RICHMOND, Va. (Christian Examiner) —Take a midnight hike with Valerie Carter and you'll get a glimpse of the victims of sex trafficking at the street level.
Carter, 56, a veteran of urban Christian missions, has been prowling some of the toughest highways in Richmond, Virginia's capital city, for the past eight years. She and her "streetwalking ministry" volunteers look for women and girls caught up in the local sex trade.
The women they encounter aren't always whom you would expect.
"I met a pastor's daughter from east Tennessee out there," recalls Carter, director of the Virginia Baptist Woman's Missionary Union. "She looked like she could be a model – tall, thin, blond hair, just beautiful. I asked her, 'How did you get out here?'"
The young woman replied, "I met a guy in Tennessee and we were going to start a business. My dad told me this guy wasn't good for me, but I got stuck here with him. He abuses me. I've been tricking [working as a prostitute] ever since."
Carter and her volunteers pray with the women, hug them, give them a list of resources to help them get out of the trade. They keep the visits short to avoid putting the women at risk of beatings from their pimps.
"We are the people called to the trenches, the first line of defense," Carter says. "We're seeing more younger girls. In September we sent home an 18-year-old. We put her on the Greyhound bus in Richmond at about 4 in the morning. I told her, 'You're still a child.'"
Another time, Carter met an aunt and a niece looking for clients together. The niece was perhaps 21. The aunt, in her mid-40s, began to sob as she talked to the volunteers.
"One of our volunteers put this lady's face in her two hands, looked her eye to eye and asked her, 'What is it you wanted to be when you were younger? What did you dream about?'" Carter says. "No one dreamed about being in this kind of business."
But they are in it, most of them unwillingly. Someone else makes money by exploiting them, whether it's a pimp or a trafficker.
Carter is realistic about the visible results of her ministry: "The chances are we will never see the fruit of our labor. We just believe that down the road somewhere, when they've given their life to Christ or gotten their life together, they'll remember they met these crazy Christians at 1 a.m. when they were in the business."
BY THE NUMBERS
Global trafficking numbers are staggering: Up to 30 million people are trafficked for the purposes of slave labor or sexual exploitation. It's a business worth more than $30 billion a year to the criminal networks that operate it.
Between 600,000 and 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders, according to the U.S. State Dept. At least 15,000 of them are transported to the United States every year. Some trafficking victims are sold outright or kidnapped. Many more are tricked, manipulated or pressured into selling their bodies against their will.
Those are the cross-border statistics. On the home front, tens of thousands of American girls and women are targeted, groomed and trafficked into the sex business annually – runaways, vulnerable minors, abused women, drug addicts and others lured into addiction as a gateway to prostitution.
"There's a lot of misinformation about what trafficking is," observes Ann Lovell, a former Southern Baptist missionary. She ministered to exploited women in Thailand before moving to Richmond several years ago.
"Overseas, trafficking is almost always related to economics – poor families sell their daughters, hoping it will provide a better life for themselves and their daughters. In the U.S., trafficking is almost always related to a breakdown of the family. Traffickers aren't really grabbing your daughters at the mall. That does happen, but it's endangered runaways who are most at risk."
Whether international or domestic, trafficking victims have one thing in common: exploitation by others. Richmond, a Mid-Atlantic metro area bisected by several interstate freeways, is a prime location for both types of trafficking.
Some critics claim "traditional" prostitution isn't the same as cross-border trafficking, but there's little practical difference if the person involved is an unwilling participant.
"There is no difference," Carter insists. "It's so much easier to look at the [international sex trade]. We're sensitive to those stories, but we're not sensitive to the 14-year-old who has been in the foster care system, ages out at 18 and becomes victimized by men. I get indignant about that as a girl who grew up on welfare in an abusive situation, it could have been me. That's why I do streetwalking ministry."
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Carter has the scars – and the guts – to do that kind of outreach. But what if you're not ready to walk dangerous streets late at night?
Loree Becton, the wife of a prominent Southern Baptist pastor in Richmond, had never been anywhere near a red-light district. She felt compassion for women caught in the sex business – and a clear call from God to respond. But she had no clue what to do.
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Lovell, fresh from mission work in Thailand, joined Becton's church, Grove Avenue Baptist in Richmond. The two began to talk and pray. Later, Becton connected with Carter and participated in the streetwalking ministry. She gathered other like-minded women together to pray for exploited women.
Eventually Becton formed "Precious to God," a ministry based on Psalm 72:14: "He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious in His sight."
The organization works with police, local community officials, other churches and ministries to aid the exploited.
"There are so many organizations out there; it's just unbelievable," Becton says. "But I knew the Father was telling me to connect with those that understand that transformation comes through Christ alone. Not only do trafficked women need to be transformed, but I do, too. It's tested our faith and our prayer life. We feel like we've grown just as much as they have."
The women offer six things people can do to fight local sex trafficking.
Confronting the Exploiters, a Bible study by Ann Lovell, is designed for churches and small groups to develop a ministry among exploited women in their communities. Available online.
Precious to God is a non-profit ministry based in Richmond, Virginia that serves exploited and trafficked women and seeks to restore them to a healthy life with God.