Three dozen governmental and ministry leaders gathered Nov. 12 for an inaugural human trafficking summit at the Assemblies of God national office in Springfield, Missouri.
The event, the brainchild of AG General Treasurer Wilfredo “Choco” De Jesús, brought together those who rescue and restore trafficking victims, as well as those who prosecute their perpetrators.
There are nearly 30 AGUSM missionaries with Intercultural Ministries engaged in the fight; some have been involved for a quarter century, while others are just starting. The summit provided an opportunity for some of them to network at the same site for the first time. All six members of the AG Executive Leadership Team addressed the group.
“We’re here to learn from one another,” De Jesús said. “We’re not going to back down on this issue because we have a mandate from God.” De Jesús cited Psalm 82:4, which declares, “Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Attendees agreed the greatest needs in the fight are informing the public — including law enforcement personnel and churchgoers — about the problem, plus trying to prevent children and youth from being targeted. Traffickers envision a seemingly never-ending supply of new recruits, so they usually don’t bother trying to reclaim young people who are rescued.
“Pimps have the attitude of, Why chase them when I can replace them,” said AGUSM career associate Nicole M. Phillips, founder of Lavished Ministries in Panama City, Florida. Phillips represented one of a dozen women conference attendees actively involved in anti-trafficking ministry.
General Superintendent Doug Clay told the missionaries they shouldn’t feel as though they are alone. He declared that a tenet of the Fellowship’s mission is to redeem the vulnerable.
“I don’t see you as parachurch, I see you as part of the Church,” Clay proclaimed.
Three U.S. attorneys, invited by U.S. missionary Jody Dyess, spoke during the morning session.
U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Jansen of the St. Louis-based Missouri Eastern District, said there has been a tremendous uptick in the number of children being recruited online for sexual purposes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Jansen, a former FBI agent, said 83 percent of prosecuted defendants last year used the internet as a means of solicitation.
D. Michael Hurst, U.S. attorney for the Southern Mississippi District, noted that his first case as a prosecutor involved an out-of-state resident traveling to the Magnolia State intending to engage in sexual intercourse with a 2-year-old. The criminal expected to videotape the activity and sell it on the internet, according to Hurst, the father of four daughters.
Sex trafficking accounts for nearly three-fourths of human trafficking cases in the nation, with victims exploited through such venues as massage parlors, casinos, hotels, truck stops, and “escort services.” Illegal aliens and runaway children are among the most vulnerable to being coerced into the industry.
“This is the most evil form of crime we deal with,” Hurst said. “The fact that one human being does this to another proves sin is alive in this world. Sadly, many times the trafficker is a relative.”
Hurst said large sporting events and natural disasters are prime opportunities for traffickers to exploit an increased numbers of victims. Typically a pimp will get a child addicted to drugs as a means of ensuring that sexual performances continue, he said. According to Hurst, traffickers frequently establish their bases in small towns because of the lessened likelihood of being discovered by law enforcement.
However, Hurst said progress is being made, citing the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking released recently by the Trump administration.
U.S. Attorney Timothy A. Garrison of the Missouri Western District commended faith-based organizations for providing long-term shelter, counselor services, and substance abuse treatment for recovered sex-trafficked subjects. But Garrison, a Springfield-based Baptist deacon and adoptive father, cautioned attendees to place safety and security above immediate evangelistic conversion efforts. Rescued survivors can be harmed again if they doubt the motivation of well-meaning helpers, he said.
The U.S. attorneys urged the ministry leaders to cooperate with local task forces, prosecutors, and police in a more united effort to fight trafficking. AG General Secretary Donna Barrett exhorted the faith-based workers to cooperate with other ministries, denominations, and nonprofits — even those that may be viewed as competitors for funds.
Barrett also urged the missionaries to not overlook seeking help from smaller and rural churches. She noted that 69 percent of AG congregations in the U.S. have less than 100 attendees and 43 percent of the Fellowship’s churches are in places where fewer than 10,000 residents live.
RESCUING AND RESTORING
In the afternoon portion, 11 organizational leaders — eight of them women — spoke passionately about their ministry outreaches.
Michael Bartel, who in 2007 founded F.R.E.E. International with his wife, Denise, stated that human trafficking is hardly a nascent epidemic. He read from an 1899 book that described how churches could prevent the trafficking of girls.
“Unless we address this in a preventative way, it will be a bigger problem,” Bartel said. Speed the Light has provided mobile command units to F.R.E.E. International to assist law enforcement in search and rescue efforts of trafficked persons.
Dyess noted how widespread the problem is, with a family member often “selling” a child or youth in a sexual exchange to a customer in order to obtain drugs. Dyess related how he spoke to assemblies in 33 metro New Orleans schools in 2013. At every stop, at least one student afterward told him that he or she had been sexually exploited by an older relative.
Not that the problem is confined to urban areas. Michael Kelly, police chief of Columbia, Mississippi — a town of 5,800 — explained how the department arrested seven people in August in a sting operation. All hoped they would engage in sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old girl.
However, Kaitrin E. Valencia, an attorney in Memphis, Tennessee, who assists trafficked survivors, suggested that Christians should pray for the salvation of those driving the demand.
“If we don’t go after the pimps and the johns, every girl we rescue will be replaced,” Valencia declared. “God can set them free from the evil. No one is beyond redemption.”
Ultimately, encouraged attendees left feeling they had the support of colleagues as well as AG leaders.
Assemblies of God World Missions Executive Director Greg Mundis implored the anti-trafficking group to keep up the good fight.
“It’s like a cancer,” Mundis said of sexual exploitation. “You can’t get a part of it, you have to get it at the source.” Mundis, who earlier this year nearly died from COVID-19 complications, reported a silver lining from the pandemic. He said the coronavirus has shut down the brothels of India.