A tour unholy in name, unpleasant by design
ATLANTA (BP) -- It's Thursday evening, and a group boards a bus at the Georgia Baptist Convention building for several strip clubs, a few hotels and an apartment complex where human trafficking has been reported.
Among them: Kasey McClure, a former Atlanta stripper accustomed to making at least $1,000 most nights who left that world after giving her life to Christ and the birth of her daughter. In 2004 McClure established 4Sarah, honoring her daughter while providing a platform to build relationships with women in the sex industry and, ultimately, to show a way out.
In the 15 years since she left the industry, McClure said, sex trafficking has proliferated.
"There are three main areas now where girls go -- the strip clubs, on the street and online," she said. "Technology has made it tougher [to fight trafficking]. Even though sites like Back Page have been shut down, others are doing the same thing."
In addition, girls entering the sex industry are getting younger and "promised great lives, but that's not what they get."
McClure recalled the impact of former Georgia Baptist public policy spokesman Ray Newman, who died in 2013 from a brain tumor.
"He came onto the board of 4Sarah in 2007 and encouraged me to start a scholarship for the girls we were helping," she said. "He made a difference in my life.
McClure recalled a story shared with her by Newman's widow, Gwen, in a letter. In the 1970s Ray told his wife about a young lady who he'd see walking to the club. He prayed for her to go to church one day.
And one day she did. Speaking with Newman afterward, the young lady said she didn't feel she belonged there. Of course, Newman urged her to consider that, yes, she belonged.
"So many times these women don't feel like they belong. But, we all belong. We belong in the body of Christ," McClure said.
Eight other women plus Echols spoke with the group, including those fighting sex trafficking through law enforcement and legal means, as well as some formerly in the industry now working through nonprofit groups to help young women get out of enslavement and others involved in programs to prepare kids to stay away from being entrapped.
Echols began the evening referring to William Wilberforce. The English politician became known for his fight against the slave trade but knew he couldn't accomplish his goal of abolishing it alone.
Wilberforce believed it would take a personal experience for his peers to join in the struggle, Echols said. The commissioner told how Wilberforce would plan scenic tours of the Thames River, only for the tour to conclude at a slave ship. Its cargo may have since been discarded but the stench of death and misery remained.
"Wilberforce wanted people to face the reality of the slave trade," Echols said. "My goal is to bring people in front of those like Kasey, who are trying to help women get out of this and put the bad guys away."
The tour wound its way through Norcross, the edge of Lilburn, Chamblee, and Brookhaven before reaching north Atlanta, countering the idea that this is a "big city" issue. Seedy hotels exist in small towns, too. And it's not just hotels.
At one point the bus stopped near an apartment building. McClure explained how a madam (yes, it's not unusual for women to enslave other women in the sex industry) had operated from one of the residences. Looking at the apartment complex, bus riders didn't see neon signs but children's bicycles and grills on the porches. There were no obvious signs of a prostitution ring.
Later on, the bus pulled near what has become one of Atlanta's most popular strip clubs. McClure said the place has become known for prostitution, pointing to the packed parking lot that included at least one minivan.
Lt. Sara Koth of the Forest Park police department and mother of two, said people are shocked to learn how prevalent sex trafficking has become and Atlanta's prominence in it.
"To arrest and throw them in jail, you're feeding into the perception that they can't go to the police for help. They'll just get arrested," Koth noted.
Those victimized by human trafficking experience a tough process trying to pull out of it, she said. Often, they're drawn to re-enter a lifestyle that -- even if only for a brief time -- gave them some kind of value, as hard as that is to believe.
"The victims don't always act like victims," Koth said. "It can be hard when you work to get someone out of it, you even think they made it, and then they go back to it.
"You can't take that personal. You go to the next person and try to help them."
The victims, said Ryn Beasley of Atlanta Redemption Ink, literally become possessions.
"We see women who get branded [by their pimp or madam]. Girls have come to us with 'Pay me' tattooed on their hand or 'Snitch' on their gum line. Bar codes, a crown, anything that symbolizes [they belong to someone] -- it's a form of ownership," said Beasley, who worked in the sex industry prior to joining ARI.
Mike Griffin, Georgia Baptist public affairs representative, hopes more churches and pastors will take part in the Unholy Tour.
Atlanta has become among the worst cities in America when it comes to human trafficking, he told The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. "It's important for churches to be knowledgeable. They should be able to educate their congregation on warning signs and dangers involved. Churches need to be able to minister to these victims.
"Overall, the tour helps show the need for better public policy regarding human trafficking and support for better law enforcement. Because of the internet and social media, it's become a problem that really knows no boundaries."
McClure's faith in God's power to lead anyone out of the sex industry rests in her own testimony.
"My relationship with God changed me. When I took that final step out of the club, I had all the material things I thought would better my life. But they didn't, so I thought, 'Why not try God?'
"Now when I talk to girls I ask them what they have to show for themselves. They may be staying with men in an extended stay hotel and unable to buy their own food. I was making $1,000-$2,000 a night and still wasn't happy. The only thing that made me happy was stepping out on faith and depending on God."
McClure's initial step of faith has led to several more.
"I have a 10th-grade education, but now speak to teachers, doctors, lawyers, anyone who wants to hear me. God has opened up those doors for me because I decided to follow Him.
"He's using my past to help others."