NEW ORLEANS (BP) -- Sandy Wisdom-Martin didn't realize what she was getting into when she stepped through the doorway of the Diamond Cabaret, a strip club in the St. Louis area.
It was 10 years ago, during Southern Baptists' evangelistic Crossover outreach that precedes each year's Southern Baptist Convention.
Wisdom-Martin was part of a Crossover team working to share Jesus with exotic dancers, a job "way outside" her comfort zone. The goal was simple: free these women from the exploitation and oppression of the sex industry through an encounter with Christ that would radically change their lives. Little did Wisdom-Martin know the experience would radically change her life as well.
Today Wisdom-Martin, executive director/treasurer of Texas WMU, was tapped to lead a breakout session on human trafficking during WMU's Mission Celebration and Annual Meeting in New Orleans, June 17-18, in conjunction with the SBC annual meeting.
The breakout, titled "Tricked, Trapped, Traded (Project HELP: Human Exploitation)," focused on raising awareness about human trafficking and giving WMU attendees practical steps they can take to join the fight. Project HELP is Woman's Missionary Union current initiative against human trafficking.
"The issue of human trafficking is part of a larger worldwide issue of slavery," Wisdom-Martin told the breakout audience, explaining that human trafficking is generally divided into two categories: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.
She introduced statistics from the anti-human trafficking website, www.freetheslaves.net
, which reports there are 27 million slaves in the world today, the majority in India and African nations. Every year, thousands of slaves are trafficked into the United States, working in fields, homes, brothels and restaurants. The average cost of a human slave sold around the world is $90.
"Many victims that are trafficked to the United States do not speak English so they can't communicate with service providers or law enforcement officials who might be able to help them," Wisdom-Martin said.
A lack of public awareness also is a significant obstacle in the fight against human trafficking, particularly in the United States, Wisdom-Martin said. She has encountered many people, including Southern Baptists, who simply cannot believe human slavery is possible in today's world, especially in their state, city or community. But thanks to a growing chorus of anti-human trafficking organizations, websites and ministries, she is seeing the movement gain momentum in religious and secular circles.
"It seems to be a watershed moment. People are hearing things in their community; they're seeing things in the news. It's becoming more familiar to them and they're wanting to engage," she said. "If you look in the Old Testament it talks about justice, justice, justice. And I see it as a justice issue. Do we want children enslaved? No. I think it's a problem we can do something about and God's love compels that we do something about it."
That's exactly what Wisdom-Martin discovered 10 years ago at the Diamond Cabaret in East St. Louis. Half of the Crossover team remained in the strip club's parking lot to pray while the other half attempted to enter the club with gift bags for the dancers. To her surprise, Wisdom-Martin easily gained access, and was even welcomed to go backstage to the dancers' dressing room to deliver the gift bags.
"We told them the story of salvation, that God loved them and God cared about them and had a plan for their lives," Wisdom-Martin said. "I saw my friend leaning over three naked girls praying for them while tears streamed down their faces. By the time I left I was so overcome by the experience, so overcome by emotion, that I could hardly make it out of the club."
The dancers were so touched by the kindness of the Crossover volunteers that they placed the gift bags on stage with them while they performed. The bags were filled with lotion, candles and other "girly" presents -- as well as a Bible.
"That [response] was so strange to me," Wisdom-Martin said. "It just seemed they were longing for somebody to connect with them, to care about them."
Though none of the dancers at the Diamond Cabaret accepted Christ that day, Wisdom-Martin said they were obviously touched by the Crossover team's unconditional love. But, she said, there were five professions of faith that day at other strip clubs visited by Crossover teams.
"There was a lot going through my heart and my mind. The lifestyles that these beautiful girls were trapped in, the miracle of us getting inside the club, the opportunity to witness and pray in strip clubs," Wisdom-Martin said. "Not to mention a profound sense of gratitude that God allowed me to have a part in the ministry. And all that exploded on me in the parking lot of the Diamond Cabaret."
At the conclusion of the breakout session, Wisdom-Martin asked several women to stand to represent victims of human trafficking. WMU attendees gathered around each of the women and prayed for the victims as well as for the buyers and sellers.
"If you take on human trafficking there will be struggles," Wisdom-Martin told the attendees. "Just start looking beneath the surface and you're going to start seeing stuff going on in your own community, but you have to open your eyes."
Don Graham is the International Mission Board's senior writer. To learn more about fighting human trafficking through WMU's Project HELP, go to www.wmu.com