Magazine Features

Messengers of Light

It’s late Friday night in a seedy neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., as women from The Salvation Army ring doorbells outside massage parlors and strip clubs, hoping and praying someone answers.

The Salvationists bring gifts—and perhaps hope—to the women inside who are being sexually exploited. Sometimes the door opens and the Army women walk in; other times they are turned away. In any event, they continue, undeterred from their mission.

On this night, Kate Borrero and Meghan Labrecque, Salvation Army cadets from the College for Officer Training (CFOT) are among the women. This month, they will graduate and become officers. They are taking part in the outreach, known as “Pearl Essence,” to meet the requirements of a new elective class offered on anti–human trafficking (see sidebar for Seeking Treasured Pearls).

Labrecque, who is from Chambersburg, Pa., said she was not sure what to expect during her initial outreach, but she quickly warmed up to the assignment.

“I was hesitant at first, but then I saw how simple it was to just talk to people,” she said. “A lot of times when we enter the strip clubs, the people there are welcoming. They’re not trying to push us out. They may not let us go all the way back, but they are willing to talk to us and to listen. They were really friendly and took the gifts we brought for the women.”

Simple love

Labrecque said the massage parlors, which use video surveillance to screen visitors, are more private and hesitant to let people in.

“It was really hard for me to see women there who were about my age,” she said. “They didn’t look happy to be there.

“I always think of the light and the darkness. The parlors are dark places, but just coming and giving a little bit of light, whether it’s a gift or just being friendly to someone, can be such a simple but important gesture.”

Borrero, who is from New London, Conn., said she got over her initial apprehension by viewing everyone involved as children of God in need of His love.

“It was daunting at first,” Borrero said. “For a split second, I got kind of nervous, but I had to remember that things might appear more dangerous in some ways, but really all we’re doing is engaging people who are loved by God and made in God’s image. When I try to view people in that way, it makes it less scary and it’s more about knowing I’m going for God’s people and reaching them.

“After the first five minutes, I didn’t care anymore about safety. It wasn’t like I was being negligent or irresponsible, but my concern shifted away from myself and more toward the mission, what we were doing, and the individuals we were trying to connect with.”

Borrero said the Bible verse James 1:27 “talks about how true religion is to care for the vulnerable. This is a vulnerable population. It’s our call as Christians to be involved in some way to help with an injustice like this.”

Praying for connections

Entering secluded massage parlors and strip clubs under the cloak of darkness is not for everyone, but the “Pearl Essence” outreach team goes with boldness marked by serious prayer. The team assembles around 6 p.m. to pack the gift bags. Before going out, they also praise, worship, and pray together.

The teams go out in vans to predetermined locations and write detailed notes about each massage parlor and strip club on an iPad.

Leading the monthly outreach is Major Susan Wittenberg, the women’s ministries secretary for the Greater New York (GNY) Division, who said Brooklyn is the focus for now.

“Brooklyn was an area where the Spirit directed us to go,” she said. “There’s really a concentrated area of illicit massage parlors and a few strip clubs there, but the massage parlors are really where the majority of women are being trafficked. They come to the states … with a dream someone has promised them.”

Wittenberg said the women may work at a nail salon or give foot and back massages during the day, but at night are forced into illicit sex.

The gift bags include small favors, such as lip gloss and bracelets with the name “Pearl Essence” inscribed on them. The name holds deep meaning.

“The essence of what we do is to go and offer a gift of treasure to the women. We do this because we consider them to be purposed, valued, and loved. We want to acknowledge that,” Wittenberg said. “So, when we go to the door and we say, ‘Hello, we’re from Pearl Essence,’ we are declaring that there are women in this building who are treasures who our Heavenly Father is pursuing. They might be hidden in darkness, but they are jewels of great value.”

God opens doors

The outreach bags, which are made by Others Trade for Hope, an entrepreneurial Salvation Army outreach to women, include a card with feeding program locations and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The cards are written in Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, and English. Some cards include Russian.

“If we can get the women outside their workspace, then we have an opportunity to connect with and help them,” Wittenberg said. “We look for invitations. We look for the women to open up to us as we move toward what they want us to move toward.

“We wouldn’t push ourselves on them in any way, but if a woman comes to us and says she wants help with becoming legal or going back home, then we would help. We wait for her to move toward us.”

One of the outreach regulars is Jennifer Groff, the community engagement director for the Greater New York Division. Groff got interested in trafficking in 2017 while researching the issue as a journalism graduate school student. She interviewed survivors, government officials, leaders of service agencies, and researchers.

Groff also volunteered at “The Well,” a Salvation Army anti–human trafficking program in Columbus, Ohio.

“I ended up developing a passion for it and a real heart for the women,” Groff said.

A God moment

Even though she grew up in The Salvation Army, Groff  said participating in Pearl Essence has given her a newfound opportunity to connect personally with Christ. Groff recalls her first outreach when she met a woman working at a strip club in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime on the planet with 40.3 million victims worldwide. Women and girls are disproportionately affected.”

—International Labor Organization

“In our face-to-face engagement of just a few minutes, I had a spiritual experience,” Groff said. “I felt God was working through me. The moment was just beyond the physical.

“Our team was reflecting God’s love and the woman I was talking to received it. It felt like there was something deeper going on than us just having a brief conversation. She seemed to have real joy as the women uplifted her.”

The outreach team includes some men. Roberto Calderon, who works in Emergency Disaster Services in Greater New York, often serves as a protector of sorts, watching from nearby as the women ring doorbells. He also helps research the massage parlors and strip clubs beforehand.

Knowing he wanted to be a missionary, Calderon first learned about human trafficking a decade ago while attending a conference.

“The stories they told us reminded me of one of my nieces,” he said. “As I sat there, I felt the Lord speaking to me. While hearing these stories of how women were tricked, forced, kidnapped, and abused, I felt the Lord saying to me, ‘If this happened to one of your nieces, what would you do?’ I felt the Lord was laying on my heart the desire to find out more about this.”

Weeping for the lost

Calderon ended up taking part in anti–trafficking outreaches in Thailand. While one team would be out in the field, another would pray. His heart ached during one prayer session.

“I was praying for the different women and the Lord kind of broke my heart,” he said. “I was weeping about how overwhelming His love was for them and how much His heart breaks for those who are lost. It was the first time I really sobbed uncontrollably before the Lord. I thought, ‘OK, Lord, this is what You have for me. How do I get more involved?’ Since then I’ve tried to be more involved and learn more.”

After taking the CFOT class and going on the “Pearl Essence” outreaches, both Labrecque and Borrero say they also plan to get more involved by fighting trafficking this year wherever they are sent as new officers.

“The beauty of this Pearl Essence outreach is that it gives me an example of how I can do something for people—without the expectation of being the ultimate solution for getting them out of their situation and into recovery,” Borrero said. “Instead, I can serve as kind of a bridge to help get these women to recovery and back into society and away from that life.”

Labrecque said Christians “should hate any oppression or injustice” and do all they can to stop it.

“Whether the women in these places are trafficked or they’re there because they’re broken or struggling spiritually or in other ways, they need some kind of light in that darkness and they also need hope,” Labrecque explained. “The only way they can get that is by reaching out to them and actually being that presence in those places.

“If we just ignore that there are broken and oppressed people, then they’re not going to receive that little bit of hope or that glimpse of light.”

by Robert Mitchell

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