Breath and Gasoline: Human Trafficking, Doubt and the Reasons for it All
It was an unspectacular Friday evening when I knew we’d be doing a night drive. Unspectacular in the sense that it was neither hot nor cold, rainy nor calm – it was an inauspicious day that had become a similarly inauspicious evening; and yet, it was a night when somewhere, some girls were being bought and sold by some men in some dark corner of my city – of our world. For me it was nothing but a Friday-night-drinks-with-a-friend sort of evening but for someone else it was another faceless darkness, another numbing and brutal invasion of womanhood and innocence.
I knew this was happening and yet I could not see it. I knew this and yet I could not find it. I sensed the air around me as if I could feel a tear or a ripple in it, as if I could sense any horror in the quivering of the wind, any cry for help or silent plea to the God of Mercy. I could hear nothing and the wind only carried its usual silent self onward.
• • •
This issue is a thorn in my side. It is a shocking pain and it grieves my heart. It shakes my faith and buckles my knees. And still, it’s one among many:
I know that this isn’t the only bad thing happening in our world. I know other bad things happen and that they happen all the time. I know that there is a numberless cacophony of deaths and murders, wrongs and injustices wreaking their havoc in the broken hearts of Men and in the lives of their victims every day and every night. I know this. I stay up nights. I can’t breath sometimes – I know this.
I also know who my God has said He is – that He is Good. That He is Just. That He is Merciful. That His ways are above my ways and that in His redemptive plan He hears every cry and knows every tear and sees, as we cannot, how exactly His Son the Christ will one day actually and really make all things new, including this. I admit, though – this is a hard place for my faith to grow. I find myself echoing the Apostle Thomas frequently; “Lord, help my unbelief.” And He graciously does so.
I also know that God loves everyone, including the girls who are sold and the men who buy and the men who sell. Though we love to love victims and we love to hate victimizers (years of hoping the bad guy will get it in the end have made that our common thought currency), God sees all sides of this issue and judges all parties rightly as equally broken and in need of a saving grace freely offered – a fact I have to remind myself again and again, especially when I feel like grabbing a baseball bat and meting out some ‘justice’ of my own to a man who would even think of touching a young girl.
Thank God our God is not like me. Thank God that He wants everyone to know Him. It takes only a short glimpse at our own gracelessness to realize how unutterably amazing His gracefulness is.
• • •
It is heavy with these thoughts that I stand on this Friday night, sensing the air. Almost time to drive.
We’ve planned to do our drive on a Friday night because for many reasons it is an active night for this sort of commerce. When we finally meet in a dark apartment parking lot, each of us comes out of the shadows and into the light with relative severity. We pray briefly and get going.
Two friends who have worked with a wonderfully brazen woman from a local trafficking organization are along with two others. We have a plan to drive to a short list of suspected trafficking spots, picked out by this bold friend who is “in the business”. On it are inauspicious places like salons and shoe stores – retail fronts set back in forgotten industrial parks in the shadow of major freeways. Glamorless and forgotten places – perfect for such illicit activity; by day, respectable and plain and by night something entirely different. Evil is far less obvious and far more congenial looking than we give it credit for. Our job is to visit the locales, scope out the after-hours activity and pray for them. Along the way we find ourselves also led to places not on our list – a shady strip joint here or an all-night video store with a particularly active clientele parked out front there. The good thing about prayer is that you can’t be wrong about a place – everyone needs Jesus equally as much. Everyone needs saving grace. Everyone.
So, as an outpouring of this grace, we gather in my car in the late hours to beseech our Good God to act and to save and to rescue on our behalf. We pray for hearts to be broken and lives to be changed, chains to be shattered and pleasure to turn to ashes. We pray for demand to cease and for a city to be outraged for the sake of its daughters and we pray for a society to learn that there is no true and lasting satisfaction outside of knowing Rightly its Creator. Big prayers in a small car, spoken to foggy windows beneath red blinking lights.
Our last stop is a small sign in the back of a plain business park built in the mid-80s behind a busy Hispanic nightclub. An unclear flyer found online told us to expect something nearby.
So we sneak into the back of the pay-only parking lot for free, somehow undetected as we drive by a clamor of bouncers and valets, and we find the surest spot for what we’re looking for. Slotted next to 5 or 6 silent storefronts, it’s a terrifyingly open door well past midnight, unattended and unadorned. In the dim light a couch and potted plant are visible, sitting in front of a cheap floor lamp, a ticket-booth tinted window and a locked interior door with a small, lit doorbell. It’s so plain it’s almost sickening. No one is around. We wait. We pray. Two men go in. More waiting and no men come out. This place is clearly in business. We feel powerless – who is inside? How many girls? How young? Do we call the cops – or if we do will it be too late by the time the authorities make it around to investigate? We know they rotate girls frequently to keep customers interested. And as soon as the heat comes this place will dry up and move on, like they all do. There are more questions and we cannot answer any of them. Another sleazy flyer found online later tells us slightly more about the discreet Asian massage parlor we’d found – it’s new in town, but we can still only guess what’s next for it; as if we want to.
But in that parking lot our prayers have a visible target and the reality hits home. Behind those sun-faded tinted windows we know that the girls we pray for have faces and names and families. We know that shame and lust and hurt are lurking so thickly through those rooms and that a culture of sexual lies leaves men more empty and more dead with every visit. We can see it and feel it.
And there we are, huddled in a car in prayer because at the time it’s all we can do. We’re not here to play Christian hero, and besides, it’s God who does praise worthy things with us, anyway – not the other way around. We’re simply responding out of love and duty to this enormous wound in our world. Love does in spite of itself for the object of its affection, and in this case our Love for God and for a broken world sent us to our knees for a few hours on this night in Dallas, Texas.
• • •
But can I be honest? About this whole thing?
It almost felt hopeless and dumb – spitting into the wind or taking one stone away from the Himalayas. What can we do, anyway? How can we stop such a thing as this and move these mountains even a millimeter? Can God really break hearts and grieve a city? Can He really move in a society? Are we being audacious to ask for such things?
The answer is yes but it’s not an easy one.
But what did we even do? Objectively – not figuratively?
Did we rescue anyone? Did we blow the whistle on a trade being made in some dank alleyway at the last second? Did we bring the light of the Gospel into a strip club’s back room or the all-night massage parlor’s foyer, guns blazing and Holy Spirit speaking?
And the cynical would think then that we had actually done nothing at all, that our prayers went about as far as the glass in my car windows, that bringing religion into this whole mess is a pointless enterprise, that men have always bought sex and women always sold it, that it’s merely a detestable fact that children get sucked into it. Why waste the breath and the gasoline - and if we really cared that much we’d just roll up our sleeves and do some saving ourselves.
And anyway, they might ask, why don’t we just save something more easy to find, like dolphins or trees or puppies?
Cynicism is a palpable force in our world and if it wasn’t for faith it would mow down my spirit like a scythe. But above the clamor of lies and snares and more powerful than the spiritual darkness that holds sway over this stronghold of lust is a God who has defeated sin and freed us from all bondage to it.
So, was it worth it?
We were indeed audacious in our prayers, but then was it not Jesus who promised His presence?
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" Matthew 18:20.
And then there’s this audacious promise in 1 John 5:
"This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him." (v. 14-15)
And this God we approach with such boldness is the God that delivered a captive nation and shook the prison doors loose and promised to save billions in all nations through a man named Abram. This is our God who can do all things and it is with full assurance and hope we pray for Him to do in His power what we cannot.
And we didn’t do it just once and we’ll do it again, too. We’ll keep praying and trusting that God can move this mountain and that He is, through people like us and people like you, at work. One day doors will be kicked down and rescues made. One day light will shine into ever darker corners. One day…we pray and we labor.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:19-21