Battling sex trafficking, trekking to hotels & motels
NOVI, Mich. (BP) -- Amy Lipovsky felt like a song playing on loop -- walking into the same hotels, saying the same things week after week and showing the same pictures of missing girls.
But Lipovsky couldn't shake the feeling that she had to keep going -- God had put these girls trapped in slavery on her heart. And as she kept going, something began to happen -- the people she talked to started to soften. They began to care. They began to pay attention.
And then one day they spotted somebody.
"We had a girl from Toledo who has been missing whose picture we had been showing to hotel employees, and she was identified at one of the hotels we went to," Lipovsky said. "We were able to give that information to the police."
The police, however, didn't find the girl that day. They still haven't.
But they had new information about where she'd been sighted, and Lipovsky had seen another small victory -- a hotel staff that noticed and cared.
'God, I can't do this'
For Lipovsky, the journey from fearful to fiercely committed spanned several years -- at first, she didn't want to get involved in sex trafficking ministry.
"I was first exposed to it on a mission trip to Los Angeles in 2010, and it was on that trip that I really began to grasp the depth of slavery people are trapped in," she said. "But I was disobedient. I said, 'God, I can't do this.'"
But over the next few years, Lipovsky said God began to shatter her expectations in the midst of her fear. She became more and more passionate about taking action, and by 2014, Jon Hix, her pastor at Legacy Church in the Detroit suburb of Novi, had taken notice.
He approached Lipovsky and asked if she would be interested in shadowing his girlfriend -- now wife -- Allison in Florida where she was involved in sex trafficking ministry at the time.
"God clearly was moving in His people, and after connecting Amy and Allison, the FRe Outreach began to take shape," Jon Hix said.
And Lipovsky said she took a deep breath and said, "OK, God -- here we go."
What to look for
Lipovsky, now ministry leader of FRe Outreach, said that through prayer and her work with Allison Hix in Florida, they quickly determined that their best strategy in metro Detroit was to raise awareness among hotel employees.
"The way trafficking happens in the suburbs is through hotels and motels, not brothels and street prostitution," Lipovsky said.
So she and volunteers from the church began visiting area hotels on a consistent basis, building relationships with the staff, showing them photos of missing women and helping them know how to read the signs of trafficking.
"In nice hotels in affluent communities, we have them look for what you think of when you think of the movie 'Pretty Woman' -- more of a high-class call girl situation," Lipovsky said, though other victims may look like a woman on a business trip or even a mom.
In two-star hotels, trafficking victims tend to be more unkempt, wearing dirty clothes and bringing with them few, if any, personal possessions, she said. They often have no identification, look like runaways and have men with them who seem like an odd pairing.
"A lot of people, when they see these things, just don't know what to call it and are unsure about what's going on," Lipovsky said. "We want to help people pinpoint that we have these issues in our community and that hotels can help."
FRe Outreach volunteers also provide three resources for hotel staff:
1. A victim indicator card to help staff know what to look for and provide them with the National Human Trafficking Hotline Number, 1-888-373-7888.
2. A discreet wallet-sized card to give potential victims the hotline number and texting hotline number.
3. Pictures of high-risk missing teens in the region with instructions on which officials to call if they believe they have identified one in their hotel.
Barb Fahrenkrug, a FRe Outreach volunteer, said some hotel staff members have warmed up to their visits and welcome them when they show up.
"We don't want to be obnoxious -- we just want to show that we care about their business and the people who visit their hotel," Fahrenkrug said. "Building relationships with them is really a good thing. We've been able to pray for and minister to the staff as well. It's been a rewarding experience."
But two years ago, she couldn't have been further from wanting to be involved.
The 'scary' unknown
When Legacy Church first presented the idea of FRe Outreach, Fahrenkrug said it sounded like a really needed ministry -- she intended to pray, but that was it.
But God began to press on her heart that it wasn't about her comfort level, she said.
"The unknown can be really scary, and sometimes I'd rather have blinders on than know what's going on. It's a yucky subject," Fahrenkrug said. "But there is so much need to advocate for these girls and to pray for a change of heart for the men who buy their services."
Jon Hix said that volunteers are already seeing a difference in people's mindset as awareness spreads and hotel staff begin to pay attention to what has largely been under the radar. That's huge, he said, because those employees "are on the frontlines and their role is absolutely essential," he said.
FRe Outreach and Legacy Church are also working to get other churches interested in starting ministries of their own, providing resources like kits and workshops for area congregations who don't quite know where to start.
Tim Patterson, executive director of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan, said they are "doing an admirable job at reaching out to the real needs of their community and especially to those who are caught in the vortex of sex trafficking."
It's a desperate problem that hides in the shadows, he said.
Lipovsky agreed, saying she believes God can shine light into those dark places.
"Even though it's a horrible, horrific problem, God can do anything through us if we just have faith and trust in Him," she said. "We just keep on going. It's about obedience and having that faith and knowing there's hope."
For more information about FRe Outreach, contact Amy Lipovsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.