I’m standing on El Cajon Boulevard with a teammate on a brisk winter night behind a makeshift hot chocolate stand that my team has set up. Once they assemble it, they disappear into the hustle and bustle of the street to watch. Now we wait. I can feel the eyes on me. Some are safe eyes. Some are not.
We have come here to attract the girls who are forced into walking this street, girls who are trafficked in the sex trade. I’m hoping my hands wrapped around this cup, my smiling face and a large “free” sign will get them to ask me for hot chocolate and perhaps I can offer to get them off the street, or the track, as it is called in the business. The night is growing older and colder. The girls are busy; slow-driving johns are everywhere. I continue scanning and smiling at each girl, modern-day slaves.
The ministry I lead, Hidden Treasures Foundation, has had little luck. So far, in the six months the street outreach has been up and running, we have had only one girl who has agreed to let us take them off the track.
Who can blame them?
Just talking to us could lead to unspeakable punishment from their trafficker. Usually taken as adolescents from malls, the beach or wherever kids gather, they offer love and security. They are masters at earning the girls’ unwavering devotion and the girls offer their loyalty in return. They believe the trafficker is the answer to all their needs. To let someone else in, like me, is the ultimate betrayal. The trafficker will heap on the pain. They rape the girls. They beat them within an inch of their lives. They starve them, deprive them of sleep. They tell the girls they love them, but they are nothing more than products in a buy and sell business. They are bodies and nothing more.
I can’t possibly be the right person for this role.
Suddenly, I get a text from another member of my team who is posted on along the track. The text says a young girl has agreed to let us take her from the streets. She even asked to be rescued...and she is coming toward me. She wants off, the text says. Another text comes. It is a description of her. About 19. Mixed race. Wearing white shorts. I go into high alert. I scan the street. I watch for a young girl matching the description, plus the 6-inch heels the traffickers demand they wear. Slaves used to wear chains. Now, they wear stilettos.
I see her coming up the street on the other side. She can barely walk...laboring under the agony of her shoes and everything from her feet, to her knees, to her shoulders projects pain.
I see her coming up the street on the other side. She can barely walk in those things. She is laboring under the agony of her shoes and everything from her feet, to her knees, to her shoulders projects pain. She looks like she has been on the street for hours and now she is now trying to work off the last $200 of her $1,600 nightly quota. Her wincing is painful to look at.
She gets parallel to where I am but instead of walking across the street toward me, she enters the diner she passes in front of. Perhaps she knows I’m watching and will follow her. I leave my post and my wingman knows to keep an eye on the hot chocolate stand. I run across the street and find her standing inside looking like she is already a fugitive. When our eyes meet, her brow furls a bit, almost like she recognizes me.
“I’m Lynn,” I say as I offer my hand.
“Carli,” she says taking it. “You’re from the church?”
“Yes,” I say. “Can you sit?” I am new at this and it doesn’t dawn on me that that was something I had no business asking. The girls cannot take breaks under any circumstances. To take more of her time would put her in immediate danger. Shockingly, she agrees and she plops down in the first booth. The waitress asks if we want coffee. Carli asks for hot chocolate.
“So you’re ready to get off?” I ask.
“Yes. I’ve got to get out of here. I’m done with it. I don’t think my body can do it another day. So when can we do this?”
“We’re going to do it now. You just have to be clear on what is about to happen. By saying yes to me, your life is going to flip upside down, you realize that, right?”
But does she really? Girls who are caught up in the sex trade are often taken so young that they have never finished school. Should they get off the street, they have no skills to offer an employer. They often struggle with reading. Their social skills are underdeveloped. They don’t even know how to walk in a way that doesn’t sell their bodies. Their work has taken a terrible toll on their physical condition. They have been under pimp-rule for nearly every basic need and don’t know how to fend for themselves. They have lived outside the normal course of life for so long, it is as if they have been plucked from another world and time.
She is staring at my face with a deep, quizzical look when her phone dings. It’s a text from the “bottom girl.” She’s the one who the pimps put in place to oversee the other girls.
“I have to go,” Carli says.
“The bottom girl knows you’re in here?”
“Of course she knows I’m in here. She even knows I’m talking to you.”
My fear skyrockets.
“So are we still going to do this?” I ask.
She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
“OK. Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to pull up outside in a silver two-door car. Walk up like I’m a john looking for a date. Get in and we’ll get you out of here, alright? I’m just going to need a minute to run and get my car.”
“OK,” she says.
As I hurry out the door, I gesture to my team that I have a potential escapee and need to be met at my car. A woman team member abruptly leaves her post and quickly makes her way toward my car parked up the street. The whole thing makes me feel like there are giant red arrows above our heads pointing down at us.
My heart races as I rush up the boulevard. As inconspicuously as I can, I look back. Carli is entering a fast food joint. It must be where the bottom girl ordered her to meet. Carli dutifully enters to be reprimanded and threatened. She must be doing it as a stall tactic, giving me a chance to drive up. At least I hope that’s what she is doing.
I immediately begin to pray, knowing that what I have just set in motion could lead to torture and even murder if we get it wrong. It has all happened so fast I wonder if I am really ready to do this—what skills do I have to be leading these girls along the edge of death? I feel like my stomach is in my throat. Please God, please protect Carli and protect us. Help us to get her out of here in one piece, please, please, please.
I meet my teammate at my car and start it up in a hurry. We make our way around the block in a roar and then drive at a snail’s pace in front of the fast food joint. We don't see her. Carli, where are you? Traffic pushes us forward and now we are too far up the street—well past our agreed-upon corner. I take a left turn and head back around to come up the street again. I am still praying. I don’t know if she is coming or has been pushed out the side door of the restaurant and is now paying for her sin in the alley.
Lord, watch over her. Break the bonds of her life. Set her free in Jesus’ name. I come back around and begin to crawl to a near stop right where she was supposed to be. Let us see each other, Lord. She is not there. My heart races even faster as I imagine the worst. Get her out of there, Lord. Help us to not miss her. This could be her last chance.
Suddenly, I see her. She is walking quickly towards me, but each step appears to be riddled with pain.
Once again, I circle back around. I look on both sides of the street just in case we have misunderstood each other. Suddenly, I see her. She is trying to walk quickly toward me, but each step appears to be riddled with pain. I look in her eyes. I see the smallest glimmer of hope. That-a-girl! I stop my car and she approaches my window.
“Carli, hi!” I say as if I have been running and not driving.
“Hi,” she says.
“You ready for this?” I ask. She nods.
“Get in.” She climbs in the car and we speed off knowing that the boulevard has eyes. Thou, Oh Lord, are a shield about me…
I push past the speed limit. I cannot help myself. I fear that I will see an angry car speed up behind me and fill my rearview mirror. My driving is a blur of glances forward and back, forward and back.
Suddenly, well away from the boulevard, I realize no one is coming. God has given us safe passage.
I rush her away to a safe place and we begin to put the pieces of her future together. I get on the phone and call every contact she can provide. I find relatives in Washington who will take her.
• • •
The day I put her on a bus to Washington, I am still looking around the bus stop like I am her Secret Service detail. The bus comes and it is time for her to get on. Before boarding, she has something to tell me. She takes me aside.
“I saw you, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“About two years ago. In a dream, I saw your face and heard your voice.”
“Do you know what you said to me…in the dream? You said, 'Hang in there, you’re worth it. Hang in there.'”
“I said that to you?”
Chills cover my skin.
“Wait. When did you say you had the dream?”
“Two years ago.”
Two years earlier, I had just started to attend the Rock rather begrudgingly. I had no intention of attending a large church, but as much as I didn’t want to go, I felt the Holy Spirit tell me that it was my new home. I expected that it would feel comfortable and familiar in time, but a year and half later, it still didn’t. While at a loss as to what to do with my life, I decided to join the sex trafficking ministry. I was eager to help, but never once felt like I was equipped to walk dangerous El Cajon Boulevard in search of girls to save.
But now, through the revelation in Carli’s dream, it appears that well before I decided to join the ministry, God had already decided that I was to do exactly that.
As Carli sped away into a new life, I had to bow my head and shed a tear. The boulevard did have eyes. They were God’s all along.