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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. Canadain

    abolish religion

    February 21, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • nwatcher

      Why? Because you are so ready to take up the cause? Go for it...

      February 21, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  2. Bobs Friend

    I admire this woman's passion to help the helpless and victimized. I pray that God give her the courage and desire to share her faith with everyone she encounters. Because unless they repent and come to faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they will simply move from one sin to another and end up in hell.

    Jn 8:24 That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins."

    February 20, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • Amused

      I'm sorry, but all the "repenting" and "praying" in the world will do nothing to help a trafficing victim whose pimp will slit her throat as soon as she attempts to escape. This isn't a religious problem. This is slavery enforced by violence and fear. The spouting of useless religious dogma accomplishes absolutely NOTHING. Only brave actions and perseverance will help these victims...

      February 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
    • Believer

      Ah but if the Pimp repented and changed his ways then the slavery will end too. Yes it will take action, which is exactly what she is doing she is not just praying away the issue.

      February 21, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
  3. Patrick

    @ CR
    Ah that old chest nut… blame the media. Never mind history and its countless religious wars.

    February 20, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • Patrick

      I used the reply button. Thank you CNN.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  4. CM

    Keep up the very important work you are doing! I am not sure why your agency and CNN decided to highlight the safest/best place (bathroom stall) to reach these women. Now that the one place where women can receive information on how to get help has been highlighted, it will no longer be a safe place.

    February 19, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
    • nwatcher

      ...so you think the pimps and the rest are reading the religion section of CNN's blogs? Doubt it.

      February 21, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  5. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    BE FILED WITH HOLY SPIRIT. GO TO JESUS2020.COM TO SEE HOW TO PREACH GOSPEL PROPERLY

    February 19, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  6. SHOUT NAME OF SALVATION

    JESUS2020.COM IF YOU WANNA GET SAVED

    February 19, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  7. Jack Crowe

    Oh my lord just watch how this chick's FB or hotline number will get flooded by calls from you lonely anti-social trolls wanting to either date her or compliment how "good looking" she is. This stuff never ends!

    February 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  8. mrrp25

    They are doing good work.No doubt.But does it have to be Christian based?Q;How many of the pimps,traders and johns have a cross hanging from their rearview mirror?Let me guess..85%?

    February 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Dingo

      So what point are you trying to make here? Just because there's a cross hanging on a person's mirror doesn't make that person a Christian.

      It doesn't have to be a Christian based organization, but Christian organizations happen to do a lot of services like this to help people. Yet Christians are always the bad guys... ironic.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  9. Leucadia Bob

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeEiEYKaX0s&w=640&h=360]

    February 19, 2012 at 3:30 am |
  10. J.W

    She looks pretty hot. I may like to suck the poop from her bottom.

    February 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • Booooo

      nobody in his/her right mind would think that you are the regular poster known as J.W

      Get lost...

      February 19, 2012 at 3:50 am |
    • ironage

      And for the right price....i'm sure she would let you. LOL!

      February 19, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  11. vel

    Sad that the Christians in this article seems to think that only Christians are intersted in stopping human trafficking. At least they are doing soemthing, rather than relying on a imaginary being to "heal" anyone of anything. Funny how that doesn't happen at all.

    February 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • senior sunflower

      The work being done in NC is encouraging. I rejoice to see fellow Christians living out their faith in this way. To those who don't know Jesus, I am sorry if somehow you have experienced hypocrisy in various churches. It is there and far too often. But each of us stands individually before God. What someone else does to pervert the name of Christ shouldn't affect how you view Him. Every leader has followers who betray, use whatever or whoever they can for their own selfish aims. This is not how Jesus lived. Read the New Testament in the Bible. See for yourself who Jesus is and how some had their lives changed wonderfully while others betrayed Him. Ask God to show you the truth and He will if you really mean it.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • SeaCapn

      The gods are real. I don't know much about Jesus. Being a fisherman, I hold with Poseidon. He has blessed me with great success especially after pleasing sacrifice and prayer. Perhaps if you haven't felt the touch of the gods, you have offended them in some way. Pray for their forgiveness and burn an offering. This Jesus doesnt sound like too much of a stickler for all that, but from what I've read his dad sure is. Might be worth a shot. Or perhaps try one of the other many gods available to you. Best of luck!

      February 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
    • Ashley

      The sad part is that you actually believe what YOU'RE saying! Had you read the article corretcly you would've read that no where in it did it say that the Christian group that's helping these women feel like only Christians are willing to help. Let me help you out and clarify the statement that you're referring to. The statement was from a law enforcement official who was speaking in regards to the separation of church and state and what he said was that "those are the people that are concerned enough to do something about it." Also speaking in regards to the history of the abolitionist being religious groups. And in response to the most uneducated of all the statements you made, GOD is a GREAT and MIGHTY healer! Who do you think is the cause of the women that have been rescued? I'm sure you'll say it's to the credit of the organization, but I'm here to tell you, that if God doesn't move in your heart to do anything, you'll do nothing! And we'll never be able to, with our finite minds, understand why God does what He does and when He does it, but He can do that, because He's a sovereign God. He doesn't need our ok, our understanding, our approval or disapproval! Just sit back and watch HIM work!

      February 17, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
    • mm

      Vel your ignornace is beynd comprehension. It is blatanltly obvious you hate Christ and those who try to follow Him. Have fun livng a life of "secular humanism"which will lead you nowhere. Anyone who attempts to place the self at the center of all is destined for problems. Good luck.

      February 19, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • NorCalMojo

      So get out there and prove her wrong.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  12. BigDaddy

    Anyone know where this truck stop is? I'd like to find it. I do a lot travel through NC and get lonely.

    February 17, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jenn

      So, when you get lonely you like to r- people? Because that is what this article is about in case you missed the point.

      February 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  13. RSM

    @Oliver Sielski

    "This woman is an idiot and so are all of you. Jesus is not real. You're all such sad sad pathetic people. Don't leave your respective villages. Urbanized society mocks your wizards and healing powers. HAHAHAHAHAHA what a waste of time."

    I always enjoy reading comments of people who talk about subjects that they obviously know very little about such as in your case Oliver. Like all the others, you did not fail to disappoint. One sure mark of a fool is someone who considers anything past their own experiences as impossible and Oliver you show every sign of possessing that mark.

    If anything you and people like you show the very narrow-minded thinking that you claim Christians everywhere have. Just becuase you think that this is nothing more than "delusional nonsense to justify an invisible sky daddy" does not make you right, nor does that mean that God does not exist. I have seen PLENTY of times Christ came through in my life for me and I know of others that had the same experience. But let me guess, that was just delusional right? Please. When you actually bother to take the time to know the people that you are saying are in ignorence then perhaps you'll be able to cure your own.

    But since you are so intelligent, answer this for me...why would God come to someone who obviously does not believe in Him in the first place. or mock people that follow Him?

    Next time don't claim people are idiots before you get all of the facts and then you will not come off looking so idiotic like now.

    February 17, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Jeff S

      What I think is most ridiculous about people like that is – even if God/Jesus/Whomever really didn't exist, it doesn't affect the experience of the spiritual. Quantum physics, psychology, and human experience are proof enough that the belief in (any God), in and of itself, makes it real, whether the stories about their origin/existence are based in reality, or made up out of whole cloth. That's why I think people like the guy you're replying to are lost – they don't understand that the effect is very real, regardless of the origin of the belief. It simply does not matter in the way human reality works.

      February 17, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • vel

      'But since you are so intelligent, answer this for me...why would God come to someone who obviously does not believe in Him in the first place. or mock people that follow Him?" Well, I was a Christian once and prayed and prayed to not lose my faith. But I did lose it. So your god doesn't come to anyone who even does try to beleive in him. Nice excuse, one more fail to chalk up to Christians.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Lutheran Pastor

      Why? Because God loved you so much that he gave his only son, that if you believe in him you won't die but you will have eternal life! (John 3:16) It is no more complicated than that. If you confess, God will forgive you and cleanse you from all unrightousness (1 John 1:9). If you don't believe you will be condemned (Mark 16:16). You don't lose faith because of God not answering your prayers, you lose faith because you stop believing. Stop unbelieving and believe and you will be saved!

      February 17, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • meemee

      Lutheran Pastor

      "Why? Because God loved you so much that he gave his only son, that if you believe in him you won't die but you will have eternal life! (John 3:16) It is no more complicated than that. If you confess, God will forgive you and cleanse you from all unrightousness (1 John 1:9). If you don't believe you will be condemned (Mark 16:16). You don't lose faith because of God not answering your prayers, you lose faith because you stop believing. Stop unbelieving and believe and you will be saved!"

      I know of a lot of fathers (and mothers) who have given their only son so that others could be saved, really saved. Your assertions are only mythical, legendary as best. "Believe and you will be saved," you say. Saved from what? The Judeo-Christian world had to invent a list of sins and Satan in order to save people from it! I would just like to be saved from having to read and listen to this silly junk mouthed by grown up adults, whose common sense ought to tell them better, and whose arrogance knows no bounds.

      You ought to get a real job and do something else besides go on missions to other countries to bring in more illegal immigrants on religious asylum visas, who end up harming the citizenry. And since you religious proselytizers always get involved in politics, religious organization should NOT have a tax exempt status. Just imagine folks, if religious organizations had to pay their fair share of taxes.; We might be able to keep medicare and pay for health care reforms that work. Instead, every sort of weak minded cop out has a church or ministry that allows them to keep everything they can get the naive to give them!

      February 17, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  14. Alyssa

    “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."

    I can respect this woman's viewpoint, even if I don't respect her religion, because she keeps it to herself. Her overriding concern is for the victims, and not with proselytizing. If only all religious people were like this.

    February 17, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • meemee

      I'm pretty much an atheist, but I came up with a version of this idea for a group of men I am involved with. We were going to center more on the drivers, the Johns. We want to approach them with the idea that they are harming someone's daughter, enabling the abusers of women and thus harming our society in general. We want to call on them to be real men and not contribute to the rot of our society. We also want to confront the pimps. I can't stand these types. It's potentially dangerous, but I think these guys are weak cowards and if faced by real men, would shrink away. It might be dangerous, but it is time for citizens to get involved as these people prey on high school aged girls and even younger. It isn't just an immigrant problem. One thing we also want to do is being contact with the sheriff's department and whatever social groups in our area that could offer any women we might save shelter. I think men who can ought to organize themselves around ideas like this. We shouldn't be leaving it to other women or even religious groups or people. All people have consciences

      February 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Dennis

      Yes its nice to see Christians like that, as about 90%+ of Christians are.
      Too bad its the opposite with people like you who insist on proseltyzing your lack of belief.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:15 am |
  15. Bobbie

    Great article. It's nice to see people trying to make a difference.

    February 17, 2012 at 2:26 am |
  16. crappyname

    O.K. I am posting this again, if you thought this article was about a group that wants to abolish the B.S. that christians shovel please contact me and we will start one immediately. Seriously.

    February 16, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Dennis

      interesting, so obviously you are just an anti-Christian big ot, otherwise you would say all religions, or all theisms. nope you are just a coward 'taking on' the 'evil' christians who do what when you defame them? nothing.
      wheres your courage when it comes to islamists? probably the same place your common sense and sense of respect are.

      February 20, 2012 at 10:17 am |
    • Patrick

      @Dennis
      Agree with his views or not, he referenced the article above. You know the article is about Christians. I know using your brain is an uncomfortable and alien feeling for theist but please try.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:18 am |
  17. None_of_ur_business

    I dont think its right

    February 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  18. andy

    i was hoping to read something about how people are finally abolishing the lies and cruelty that is Christianity. bummer.

    February 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  19. A Reasoner

    Religion wasn't always used toward ending slavery. It has been used very effectively to justify it. The bible's an instruction manual. That aside, the efforts described here are admirable, but require no religious component to be effective. There's no reason one should have to accept one form of slavery to escape another.

    February 16, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • meemee

      That's why our CW was an economic war, not a war of emancipation. The Puritan inspired North found white wage slavery acceptable, even though it enslaved men, women, and children, subjected them to abuses, even death in factories, made them work 16 hours a day, no rights, living in dorms, rented from the company, buying food from the company, forever in debt to the company. This was the condition for poor whites in the North. I argue that black slaves in the South had things better. They were paid for, so they were seen to have value, owners are reluctant to harm their property. They had shorter days, their living was free. Their days work days were shorter. Sounds wrong, to say it, but just compare these conditions. The only difference was that the poor whites had the "freedom" to walk away and starve in debtors prison for the money they owed the company. Or they could run away and try to survive as settlers. But the fact is that most of the whites at the factories were people who had already failed on farms, which was not uncommon.

      February 17, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Patrick

      @A Reasoner
      I agree, these people are going against their bibles own teachings. Pretending it’s not in there is just par for the course.

      February 20, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  20. Ay_Dios

    If all faithfull of the two major religions that teach to love thy neighbor saw their faith the way these people do, the world would be a wonderful place. Unfortunately, most don't, bigotry and intolerance are much more common.

    February 16, 2012 at 6:13 am |
    • CR

      Most don't? Or most media coverage and media portrayals of the two major religions don't love they neighbor? Millions of Christians around the world sacrifice time and money to help the poor and enslaved. You just don't hear about it very often. Instead, you read about the occasional pastor that sleeps around.

      February 17, 2012 at 2:26 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.