7 Reflections From 7 Months of Witnessing Sex Trafficking & Exploitation in Bangkok, Thailand (while interning for NightLight International).
1. GOD, WHERE IS YOUR GOODNESS? What is ‘humanity’ and at what point do people lose it? Why can’t I stop my soul from this painful grieving and sorrow?… These are the thoughts that I’ve often had to process through with God over the past seven months. Humanitarian workers across the world go through some tough, faith-testing stuff (second-hand trauma). They see some of the hardest realities of our world week after week and as these experiences compound, their deepest beliefs about life and the world are tested. Throughout my time here, God has been faithful, and loving, and true. I have seen women freed from the trap of prostitution and exploitation. I have seen God’s power and love pour over dark and disturbing areas of our world and bring freedom and hope. But that didn’t stop me from asking God, sometimes in anger or tears, why these things are happening and why it’s hurting so bad to be in the midst of it. It turns out His “refining fire” the Bible talks about HURTS really REALLY badly (but in reflection is so worth it). Please pray for those who are still enduring day after day to be a messenger of hope to exploited and broken peoples everywhere.
2. THE BLAME GAME. Yes the world’s a mess. Yes there are many hard, exhausting and painful parts in each of our lives. Yes there are things to grieve over and get angry about all around us. Yes… yes. But still, we choose how we respond to these things; how we behave and even think. We have a lot of power to choose. We can choose be angry or we can be determined to forgive. We can offer our love unconditionally, or we can withdraw that love… or we can manipulate it. We develop priorities for our time, energy and money. We choose what to say, and whether our actions match up to our words. We choose what we value most, and whether or not our financial spending actually matches what we claim to value (Is your budget spent on your kids, your education, helping a cause your “passionate” about?). We also choose what we believe in, and the degree to which our faith becomes the motivation for each and EVERY action, EVERY day. WE CHOOSE. We have the capacity to change or we can choose to stay the same. But as adults we have to admit that WE must take responsibility for the way our internal decisions affect various internal and external consequences. As for me, it’s never quite that simple or easy to change, so I turn to One who is greater: a Savior who is quick to help us and a God with endless wisdom and strength.
3. HUMILITY! OUCH. It’s awesome that so many people are so passionate about the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. But the first thing I learned from NightLight is that what we read and see on TV is not always accurate, and sometimes it’s quite sensationalized. After shadowing the field workers – those who are hitting the streets week after week, walking into the hotels where trafficking happens in plain sight, sitting next to pole dancers on their breaks and listening to their stories, and offering a safe friendship to these women where few exist – I have begun to understand how sexual exploitation is as “normal” in some places as a drug dealer on the corner of an inner city street. The best way I can explain it: like the difference between watching a movie about war and actually talking to a soldier who’s just returned from combat. The work they do through this outreach is faith-testing stuff: it can be traumatizing (because it’s REAL and in front of you), there’s not nearly enough resources given to help the thousands in need around you so you sometimes battle feelings of inadequacy, frustration and stress, and the issues surrounding the sex industry are so inexplicably complicated that it tempts you to throw your hands up in the air and want to give up! These individuals have been pathing the way before us. They deserve our utmost respect and our emotional, FINANCIAL and spiritual (PRAYER) support. Ask and pray how you can SERVE them and learn from them. And DON’T THINK COMBATING THESE ISSUES WILL BE EASY, GIVE YOU SATISFACTION OR FIX ANY SELF ESTEEM PROBLEMS. IT WON’T. But together, if we endure through whatever comes, we get to watch God at work – we get to see people walk out of slavery and into freedom – and that is totally worth it.
4. I’M NOT BRAVE, I’M IN LOVE, AND THERE’S A BIG DIFFERENCE. Many people have recently told me I am brave. But I’m not that brave. I’d still ask someone to walk me home at night in the middle of South Carolina if there’s no one going with me. Why? Because I’m AFRAID. I didn’t go to intern with NightLight so I could explore Thailand (I already knew I hate being a foreigner. It’s hard!). I didn’t go to save the world (At 22, what do I truly know about the world and about all the challenges of life?). The only reason I came, the only reason I entered this journey of learning to outreach to and care for women who are being sexually exploited and trafficked, is because I am ridiculously in love with God and my Savior Jesus Christ. I have full faith in His power and desire to save all people. He’s dramatically healed, renewed and transformed me at profound levels and I am so grateful. So I went in obedience to God’s direction. And He carried me through most of it, because it was much too exhausting and heart breaking for me to handle anyways.
5. IF WE’RE NOT CAREFUL, WE ALL PLAY A ROLE IN THE CYCLE OF HURT AND ABUSE THAT FEEDS THE HORRORS FOUND IN THE SEX INDUSTRY. I remember sitting in a park before work one day when the man next to me started chatting. He started sharing about his life, as tends to happen when you hang out near Bangkok’s red-light district. He talked about how he often comes to the bars to build friendships with the women. Later in the conversation he shared that he had also participated in prostitution. He expressed frustration that the women see him as an ATM and not an opportunity for a relationship, and that they exploit him for food and other purchases. He mentioned that many men commit suicide after the connection they thought they had with one of these women turns out to be founded in fantasy… I remember on my first day interning at NightLight I walked in and saw one of my favorite women, glowing with joy and beauty. I tell her, “You look beautiful today!” She points up to the sky and says “That’s because my Father is beautiful!” Later that week, she excitedly shared her testimony with me: Just two years before, a few blocks from where we stood, she had worked as a street prostitute. She said it was a really bad time for her: men would beat her, some customers wouldn’t pay her and she thought about committing suicide. She wanted a way out. Then someone told her about NightLight…. I remember every time “N”, an African woman who’d been trafficked to Thailand, gave me a hug. So sweet, so sincere, so gentle. She had been working the streets as a prostitute when NightLight outreach workers met her and asked her if she wanted help going home. I only met her in casual settings, when we were celebrating or hanging out like friends. A few weeks ago she finally returned home. While she was in Thailand she had been raped so violently that the physical trauma never fully healed. These injuries have now turned into cervical cancer and she also tests HIV positive… People in all walks of life are holding in layers and layers of abuse, brokenness and/or humiliation. Anger and bitterness, abuse of all types and various attacks to individuals’ identities are all major contributors to the mindset shifts that fuel the sex industry. Perhaps men feel unappreciated, disrespected and taken advantage of by women. They battle feelings of loneliness, insecurity, failure, fear of rejection and unmanliness and take it out on others verbally, emotionally, physically and/or sexually. Maybe they were sexually molested or abused as a child. Maybe they confuse sex with love and are left empty when they find out the woman secretly had always seen him as just a loaf of bread. Women perhaps continue/respond with passive aggression, anger, bitterness, blame and their own forms of abusive behavior towards men. These women also experience rejection, fear, insecurity, sadness, loss of identity and abuse of all kinds. Both hold on to un-forgiveness, both blame the opposite sex, and attempt to justify their actions within themselves. Both are convinced that they are in the right; the cycle continues and perhaps even deepens. We may not feel like we should relate to issues of sexual exploitation, but we can all admit to doing at least one of these things can’t we? Not forgiving? Blaming? Generalizing? Projecting hurt? Deepening in insecurity? Holding on to self-condemnation? The stories can get a lot more horrific and complex but you get the picture, right?
6. GOD IS NOT TO BLAME. No matter what kind of insanity or pain exists in the world, God has always been in the midst of it pouring out His love, and He will continue to be there, even if we all give up. In the moments when I questioned why God wasn’t doing anything to stop the exploitation I was seeing, I was hit with the memory that HE IS THE ONE WHO SENT ME HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE. It’s definitely not the path I would have chosen for my life and the same is obviously true about most of the other outreach workers here. We’re only here because God gives us the strength to be here and because when we get disheartened He reminds us of His infinite power to do the seemingly impossible and that God has never and WILL NEVER give up on the world. He will keep fighting for all things good. The question is: will we? Do we trust Him?
7. FINALLY. I HAVE LEARNED THAT IF YOU WANT TO BE AN INSPIRATIONAL PERSON, YOU MUST SURROUND YOURSELF WITH INSPIRATIONAL PEOPLE – people who make you feel very small (in the best of ways), people who make you jump leaps and sprint miles in your level of maturity, character and faith just to catch up. Surround yourself with people who celebrate you and desire to watch you reach your highest potential, people who live for the little things as much as the big things in life and who match their actions with their words, people of integrity, passionate people motivated by love and compassion. When you reflect on these people, you have to laugh because no matter how much or how fast you grow, you never quite seem to catch up, and thus, you always stay inspired. And yet somehow, they believe that their ceiling can be your starting point and it excites and motivates you to choose the path that won’t disappoint!
Maria Gambone de Jesus