The women Patricia Johnson met reminded her of her own children. And that convinced her to get involved in the fight against human trafficking.
By Patricia Johnson
In 2016, I was feeling a little burnt out. I had been an active member of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City since 2009. In that time, I had been part of parent groups, small groups, and a variety of fellowship ministries. But I was working a lot, and I wasn’t sure where else I could serve in my church.
Then Becca Stevens came to speak at Marble Collegiate.
Becca is the founder of Thistle Farms, an organization that rehabilitates former prostitutes from the streets of Nashville. She brought with her a few women whom Thistle Farms had helped, and they shared their testimonies, too. To imagine what these women had been through and to see them now was remarkable. I also learned that within the world of prostitution, human trafficking was a big problem.
After I discovered the connection between prostitution and human trafficking, the public service announcements I saw on TV about missing teenage girls took on new meaning. I wondered, Who are these girls? Who is taking them? Why didn’t I notice this before? And then there was the thought of one of my own daughters being trafficked—that was more than I could bear. I tried to ignore such thoughts, but I couldn’t stop thinking about human trafficking. Around the same time, one of my daughters expressed interest in women’s empowerment. She had never told me she was interested in that before. I took it as another sign that I should be interested, too.
Then I saw an opportunity on the RCA website that had to be God at work. RCA Women’s Transformation and Leadership was offering a global mission experience for women like me to witness the ministry of RCA missionaries JJ and Tim TenClay in Palermo, Italy, and to develop a sense of ministry purpose in our local contexts. The TenClays work with refugees and migrants. Importantly for me, many of those refugees are women who have been victims of human trafficking and prostitution. And not only that, but many are Nigerian—just like my children, who are half-Nigerian.
So last spring, I traveled with other RCA women and ecumenical sisters to Italy. There, we would have a chance to meet the women with whom the TenClays work.
Our first meeting with the women was canceled, and a part of me felt relieved. I was concerned that I wouldn’t know how to apologize or say sorry enough for what each of these women had endured. I knew I couldn’t avoid the heartache of thinking that they could be my daughters or nieces. What would I say to them? When the meeting was rescheduled, I had anxiety about it like I had never known before. That day, we walked hesitantly from our residence to the church next door. As we held open the glass door to enter the building, nobody uttered a sound. Any sudden noise might shake or agitate the women.
The women were waiting for us in the main sanctuary. Normally, the chairs are set up in rows. But on this day, they had been moved into a circle. As the women saw us enter, they erupted into African songs to welcome us. As they clapped and sang, I burst into tears. I felt like I was in the home of my ancestors. These were my people. These were my girls.
When the singing stopped, my eyes were wet, and a lump settled into my throat. These women seemed happy and lively, not somber and sad like I had expected.
Some of the women smiled and made eye contact with us. Others were more timid, but they still agreed to be there, which seemed to me a gesture of love toward us. How did they have all this love to give after what they had been through? It was hard for me to imagine that they had been through rape, torture, or abuse when they seemed so put together.
We all sat in a circle, and we, the visitors, were asked to say something about ourselves. But when it was my turn, I had no words.
I just stood up and said to the women, “I have to hug you because you could be my daughters.”
Seeing these Nigerian women who had been through so much pain, I felt like I could be looking at my family. In my hug, I hoped I could give them a touch of the love they would get from a mother or auntie or loved one.
My thoughts raced. Through my church, God had brought me to Italy, a country I never thought I would see. And these Nigerian women were telling us stories that Nigerians back home would be ashamed to admit had happened to their people. What could I do with what God was showing me? I vowed I would not forget. I would keep exploring what I could do to help.
All but one of the women accepted my hug that day. And I was overwhelmed with emotion. Before, these women and their experiences felt far away. Now they were real people I could see and touch. I left the circle and collapsed against a wall, heaving and sobbing. Lesley, our group leader, had to help me calm down so that I could rejoin the group.
Before the trip, I didn’t know where else to serve in my church. But I returned to New York with an answer. Now I am working to determine how the church can play a role in preventing human trafficking. I have already attended the National Thistle Farms Conference and am exploring the work of International Justice Mission on human trafficking.
I am fortunate that my church is supportive of this mission work. I am part of a group of people at Marble Collegiate who are working to address human trafficking in our community. When I feel tired from my schedule, I remind myself of the promise I made to God in Italy. I will not forget the survivors. God gave me the opportunity to meet them, to hug them, and to hear their stories. And “to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).
Support the work of RCA missionaries JJ and Tim TenClay at www.rca.org/tenclay. Jennifer Lucking is another missionary who works with victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Support her work in Canada at www.rca.org/lucking.
Do you want to witness God’s power in another part of the world? Consider going on a women’s global mission experience. Contact Liz Testa, coordinator for Women’s Transformation and Leadership, to learn about future trips (email@example.com or 616-541-0897).
Patricia Johnson is a member of Marble Collegiate Church (RCA) in New York City, New York.