Great Moments

Visionaries for Freedom

Since our inception, The Salvation Army has been a pioneer in combatting sex trafficking. Our founder William Booth believed that to serve the oppressed, we must fight on the frontlines of hell. This conviction led him and his wife, Catherine, to the darkest corners of Victorian England where women and children were being forced into prostitution and sold to brothels throughout Europe.

A movement is born

In 1885, William, Catherine, and Bramwell Booth teamed up with William T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. Together they hatched a plan to purchase 13–year–old Eliza Armstrong for five British pounds to expose how easy it was to buy and sell a child for prostitution in London.

Stead wrote about their controversial stunt in a series of articles called, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” His reporting on child sex trafficking caused an uproar. The alliance of new abolitionists seized this opportunity to collect nearly 400,000 signatures from outraged citizens on a petition to raise the age of consent.

In Booth’s bold fashion, he rolled up the two–mile–long petition and delivered it to Parliament in an open wagon, trailed by a brass band. Legislators could not ignore the blaring will of the people and their campaign succeeded in changing the age of consent from 13 to 16.

Gaining momentum

At the turn of the century in Japan, Captain Gunpei Yamamuro began mobilizing The Salvation Army. He discovered thousands of women and girls were being entrapped by brothel owners who forced them into prostitution until they paid off a loan made to their families. Yet their hope for freedom was sadly a dark illusion because the debt owed was never–ending.

Armed with a special edition of the War Cry magazine, Salvationists marched into the brothels with a message of empowerment and refuge. Brothel owners fought back violently, but the battle ensued. Once again, the Army partnered with the national press. The public pressure forced the government to amend legislation providing protection for anyone enslaved in the brothels, and raising the age of consent to 16. Within a year, 12,000 women fled the brothels and were liberated.

Within 30 years of the Booth’s exposure to the horrors of sex trafficking, The Salvation Army opened 117 homes for women and children who were escaping commercial sexual exploitation. Our early influence in fighting this social injustice was rooted in compassion and in the fierce commitment to the abolition of modern–day slavery. These two forces were planted in the souls of Salvationists who came alongside survivors.

Catherine Booth said, “I felt as though I must go and walk the streets and besiege the dens where these hellish iniquities are going on. To keep quiet seemed like being a traitor to humanity.”

Outreach in Hell’s Kitchen

In the late 80’s, Hell’s Kitchen was the underbelly of Manhattan. Here, a spirited Scot named Major Betty Baker started an outreach for women embroiled in street prostitution. Every weeknight, Baker and an Emergency Disaster Services driver loaded up a canteen with drinks and snacks and cruised the streets between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. The pimps had a reputation for being violent, and she had some dangerous run–ins, but Baker was never deterred. Her fearless mission was to serve, listen, and talk to the poor and shunned, showing them the mercy and unconditional love of Jesus.

Decades later, in New York City, commercial sexual exploitation has evolved but remains prevalent. Now, migrating women, mostly from China and Korea, are deceived into believing they have a chance to live the “American Dream.”  But when they arrive, the dream twists into a nightmare. Traffickers disguise themselves as friends, promising them a place to live and a job as a masseuse. Yet the lie becomes apparent, exposing a cruel reality when they are forced to sell their bodies to paying customers.

In January 2019, a revival of Baker’s outreach began for women working in massage parlors and strip clubs. Once again, with the support of Emergency Services staff and vans, outreach teams descend on city streets. They visit the women, offering them an uplifting gift. With each visit, the Army’s message to those who are oppressed by exploitation and abuse is a reminder of the essence of who they truly are: Purposed, Empowered, Appreciated, Respected and Loved (Pearl). The “Pearl Essence” outreach program demonstrates its members’ belief that liberation is within their reach by offering relevant “first step” services such as free meals and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in local corps.

The power of this seed–planting ministry can best be described in Baker’s own words, “Our past, present, and even our future are somehow interwoven, so that kindness manifested in the past, can reflect in the present and be felt in the future.”

Our legacy today

Our past and present anti–trafficking work share the same passion for awareness, legislative advocacy, prevention, and outreach for women and children vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Today, we are also present at the forefront as leaders in training staff, supporting law enforcement, and educating the public on domestic human trafficking issues.

Across the United States, The Salvation Army now has 43 anti–trafficking programs with 92 staff members in positions devoted solely to the cause. In the Eastern Territory, the hubs of human trafficking in our cities have an array of programs serving survivors including street outreach, drop–in centers, holistic case management, trauma therapy and safe housing.

Our grassroots approach to programming means we adapt to the diverse needs of women and children who have been harmed by gender–based violence. Last year we reported:

  • 3,123 survivors of gender–based violence
  • 28,591 nights of shelter provided
  • 1,754 case management clients
  • 2,889 referrals to partner agencies for services
  • 308 program graduates

By coming alongside our most marginalized and oppressed communities, we bear witness to the scourge human trafficking has on so many souls. We have made history and we will continue to help lead the way by showing mercy and compassion for the disempowered, healing for the hurting, and companionship along the pathway to recovery for survivors of exploitation. 

This is The Salvation Army’s birthright. So, we fight; and fight we will—to the very end.

by Jennifer Groff

—Jennifer Groff is the community engagement director for the Greater New York Division and is active in the “Pearl Essence” outreach.