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. palintwit

    Sarah Palin believes that human trafficking is when there's a big crowd at the nascar track.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  2. dclogicatlast

    Wootings, if you are interested in loving everyone equally and having rational discussions, why do you resort to ad hominem attacks in your very next sentence?

    February 5, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  3. dianebarth

    I appreciate her goal. Could someone PLEASE explain to me then, why Christians tend to vote GOP– the party which has the most chicken hawks chomping at the bit for war, and are the least sympathetic toward the poor?

    February 5, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • Douglas

      Same reason the rednecks vote for them. It's a matter of Jingoism mixed with lower-than-average intelligence. Bingo.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • an atheist

      Because there a very few christians like the ones in this story. Most just want their reward for voting against gays

      February 5, 2012 at 10:49 am |
    • RealityCheck

      .... because GOP fights for pro-life, traditional marriage,etc. which are the fundamental grounds for which Christianity stands. Christians are the most generous towards the poor but wouldn't allow laziness reign supreme. also, they are against war but wouldn't stand alone against oppression and anti-freedom nations.

      my 2 cents.

      February 5, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • David

      Yes, I can explain. Because most true Christians are against abortion (killing human beings before they are born) and most Christians, in accordance with the Bible, are against stealing from people to give it to those too lazy to work for a living. Christians believe in the 2nd amendment and our right to defend ourselves, which most democrats don't. I could go on and on. If you read the Bible and study the beliefs, it will be no mystery to you whatsoever.

      February 5, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • S

      As you can see from the responses you've gotten, plenty of people claim to be Christians but do not follow the teachings of Jesus and feel they have the moral authority to judge others ("too lazy to work" instead of "stuck in the cycle of poverty"). The GOP has convinced a lot of already selfish people that it's somehow righteous to slash social safety nets and deny women medical care if it involves reproduction under the guise of "helping." These people have deluded themselves into believing they are following the tenets of their religion, but they are hypocrites. And for the record, I'm not a Christian. I was once, but I got sick of the hypocrisy and the lies and the political nonsense that organized religion has brought us.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  4. jaime

    first off human trafficiking has becoming the countrys "nasty" little secret. I not only commend CNN for having the guts to run such an article but I also commend this church and woman for loving the only true god enough to go where man doesn't have the courage or guts to go. jesus didn't go door to door beating his beliefs into anyone. they followed from seeing the "signs & wonders" of what our living god could do for them. he didnt sit with the rich and powerful, he sat with the sick, the theif, the addicted and the ones whom were bound by their chains. this woman and church r not going to the victims and forcing them to come to believe the way they do, they r simply off their hand for help. this is how ALL churches should b. believe me if the lord wants the ppl being helped just a simple act of kindness, a smile or a cup of warm coffee is ALL that is needed for HIM to plant the seed. while yes prayer helps and according to the book of James 5:16......the effective, fervent prayer of a rightous man

    February 5, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  5. CanuckGuy

    My feelings are that these sorts of Christians are preying on the weak, just as the pimps do. Are you really helping the girls, or are you helping yourself to have some sort of fulfillment in being able to influence other people? There is a point where it is no longer about god, and all about yourself and your "life's work". Then it becomes a battle of who can win the weak over for now, and nothing more.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • gurtie1980

      Amen, notheism!

      February 5, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • Joe

      So don't help anybody if it makes you feel good doing it.. right. Moron.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • freddy

      Then you go do something about it. So we don't have to worry ourselves about young girls being exploited. Please, you go be the one that is not preying on the weak, but is merely doing it out of the goodness of your own soul.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • David

      What an idiot! Christians are among the most generous people in the world at helping others in need. Yet even when they do that, morons like YOU will still bash them. This lady gets NO money for this and is driven by nothing but helping those who need help and can't help themselves. She probably has nothing to do with these girls once (and if) they clean up and move on. You are a truly a selfish idiot!

      February 5, 2012 at 11:06 am |
    • M. DaSilva

      So now I guess we know your excuse for not helping your fellow human beings–it's actually preying on the weak. Perfect!

      February 5, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • johnu

      Wow, what a perfect example of rationalizing why you sit on your butt and do nothing. At least you aren't as bad as those people who are actually trying to help, because they just do it to serve themselves, and of course you are so much better than those "weak" people they are trying to help. Stay in your armchair and keep up the complaining, cause you are so awesome.

      February 5, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Rintrah

      What if it were your daughter or wife or sister who was being exploited and violated, night after night? I don't think I'd care particularly about the motives of the person helping me . . . I'd just be relieved to be out of the living hell I'd been in.

      February 5, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Therese

      If you re- read the article you will note that these people said they only talk to the people they are helping about the beleif that impels them to offer help if the person wants it. Their motivation is not ( or may not) be a feeling of superiority or self-satisfaction as much as - love. One of Jesus' earliest followers explained this – that to Christians, God is love, personalized and with a capital "L". 1 John 4:7-11. That is why Chrisitans have been involved in the anti-slavery movements, the civil rights movements, movements to end exploitation of workers, and now this. Are you so prejudiced against a belief you do not share that you would prefer these people who are being trafficked to not get help unless you approve of their motive, from your armchair?!?

      February 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm |
  6. an atheist

    Bravo.. one if the very few christians who actually acts christ like

    February 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • Dan In Tampa

      Not really

      February 5, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  7. yeap that's right

    Couldn't she just pray from home instead of stalking everyone?

    February 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • ChristiansaregoodforSOMEThings.


      I know a lot of nonbelievers who hate Christianity for the narrow mindedness and prejudices but the reason I don't hate them as a non believer is because they do have a lot of charities that help people where other groups are not helping. I, myself did a lot of volunteer work with the church when I was a believer and will go back to the church when I'm looking for more volunteer work. There's no reason to hate on the woman in this article. She's doing something very commendable as a lot of Christians are.

      February 5, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  8. Reality

    A possible solution?

    Video tape the situation i.e.the time and date, the girl getting into the truck, the truck's license plate and the pimp's car and license plate and run said tapes on YouTube. Shame is a great deterrent as are wives of truckers who find that their husbands are not being faithful. Complaints made to the trucking companies and to those companies paying these truckers to haul their products would also help to put a quick end to said practice especially when said truckers lose their jobs over their obscene activities. With the sophisticated video cameras/recorders available today, the taping can be done at a safe distance.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  9. Heather in SoCal

    also a focus of United Methodist Women.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  10. Practical1

    Christians need to be more Christ like in their actions and not just spouting words. Danielle Mitchell is an example of action.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  11. Brandon

    I predict more proselytizing than actual help.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • BethTX

      Yeah. Everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord except women, gays, blacks, and people with opinions.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • Nii Croffie

      No I wrote the 2nd greatest Commandment and John 3:16 for them. That is not the Golden Rule. We apply it to all sinners no favours just that the gays are being convinced falsely that being gay is genetic or congenital or even mental. This makes them hostile to Christians extending love.

      February 6, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  12. WillyJ

    Yep....this woman is going to find herself in a pickle one day when a pimp rolls up on her with a gat.......if it isn't abortion, it will be always something else Christian people stick their noses in. Trafficking people are wrong, but do christians really need to bring jesus into fighting everything? Seriously, can't people do it just because they may have some rational self-interests?

    February 5, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • John

      Most people expect their taxes to pay other people to do this sort of thing for them. There just aren't that many who actually want to go out and help others with their own time and money regardless of what their religion is.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • David

      It's their Christian morals and beliefs that inspire these people to help others, you idiot! They are not just atheist crap-talkers like you – they are doing something to help!!!

      February 5, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  13. BL

    Most of all, Jesus wanted you to change yourself. Charity is fine, but soon becomes an exercise in ego to avoid self transformation. Change yourself and the world will change.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  14. 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.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • AK

      Mom didn't get the deep-fried Twinkies just right this morning?

      February 5, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • trainwreck

      can you prove it? no? she is doing the owrk of Jesus, and whether or not the physical person existed it doesnt matter...personally i fully believe he did exist as a great charismatic teacher, who had devoted followers who attached myths from other traditions

      February 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • MidwstrnGrl

      Most of the time this is a form of slavery. Im an atheist and I think an active involvement in the prevention of this sort of thing is honorable. Go for it.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • John

      Yes, people going out trying to save women from human trafficking are idiots. I'm an atheist but applaud this woman for standing up for what she believes in and doing the right thing instead of simply sitting at a keyboard and criticizing others.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  15. Rob

    Maybe someone should give items with phone numbers to help all these pathetic, holier than thou, religious brainwashing victims.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:27 am |
  16. Mohammad A Dar

    Interesting enough, word religion does not exist in Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic languages, nor in 4 gospels of Bible and no sign of word Christianity, a fabrication by the hindus of Egypt and Persia, imposed by force on humanity. Jesus lived by La. the truth absolute and commanded truth absolute in life. One has to be a fool to accept hindu Mithra ism, savior ism way of life without truth absolute as his faith.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Plug1

      The Arabic word for Religion, is Deen.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  17. Good Job

    Good Job, I hope you are able to help many women and I hope the pimp dies slowly of horrible conditions of some kind.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  18. ann west

    I agree with some earlier statements that religion has nothing to do with helping people. You don't have to go overseas to help people. If each person in the world would help someone in their lives the world would be better corny yes, but true. This does not include handouts to drunks, drug addicts and bums. I mean real help.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  19. mephibosheth

    It is usually the quiet Christians with a true vision who get the most work done, and who never get recognized for it. The loud mouthed pseudo-christians with a political agenda are just making lots of noise and pi$$ing people off and getting nothing done. "You will know them by their fruit".

    February 5, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  20. Popcorn

    Americans should know atheist americans don't like Christians. : (
    People won't get along with christian.

    February 5, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Wootings

      Actually atheists love everyone equally, and are interested in having rational discussions about how everyone can get along. The religious, on the other hand, prefer to just kill and/or abuse anyone who doesn't read from the same book of fairy tales.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:27 am |
    • t3chsupport

      Only immature atheists don't get along with Christians. When you grow up, you won't bicker so much any more, because it's pointless.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Douglas

      @Wootings.... Case in point: The Crusades. Need we say more?

      February 5, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • notheism

      That's absolutely false, one's religion does not determine the worth of a person. Personally, as an atheist, I consider people based on (what I can tell from) their actions and their motives, and here is why: A person is capable of carrying out a good action (i.e. doing what they can do end human trafficking) but not for the right reason (a purely religious one, such as "god told me so"... what that person does, in that case, is not right because they recognize the value of what they're doing but they're following orders without conscience – surely there's a difference because this mindset can equally lead one to carry out vile acts and allow them to justify these through the same logic).
      So, you could say that "Americans should know that atheist Americans don't like Christians that attempt to impose their un-welcomed beliefs on them". In the same respect, you could say that you (as the Christian I think you are) do not appreciate other faiths imposing themselves on you and your freedom to practice or believe in your religion (one's freedom begins where another's starts, you could say).
      I hope that helps, cheers.

      February 5, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • bspurloc

      the christian taliban wah wah wah for us tactics dont work. when u FORCE yourself into peoples faces, when u express u r better than everyone people start pushing back. wah wah we converted ALL of South/Cental/North american tribes to be good lil christians by hanging and burning their leaders, destroying their temples burning their books.... wah wah

      February 5, 2012 at 10:52 am |
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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.