For years, Iryna only wanted one thing – a phone call. She wanted it for Christmas, for her birthday, any day, any time, the sooner the better.
And it didn’t matter who called as long as they told her what she wanted to hear – that the man who had sold her for sex had died.
“I hated him,” Iryna said. “I hated all the traffickers, all the pimps.”
Photo by Kristi Cabe
Raleigh Sadler talks with Iryna, a sex trafficking victim, about their feelings as they watched the sentencing of a pimp in a New York courtroom.
Quite a different emotion, however, startled her. It started small, much like the way she, once a bright college student, had been lured into trafficking.
And then it welled up until Iryna was weeping.
She’d had guns held to her head. She’d been knifed, raped, verbally abused, sold, left suicidal and stripped to a shell of a person.
Then several years after she’d been rescued and stepped into the arms of freedom, Iryna stood there with tears running down her face.
A pimp had been sent to prison that day in September in New York.
And her heart was broken.
“I wanted to feel the celebration,” Iryna said. “But I felt the heart of God breaking for that man. It was a deep-rooted sadness of ‘it doesn’t have to be like this.’”
She had spent the day in a courtroom sitting beside a girl who had walked the same path she did, a girl waiting to see what would happen to the man who had made her life a living hell.
Iryna was there for moral support. And Raleigh Sadler was there for Iryna.
“Iryna is a strong girl, but I knew this would open up wounds,” said Sadler, director of justice ministries for the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and leader of the Let My People Go movement to assist churches in the fight against human trafficking.
“I knew going to the sentencing of this man would be hard for [Iryna]. Her trafficker is still not in prison. He needs to do the time. And she’s wrestling with it.”
Iryna wrestled as she stared at the man sitting emotionless in chains, the man who’d tried to steal the life of the young girl beside her.
She wrestled as his sentence was read – 6 and one-half years to 11 years.
“On one hand, it’s such a big victory,” Iryna said. “The tide is changing. It’s not the girls who are being prosecuted anymore. We’re finally seeing justice being served.”
But on the other hand, the man represented a whole group of people – including Iryna’s own pimp – and her heart ached.
“They are boys who grew up without fathers. There was an absence of godly men in his life who could’ve poured into him and taught him, ‘This is how you live life,’ and help him process his pain,” Iryna said. “When we send them to jail, it’s good, but we’re treating the symptom. Unless you go after the root, the symptoms will continue.”
The root was also on Sadler’s mind as he sat beside Iryna.
“I was sitting there watching him, stone-faced, no emotion, and I was thinking, ‘What makes a trafficker? How does someone’s life get to this point?’”
That pimp “is a frightening human being,” Sadler said. “He trafficked a girl for six months. He slashed a guy in the face in prison. It’s in that moment that you almost get a ‘you’re going to get what’s coming to you’ feeling.”
But the pimp was also a fatherless boy who was groomed by influences in his life to become a violent abuser, Sadler said.
“I just couldn’t shake the thought – what if more people weren’t becoming traffickers? What if a big brother could come alongside the vulnerable who are being groomed to be traffickers and God did a work? What if the church could intervene? The conversation needs to happen.”
That’s why Sadler started Let My People Go in the first place – to empower the local church to fight human trafficking by loving the most vulnerable. That means reaching out to women like Iryna, pulling them to safety and helping them walk into the healing Christ can offer.
That means sitting next to survivors in the courtroom as justice is served.
And that means going to the root – the places where people are most vulnerable, where trafficking is most likely to flourish. Some local churches, Sadler noted, have chosen in recent years to focus on ministry in places where girls might be exploited – like those living among the homeless.
But as he sat in the courtroom that day, Sadler knew he also needed to ask churches to consider making an even greater reach – to extend a hand to the young men on the path to becoming pimps.
“What produces the victimized produces the victimizer as well,” he said. “It’s commonly believed that, in many communities, those who are exploited are growing up with those who are exploiters. … You’re generally exploited by someone you know.”
The challenge, Sadler said, is not only loving the future victim but also changing the life of a future sex trafficker.
“That’s why addressing vulnerability is so important,” he said. “These people are not beyond salvation or the reach of Christ.”
As Let My People Go works with churches to create innovative strategies, Sadler asks four questions:
- Who are the most vulnerable in your church right now?
- Who are those working with the most vulnerable in your church right now? (Nursery, children’s and youth workers, etc.)
- Who are the most vulnerable in your community?
- Who are working with them? (Police officers, doctors, etc.)
“If you can identify them and develop a team of first responders, that’s a good place to start,” Sadler said. “Just by answering those questions, we can help churches start to develop a plan.”
Iryna said she’s “not advocating for excusing what traffickers do. If they did the crime, they need to pay the consequences.”
But her heart whispered something different that day in the courtroom as she wept for the brokenness of that pimp – “it doesn’t have to be this way.”
“God didn’t create him to be like that, He didn’t mean for him to live like that,” Iryna said. “I believe they have been broken and damaged so much.”
Yet she believes that one day if God intervened and the church reached out, that cycle could end.
God has “transformed my mind,” Iryna said. “I believe that His power can break any chains.”
For more information, visit raleighsadler.com/letmypeoplego.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Grace Thornton is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Ala., and author of I Don’t Wait Anymore, a 2016 release from Zondervan.)