HIGH POINT, N.C. (BP) -- Sandra Johnson refuses to turn her back on the problem. And she believes other Baptists shouldn't either.
For Johnson, a North American Mission Board (NAMB) missionary based in North Carolina, the issue of human trafficking is personal, and it's a problem that is right in our "own backyard."
Human trafficking is the fastest-growing crime in the world, and Johnson said every Christian should be involved in ending it. Right now there are believed to be around 27 million people living in slavery. Children as young as 6 years old are being sold on the streets and on the Internet, Johnson said.
"I can't turn my back on that ... it could easily be my grandchildren," said Johnson, a member of Green Street Baptist Church in High Point, N.C., and president and founder of Triad Ladder of Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps human trafficking victims escape from bondage and rebuild their lives, sharing the love of Jesus with them in the process. "There are more people enslaved today than in any other time in history.... This is 'free America,' but it's not."
Johnson was commissioned by NAMB during the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina's annual meeting in Greensboro last November as a Mission Service Corps (MSC) missionary. While helping people -- most of whom are immigrants from all over the world -- escape slavery through Triad Ladder of Hope, she also looks for opportunities to share her faith.
Johnson said she's always had a heart for international missions.
"[International missions] was my dream," she said. "I'm basically doing international missions here at home."
By giving through the Cooperative Program and to the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, Southern Baptists help provide training and ministry-related support for missionaries like Johnson. As a MSC missionary, Johnson receives direct financial support through donations and ministry partners, which include several N.C. Baptist churches like Green Street Baptist.
Kevin Ezell, president of NAMB, said during Johnson's commissioning service that NAMB seeks to find more ways to fight issues like human trafficking throughout the U.S. and Canada.
"When you hear about it for the very first time, you don't think ... that there is a need in North Carolina," Ezell said. "I did not realize North Carolina was in the [top 10], and Atlanta is [near] the top as far as the most challenging area [for human trafficking]."
Missionaries like Johnson, Ezell said, are examples of those who are willing to step out and make a difference for Christ.
This past year, Triad Ladder of Hope has put an intense focus on helping victims find jobs through training opportunities. They seek out victims through visiting homeless and domestic violence shelters.
They also reach out to women who are vulnerable to human trafficking through working in strip clubs.
About once a month Johnson works with ministry volunteers who go into clubs to build relationships with the women there. While volunteers hand out gift bags they seek to find those who may not be there by choice.
"Many victims of sex trafficking can be found in strip clubs," Johnson said. "Sometimes it's a husband that is forcing them to be there, and he takes all of the money."
It's a ministry that takes time and patience.
"The first time it's kind of awkward," Johnson said. "But you have to build that relationship as you go in. Once we've been in several times, they begin to trust you and start talking to you more. We care about them ... When God opens the door we will share Christ with them and let them know ... that Jesus loves them." What's your slavery footprint?
Creating awareness is the key to helping fight human trafficking.
Many Americans don't realize how the products they buy every day can have an impact on those working in some factories, where human trafficking runs rampant. "Some people use as many 150 slaves a day," Johnson said. "It's unreal."
Johnson encourages people to check out the website http://slaveryfootprint.org to learn more.
"If there is one thing that people need to know, [it] is that this is a problem [that] ... could be right in your neighborhood. It's that bad in North Carolina.
"It can be someone who knocks on your door and is selling a product.... It could be someone living next door to you. It could be somebody doing your nails. It could be somebody serving your food in a restaurant. It's right in your face, literally."
Johnson shared how she used to attend church with a woman who was being trafficked. She was a nanny, and the people she worked for didn't pay her, Johnson said. The woman said she felt trapped because she was living in the U.S. illegally and genuinely cared for the children in the home.
Triad Ladder of Hope has helped reunite trafficking victims with their families. They even provide simple things like a bag of groceries for victims who struggle to make a living.
In addition to financial support and awareness, prayer is the most critical thing the ministry needs.
"That's the very first thing I tell everybody," Johnson said. "We need people to pray about this issue.
"When [volunteers go into a strip club] we have someone sitting in the parking lot praying for them," she said. "We cover everything with prayer. We are firm believers [in prayer]."
Occasionally Johnson will receive a phone call from a former victim who has rebuilt her life through the ministry.
"It's so sweet to get those phone calls," she said. "You do get attached to them.... They're survivors."
For more information go to triadladderofhope.org. To report a human trafficking case, contact the National Trafficking Information and Referral Hotline at (888) 373-7888.
Shawn Hendricks is managing editor of the Biblical Recorder (brnow.org
), newsjournal of the North Carolina State Baptist Convention, where this story first appeared.