(Editor's Note: Originally posted in January/February 2020 AFA Journal, this is being republished here with permission as it was recently awarded 3rd place at the 2020 Virtual Southern Christians Writer's Conference in the "Nonfiction Magazine" category.)
As darkness fell on Falkland Road, the street smelled of sewage and vomit, and a stagnant mood of hopelessness hung in the air. A small girl stood trembling, alone. Her body reeked of lingering smells of recent customers.
U.S. Congresswoman Linda Smith (R-WA) was stunned when the child reached out her arms. Then Smith heard the Lord speak to her heart: “Touch her, for Me.”
Behind that child, countless others peered out from behind cage-like barriers, waiting for the next buyer to purchase them and use their fragile bodies. Witnessing this travesty in Mumbai, India, Smith first began to grasp the horrors of human trafficking. Caught off guard by the sights, smells, and ugly truth, she stood face to face with women and children trapped in sexual slavery.
One leader’s calling
Having served four years in the U.S. House, Smith was considering a run for Senate. But when she heard of the sex trade in the red-light districts of India, she was compelled to see it for herself.
In 1998 she traveled to India, and life as she knew it changed – forever.
Smith admitted to AFA Journal that during her travel to India, her faith was shaken. She was warned the children would be lice infested, sick, and some prostituted. The thought alone brought queasiness. Upon arrival, the feeling remained.
She was shocked by the devastation surrounding her. She recalled her first thought: I can’t do anything, God. I’m made to do other things. I’m the softest marshmallow in the house.
Looking around her, Smith saw only sad faces of women and little hands reaching out of three-story stalls. James 2:26 came to her mind: “As the body without a Spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Smith began to feel overwhelmed, and she talked to God. She remembered saying, “I know You couldn’t have given me all of these broken women by mistake. But I don’t know what to do. There are thousands and thousands of them.”
She began to see that there was more to her calling than politics. She knew it was time to provide the protection so many children needed around the world. Over the next few years, Smith founded Shared Hope International (SHI) and established Villages of Hope near Mumbai and in Nepal so that girls trafficked to India from Nepal could be restored and return home.
However, when Smith returned from that India experience 20 years ago, she soon realized human trafficking is not only a distant issue. Instead, she was shocked to learn that it happens in every state, city, and town in the U.S.
One victim’s restoration
Tyciala Brown’s story is one with a happy ending. At age 13, she was approached by a trafficker as she walked home from school.
She told AFA Journal, “He pulled up in a blue Durango with a California license plate. He handed me a gold business card and talked to me like he would a regular girl.”
“It started as a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship,” Brown added. “One day, me and some of my friends skipped school to go eat with him, and we ended up at a party.” At the party, the girls were exposed to heinous sights of women being forced into prostitution, no matter their condition. She recalled seeing a woman “bleeding and pregnant” and still required to work that night.
Nonetheless, Brown soon found herself working streets and truck stops. A glimpse of hope appeared at age 14 when her pimp was arrested in Pennsylvania. But with no place to go, she and other girls still found themselves in the life of prostitution.
During her years on the street, Brown was placed in and out of group homes, foster care, and juvenile detention centers, facing the same fate as most U.S. children trapped in trafficking.
Fortunately, Brown regained hope and escaped the trade. Her path then led to Smith and SHI.
“When I first met Miss Linda,” Brown said, “she was very genuine, and she’s been the same since. If you reach out to her, she is reaching out to you, always.” Now an outspoken advocate for other victims, Brown was a speaker at SHI’s 2019 JuST Conference on justice for juvenile sex trafficking victims.
One group’s impact
SHI has one mission in mind: eradicate human trafficking and make the world a safer place for children through means of prevention, restoration, and justice.
Human traffickers don’t always operate by kidnapping their victims, as many people would expect. Instead, they build relationships with vulnerable victims through social media, school, or Internet connections. While preying on the weak, traffickers bring promises of love, protection, and opportunity to lure these children.
After creating a sense of safety, traffickers use force, intimidation, fear, and other callous means of manipulation to keep victims compliant with their demands. Sadly, some child victims feel as though they have no one to fight for them, furthering their depression and anxiety.
At the 2019 JuST Conference, speaker and trafficking survivor Amy Engle said, “I wasn’t looking for a man to save me; I just wanted a mom to protect me.”
The average age of a trafficking victim is 14. But through the prevention stage of SHI, workers and advocates are able to educate parents and children about the warning signs and dangers of trafficking.
SHI’s restoration effort focuses on the well being of survivors. The ministry empowers victims through support of safe homes, Villages of Hope, education, vocational training, and needed mental and physical care.
The driving initiative of SHI is to bring justice to both survivors and perpetrators. Working with state and federal lawmakers, SHI strives to ensure survivors’ protection and proper punishment for buyers and traffickers.
To encourage others facing similar situations, Smith said, “I don’t care what their faith is, the call is for me to serve. We’re about taking care of children; they don’t have to be anything.”
Smith is highly recognized for her leadership and success in this campaign of compassion. Last November, President Donald Trump named her to the Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking.
“Our model at Shared Hope is to build a network so big that everybody who wants to join can speak the language together,” Smith said.
Proverbs 31:8-9 calls Christians to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
Shared Hope International is doing just that.
In her new book, Invading the Darkness: Inside the Historic Fight Against Child Sex Trafficking in the United States, Linda Smith addresses the tragic impact of sex trafficking since the early 1900s and what’s being done to eradicate it. The book is available at the SHI website and other booksellers.
She shows that it takes many working together to stomp out this crime. Through testimonies of prominent men and women who have partnered with SHI and founded their own organizations, Smith explains that fighting child trafficking should be a joint effort.
The book will shock readers with its information, educate them on the realities of trafficking, and challenge them to be a part of the solution.
Learn more at sharedhope.org or call 866-437-5433.