The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; … to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the Lord to glorify Him. ISAIAH 61:1,3 (HCSB)
“We cannot afford to look away from these issues,” said Devin Payne in reference to sex trafficking and exploitation of children.
In 2012, a group of church leaders from across the city of Knoxville, Tennessee, agreed with Payne and became burdened with child sex trafficking and the exploitation of children in their area. They quickly learned this heinous crime was prevalent in every state across the U.S., and they could no longer look away. Together, they organized Street Hope TN to tackle the issue.
Street Hope is now a formidable Christ-centered, counter-trafficking force in East Tennessee focused on eliminating child sexual exploitation and trafficking. Payne, executive director of the nonprofit group, sat down with AFA Journal to explain how the group helps child victims and raises awareness across the state.
“People need to understand the actual definition of child sex trafficking,” said Payne. “Trafficking is the commercial sexual exploitation of a child. It can involve prostitution, pornography, sex, stripping, or any form of sexual performance in exchange for anything of value.”
“Anything of value” does not mean strictly money. It can include food, shelter, or drugs. Many traffickers utilize their victims’ vulnerabilities to lure them into trafficking with the promise of love, shelter, or a better life. In reality, they use and exploit their victims. Once an exchange of value has been made for sex, it is then legally labeled trafficking. Otherwise, it is considered exploitation. Payne and her team diligently strive to fight both of these evils.
When it comes to trafficking, some view it as an act of kidnapping, but it is even much darker. In Tennessee and other states, there has been an increase in familial pimping. This occurs when a parent or someone close to the child offers him or her for sex and receives something of value in return. In Payne’s home state, many times that something of value is drugs.
“It’s a bartering system,” Payne said. “Unfortunately in Tennessee, we have one of the highest rates of opioid addictions in the United States of America.”
Trafficking (child and adult) has become the second-largest criminal enterprise globally, and it doesn’t look like it will slow down any time soon. While drug traffickers can only sell a certain number of drugs, human traffickers can sell a child over and over again.
According to Payne, “In the United States, every two minutes, a child is sold.” And many go unreported.
“In Tennessee in any given month, 100 children are sold just online,” Payne continued. “And those are only the ones we know of.” Instead of sitting by the wayside, Street Hope has stepped up to the challenge. Its ministry has developed many resources to focus on awareness, prevention, restoration, and prayer.
“More people trained to identify trafficking equals more victims identified,” Payne declared.
Street Hope teaches others to recognize signs of trafficking. It actively educates teachers, healthcare workers, law enforcement, and community members so they can spot common clues and report the crime.
In addition to educating others, Street Hope has age-appropriate conversations with school-age children to help them understand the dangers of exploitation and trafficking.
At press time, the team had equipped and trained 3,100 individuals in 2020 alone.
“If we educate children on the front end, we will have fewer victims in the first place when it comes to being groomed, targeted, and exploited,” Payne explained.
When it comes to prevention, Payne and her team are adamant about making sure children suffering from various forms of sexual exploitation know how to get out of the situation. So, the team joined forces with Knox County Schools and Homeland Security to create Project Post, a curriculum for sixth- through ninth-graders about internet safety and human trafficking.
This safety tool is now a resource used in 20 school systems, homeschool groups, and private schools.
“We want to take this curriculum statewide,” said Payne. “And the best part about it is, it’s free!”
Street Hope is also building Garland Oaks, the state’s first children’s safe home. With hopes to open its doors in summer 2021, the home will serve female trafficking survivors ages 12 to 17. After leaving the life of trafficking, most girls experience grief and trauma.
A 10-bedroom home with all the amenities, this safe space has been dedicated to the Lord with hopes to address the girls’ mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. At Garland Oaks, girls will be able to heal. More importantly, they will learn who they are in Christ and discover the love He has for them.
“Our goal is to teach them about their identity and the truth of who God says they are,” said Payne.
Prayer is a significant component of Street Hope, and to this team of Tennesseans, it is the essential part of the ministry. They realize that if the root of the problem isn’t addressed, it won’t be fixed.
“Prayer is the most important because trafficking is a sin problem,” Payne said. “It’s a heart problem. It exists because of the law of supply and demand.”
In the U.S. today, there is a cultural demand for sex. Traffickers and buyers are willing to pay the price for young children, which should break any believer’s heart.
“Children are made in the image of God, and they’re being treated like renewable resources,” Payne continued. “The only way to stop that is to deal with this sin, and to do that, we have to rise as the body of Christ.”
Through prayer, petition, action, and awareness, Street Hope is seeking the Lord and trusting Him to bring freedom to the captives, bind up the brokenhearted, and change the hearts of the wicked.
In Isaiah 61:1 and 3 (above), the Lord declares He gives a crown of beauty instead of ashes. Street Hope rescuers are doing the same as they defend these beautiful souls in need. By refusing to turn a blind eye to the issue, these Christian activists are making a difference in young girls’ lives and in the state of Tennessee.
(Editor's Note: This originally appeared online HERE after appearing in the print edition of the AFA Journal.)