or $5 or $15 or whatever!). Will you join me?  

...This is for Maile.


Real talk, and the SE Asian sex trade.

I spent the first two weeks of July in South East Asia, getting a first hand look at the sex trade, slavery, and human trafficking that plagues that part of the world. After I got back, I had coffee with a friend who said, “Dump it all out.” So I did. Every detail, every feeling, every last stinkin' bit. I told her everything I saw and everything I did, and everything I thought, taking no care to filter, sift, or soften any part of it. Just kept blurting stuff out, like horrible stuff, while I sipped an iced latte.

A little bit after we went our separate ways, she sent me a text. 

  “I got in the car and wept.”

I felt kinda bad because I knew I'd burdened my friend with a heavy load. But there was something else, something kind of good about knowing she'd been upset, unsettled, disturbed - it meant I'd done something right; I'd told the story well enough that it got ahold of her and shook her spirit. I shared the experience, and it was... disruptive.

Figuring out how to tell the story here, in blog world, has been more challenging for me. There's so much to tell, I don't even know where to start...

Should I begin when she was 7 and her virginity was sold to a foreigner? Or when she was 12, and a family member traded her to a pimp for a small sum and the promise of more cash to come from her “work”?

Maybe I should start when she's 16, swaying back and forth on the balls of her feet in towering heels and not much else, up lit by stage lights to make her more visible to potential clients. She's #133 if anyone's interested.

"Sleep with me, Free breakfast"

Or should I begin at the beginning of the end? When she's 21, used up and aged out of the "nice", upscale clubs that line the streets with neon lights and pumping music, cast off to the dark, back alley brothels where the kinky crap happens; where johns are allowed to spank, or bite. Or worse.

There are too many stories to tell, and last week I shared space with every one of them. I breathed their air, ate their food, slid into a vinyl booth in a bar and set my beer at their feet. These stories danced naked on my table. They became flesh and took on life, and my mind kept reaching for a new word to describe them and finally it settled on... real.

These are real people, bonded to real criminals, sold for real sex.

And that is a real problem.

I mean, I knew it was real before I got there, but still... It became alive and it was right in front of my face. I will be forever disrupted because of it. 

It's real and it's huge. The scope of the problem is astounding. The sheer numbers of people for sale is shocking - and I'm not talking about reading statistics on the internet, I'm talking about what I saw, like, with my eyeballs – one hotel with 300 girls for sale, another with 500, and then another and another, karaoke bars with a hundred girls each, street after street of brothels and fronts for brothels. A 20 minute drive through a single town left me stunned by the magnitude of the sex trade in SE Asia. And then there were the infinite layers of contributing factors; poverty, porn, corruption, war, greed, culture, fear, pride... It was unbelievable. And it was very real.

I mean, it is real.

I sat in a car on a street corner watching teenage girls turn tricks...

I sat at a conference table flipping through the case loads of prolific pedophiles...

I sat in an office listening to stories of terrible abuse...

I sat in a hotel room overlooking the city, wondering if I have a place in this mess...

It seemed never ending. It seemed impossibly hopeless. It seemed unfixable.

But it's not.

Because there's another part of the story.

There's the part where real people fight to rescue, restore, and redeem the victims of trafficking and slavery. It's the part where men and women pour into the lives of boys and girls who have suffered abuse beyond belief. It's the part where people risk their own bodies to rescue the bodies of others. It's the part where people make personal sacrifices to give life to a movement. It's the part where hearts are moved and communities are challenged to take a stand for their children.

This is the part where shit gets real.

There is a thread of Redemption weaving its way through the broken streets of south east Asia, I've seen it with my own eyes. In 12 days and 2 countries, I saw light overtaking the darkness. I saw the smiling faces and heard the happy giggles of children in an aftercare facility. I saw a church where ex-pimps and ex-prostitutes sang of Grace and Love, together. I saw families, restored and reunited after poverty pushed them to do the unthinkable. I saw a beat down and bloodied prodigal, returned unexpectedly, to the arms of the ones who loved her.

I saw how Hope can thrive in brothels and bars and after years of abuse.

And I saw how we, you and me and this ragamuffin community, can help. A lot. Like, for real.

Fair warning? I'm going to ask you for something. And I'm going to do it on Thursday. And I'm filled with hope and excitement and readiness to roll this plan out to you. And I seriously cannot wait. 

This is the part where a blogger can make a difference. And so can you.

I hope you'll come back and hear how...   (click here for the follow up post)

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Ever wonder how you can help end slavery and trafficking?