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The task is overwhelming but saving one girl is reward enough

Mission Community Church and Shared Hope International team to rescue women and girls at Homes of Hope Fiji.

By Ronald E. Keener

When Mark Connolly – call him an “immovable object” – met Linda Smith – call her an “irresistible force” – a new and dynamic ministry emerged.

Smith, an advocate in the battle against human trafficking, is a no-nonsense woman: “I’m interested in talking with anybody who’s serious about doing anything other than talking,” she says. She had already decided that speaking at churches didn’t deserve her time. “Often the American church took a lot of work.And if I went everywhere that everybody wanted me to speak, I couldn’t do the work.”

But Connolly, new in his pastorate at Mission Community Church in Gilbert, AZ, was equally insistent that she come and speak at his church. He and his leaders had been praying about where the congregation might establish a mission point, and the more he learned about Fiji the more he insisted that she visit his church and get to know how serious they were.

“For some reason, when Mark called he was compelling to me,” Smith says. “At first I felt, well, no, I really can’t, but I decided to come and out of that came a church in love with missions, and out of that came group after group to Fiji. They didn’t just go once, they stayed with it, they built relationships, and they’ve broadened Fiji’s whole operation.”

Strong relationship

So two strong individuals in their own fields forged an ongoing relationship to benefit women and girls at Homes of Hope Fiji, a 43-acre community that has rescued some 50 girls and their children from the sex trafficking business in that country. Mission Church has sent 13 teams to Fiji over the past three years.

Linda Smith’s organization is Shared Hope International in Vancouver, WA, that had its beginning while she served as a Congresswoman from her state and her committee work took her to India.

“God has taken the most unlikely situation, stuck me in it, and said, ‘come on, I’ll do it through you. I threw you into a brothel one night [in Mumbai, India]; you fell in love with those girls. If I lead you to Fiji, I’m going to have the people right behind you — and ready like the church in Phoenix,’” she recounts. “‘You’re not going to know, just trust me.’”

Heart for families

Part of that plan was Lynnie and Mark Roche, missionaries with a heart for families and children, who moved from Colorado to Fiji in August 1997 on little more than a promise and an airplane ticket. First coming to open an orphanage, they found the real unfilled need was for single mothers — many of them only teenagers themselves.

In visiting Mission Church this April, Lynnie Roche shared that “if we could keep just a partial family unit together with a mother and her child, even though they were absent of the father, then we would be helping that child, which is our ultimate goal.” About six years ago, they visited their home church in Colorado when Mark Roche was speaking in services about their work. It turned out that Linda Smith’s daughter attended the church and Linda was visiting that Sunday — and heard the story and the need. Over a cup of coffee later, Smith committed $20,000 to the Roches’ work, without knowing where the money would come from.

Mission’s involvement resulted later. “We have several other churches that support us financially,” Lynnie Roche says, “but none support us like Mission, because Mission has bought us hook, line and sinker. I think it is because these people have come over and fallen in love with the girls, so that now we’re family.

“That’s why we’re able to continue on and expand, not because we’re under any large mission organization, but because our family just keeps growing—and these people are just ‘sold out,’” says Roche.

Few take girls

Kay Connolly, the pastor’s wife and director of justice ministries for the congregation, says that Homes of Hope is “the only place in all of Fiji that will take a pregnant girl or a mother with her child to stay. Even the Salvation Army doesn’t feel equipped to keep the girl and her child for more than one night.”

Connolly describes a difficult situation in Fiji: “All of the girls are traumatized. They’ve either been sold by their parents or loaned out to the boss or have been molested their whole lives by uncles, fathers or brothers. Incest is rampant in a lot of villages, and they all need emotional and spiritual care and counseling.

“Just in the two years I have been going there, when I first met them, you could see it on their whole countenance, how they carried themselves, and had a hard time looking at you. Once they become pregnant they’re pushed out on the street; they’re garbage. Most of them have gotten to Homes of Hope just hearing about it from living on the streets,” Connolly says.

She says that in the time she has been going to Fiji, she has seen the trauma on their faces replaced with one of holding their heads up high. “It’s so amazing to see the change that only Christ could do, to really see somebody so broken who was hurt by people who were supposed to protect them,” she says.

Women aren’t equal

Generally in the world, women are held in a lesser position than men, and Connolly says it helps people justify what they are doing to women if they don’t see women as equal to themselves.

“And they really don’t; the girls are not viewed as valuable to the family as the sons are; they won’t bring in as much money. Which is why once the girl is pregnant, she’s worthless to the family; she won’t bring in the dowry which is what they still do. So it’s a shame to the family and it has made her worthless monetarily,” she explains.

With Mission’s help, the grounds of the Homes of Hope include a large gathering center, five bures, or private homes, the girls can purchase once they have gone through the program. The money they invest in a bure is given back to them when they move off campus to help with buying a new home.

Some mothers are earning teaching certificates, attending university classes, and beginning business trades. Says Connolly: “They go from being trash to, ‘oh, my, you’re going to university,’” in a country where getting through high school is a real accomplishment. Many of the moms earn money through the farming and upkeep of the village, and others make bead necklaces from clay; the business is called Qele, (“n-gay-lay”) which means “of the earth.”

Women tell their stories

Linda Smith calls it “dignity money.” “The girls have to do something; they have to be a part of something. I want them to work and to know they have some value,” Smith says.

Fijean girls grow up, says Connolly, at first not understanding that they’re not supposed to sleep with their dads. Success is achieved when the women, healed after a time, go with staff into the red light district and share their stories with prostitutes.

Smith has a heart for children from way back, but it struck her more vividly when she want to India on that first trip, escorted by Teen Challenge of Mumbai.

“What I saw there were girls standing in front of stalls younger than my 11-year-old granddaughter. What I saw was revolting; nobody identified it as trafficking. My first night in India I saw child sex slavery and girls who were low caste, and had been brought in from other countries, standing behind stalls and masses of people shopping for them,” she says.

This seasoned politician and executive had her own awakening. “I came back in and I started praying, ‘Oh, God, you’ve got me in the wrong spot. I am a corporate executive; I am a member of Congress. You’ve trained me up, and this doesn’t fit me. I have a small business committee in Congress; this is who I am, so why are you showing me this?’” But she soon was organizing a home for girls in India.

The problem of exploitation of women and sex trafficking of girls is extremely huge; how does one measure success in such an overwhelming problem?, she’s asked. “I think the way Jesus does,” says Smith.

“That first girl now has a life, a husband, a baby. She works and is successful. Would it have been enough for her? It has to be. Now you ask that of the world, and they’re going to give you numbers. If you ask that of Jesus, he’s going to 
say that the one in front of me [is important]. He doesn’t see all of us.

“Jesus would look at that girl in front of me and say it is enough for her,” she says. A member of Congress, Smith said she worked with a national budget, she chaired a committee: “I am used to bigger numbers, what’s wrong with one? You have to be willing for the one for Him to trust you with many.”

Never an end
She is not starry-eyed or Pollyanna-ish about the task. It’s a huge challenge, she agrees, “and there never will be an end until Jesus comes back.”

“But you know what, 12 years ago, there wasn’t a village [Homes of Hope] in India, there wasn’t a village in Fiji, and God hadn’t brought the money in. Before each one of those I had no money. I had no money to open up another Fiji, but I just opened up one in South Africa. But you know when it came along and Mark Connolly found the property [in Fiji], I had the money.

“When it came to the first seven buildings, God brought the money for that. I did not have it before and I didn’t have any idea of where to find it. This has never been deep pockets,” Smith says.

For other churches that have a heart for kids, she urges them to not necessarily look overseas. “Overseas is fine, if that is where God leads you, but the largest population of minor trafficking victims in the world is in America,” she says.

America – as a culture – has decided that prostitutes are the guilty partners, no matter their age, she observes. “Because if we hadn’t, we would not be arresting them, we’d be arresting the guys buying them,” Smith says.

“I think the first thing we can do is reach close and decide if we have stigmatized a certain population of individuals with a label and stripped them of justice, in essence making them the bearers of the unpardonable sin.

“We have to change our laws. We can’t have a law where a child is arrested for the crime committed against her, just because she is labeled a prostitute. It will take some guts from church leaders to say prostitution is wrong, that adults should not be doing this. We need to hold the adult accountable,” she says.

In a couple years, Mission Church and Homes of Hope Fiji expect to see the property there built out and serving about 200 girls. But there are other places in the South Pacific that need the kind of help and commitment that Mission Church, and other congregations, can bring. The Fiji program is becoming a model for others where Linda Smith’s group is seeking to plant similar ventures.

For congregations with a heart for women and children, there are more points of mission and places to be of help. And Linda Smith, who says, “I want to get things done,” and Shared Hope’s goal to capitalize and build programs, can put them to use.

Four our prongs to homes of hope approach

There are four approaches to the work at Homes of Hope Fiji that Lynnie Roche speaks to groups about:

Prevention — Disks and printed materials are being developed and provided to schools, teachers, principals, and community leaders, translated into Fijian and Hindi, and explain abstinence, incest, rape and trafficking. Part of the curriculum used is from Focus on the Family’s “No Apologies,” with a tweak toward the Fijian and Indian cultures.

Rescue — Outreach teams go mainly into the interior and to outlying islands to explain about Homes of Hope and its availability, and to look for girls. A “vulnerability index” is used to identify girls especially susceptible to exploitation. Girls must have two of the nine indices. The teams seek permission from the chief or the family to bring the girls back with them.

Restore — This is the campus program  where the girls may stay three or four years for counseling, discipleship, mentoring, Bible teaching, job skill training and basic life skills training. The girls are busy from very early in the morning until night.

Reintegrate — This is the most difficult part, where the girl and one of the staff return her to the family and seek reconciliation and forgiveness, offered both ways. The staff member will attempt to reintegrate the girl back into her community, to find housing and a job. Not only time consuming, reintegration may take years to accomplish because of the stigma against the girls and going against the culture.

Sex trafficking an American problem too

While the accompanying article focuses on what is being done in Fiji by Shared Hope International and Homes of Home Fiji, human trafficking is a pervasive concern in this country and many large U.S. cities.

The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children  compiled all of the information obtained through four years of research in America.  It was released at a Congressional briefing in July 2009, and examines the governmental and nongovernmental efforts and gaps in addressing child sex trafficking in the United States.

The report encompasses research from across the United States and explores the harsh reality that hundreds of thousands of American children are victimized through sex trafficking in the United States driven by the demand for the commercial sex acts they perform.

Linda Smith released a book in 2009 titled Renting Lacy: A Story of America’s Prostituted Children. Other resources are available at  www.sharedhope.org.

Kristof: There is hope, even for just one

Nicholas D. Kristof, a correspondent for The New York Times, and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, authored Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf).

Resources, service opportunities, and dozens of organizations working at the trafficking and exploitation issues, are at the website www.halftheskymovement.org. Kristof responded to a few questions from Church Executive:

Can you briefly describe the extent of the problem of human and sex trafficking in the world?

As best we can tell, human slavery is a bigger problem now than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. The peak of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in the 1780s, when just fewer than 80,000 slaves a year were transported to the New World. These days, the State Department estimate is that ten times as many, 800,000, humans are trafficked across international borders each year — and that doesn’t include those who are trafficked within a country.

People sometimes think “slavery” is hyperbole for what goes on now, but it isn’t. So many girls and young women don’t keep a penny of what they earn, and they are vulnerable to beatings and sometimes execution from the brothel owner or pimp.

Other than the hurts placed on children and women, as self-evident as that is, what is lost to the world in the positive force of those affected people?

If poor countries are going to grow and overcome poverty, then they need to make better use of their human resources. Their greatest unexploited resource usually isn’t seams of gold, but the female half of the population. And getting girls out of brothels and into schools and small businesses is a start.

Some people want to separate the exploitation of women from the topic of human trafficking, even as related as they are. Can you give some perspective to what separates them and also how their solution brings them together?

There are lots of kinds of oppression, and it’s hard to pick out one as the very worst. Acid attacks on the faces of women, for example, are horrific. Maternal mortality claims hundreds of thousands of lives a year. But when so many women are enslaved each year — the main difference from classical slavery is they are dead of AIDS by their 20s — that should be a much higher global priority.

Where can one find hope at making a difference in the world for the good of those trafficked and exploited, given the pervasiveness of the problem?

Lots of organizations have enjoyed some success, and that was one reason my wife and I wrote Half the Sky. We have some real field experience in what works. Education for girls is a hugely powerful force. So are law enforcement efforts that toss pimps in jail and turn them from kidnapping girls to, say, fencing stolen goods.

Is evangelical Christianity doing enough? Where can congregations become more involved?

Evangelicals were mostly asleep at the wheel on this issue until about 15 years ago, and since then have done superb work both at home and abroad. They have become leaders in this field. But there’s always room for more activity. I’d suggest getting involved with organizations that are on the front lines here, at home and abroad.

What is the reality in most parts of the world where families won’t take their daughters back who have been rescued and restored?

Reintegration is tough, both because families may not accept girls back and because girls themselves have enormous self-esteem problems. Reintegration works for some, and not for others, and in those cases some kind of new home or shelter may be necessary.

What are a few resources people should turn to for more information on this issue?

We’ve started a website, www.halftheskymovement.org, that lists some great organizations in this space. I’d also encourage people to read up on William Wilberforce and the original abolitionist movement [of the 19th century] for inspiration.

One can read your book and feel the incredibly harsh and difficult conditions of so many people, with so little hope to turn around the culture, politics, and financial gain that keeps this “industry” going. Where can one find hope for making a difference?

One of the mistakes we make is feeling the need to “solve” a problem entirely. Look, we’re not going to solve the problem of human trafficking. But I’ve seen that progress is possible. And when you talk to a girl who has been freed in a brothel raid, or who has gotten the education that can keep her out of the pimps’ clutches, then that is a wonderful feeling.

Will you be writing or doing more on the topic beyond the book you have published?

More is in the works, including eight hours of television, an online social action campaign, and of course my reporting on the issue for future columns. Stay tuned!

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