A Modern-Day Abolitionist Fights Slavery

Anne B. Doll

IN 2010, HOLLIS JOHNSON HAD HER FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH HUMAN TRAFFICKING WHILE MINISTERING IN A RED LIGHT DISTRICT IN THAILAND.

“I got to spend a month working with a ministry that has an aftercare center and outreach program,” says the Charlotte MA in Christian Counseling student (MACC). “During that month I really felt like this was what God created me for.”

Since then, Hollis has ministered to victims of sex trafficking in numerous countries. She now leads an anti-trafficking initiative at Charlotte’s Forest Hill Church.

Hollis’ experience in Thailand occurred during her participation in The World Race, an 11-month, 11-country trip sponsored by Adventures in Missions, a Georgia-based Christian organization.

“I had graduated from college, and was in a place where I was really lost spiritually,” she ex- plains. “I knew the Lord, but was not living that way. I was just really broken and hurting. I wanted to renew myself.” Shortly thereafter, she signed up for the race.

“It completely changed my life,” she explains. “I encountered God in a whole new and personal way. Through that time, I also learned about human trafficking. There were parts of my own story that allowed me to connect with these women, and finally things made sense to me. I have always had a heart for hurting people, and I thought, ‘This is it’...from that point on I would be working somewhere in the field of sex trafficking.”

A second race further strengthened her concern for trafficked women, and God kept opening ministry doors, locally and internationally. One of those doors was Forest Hill Church.

“I was helping with a justice conference at the church, and during that event they agreed to support me in taking a team of women to India to work at an aftercare center.”

Following that trip Hollis met with the church’s outreach director to debrief. She had been working at a coffee shop “and God told me to quit my job and ask for a job at the church. So I did, and the outreach director said he wasn’t surprised. He had seen it coming. Together we created a part-time position for me to develop an anti-trafficking ministry at Forest Hill. It was totally the Lord. There was no way I could have ever thought this up.”

During her first year in the position, much of her time was spent “seeking where God is leading us as a church.” She also studied trafficking in Charlotte, and learned how other organizations were addressing the problem. All of them, she says, are faith based. Some are helping identify and rescue entrapped individuals. One has opened a call center through which volunteers can talk to girls online.

“In Charlotte, there is also such a need for safe housing and discipleship,” she notes. “That’s where we’ll be fitting in.”

Forest Hill is now partnering with a local organization, End Slavery in Charlotte, to train church members to become “modern-day abolitionists fighting slavery,” and to open a safe house for women coming out of the sex trade. Scheduled to open in the spring, the short-term, transitional housing facility will enable women to stay from one day to six months.

Hollis says some will require additional attention at a long-term program; others will only need help finding an apartment and a job. Case managers in their partner organization will provide this type of assistance.

“We see our role as coming alongside these women and offering them Jesus, offering them love, offering them hope and the opportunity to repent. We’ll be building relation- ships, mentoring them and leading Bible studies.”

FACTS ABOUT SEX TRAFFICKING

According to the third-year counseling student, sex trafficking is the second largest illegal industry in the world, with ties to organized crime. She says this huge and highly lucrative business can range from one trafficker working with several women, to gang and mafia involvement. “Unlike trafficking of drugs and weapons that can be used only once, with sex trafficking we’re talking about people who can be used over and over again.”

Sex trafficking is defined as “through force, fraud or coercion,” someone is being used for a sexual act “for exchange of good.” Hollis says that can be a Happy Meal at McDonalds, or $200. There is no set amount. Persons under 18 are automatically considered victims of sex trafficking. Average age of individuals used for forced prostitution or pornography is 12 to 14.

“Most are girls,” she adds, “but depending on the location, there is definitely a very high demand for boys and children in general. There is also a growing interest in younger and younger children.”

The youngest trafficked child Hollis has seen was a five- year-old girl in a Cambodian village known worldwide among pedophiles. A family member had traded her for a television set. “That was where I was really blown away,” she remembers. “So many kids, just knowing what was going on. It was really hard.”

But, she adds, “an incredible organization, Agape International Mission, has been in that village for several years and is transforming it. They have a ministry for children, and a gym ministry to reach traffickers.”

ENTICEMENT

How are individuals enticed into the sex trade? Hollis says a common view is that they are kidnapped. While that does happen, more frequently trafficked
people come from broken homes, and places where there is neglect. Many are runaways. Often they have al- ready been sexually abused. Some are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

“The traffickers are smart,” she explains. “They know what to look for. Most likely it’s someone who’s young, looks very vulnerable...one who can be manipulated. The traffickers, the pimps also know how to woo these women and girls, how to play up being a father figure, a boyfriend, until they establish relationships. They provide housing, buy her food, nice clothes and gifts, making her feel like she’s loved and cherished.

“Then they start asking for favors, such as ‘I just bought you that jacket last week,’ or ‘I let you stay at my house for a few weeks. Would you mind doing this for me?’ It starts out small, then they begin to ask for bigger favors.”
These techniques, Hollis says, “create a very strong bond between the girl and her trafficker. These girls are being exploited. They’re being abused, and are in a very, very dangerous situation. But at the same time, there is a connection which makes it extremely hard for girls to come out.”

Hollis says recidivism is fairly high for individuals coming out of the sex trade because of the trauma they’ve experienced. “There is also a spiritual element. Their identities are now defined by their pimp, by the number of clients they see a day, the attention they receive...It’s hard to move through that, to move forward.

“So many of the women I have talked to, none of them really want to go back. But it’s familiar in the sense that there’s safety, and it’s comfortable. They at least know what role they play. They know exactly what’s going to happen, even if it’s horrible.

“That’s why I see this so much as the Lord’s work, because truly only the Lord can come into people and remind them of who they are. Only the Lord can reveal and strip away those layers and lies that have been placed over their real identity in him.”

Forest Hill Church is currently developing an international ministry to trafficked individuals in Haiti through an existing partnership with Mission of Hope. “It’s amazing that we will be able to start something there for the brothels...to establish more programs,” Hollis says. “God is really moving in Haiti...and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

In addition to her work on behalf of trafficked individuals, Hollis is in the third year of her MACC degree program. She credits the seminary’s Partnership Program* with making her study at Gordon-Conwell possible. “I knew that trafficking was my heart, working with women, and God showed me that I needed to be better equipped to re- ally be used. I said, ‘Well God, I’ll go, but I can’t pay for it.’ Then I found out about the Partnership Program...and the seminary became part of my journey.”

While the task of helping trafficked individuals at times seems overwhelming, Hollis has no doubt that God could do “an incredible work” in a person. And that person’s life could be changed. “That’s what I try to focus on...I know men and women who have been trafficked and have made it through.

“And just looking at what God has done in my own life gives me hope...He placed this burden on my heart so many years ago, and through it he has shown me that he can use me, a person I thought was too broken to be used. But I also know I could not do this alone, and I’m always in awe when I see that God can do so much.”

*The Partnership Program enables Gordon-Conwell students to be prepared for a fruitful ministry, surrounded by a network of support, equipped with stewardship skills and be less encumbered by debt with a generous full tuition scholarship. Hollis is currently striving toward this year’s goals to complete her final year of study.