Granola bars sensitize students to NYC's vulnerable

NEW YORK (BP) -- It all started with two granola bars and a challenge, and before the day was over, a group of high school students saw the world's human trafficking problem from a whole different perspective.

Students from Prestonwood Baptist Church in metro Dallas talk with a homeless woman on the streets of New York City. The conversation happened as part of a one-day challenge to "see" and engage with people who might be vulnerable to human trafficking and exploit.
Submitted photo
The concept was simple.

The students, from metro Dallas, were spending the day in New York City learning how to combat human trafficking when Raleigh Sadler issued a challenge.

"Go buy a box of granola bars, and when you approach someone who seems isolated, have two of them in your hand," said Sadler, executive director of the Let My People Go ministry. "Then offer them one of the bars and eat yours too -- share that simple meal with them."

And while doing it, ask about them -- who they are and what brought them here, Sadler said.

"My goal was for them to engage the person in front of them," said Sadler, who led a one-day pilot program involving students from Prestonwood Baptist Church in mid-July. In previous months, groups from dozens of churches across the nation have traveled to New York City to participate in a similar three-day experience with Let My People Go.

One of the key aims of Let My People Go is helping churches know how to engage the vulnerable, because vulnerable people often are the target of traffickers, Sadler said. In doing so, churches can help stop trafficking before it happens.

Groups of students from Prestonwood Baptist Church in metro Dallas talk with people in the subways of New York City as part of a challenge from Let My People Go, an organization that teaches churches how to fight human trafficking by reaching out to those most vulnerable.
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"I told the students, 'I'm not asking you to do anything today other than listen to someone's story,'" Sadler recounted. "God has given us a beautiful opportunity to love the people right in front of us. We have to be intentional to notice people where they are and reach out to them as people who have struggles just like we do."

Jameson Barker, Prestonwood's student discipleship minister, said the granola bar challenge was one of the most effective exercises his student group ever experienced in working with the homeless.

"So many people walk by and give the homeless money or food, but not many stop to find out who they are," Barker said. "To see our students really own that assignment and do it on their own was amazing. So many have mentioned, 'We could do this back at home.' That's been cool because they see the ease of sharing the Gospel and hearing someone's story."

And the idea has been infectious, Barker said. The church's junior high students went to serve in Dallas soon after the high school group returned from New York, and while in Dallas, they planned to buy granola bars to engage the homeless in the same way.

"Now the junior high students are benefiting from what our high school students really took hold of," he said.

It was a method marked by intentionality, Barker said.

Raleigh Sadler, executive director of Let My People Go, leads students from Prestonwood Baptist Church in metro Dallas through a morning orientation on human trafficking before sending them out into the city to talk with people who might be vulnerable to exploitation.
Submitted photo
"For instance, eating a granola bar with them instead of just handing them out put us on the same playing field as them for a moment, just people sharing a meal," he said.

Stephanie Williford, girl's ministry associate at Prestonwood, said the activity yielded "a bunch of" good interactions during the day, even touching on eternity.

At one point, Williford noticed that the students were deep in a conversation with a Muslim man they had seen reading the Quran on the street.

"Our students started talking to him, and through that conversation they got to present the Gospel and lead him to faith in Christ," she said.

But some conversations weren't as easy, Barker said. One girl offered a granola bar to a man in a wheelchair, who yelled and took a swing at her.

"Later in the day as the students debriefed with Raleigh, he reminded them that every person they interacted with was struggling with some sort of brokenness -- just like we all are," Barker said. "He encouraged them when they had the opportunity to share some of their own story of brokenness with the people they encountered."

In one way or another, all of the conversations invited students into a deeper level of understanding, Barker said.

"I got to talk to a man named David who had been honorably discharged from the military because of scoliosis," he said. "He was a veteran, and he was just trying to get back to Jersey. I was able to get him a map with shelters that were open to him -- he didn't know where any were. And I got to pray with him."

And Barker made note of the street corner where he met David so that Sadler could follow up later. All during the day, students took detailed notes of names, conversations and locations so that Let My People Go could come back and try to engage the same people again and build relationships.

Sadler said most people know there are places they can go to get help.

"What they don't know is that there are people who love them. We are trying to show them that," he said.

The one-day experience with Let My People Go is short, but it encourages a culture of intentional, love-based ministry to the vulnerable, Sadler said. "That's what we want to challenge churches to take back home."

For more information, visit lmpgnetwork.org.

Grace Thornton is a writer in Birmingham, Ala.
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