Something More Important Than Sports

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* NOTE: I’m going to be out of pocket for several days (just so’s ya know). I didn’t feel like bragging about the NBA Finals today or making fun of either Clemens or Pujols in their grand returns yesterday. I did run across this both troubling and inspiring article in an email from Sojourners this week, and I wanted to share it with you for your consideration and/or comments.

Shining a ray of light on Thailand’s sex trade
by David Batstone

My ongoing investigation of the slave trade – 27 million people around the globe are trapped in forced labor at this moment – took me to Southeast Asia this past week. Prior to the trip, I had poured over a considerable amount of research about the trafficking of women and children for the sex trade in the region. Reading about the practice is disturbing enough; seeing it first hand proved to be overwhelming.

In Cambodia and Thailand I visited several projects that care for individuals lucky enough to escape – or be rescued – from the bars and brothels that exploit them. I cannot get out of my head the sight of the 50 girls between the ages of 7 and 12 who found safe haven in one rescue center in Cambodia. To think that grown men used these innocent, slight girls for their sexual pleasures numbs the mind. Thanks to the efforts of faith-based activists, these girls are now in a safe environment where they can imagine a better life.

A growing movement of abolitionists offer a glimmer of hope in the human trafficking story. In the spirit of William Wilberforce and his 19th century contemporaries who felt called by God to bring an end to the African slave trade, they act with faith and conviction to “bring release to the captives.”

Annie Dieselberg, who operates a refuge in Bangkok, Thailand, views abolition as her Christian vocation. She calls her project NightLight Ministry, playing off the image of a light that leads to safety in moments of darkness. The creativity behind her project matches the compassion that brought it into existence.

When she launched NightLight in 2005, Annie aimed to offer an alternative for young girls who work in bars that operate as brothels. Annie and her husband had worked in various ministries in Thailand for more than a decade. Witnessing so many women in Bangkok forced to engage in demeaning sex work stirred her to pray for the chance to help them. In early 2005 she took a visiting U.S. church group to a brothel bar. While the men in the church group stayed outside praying, Annie led the women went inside to make a caring connection.

“One of the young prostitutes told me that she hated being at the bar,” says Annie. The woman was 22 years old, with two children. “When I asked her where she would like to be in her life,” Annie continued, “She told me that she would like to be home with her kids.”

So Annie and her sisters in the faith paid the bar owner 600 baht (roughly $15) to take the woman out of the bar for the night – the normal price for a customer. This night, however, the price transformed into a redemption. Annie decided to turn this one-night reprieve into a life-changing opportunity. She had spent the last year teaching herself to make jewelry, and she spontaneously offered the young women a job to work alongside her.

Programs that encourage girls to escape the sex trade but leave them poor and jobless do not lead to long-term success stories. In short, the girls remain vulnerable to being trafficked once again.

Annie designed the project to equip young women for life beyond the brothel. Like a prism, NightLight can be viewed from a number of angles. To start, it is a for-profit business that trains women how to make and sell jewelry. The products are made in NightLight’s humble factory in central Bangkok, and sold through church networks in Thailand and the United States. The jewelry is high-quality and the design ranges from classic to trendy – my 15-year-old daughter was thrilled with the NightLight pearl-string necklace with a cross that I brought back for her.

NightLight pays the mostly young women a salary twice the minimum wage established by Thai law. Obviously, the workers will not become rich quick off this pay, but the compensation does offer a sustainable livelihood. To pay the women a salary rather than a piecework scheme (per produced item) also enables NightLight’s underlying mission to develop healthy women. During the course of a work day, women engage in workshops on health care and HIV/AIDS prevention, managing personal finances, and take English classes. The workforce also is invited to daily worship services to kick off the work day, and a weekly spiritual formation class. Participation in religious activities is not a requirement for employment.

NightLight now employs 32 women in its jewelry business and several more women are on a list pending employment. The biggest hurdle for expansion: financial resources. Truth be known, Annie never intended to grow this fast. The project took on a life of its own as word spread through the brothel bars that escape was possible. And Annie understandably finds it hard to put on the brakes. “At one point early on I felt like we had to halt our progress,” she said. “But then one young woman whom I had been praying for over six years called me and asked if I would help her leave the brothel where she was working. I took it as a sign from God to move forward,” she said. As she says this last statement, she raises her arms as if to add, “And who am I to stop God’s work?”

The mixed demographic of the women who find their way to NightLight reflects the international scope of human trafficking. The 32 escaped prostitutes come from nine distinct countries: Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand, China, Laos, Ukraine, and India. These girls did not plan to come to Bangkok in most cases to work in a brothel. They were deceived, kidnapped, trafficked, and exploited.

Annie makes it clear that resisting the criminal networks that make money off the trade of human beings must go beyond the humble efforts of NightLight. “We badly need a movement of the Spirit in the global church,” she tells me. When I ask what that will take, she remarks with a laugh that more Christians need to read Sojourners. “What I mean by that,” she explains, “is that Christians need to understand that their faith has to take specific action for justice in the world.”

When I press Annie whether churches can actually impact the global slave trade, she becomes resolute: “I grew up in the mission field in Zaire for most of my childhood, along with a couple years in Thailand, and I saw a great deal of injustice. But when I watch the darkness that destroys the lives of young children in the sex trade, I feel that I am confronting a profoundly evil spiritual force.”

For that reason, Annie looks to churches to deploy prayer and action against human trafficking in their own local region, and link those efforts to international movements. “The world badly needs the love for family and bonds of community that the church teaches,” she said. “Now we have to go out into the society and live it.”

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