At the border, a crisis of faith
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the November 2014…
Katie Pedigo serves as executive director of New Friends New Life in Dallas. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
DALLAS — Think of Katie Pedigo as a modern-day abolitionist.
A Church of Christ preacher’s daughter who grew up to become an attorney, Pedigo wages a daily battle against sex slavery — in the heart of the Bible Belt.
It’s a fight that surprises some Christians.
“A lot of people think that if it’s sex trafficking, then it’s happening overseas, it’s happening in India or Thailand or somewhere else,” said Pedigo, executive director of New Friends New Life, a faith-based nonprofit that works to restore and empower victims. “So it’s important for us to realize that it’s happening right here, in every city in our country.”
Once known as Amy’s Friends, New Friends New Life grew out of a grassroots ministry that started 16 years ago when a woman in the sex industry became involved in a women’s Bible study at the Preston Road Church of Christ.
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‘SATAN IS WORKING HARD’
Such efforts honor a God who makes setting captives free a priority throughout the Scriptures, said Wade Hodges, the Preston Road church’s senior minister.
Victims range from runaways to illegal immigrants to Internet users — frequently teens — who succumb to cyber predators.
“The main thing people in the U.S. church need to realize is that our world is changing fast, and Satan is working hard,” said Brandon Edwards, outreach and evangelism minister for the Lewisville Church of Christ, north of Dallas.
“We have gangs that are now selling women and children for sex,” added Edwards, who volunteers with the International Justice Mission, a human rights organization. “Why? Because a child and a woman can be reused over and over again. Drugs and guns run out.”
Ron ClarkNeglected children make easy prey for traffickers and pimps, said Ron Clark, minister for the Agape Church of Christ in Portland, Ore., which works with law enforcement agencies and helps victims leave the sex trade. Agape’s ministry and Sunday assembly offer a “safe place” for victims and service providers, Clark said.
“The street kids we work with who have been in this, sometimes boys, have done this as an attempt to get food, clothing, safety,” he said. “They are being exploited for basic human rights resources they deserve. Even if they do it for drugs or alcohol, we still believe it is exploitation.”
In Wichita, Kan., Carpenter Place — a girls’ home associated with Churches of Christ — partners with ICT S.O.S., a local organization that fights human trafficking. ICT is Wichita’s airport code.
At Harding University in Searcy, Ark., recent graduate Bailee Searcey, also 22, led a campus anti-trafficking organization called “HUmanity.”
Last summer, she organized a one-day human trafficking seminar at the North Davis Church of Christ in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Dallas police rescue anywhere from 100 to 120 child sex trafficking victims a year — many of them runaways who found they had only one commodity to sell, said Sgt. Byron Fassett, who supervises the department’s high-risk child victims and sex trafficking unit.
“When they run away, despite what a lot of people think, they can’t exist on the street,” said the 33-year police veteran, whom New Friends New Life honored recently for his work fighting trafficking and Internet crimes against children.
This past spring, the North Texas Trafficking Task Force — comprised of 17 law enforcement agencies — executed search warrants on 10 massage parlors suspected of operating as fronts for illegal sex and harboring undocumented aliens.
Such operations “locate and rescue victims of human trafficking and bring those responsible to justice,” David M. Marwell, Homeland Security Investigations special agent in charge, said in a statement. “However, the best way of attacking human trafficking is by increasing public awareness.”
In just seven urban areas studied, underground commercial sex represents a nearly billion-dollar industry — from a massage parlor in Seattle to a high-end escort service in Dallas to a makeshift brothel in California to a clandestine Internet site, as the Urban Institute’s Dank and Villarreal described it.
Last year, New Friends New Life provided access to education, job training, interim financial assistance, mental health services and spiritual support to more than 700 trafficked girls and sexually exploited women and their children.
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