I arrived with a family of four and took an empty seat at a table. The person sitting next to me immediately introduced himself and said, "I'm a survivor." He had a personality larger than life. He seemed to know everyone in the room. I could quickly see that I would be blessed by any conversation I shared with him. We talked about high school and future plans. We laughed. We commented on the cookies. And I listened a lot as he engaged in conversation with six people at the table. Four of the individuals had much in common. They were all high school students, teenagers. And, they were all survivors of sex-trafficking. They were so innocent and yet I knew before I walked into the room that their innocence had been robbed a long time ago. I knew that they had seen far more ugliness, far more misdirected passion, far more hours of the night and darkness in the day than any of us can begin to imagine.
When it came time to open their presents, I watched in delight. I knew that our church had purchased the gifts for two of the individuals. I sat and observed as the young people opened gifts like the ones my 15-year-old niece will open on Saturday - a digital camera and UGG boots, an iPod and a new shade of eye shadow, a pair of pants and a new coat, books and music, and many other things. And, I gave thanks that somehow my niece had been sheltered from the horror that has evaded these young lives.
I remember so well when I first started to see prostitutes on the street. It happened soon after I moved to Virginia and would drive into the city before 7:00 on Sunday morning or any other morning of the week. I can vividly picture the first time I watched someone being arrested in a very short skirt and very high-heeled boots. I know well the time my eyes were opened to the business of the night. But it took a lot of searching and being educated to have my heart and mind opened to what is really happening.
We are often led to believe that any woman working the street is a modern day Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." We somehow have concluded that women choose this life where they can make a thousand dollars a night and then be filled with hope of Richard Gere finally coming along, their Prince Charming whisking them away into an abundant life. Boy was I wrong.
The average age of a girl who enters sex-trafficking is 13. Individuals are found standing alone in shopping centers. Heavier girls with low self-esteem are befriended by men who tell them they are beautiful when no one else is paying them attention. Promises of beautiful clothing or the sneakers that every other kid seems to have are made, and the kids offer more trust to the giver of the gift. They are soon made to pay for the gifts - sent out on the streets with instructions for how to make money. The younger the girls, the more money can be made. Pregnant girls can also beg a higher price. And the trade is not only for girls. Boys are being trafficked, too. And, a really sad reality is that some of the boys who are being trafficked are on the streets because of their sexuality - because their parents kicked them out of the house when they learned their son was gay. Innocence is robbed in the blink of an eye - with many eyes watching. And it's not happening only in far off countries. It's happening here - in Washington and countless other cities in our nation.
It took us a long time to find an organization like Courtney's House. Founded and run by a survivor herself, their mission is to get boys and girls who are being trafficked off the street and into a better life. I got to see their work firsthand on Sunday as I sat with these young people. I could literally see how the chains had fallen off as a result of their passion and dedication. They are in the business of setting the captives free - captives that many of us will never see because we cannot believe that prostitution is alive and well in Washington or because we choose to believe it is a choice instead of forced labor.
Thank you, Courtney's House, for what you are doing. Thank you for the powerful ministry you are embodying in our community. Thank you for opening my eyes and showing me the truth of the matter.