This post was written by Rev. LeRae Kuperus. LeRae is the Director of Spiritual Formation at Wedgwood Christian Services in Grand Rapids, Mich. She has been endorsed by the CRCNA for chaplain ministry since 2003.
No two stories are the same. Yet the responses are almost always the same: fear, guilt, a sense of defilement, shame, and endless post-traumatic stress. The road of recovery is long and hard.
Sex trafficking is defined as an act of recruiting, transporting, harboring or receiving a person through force or coercion for the purpose of sexually exploitation. It is a heinous enterprise that preys on the weak and vulnerable and it is a form of modern-day slavery.
While exploitation is not limited to gender, race or socio-economics, traffickers look for specific vulnerabilities in children and teens: runaways, homeless and foster care children, and socially isolated teens. An exploiter might begin by demonstrating affirming and sometimes romantic feelings towards their victim, often showering them with gifts. The victim initially feels protected, loved and important so an exploiter can ask and demand almost anything. Forced drug use strengthens the dependency.
In 2012, Wedgwood Christian Services opened a specialized residential treatment program for sexually exploited girls ages 12 to 17. Also, Wedgwood’s Manasseh Project was developed to educate the community, specifically counselors, educators, medical staff, and members of the judicial and legal system, and collaborate with churches, local social groups, institutions of higher learning and businesses to raise awareness and to find solutions for our community. This program, combined with God’s grace, makes it possible for Wedgwood to transform lives.
Personalized treatment is built upon four pillars: trauma informed counseling services, experiential learning and education, independent living skills, and employment training. Listening is key! Our clients initially may not see themselves as victims and might even return to their trafficker. With education and therapy, our clients begin to understand their victimization. A victim’s brain is impacted by trauma, rewired to remain in a fight-or-flight state. Brains can eventually regulate themselves, and our clients can then touch on their stories without reliving the trauma every time.
In our pastoral care and spiritual activities, we move slowly and carefully, mindful of these psychological byproducts. The traumatized brain is fragile, so trust is absent. Spiritual authority may be threatening, so our presence must be calming, consistent, and caring. Guilt is overwhelming. Explaining God’s forgiveness and love as something that is free, no strings attached, is our daily mantra. These girls identify with a suffering Christ, one who was innocent and violated, one who identifies with their pain and brokenness. In time, hope, self-affirmation, and a new identity in Christ eventually replace shame.
Victims of sex-trafficking need the Christian community. As one of our clients said, “You surround yourself with people that love Him and want you to love Him. And then surround yourself with safe people who care about you and want what’s best for you and surround yourself with people who love Jesus too, then you can’t help but love Jesus. With all the things I’ve been through, I’m living, breathing proof that there is a God.”
Churches can help by becoming educated and partnering with organizations like Wedgwood’s Manasseh Project. Churches are truly helpful when they listen a lot and lecture very little. They create emotional safety, they seek to reduce exaggerated sexual guilt. They model respect for women and children. They trust their instincts and they consult professionals. They carve out space for transformation.