She was an awkward and shy 19-year-old art history major when the handsome charismatic stranger asked her for directions in broad daylight at a New York City railway station.
He courted her, charming her by opening doors, holding her hand in public and presenting himself as a perfect gentleman.
“Then all of a sudden things started changing. He became very moody, very controlling, name calling, that I’m stupid and I’m dumb. [There were] accusations of cheating, my family was no good, my friends were no good,” said Iryna, now 28. “He was slowly isolating me from everything I knew and loved.”
His purpose? “He basically exploited me. He sold me for sex. That’s what he did in a nutshell.”
Iryna had come legally from Eastern Europe to the U.S. with her mother and brother six years earlier. She was an A student, continued to live at home and earned a bachelor’s degree during the three-year human trafficking ordeal.
“People don’t realize the psychological and the emotional hold that the abuser has with his victim,” Iryna said. “It’s like he controlled my every move, every single move.”
There are more than 21 million victims of human trafficking in the U.S., according to Department of State 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, encompassing sex trafficking of children and adults, forced labor of children and adults, bonded labor or debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude and forced child labor.
The church has a vital role in seeking justice and salvation for trafficking victims, said Raleigh Sadler, an abolitionist and a human trafficking awareness advocate based in New York, where he is director of justice ministries for the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and a college pastor at the Gallery Church. He has worked with Iryna in helping victims heal.
Raleigh Sadler speaks at a press conference on the steps on New York City Hall to fight human trafficking.
“Iryna is a trophy of grace,” Sadler said. “She and I meet with several young girls that have been trafficked. My role is simple: to provide an example of a man that does not want to buy sex. Iryna seeks to love these girls as others have loved her.”
Sadler founded the Let My People Go movement, in which he challenges Christians to see people set free not only physically but also spiritually. He speaks, teaches, mobilizes others and offers a weeklong mission trip for college students.
“When Moses went up to Pharaoh he said, ‘Let my people go that they may worship God on the mountain.’ There was always a connection between spiritual freedom and physical freedom,” Sadler said, “and I think when we just focus on one at the expense of the other, there’s a danger, whether it’s just sharing the gospel and proclaiming it and not meeting physical needs, or it’s just meeting physical needs and not proclaiming the gospel. Both need to be present because we’re holistic beings.”
Of the many college groups that have taken the mission trip, nearly all have invited Sadler to their campus to speak on the issue of justice, including Louisiana College in Alexandria, La.
Shannon Lane, Louisiana College director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries, took a seven-member team of students on the mission trip in May. The students prayer walked communities including Chinatown and Manhattan, noted signs of trafficking to report to the FBI human trafficking hotline, distributed hot meals, toiletries and other items to the homeless, and shared the gospel.
Lane encourages other Baptist collegiate groups to take the mission trip because it incorporates the gospel with justice, teaching the biblical foundation of justice ministry.
“[Sadler] tells us over and over, they’re not rescued until they know Jesus. I think that’s huge in this day and age,” Lane said. “They need to be redeemed spiritually, more than just physically.”
Sadler has recruited a multiethnic, interdenominational group of 20 New York pastors committed to the cause. They participate in bi-monthly roundtable discussions, focusing on how to proclaim justice from the pulpit and in small groups, how to educate congregations, and how to collaborate with specialist groups in achieving justice. The gospel is promoted as the motivation of any successful justice ministry.
“We’re challenging churches to develop a strategy at the local church level whereby they are seeking to care for those who are most vulnerable,” Sadler said. “Oftentimes traffickers target those that scripture would identify as the widow, orphan and sojourner. By loving those vulnerable to trafficking, the local church not only prevents exploitation but may find themselves intervening.”
Benjamin Ing, pastor of New York Chinese Baptist Church (American Baptist USA), has participated in the roundtable discussions since their inception, but had been meeting informally with Sadler for more than a year.
“I think this is a good opportunity for my church in particular to be more aware of the needs of our community. We’re in a community where there’s a lot of human trafficking going on, both labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” Ing said. “I would encourage other churches to get involved because I think we need to grow in our understanding of human trafficking across the U.S. and even across the world.”
Learning to recognize potential victims is key to securing their freedom, Sadler teaches, pointing out such vulnerable areas as the hospitality, restaurant and service industries, nannies, door-to-door sales and street peddling as prime covers. Signs of trafficking can include bruising, branding, tattoos of other peoples’ names, emotional distress, girls with older boyfriends, limited freedom of movement, and confiscated identification papers. Many might not even realize they’re being trafficked, he notes.
Traffickers might allow their victims to attend church regularly, Sadler said, because it offers a stability that may advance the traffickers’ goal of entrapment.
“Oftentimes their chains are psychological or emotional. Some think that they have a job with a tough boss when they’re really trafficked for labor,” Sadler said. “Some think that their boyfriend’s just demanding and slightly insecure, when he’s ultimately pushing them to sell their bodies for his gain. Human trafficking happens when there’s an exploitation of vulnerability for commercial gain.”
For Iryna, help came after a neighbor saw men coming and leaving the house where the trafficking occurred. She noticed Iryna crying outside the house, and intervened once when the trafficker was yelling at Iryna on the street.
“She came out of her house, she brought me into her home. … And she became my friend,” Iryna said. The neighbor thought Iryna was the victim of domestic violence, until Iryna revealed the truth. “She didn’t laugh at me; she didn’t judge me or criticize me. She said what he’s doing to you is wrong. It was like my lightbulb moment.”
The woman told her, “This is not your fault. You didn’t do this; you’re being forced to do this and what’s being done to you is wrong.”
“It was a like a paradigm shift in my head,” Iryna said. “It took me almost from August until April of the following year to finally sever all ties with him. There was a lot of going back and forth.”
Iryna’s abuser played mind games, professing love for her and manipulating her thoughts, but she saw the neighbor as consistently kind and loving. “She helped me build back my self-esteem to the point where I could stay no more. I didn’t have any kind of police intervention.”
Iryna cried every day when she was with her trafficker and after she managed to leave. Suffering from depression, nightmares and claustrophobia, she thought she was losing her mind. A friend invited her to church, and it was there at the nondenominational Brooklyn Tabernacle that she met the Savior of her soul.
“I felt like my soul was dirt. Not just my body but my soul, my heart, my mind,” she said. “There was this kind of dirt that I couldn’t wash away. I always felt like I was a second-class citizen and I didn’t deserve anything in this life.”
As Iryna walked down the aisle during altar call, she thought she would collapse, she said, but felt God taking over her body, giving her stability to walk in spite of her trembling and tears.
“I was having a nervous breakdown, because I was telling God, ‘Oh my God I’m a nobody; what are You going to do about it?’ At that moment I felt the presence of God, and I’m not ashamed to say it. I wasn’t just crying, I felt this presence. And this presence was holding me up. And I knew God not only saw what happened to me, but that He cared. He wasn’t judging me. He wasn’t condemning me. And that’s something as a body of Christ that believers should realize, that people go through things in life.”
Today, Iryna works in social services as a case manager with senior citizens, and dreams of earning a master’s degree in social work to become a therapist for survivors. Nearly three years after her salvation, she began speaking publicly of her ordeal. She has forgiven her trafficker and views him as troubled. She reported the case to the police, she said, but had no evidence that would stand in court.
“Maybe my case is a little bizarre, but I wonder how many cases like mine never get reported, because the women are so ashamed…. I didn’t start speaking out until well over a year ago,” she said. “I always felt that the Lord has done great things in my life, and it’s because of Him I’m never ashamed to say it.
“The healing, the forgiveness, it’s all from Him. And just being able to not feel ashamed, not feel embarrassed. It’s definitely Him.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)