It all started in a Facebook community group. It could’ve ended there but something happened that changed everything.
He recognized her face.
“The Facebook group was a place where people in our part of town share things,” Nathan Creitz, pastor of City Life Church in Ridgewood, Queens, New York, recounted, “and somebody on there shared a link and said something like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in our neighborhood.’”
Creitz clicked on it – and immediately wished he hadn’t.
“It was a picture of scantily clad Asian girls from a website that often advertises places that are fronts for human trafficking, places like massage parlors,” he said. “I was about to click away – except for the fact that I realized I recognized one of the girls.”
And he recognized the place – it was a massage parlor right next to the church.
“When we were giving out coats in front of the church a month or two before, as the employees of the massage parlor came, this girl was there, and it was basically was her first day on the job,” Creitz said. “She came over and got a hat and coat, and some of the people there serving with our church befriended her.”
They had no idea what was really going on, he said – but that picture told him that there were some girls in need of help, about as close as they could get to the church.
“Based on our interactions with them, there’s no doubt in my mind that these girls were not doing this stuff willingly,” he said.
Creitz had been working with Raleigh Sadler, who runs the New York City-based nonprofit Let My People Go aimed at stopping human trafficking, so he knew how to recognize the signs.
And he decided it was time to go to the police department – a place he’d already begun to build relationships.
“The Lord had just really opened some doors to have great access to the local precinct. I had become friends with the captain,” Creitz said. “And when I shared my concerns with him, he didn’t just dismiss it – he really took it very seriously.”
They began to investigate the five parlors Creitz had expressed alarm about, including the one next to the church. Three parlors were shut down; two were cleared. And when a new commander, Mark Wachter, took over the precinct, he inherited the concern and kept right on working.
“He [Wachter] gets a lot of credit for taking this seriously. We see the hand of God in this,” Creitz said, noting that his church had been praying for God to put an end to human trafficking in Queens, which is a known hotbed for exploitation.
And Wachter said he felt the prayers of the church.
“I knew the church was praying,” the precinct commander said. “Together we aggressively tackled these businesses that were hurting the community, and thank God we were able to close them all down in this area where Nathan’s church is. Slowly we let those people know that those types of businesses are not welcome here.”
And it wasn’t long before Creitz attended a community council meeting and learned a piece of information that took his breath away.
In a two-mile radius, 24 illicit parlors had been shut down.
“That form of trafficking has been virtually eliminated in the precinct,” Creitz said.
“Any other massage parlors that are open have been investigated and cleared at this point. As long as they are shutting this down, as long as there is pressure on that community, if there are fewer and fewer outlets for that to be abused and exploited, then that’s just going to dry up.”
Sadler said that’s exactly what he prays will happen.
“Our mission is to help the local church fight human trafficking by reaching those who are most vulnerable,” Sadler said of Let My People Go, which held its official kickoff at the end of January. “We want to help the church identify those people, empower them, protect them and include them in the church.”
Nearly 46 million people are exploited globally through modern-day slavery, Sadler said, adding up to a $150 billion business.
His goal? To help churches figure out how to stop it from the corner of the world where they sit.
“There are ways to inject justice and mercy into everything you are already doing … to come up with applications for your church and small groups,” Sadler said. “We’ve seen it take on different forms in different kinds of churches and communities.”
And just like he came alongside City Life Church, he said his goal is to come alongside churches across the country, offer resources and help them strategize how to best stop trafficking together alongside police and social services in their community.
“We want to create a congregational approach that mobilizes the entire congregation to believe this is what you naturally do,” Sadler said. “It’s vital to have a gospel approach to the topic of trafficking – that way you’re actually creating a culture that says, ‘This is what we do, this is how we do it, this is what it means to be a believer – you’re loved by God and so you love others.’”
That’s what City Life Church was doing the day they gave the girl from the parlor the coat and hat – and that’s what led to Creitz’ being able to sound the alarm that led to her safety.
“It really all began as a matter of prayer – prayer and having a church that was engaged in knowing our community,” Creitz said. “If we hadn’t seen that girl, there wouldn’t have been any reason to look any further into this issue. If you’re not out there recognizing the vulnerabilities that exist, then nothing happens.”
“If the community is concerned, we’re going to be able to work together to solve these problems,” the precinct commander said. “Nathan is a great example of that, how he’s kind of joined with the police department to try to help as many as we can as best we can. We want to make a difference. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Creitz said there is another story that needs to be told about the girl who received a coat and a woman from North Carolina who spoke to the Chinese girl in her native language.
City Life Church partners with the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association and North Carolina Baptists in the annual Coats for the City ministry. Dudley Shoals Baptist Church in Granite Falls and Sandy Ridge Baptist Church in Hickory are two churches that have engaged in the partnership.
“We were on the sidewalk giving out hats that the ladies at Dudley Shoals made and coats that North Carolina churches gave,” Creitz recalled.
The massage parlor’s staff arrived later that morning. One of their girls, who is Chinese, “struck up a conversation in Chinese with Debbie Smith,” he said. Smith, a member of Dudley Shoals, lived in China for two years and spoke the language.
It was the girl’s first day on the job, and she didn’t know how to do a massage. Creitz said that sounded suspicious, but the volunteers stayed focused on helping her.
Smith was invited into the parlor where she showed the girl how to do a massage.
“We offered to help her with English and things like that, but then we never saw her again,” Creitz said.
“We would not have known this girl if we did not have the volunteers from North Carolina and the coats. That ministry is what helped us have that first interaction with someone at the massage parlor.”
Dudley Shoals and Sandy Ridge has helped the Queens church with coat distribution, prayer walking, picking up trash in the neighborhood and serving through the subway outreach: giving away water bottles, fruit snacks, granola bars and gospel materials. “We’ve had quite a few people visit our church as a result of that outreach, and some have joined our church from the subway outreach,” Creitz added.
“We try to use our partnerships to go as wide as we can in the community. We tell our mission teams, ‘You’re helping us to meet a lot of people so you help us go ‘wide’ in the neighborhood. Those of us in the church are able to go ‘deep’ with the connections that you find. We need both aspects – going wide and deep.’”
Creitz recognizes the value of partnerships with other churches. “I’m grateful for the role North Carolina Baptists have played because it really takes all of us,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for prayer and mission teams and networks, this would not happen. God gets all the glory because not any one of us can.”
For more information about Let My People Go, visit lmpgnetwork.org.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Story updated Jan. 4. Grace Thornton is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Ala., and author of I Don’t Wait Anymore, a 2016 release from Zondervan.)