RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- At midnight on a cold Friday in January, Loree Becton stands on a street corner along Jefferson Davis Highway in Richmond, Va. -- an area notoriously known for prostitution and crime.
She's come a long way.
Until a few months ago, Becton -- wife of Mark Becton, pastor of Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond -- had to whisper the word, "prostitute," and would turn red-faced when she did. Now, she is here among them, praying for an opportunity to tell the women of the streets how much they are loved.
For Becton, a ministry to human trafficking victims in Richmond began in June 2011 with a simple prayer of surrender.
"Lord, I give up!" Becton prayed. "I surrender to whatever it is you want me to do."
First, she had a lot of learning to do.Facing the problem
Human trafficking is the illegal trade of people -- especially women and children -- for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. The U.S. State Department estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders each year.
Domestically, human trafficking is difficult to quantify, explains Krystal Gandola, a spokesperson for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
"No one knows with certainty the exact number of children victimized through sex trafficking in the United States," Gandola says. "We believe that child sex trafficking is a missing child issue."
Of the 60,000 missing child cases reported to NCMEC between 2008 and 2012, more than 48,000 -- or 81 percent -- are endangered runaways. These children, many of whom were in the child welfare system when they ran away, left home voluntarily but are unable to care for themselves. They are particularly vulnerable to the "manipulation and false promises" of traffickers, Gandola explains.
If this information wasn't alarming enough for Becton, the local snapshot was even more distressing. Until as recently as September 2013, the Polaris Project -- a nonprofit organization addressing human trafficking on a global scale -- identified Virginia as one of the "dirty dozen" U.S. states that did not effectively address human trafficking within its borders. According to the Polaris definition, the state failed to provide adequate legislation against human trafficking, training on human trafficking for law enforcement officers or safe harbor for victims.
"Could this really be happening in my own back yard?" Becton wondered.
"Yes," says Sara Pomeroy, director of the Richmond Justice Initiative, a nonprofit, faith-based organization involved in local anti-trafficking efforts. "The intersections of Interstates 64, 95 and 295 -- and the city's proximity to Washington, D.C. -- make Richmond attractive to traffickers."Asking the questions
Armed with this information, the question for Becton then became, "What do we do now?"
Initially, she waited.
"For several months after that initial prayer of surrender, a number of women began approaching me, asking, 'How is your church involved with human trafficking?'" Becton recalls. "I told them, 'We're not!'"
Then Becton began to explore a ministry to exploited women in Thailand. As she learned more about this type of outreach, she began pursuing ways she could become more involved in reaching exploited women in Richmond and around the world.
Becton's first step involved gathering a group of women together for prayer. The small group began meeting regularly, praying that God would show them the specific steps He wanted them to take. Soon, the "Precious to God" ministry -- based on Psalm 72:14 -- was born.
"Psalm 72:14 in the Holman Bible says, 'He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious in His sight,'" Becton says. "That verse is a powerful promise of what God wants to do among trafficked women."
Becton and her team also began talking with law enforcement and researching the work of others involved in the fight against exploitation in the city. She soon learned that a number of churches and organizations are involved in pieces of the fight against human trafficking -- prevention, intervention and aftercare -- but no single organization is tying it all together.
"We don't want to duplicate what others are doing," Becton says. "I see Grove Avenue as somehow playing a role in linking these organizations together."Taking some risks
Becton got a glimpse of what this kind of cooperation could look like during the June 1, 2013, "Sexpo" at a Richmond hotel -- a small tradeshow of local porn stars and erotica exhibitors. When some local churches and anti-trafficking organizations learned of the event, they began to pray together about how best to influence those attending the convention.
Anastasis International Ministry, a local group that focuses on helping women who are hurting, purchased a booth at the tradeshow and offered free foot massages and gift bags provided by New Life Women's Center, a ministry of Cornerstone Assembly of God. Others -- including the team from Grove Avenue -- bought tickets and prayerwalked inside the exhibit hall.
To avoid drawing controversy and to facilitate quiet Gospel-focused conversations, none of them openly identified themselves as Christians or affiliated with a particular church. As the team from Anastasis was setting up their booth, they heard several exhibitors say, "I wonder where all the Christians are. I thought ... they'd be here protesting."
The women of Anastasis said nothing. They finished their set up and offered foot massages throughout the afternoon. Toward the end of the day, they heard some of the exhibitors say again, "Where are the Christians? Where is the church? I thought sure the churches would be here lined up outside with their signs."
The women of Anastasis smiled and decided to enter the conversation.
"We're the church," group members said. "And we've been here the entire time."Moving forward
It is these kinds of face-to-face conversations that Becton desires to have with hurting women. That's how she met Valerie Carter, associate pastor for "glocal" (global/local) ministries at Bon Air Baptist Church in the Richmond area. For several years, Carter and a small group from area churches have been prayerwalking the red-light districts of Richmond one Friday night a month.
Over the years, Carter and her team have had countless conversations and prayer with women and transvestites who work in the red-light district along Jefferson Davis Highway. Currently, Carter and another team member are regularly following up with two young women they met a few months ago.
Although the number of changed lives is difficult to quantify, Carter trusts that God is working in the lives of those she's had the opportunity to meet.
"We never know how many women or men have sought help because of the move of God on their lives and our presence with the light of Christ in a dark place," Carter says.
Although Becton has prayer walked with Valerie's team on several occasions, she has yet to develop relationships with women on the street. In fact, she has yet to see the same person twice.
"The face to face has not gone as well as I would have liked," she acknowledges. "But we continue to pray for opportunities to share Jesus one-on-one."
In an effort to facilitate more conversations in the red-light district, Becton's team has begun "prayerdriving" Jefferson Davis Highway and other areas during the day.
"We realize that we must pray over the area during the daylight hours if we ever hope to reach women at night," Becton says. "By doing this, we are trusting God's Spirit to go before us and lead us to those He wants us to meet."
The team is also exploring several other options to facilitate face-to-face discussions, including beginning Bible studies with women in the red-light districts, contacting women who advertise escort services through various websites, offering to pray with women arrested for prostitution and meeting women jailed for prostitution as they are released.
Becton said she knows that all of these options are fraught with danger and difficulty.
"We've found that there is no real safe place for women to go when they are released from jail," she says. "There are a couple of organizations in the city that offer some level of aftercare to exploited women, but they are not equipped for long-term residential care."
In the face of such challenges, Becton and her team continue to press forward one step at a time.
"Ministry is messy," she explains. "I want a concrete plan, but that is not how the Lord has been leading us."
So, for now, Becton and her team continue to pray.
They pray for increased awareness of human trafficking among believers.
They pray for strong relationships among churches and like-minded organizations that are involved in the fight against trafficking.
Most of all, they pray that God will lead them to come alongside hurting women to show them His love.
"We can only take it a step at a time," Loree says.
Pray for Becton's team as they prepare to take their first international trip next year to work with exploited women. If you are interested in learning more about international ministries among the exploited, visit [http://onelifematters.org/]OneLifeMatters.org. To connect with Loree's team, email email@example.com or visit their Facebook page, Precious to God.
Ann Lovell is a writer in Richmond, Va., and has served 13 years as a Christian worker in Asia. This story first appeared in Proclaimer, a publication of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia. Lovellís Bible study, Confronting the Exploiters, is designed for churches and small groups to develop a ministry among exploited women in their communities. The Bible study and accompanying prayer guide, Praying for the Exploited, are available online at imbresources.org by clicking here
or at kingdomwomen.imb.org