February 5th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

The new Christian abolition movement

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Greensboro, North Carolina (CNN) —The truck-stop hooker is no Julia Roberts, the trucker in the cab with her no Richard Gere, and this truck stop off the highway could not be any farther from Beverly Hills, the staging ground for “Pretty Woman.”

The woman sports baggy shorts, a white T-shirt and frizzy hair. Her fat middle-aged pimp sits in a beat up red Honda, watching as his “lot lizard” moves from truck to truck, in broad daylight.  If this pimp has a cane it is for substance, not style.

She moves through the parking lot, occasionally opening a cab’s passenger-side door and climbing in.

The trucker and hooker disappear in the back for 10 minutes.

Danielle Mitchell watches from the other end of the parking lot and shakes her head.

“We know from talking to other victims and other agencies that girls are taken to truck stops and they’re actually traded,” she says, sitting in her car, a shiny silver sport utility vehicle, keeping a healthy 50-yard distance from the pimp.

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Mitchell is North Carolina human trafficking manager for World Relief.  World Relief is a Christian nonprofit attached to the National Association of Evangelicals and is best known for its efforts to combat global hunger and respond to disasters around the world.

Mitchell is trying to tackle a disaster in her home state.   And she is not alone.

Motivated in large part by their religious traditions of protecting the vulnerable and serving “the least of these,” as Jesus instructed his followers to do in the Gospel of Matthew, World Relief and other Christian agencies like the Salvation Army are stepping up efforts and working with law enforcement to stem the flow of human trafficking, which includes sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

“Jesus didn’t just go around telling people about himself.  He also healed the blind and healed the brokenhearted, he freed captives, and I think that it would be ridiculous to walk up to someone who is hurting and tell them, ‘Let me tell you about the Gospel,’ and then walk away while they’re still hurting,” Mitchell says.

In North Carolina, the result of those efforts can be seen in the number of victims of human trafficking being referred to World Relief for services, up 700% in 2011, Mitchell says.

“It’s not that North Carolina is all of a sudden trafficking more people,” Mitchell says. “It’s that we know what to look for and we’re actually identifying and rescuing them.”

Truck stops and sweet potatoes

North Carolina’s rich soil makes it an agricultural hub. It produces more sweet potatoes than anywhere else in the country.  The state acts as a crossroads for three major interstate highways. The mix of accessibility and low-paying farm jobs make a good working environment for traffickers, Mitchell says.

This truck stop is the type you think twice about.  It’s grimy and run down.

How badly do I really have to use the bathroom?  I bet I could hold out for another 12 miles.  That kind of place.

Mitchell walks in and politely asks the women behind the register if they have tape.

“Over there, honey,” the cashier says, pointing to a dimly lit portion of the store.

After paying for a roll of industrial packing tape, she tucks it in her purse and heads for the restroom.

In a stall on the far end, she shuts the door behind her and pulls out the tape and a poster with words in English and Spanish.

“Need help?” the poster asks. “Are you being forced to do something you don’t want to do?” There’s a toll free number, 888-373-7888, for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, run by the nonprofit Polaris Project.

More on the fight against modern-day slavery at the CNN Freedom Project

“A lot of times when girls are being trafficked they’re being controlled,” Mitchell says. “They’re often not allowed to get very far from their trafficker.  And we’ve found one of the very few times girls are alone is when they’re in the bathroom.”

She used to ask if she could hang posters in truck stop restrooms. Now she just hangs them.

That toll free hot line number is plastered on combs, lip balms and nail files that Mitchell and other anti-trafficking workers can slip discreetly to men and women they suspect might be victims. Slipping a potential client an anti-trafficking business card could be dangerous, even deadly, they say.

A comb, nail file and lip balm feature the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

But it’s not the only way Mitchell gets in touch with victims.  Law enforcement is reaching out to her more and more.

When North Carolina law enforcement breaks up a trafficking ring, they call her.

She helps the victims get safe places to live, food and job training,  along with just being a conversation partner.

Since 2010, North Carolina has had a statewide coalition to fight human trafficking. Law enforcement officers are now trained in what to look for. The program includes rapid response teams made up of representatives from law enforcement, service providers, hospitals and charities. When a potential victim comes into a hospital or is discovered through an arrest, the team springs into action.

“Victims are not going to self-identify,” says Mitchell, who has since left World Relief and is considering going back to school after a lack of funding threatened to cut her hours to part time. “ They’re not going to say ‘I’m a victim of human trafficking.’ So the burden is really on the service providers and law enforcement and the community."

In North Carolina, the partnerships between those groups, she says, “have helped to rescue victims.”

Church and state in an unlikely coalition 

Christian groups working to combat trafficking are providing law enforcement with some much-needed relief.

“Because of the limitations of our work, we like to partner with organizations that can provide services,” says Kory Williford, a victim specialist with the FBI based in North Carolina.

“Human trafficking isn’t the only victim population we work with, so to have organizations who can provide care to our victims on a longer term basis than we are able to is huge,” she says.

“A lot of sex trafficking is occurring in this state” and labor trafficking is on the upswing, Williford says.

The FBI in North Carolina has been partnering with World Relief for several years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anand P. Ramaswamy, who focuses on human trafficking cases across the state from the federal prosecutors office in Greensboro, says he has been collaborating with local law enforcement on human trafficking.

“Those kind of cases have only recently been on the uptick,” he says. “As officers become more trained in what to look for, the number of cases goes up.”

The nation and the state are still working to catch up with the reality of trafficking, he says.

“Sometimes the victim was treated as part of the problem,” he says.  “In one instance a 16-year-old girl was charged with prostitution by local authorities.  So we have to go and sort of undo that.  That’s also the case where the person may have done something wrong, so they’re reluctant to come forward.”

Ramaswamy is keenly aware that his office and religious groups do not always have the same interests. His is in upholding and enforcing the law, while religious groups are interested in practicing their religion.

But the assistant U.S. attorney still believes in the partnership between church and state.

“On one hand the fact they’re a religious organization is not directly relevant,” he says. “However, if you look at the history of the abolitionist movement, it has always been religious communities and those are the people who are concerned enough to be active in it.

“And today with modern-day slavery the same is the case.”

The new Underground Railroad

Westover Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, is imagining what fighting modern-day slavery could look like. The nondenominational suburban church is cut from an evangelical cloth and has 5,000 members and a sprawling campus.

In 2011, the church started a ministry called “Abolition!” to fight human trafficking. It focuses on prayer, awareness and resources.

“In truth we didn’t know what we were going to do. We just knew we had a really strong passion for it,” says Dianne Stone, an "Abolition!" member. “We didn’t want to be a group that got together and said, ‘Oh we feel so bad for this.’ We wanted to do something and we wanted to make a difference.”

In a bright room off the sanctuary, Stone, Cambre Weller and Jennifer Craver, all members the group, explain why they got involved. They seem unlikely fighters against trafficking.

They could easily pass for a women’s Bible study group as they casually chat about their children and church activities before turning their attention to trafficking concerns in their area.

“It’s another thing to realize this is in your backyard and that’s our responsibility to address that and protect those who are being exploited,” Craver says.

What's the role of faith in fighting slavery?

Craver says the things they have learned about trafficking are horrible and keep her up at night. “I don’t want to know about trafficking, but I do know about it and as a Christian, I feel like I have to respond to that,” she says. “That is part of my calling.”

The group screens documentaries about human trafficking at other churches and sends out speakers to the Christian circuit. They also prepare emergency bags: canvas totes with a comb, brush, journal, pajamas, clean towels and other basics they learned that most trafficked women don’t have.

They keep a ready stash of bags for World Relief to distribute to victims, particularly those who are rescued during raids.

Mitchell says her faith has played a large role in her work to help victims of trafficking. “I don’t think I’m any different than anyone I work with, in vulnerability or dignity,” she says. “And man, I really believe that Christ saw everyone equally.”

Danielle Mitchell views her faith as integral to her work in fighting human trafficking.

“I could have been born in a brothel in India,” she says.

But there is a limit to how much personal faith she shares with clients.

“We’re completely client centered,” she says. “That means we’re not going to force our faith on anyone.  And I don’t talk to the clients about what I believe, unless they ask me.”

“If a client asks me and they want to go to a Buddhist temple, then I’m going to take them because that’s what they want.”

Prostituted not prostitute

Back at the truck stop, Mitchell explains that she hates the term “prostitute” and despises the phrase “lot lizard.”  She says it strips people of their dignity.

Instead, she refers to a “woman or man who is being prostituted.”  It is a slight change in wording that reveals a starkly different viewpoint.

“A lot of people think of sex trafficking or prostitution, they think it’s glamorous and that you can pinpoint someone who is selling sex or being sold for sex,” she says. “Usually it’s just average people who maybe aren’t taking care of themselves."

The prostitute, or woman being prostituted, or potential human trafficking victim, gets back into the beat up red Honda with the overweight pimp, who drives off, maybe after catching a glimpse of a journalist and activist watching them from a safe distance.

Mitchell calls the police to report what she just saw.

A few hours later, they call back and say the alleged pimp and alleged prostitute are long gone.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church and state • North Carolina • United States

soundoff (1,631 Responses)
  1. Massimo

    On the cover of The Strangers, it states ieprisnd by true events. The movie is actually INSPIRED by three true events. The person knocking on the door is based off of the director's personal experience. When the director was young, someone knocked on the door of his home. He answered, saying the person they were looking for did not live there, and the person left. The next morning, all of the unoccupied houses in that area were broken into and robbed. Next come the Keddie Cabin Murders. This event was used used with the 911 call with the blood everywhere and the mysterious killers. The Keddie Cabin Murder was a terrible thing, but not what the entire movie is based off of. The next INSPIRED event was Charles Manson. The male stranger, although his face was covered, was supposed to resemble the face of Charles Manson. Hope this helps clear up some of the confusion about the basis of The Strangers that several people appear to have.

    June 29, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  2. hearthasbeaches

    I don’t think the elimination of food stamps, health care for poor women, and not funding education for the poor is going to help the situation, but that’s what the GOP want – so which one is more evil?

    May 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • Johnny Vamos

      I would like to bring to your attention that as a Hispanic voter, I can tell you personal stories of Mexian Nationals who have become citizens, and those who work for our company (which is based in Mexico), as an HR Rep. every Friday I get complaints from our employees 75-80% hispanic–who complain about how small their taxes are. Don't go around telling lies about the GOP. I am not a republican; however, before you start posting at least check your sources. If anything, the GOP wants to close the loopholes and eliminate both the fraud and abuse by those who are able to work. Your broad brush "truth-telling" is a far cry from the truth. There are far too many on welfare that are capable of working. Secondly, we have an overbloated government which should dispatch the Dept. of Education and give the authority back to the states who are better capable of running it. Lastly, as a Hispanic voter I am always frustrated when someone tells lies, misguides or misdirects the truth when it comes to government. I live in a city with a higher than most populace of Hispanic people. We can barely make it with the paychecks we already take home. Unfortunately, replying to you won't change your mind and the liberals you so well serve. Futhermore, you would never hear such reports from CNN, MSNBC, or even Fox. The truth is out there; however, democrats and liberals only seek the truth when it best fits their needs.

      April 21, 2013 at 8:36 pm |
  3. Zain

    While I am greatly in ovfaur of a jumper being added to the uniform, I am dismayed to see that it is black for two reasons:Firstly, black is a totally inapproriate colour for the infant and junior cohorts and will in general result in all the younger pupils appearing pale and tired, and secondly the black jumper is a staple part of the neighbouring Lytham St Annes High School uniform and I thought the whole idea of changing uniform was to differentiate not copy.I would like to suggest that whoever made this choice reconsiders perhaps altering the colour to a dark grey marl this would be a good choice as it would look less severe on the younger pupils, and more importantly it would be a discrete acknowledgement of both the Arnold 6th Form tradition of the dark grey suit, and the KEQMS tradition of the light grey marl jumper. Can this please be considered? I am sure I am not alone in my concerns.

    April 3, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  4. Rebeca

    , You gotta read this! Thank you for your strength and svoiin. I was not aware of your organization prior to my sermon but am pleased that it is so comprehensive. On behalf of the many victims thank you and may God bless your work. Our churches would welcome you anytime if you're ever in the area. Sincerely,Rev. Paul PhillipsFirst Presbyterian Church andPleasant View United Church of ChristPalestine, IL 62451

    April 2, 2012 at 3:22 am |
  5. one who knows

    rave on but start breathing clean and fresh air.

    March 24, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Maram

      That's so cool! I feel not quite as crazy now Thank you for stopping by. I love the work that Love146 is doing, and I'm gruetfal for an opportunity to support them. It's crazy how fast it goes by, huh? I guess I'm coming up on three months pretty soon here The daily posting has been my biggest challenge. It's tough to keep up with, but I'm gruetfal that it inspired you! It's so cool that you started a task force. I did stop by there and at your blog, and I love what you're doing. Keep rockin' that dress! Bethany

      June 28, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
  6. Scott

    OMG... you do realize the woman is doing this of her own free will right? Thats she's doing it so she can eat. And that the awful horrible 'pimp' is there PROTECTING HER and making sure she gets paid.

    March 1, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • ah292801

      That must be why the pimp beats her every night. To make sure he gets paid.

      March 2, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Howie

      Typical religious nonsense. They come up with new names and scare tactics to try and end a practice that is as natural as human nature. there is no such thing as trafficking. this is consensual behaviour among adults.

      March 4, 2012 at 10:25 am |
  7. Dddub

    Any true christian should be against abortian AND the death penalty. The death penalty is murder however you look at it. I am not condoning murder or saying I don't think serial killers and other horrible criminals shouldn't be killed it just bugs me to hear GOP politicians and other religious leaders sream against abortion and cheer for the death penalty.

    February 27, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • ah292801

      Maybe you didn't read it, but this story was about whoring, not murder.

      March 2, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  8. enkephalin07

    What's with that opening? Fishing for shallow reference pools? I suppose if you're trying to communicate with people who haven't watched a movie in over 20 years, your references don't have to be analogous to what you're illustrating. Or maybe you're just daydreaming about the life you'd had if you could write such a deep and meaningful classic, instead of this article.

    February 21, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.