“Now, I know you girls like to have fun,” he said, pausing to look at each of us, “but this is serious.”
"Mike" is an undercover investigator with the kind of blue eyes that look past your dumb face and straight into your soul. He's an older guy with blondish-white hair, cut tight against his head, and a deep tan from years under a tropical sun. While he's old enough to have grandkids, there's nothing grandpa-ish about him. He has biceps the size of my head and his t-shirts appear to be stretched across the rippling pecs of a much younger man... *ahem* What!... So anyway. When he landed on the word “serious” he was looking right at me. Like, “Yeah, I'm talkin' to you, lady.”
We'd just arrived at The Exodus Road's safe house and we were about to go out with a team of undercover investigators to see what it looks like when they do field work in the more rural villages. Mike, with his intense demeanor and deep southern drawl, was gently inviting us to sit down and shut the hell up; It was time for briefing, and briefing is serious.
We were then told, in no uncertain terms, how we were expected to conduct ourselves over the next several hours as we observed these investigators at work. We were reminded often that we would be tagging along on a real investigation to pursue a real lead on real girls who have really been trafficked into the SE Asian sex-trade. The team had gone to great lengths to ensure our safety and, more importantly, to see that the presence of four dumb bloggers wouldn't put the mission itself at risk. Then I was handed a packet marked “Strictly Confidential” in bold red letters, and it was clear play time was over.
This was serious.
Not that I didn't already know that, or feel that way. I take the issue of human trafficking very, very seriously, but, the truth is, Mike probably saw the goofy smile I couldn't manage to wipe off my face and thought I could use the reminder. I'm sure my obvious excitement and overflowing happiness seemed totally inappropriate in the context of the night's upcoming events. But simply arriving at the safe house brought me so much joy, I'm pretty sure I had a stupid-ass grin on my face - I couldn't help it!
It's because a year ago, there was no safe house. A year ago, there wasn't enough funding for vehicles, or a translator, or for gear and the other accumulated costs of field work. A year ago, there were stacks of cases that went un-investigated for lack of funds, and countless more waiting to be seen... Countless more, enslaved and waiting for a chance to go home.
"Bud", following along on one of the bikes WE helped
purchase for Delta Team.
***Yes. I'M STILL SMILING***
Then, a year ago, 200 of us -- people from The Very Worst Missionary community -- came together to support this team of investigators and, in doing so, we became an extension of DELTA Team. When we gathered our meager resources together, we were able to make a significant contribution to Search and Rescue in SE Asia. We didn't know it a year ago, but our 35 bucks a month would be a game changer for DELTA team.
When we pulled up to the safe house, our safe house, I was overjoyed. When I saw the motorbikes we helped buy, I was amazed. When I met the translator we help pay, I couldn't not feel elated. I just felt so grateful to be standing there, seeing it all in person.
So, yes, in the midst of all the terrible things we'd seen and hard conversations we'd had, and while we were still surrounded by pain and poverty, I was, at least in that moment, seriously happy.
But don't worry, briefing slapped the happy right out of me.
After Mike's admonishment for us to be serious and behave, the investigators walked us through the details of the night ahead, which had been meticulously planned (and even rehearsed several times) prior to our arrival. The gravity of Search and Rescue became more and more a reality to me. The weight of going out to find kids who were being subjected to terrible abuse, in order to document their existence and gather evidence of how they've been violated, was like a swift kick in the jaw. Suddenly, I was paying attention. Suddenly, I was serious. ….and, suddenly, I was reminded of why I fell in love with the Exodus Road and Delta team in the first place. I remembered a year ago, when I learned Search and Rescue is a seriously important part of the anti-trafficking effort.
That night our job, as bloggers, was simply to sit still, stay quiet, and observe while the trained investigators did what they do. They would be collecting evidence on a couple of brothels in a rural village suspected of having several underage girls in a “restricted movement” situation. Basically, they believed these girls were possibly being held against their will and sold for sex with no obvious way out.
I followed along in my stack of Strictly Confidential briefing papers as the lead investigator walked us through things like rendezvous points and alternate routes, maps with diagrams of who would be where and when and how they would get there, what car they would drive, what super secret spy gear they would be using. They gave us a cover story should anyone notice us and ask what we're doing. Every last detail was planned and every plan had a contingency and every contingency had a backup and every backup had a backup backup. Before we left the safe house, we all knew what every minute of the night should look like.
The team medic, “Bud”, an engaging guy with a quick wit, an easy smile, and a whole lot of experience in the medical field, spent some time talking us through worst case scenarios, in order of likelihood. He made it clear that a medical emergency was highly unlikely, but this is a standard part of preparing for a field investigation. Still, it was a little disconcerting. Bud is knowledgable and clever, which makes him easy to listen to. (Even if what you're listening to is a short tutorial on how to stop spurting blood...or a list of things you could jam inside a gushing bullet wound...or, y'know, whatever the case may be.)
Stuff happens. You gotta be ready. Seriously.
TOP SECRET! KEEP OUT!!
(I can show you, but then I have to kill you.)
During briefing the suspected trafficking victims we'd be observing from afar (beautiful, smart, overly young girls who are far from home and whose bodies are for sale) were called “targets”. And honestly? That bothered me. It was such a detached term, so unlike the normal warmth and concern I'd come to expect from the team.
So I sat there for a minute, watching the investigators closely. My experience with them up to that point had shown them to be passionate and caring, truly invested in the humanity of the victims of trafficking and sex-slavery. Now they were stern, monotone, their faces were stony and kind of... unattached. And once again, the seriousness of this work was made abundantly clear, because, on the personal side, I could see how the investigators must create and maintain some distance. They must follow professional protocols, even when it's not easy. They must walk into situations where people are being subjected to terrible things... and then they must walk out. Their job is to walk out. They are there to collect the evidence necessary to get a trafficking case pushed through to a government agency with the power to arrest and prosecute the traffickers and to rescue not just one “target”, but all of them.
No matter how much they'd like to, they don't get to grab a girl and run, or pretend to buy her for the night and then not bring her back, or smash in the face of the creeper pawing and groping teenage girls at the next table. They can't do any of the things I want them to do. Instead, they have to maintain their cover, they have to remain objective, and they have to remember that their job is to build a case against a criminal, because, in the end, it is the penalty of law that will make human- trafficking more difficult and less lucrative for predators.
These investigators know that, ultimately, when a single “target” is rescued, she represents a long line of poor, rural village girls waiting to take her place. The perpetrators of this crime must be stopped.
So they go in and they do their job and then they walk away. It's seriously soul crushing, every time, but these men and women know better than anyone that they aren't there to play cowboy. They aren't there to go all Chuck Norris on the place. They're not there to crack heads, no matter how great the urge... and I'm told the urge is great. What I saw during briefing wasn't callousness or a lack of concern. It was the opposite. I saw them button down their own humanity to let themselves be driven by training and experience, rather than the raw emotions that would jeopardize everything... everyone. In other words, they take their jobs very seriously.
Contrary to pop-culture's take on human-trafficking Search and Rescue efforts (Thanks, Liam Niesen, you really did some impressive fake ass kicking in Taken!), there is no glory in this work...
Undercover investigators gather video and audio evidence, they take detailed notes, they have their completed reports translated into the local language, and then they pass them on to the police. Sometimes they're asked to assist in government led raids, but often times they don't learn what happens to the girls and boys who are rescued when a brothel they've investigated is shut down. They are already on to the next case, already undercover again, already after the next target. They are nameless and faceless, completely unknown and largely unthanked -- and that's exactly how they like it.
They work in total anonymity and they want no credit.
Sometimes I wonder if they're aware of how beautifully they embody the qualities of Jesus.
These men and women occupy a rare space in our world where heroism and humility meet face to face. They come from a wide variety of faith backgrounds, but the way they live out compassion and service, the way they pursue justice, the sacrifices they're willing to make for the freedom of others might be the most Christlike display of humanity I've ever seen.
That night, after briefing, I found myself crammed into the itty-bitty back of a steam-filled, blacked-out SUV, watching through binoculars as three of the undercover investigators wandered down a dirt road, in and out of a few brothels where “targets” have been identified. I looked on nervously as all kinds of prostitutes called out to them, tugged their hands, tried in vain to usher them inside a brothel for a drink, and maybe something more. The guys played their part well; just a trio of horny foreigners, looking for a good time. But they were on a mission, so we got to see how they smile and flirt and charm their way out of everything unrelated to their true purpose.
Finally they arrived at a brothel where several of the girls were suspected of being underage and/or trafficked. The three men sat outside in plastic chairs, and the girls quickly piled in around them, sitting on their laps, nuzzling in close, resting a head on his shoulder or slipping an arm around his neck. It looked a little awkward and a little intimate... Actually, come to think of it, it looked pretty much exactly how you'd expect three friends going out to buy illicit sex on a business trip would look. Of course, it was anything but. This was a fact finding mission. The guy's seemingly innocent conversation was really a calculated dialog, driving discussion with the “targets” toward topics that could reveal pertinent information about their circumstances, and, with any luck, proof of crimes being committed against them.
|Going over some of the video in a late night debrief.|
The girls couldn't have known it, but at that moment they were acting as their own best witnesses, they were speaking for themselves in a remarkable video that would soon be presented to a government authority with the power to shut down the brothel and arrest the brothel owner... their owner.
The girls couldn't have known it, but those three men - who would walk away without buying any of them for sex- were there, not to purchase them, not to violate them, not to pin them down, not to force them to comply... but to release them.
Those three men came for their freedom.
Those men showed up, sat down, and did their job because they believe every girl should have a shot at a future beyond a brothel. And when they stood to leave, they stood for Hope...
What they hadn't mentioned in briefing, hours earlier, was to watch for the light in the darkness. I admit, it caught me off guard. I was unprepared for what it looks like when three decent men walk straight into the shadows of the Southeast Asian sex-trade, putting themselves at risk physically and emotionally, hanging their marriages on the line, restraining a little piece of their soul so that others may live free.
They were the light in the darkness.
I saw it with my own eyes.
I watched the Light walk into a brothel. I watched the Light speak to prostitutes with tenderness. I watched the Light take a profound and loving interest in girls who'd been swallowed into the dark.
And then I remembered last year, when we began our journey with The Exodus Road, and the words that launched 200 of us into the very action that helped make that night possible...
“What if we gathered our 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 freedom spread and one child turns to comfort another, whispering with assurance, “Rescue is coming."
...and I was filled, once again, with overwhelming gratitude, because I realized I was seeing the answer to those questions made manifest. I saw the dream we had a year ago take on flesh and come to life.
I saw the light in the darkness, and I saw how, through our partnership, WE are making the serious work of Search and Rescue possible.
I saw how WE are holding open the doors of Justice.
I saw how WE are fanning the bright flames of freedom.
We, Delta Team, WE are shining the light in the darkness.
.... And that makes me seriously happy.
Mike was right, this is serious. ...And we are seriously making a difference.
..... .......... .....
The investigators told me again and again about how the support of those 200 people has been a game changer for them. They've been able to cover more investigations with better equipment and to a higher degree of effectiveness with the resources that have been made available to them. I can't even tell you how many times they said to tell you all “Thank you!” (And then I kept saying, “No. Thank you!”, and they were all, “No, really, thank YOU!”, and was like, “Seriously, you guys, THANK YOU!!!”... and it was like an awkward, unending, circlejerk of gratitude.) They are so incredibly grateful for all we've given and the many ways we've supported their work this past year. These undercover investigators may remain nameless and faceless, but they'll never go unappreciated again! They wanted you to know what a huge encouragement it has been for them to feel valued and loved by so many strangers from internetland. So from them (and from me), THANK YOU!!!!
..... ......... .....
But the work load continues to grow.
The case files - each folder representing child abuse, sexual assault, and modern day slavery - continue to stack up. DELTA Team has had to expand and grow in an effort to keep up with the demand from partners and Government agencies for their assistance. In order to continue to do the best work possible building strong criminal cases against traffickers and pedophiles, the men and women on the ground need our help.
So, I'm asking...
If you're not yet a supporter of DELTA Team's efforts through The Exodus Road,
If you thought about supporting DELTA Team last year but for whatever reason never did,
If you can swing $35 a month to do something significant and good in this broken world,
DELTA team's monthly supporters are invited into our private Facebook group where we meet each other and share encouragement, get the inside scoop on ongoing cases and upcoming raids, and the anonymous DELTA team investigators even pop in from time to time with stories from the field. It's very cool.
Join us as we bring our small offerings together in a big way.
Join us... as we send the Light into the darkness.
Follow the links provided, or check out The Exodus Road at www.theexodusroad.com/donate/
After you sign up, leave a comment here letting us know! It's not bragging, it's CELEBRATING!!