By Jennifer Roemhildt Tunehag
It was late when I left that night. Our refugee feeding program had run long, and I was anxious to get home—partly because of the hour, and partly because of the neighborhood. The area around Omonoia in Athens, Greece, is a nightmare of human misery. Drug addicts purchase and consume their dose; homeless refugees spill over the sidewalks to fill the streets. Women stand on corners and in shadowy doorways offering their bodies to anyone who can pay.
It’s not the kind of place where you want to loiter. But as I walked toward my trolley that night, a woman caught my attention. She was standing in front of a run-down hotel, soliciting customers. Certainly not the first woman I had seen in prostitution in our area, and surely not the only woman working that night.
But as I saw her, something happened. I think it might be a bit like Christ felt when it is recorded in scripture that he saw the crowds, and was moved with compassion to do something for them. I felt like seeing this woman was an invitation. But I wasn’t sure to what.
I began to pray.
Over several weeks, I asked God to open the door. Even though I was already a missionary, I had no idea how to approach a woman in prostitution! “Give me a way to speak to her, Lord,” I prayed. God was not slow in answering.
Another late night, and another brisk walk through the neighborhood. This time, there were several people outside the hotel: a few women, and one very big man. In a red skirt. I’m sure he would have been tall even without the heels...but he was wearing high heels, and a long blonde wig. As I approached the group, he stepped out into my path. “You got the time?” he asked. “I hope he means my watch,” I thought.
I held out my arm as I walked past. I hadn’t gone more than a few steps when God moved again. “This is a very sad man,” he seemed to be saying, and I immediately began to pray as I pushed through the streets toward my home. I don’t think that’s at all unusual for us as Christians. God puts a burden on our hearts, and in response we lift it to him. What was strange was that I couldn’t stop praying! Prayer was pouring out of me over this man and his life. I felt as if the Spirit of God had been waiting for someone to intercede for him. “I have to go back,” came the urgent impression.
Just as quickly came another thought. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! It’s eleven o’clock at night in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. What do you even think is going to happen?”
I paced the sidewalk and argued with God. “If you want me to go back, at least tell me what you want me to do!”
“Ask them their names,” he said.
I think you will recognize that this is not a complete plan. Still, I was encouraged. This was something I could do! There was only one woman standing in front of the hotel when I returned...but she was the same woman I had seen all those weeks earlier. “I was on my way home,” I told her, “but I felt like God wanted me to come back and talk to you.” We talked for a while. “I’ll be praying for you, Elise,” I offered as I left.
She grabbed both of my hands. “Will you pray for me now?” Startled but willing, I began to pray. As I spoke to the Father, Elise kept whispering: “Yes, Lord. Yes, Lord!”
I didn’t know where God was leading. Perhaps that’s a good thing; I’m not sure that I would have been ready at that point to embark on a life dedicated to serving women and men in prostitution and victims of human trafficking. But I knew that he loved me, and that I wanted to go wherever he went.
That conversation with Elise became the first of hundreds of conversations in Athens and around the world.
Today, there are between twelve and twenty-seven million people enslaved in forced labor, bonded labor, and sexual slavery in the world.
That’s more than the entire number shipped across the Atlantic in all the years of the slave trade combined! Nearly eighty percent of those trafficked1, like Elise, are used for sexual exploitation. Virtually every country in the world is involved in the web of trafficking activities, either as a country of origin, destination, or transit.
What does it look like as the Church follows Christ into the brokenness of slavery and abuse? Profoundly hopeful! It may look like street outreach in Athens, where teams of dedicated women and men continue to build bridges of hope and help to women like Elise.
It may resemble the courage of Evangelical Christians in Spain, who approached the major political parties in their country to ask what they were planning to do about prostitution. “If you will draft a legislation that is good for women in Spain,” the Christians were told, “we will bring it to Parliament!”
It may mean creating businesses that offer a “future and a hope” to women who need a means to support themselves. Businesses which embrace God’s purposes—and the women and men he has created—are a key to prevention, and an essential part of restoration, for those vulnerable to and victimized by human trafficking.
The situation is hopeful because we are invited, compelled (2 Corinthians 5:14) to follow the Son of Man, who came to seek and to save the lost. As we walk with him in these dark places, we can be confident that the darkness has not, and will not, overcome him.
1. According to the United Nations protocol, trafficking can be defined as the recruitment, harboring, or transport (movement) of people by coercion or inappropriate means (control) for exploitation (money).