As we pulled up to a run-down flat in the downtown of an urban center in South Africa, I looked to my right to see a beautiful park filled with willow trees and happy children playing, and I looked to my left to see several young adults crammed in the narrow drive.
I stepped out of the car to join my teammate and a new friend, Charity*, who ministers to people of all ages living in the inner-city. We walked a few feet down the sidewalk to greet a few 20-something year old girls whose bodies were stiff and still, but their eyes were screaming at me with hurt.
After a few quick exchanges, we continued on our mission to find Sterling*. As we neared the flat, I looked up above me to see clusters of guys on the landings looking down on the girls with fixed glances like vultures eyeing their prey. A honking car pulling into the drive jolted me out of the trance I had been in, trying to soak up all my surroundings, and back to the search for Sterling.
“Can I help you with anything?” asked a man who I assumed was the landlord, just because he was the only white man in sight. Although South Africa came to independence in 1994, remnants of the Apartheid remain scattered across the country.
“Umm, no sir, I’m with them,” I answered, swiftly rejoining my friends who were circled around a man.
Dressed in white cargo capri pants and a charcoal grey wind jacket, a tall and slender black man spoke in a low voice with the small group. Upon my arrival, I extended my hand and introduced myself.
“I’m Sterling,” he said, reaching his hand out and grabbing mine.
I had prayed to the Lord about this day, asking that He would help me to see people with His eyes and not my own. I had been briefed for a Friday of interacting with “pimps” and “prostitutes” to be better equipped to write human trafficking stories for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, but I did not want to look at a person and define them by the sin that pollutes their life. I would hate for a stranger to pass me by on the street and refer to me by the enemy’s strongholds in my life.
As soon as Sterling shook my hand and I looked him in the eye, I felt like I was looking into the depths of his soul and God gave me a great love for him.
Friends, Sterling deceives girls and forces them into sexual slavery. He is a human trafficker. He is a modern-day slave-owner. He beats girls, drugs girls, and sends girls to the street day after day to sell their bodies for his profit and their humiliation.
When I was 12 years old I was shocked to discover how many girls are trapped in sexual slavery in India. I could not imagine what sort of men could do such evil things to innocent girls. Over the years, as I have learned more and more about the human trafficking industry, I have been sickened by the people that enslave over 27 million people world-wide.
Here I was shaking hands with a man that should disgust me – and the only emotion I had for him was compassionate love. Praise God for His unending faithfulness! What an answer to prayer! I could never love Sterling on my own – but God gave me His love for His lost son in need of a Father.
After a short time we all piled in the car to head to another flat just down the road. When we reached our destination, I was burdened to know people lived in such a forsaken building. The fading sign said something about “mansions”, but all I could see was an old white concrete building, browning from the ground up, with shattered glass windows, and homeless people sprawled out on couches around the perimeter they had likely found in the garbage.
Sterling hopped out of the car to fetch Gabrielle* – one of his girls whom we had come to pick up. Gabrielle has an 18-month old baby girl who was recently taken to a safe home in a nearby city due to child neglect. We were there to provide a ride for Gabrielle to see her daughter and meet with social workers to decide if she was going to keep her daughter or give her up for adoption. The hope of Charity was that Gabrielle would allow her daughter to be adopted so the child would have a chance to grow up in a loving Christian family instead of a life on the streets.
I looked out the backseat window to see Sterling quickly approaching. Following Sterling was a beautiful black girl in a bright pink skirt, pink satin shirt, and pink flats, gripping her back while massaging her pregnant belly – Gabrielle.
After Sterling and Gabrielle got into the car, we started off on our journey to the children’s home. On the drive I found out that Sterling is 25, and Gabrielle is seven months pregnant with her second baby and is the same age as me – 21. The uncomfortable drive was softened with laughter caused by a handful of funny stories Charity had to share with everyone.
When we finally arrived at the children’s home, Sterling and Gabrielle waited anxiously outside the front door. Then there was the precious baby girl, Abbey*. Tears strolled down Gabrielle’s face as she reunited with her little girl. Even Sterling was moved, although Abbey is technically not his daughter.
As we entered the home, the social workers requested to speak with the mother, Gabrielle, alone for a while. Sterling was left with Abbey, another baby boy, my teammate, and me. As my conversation with Sterling progressed, I could feel the Spirit’s leading to ask him his story.
“Oh, it’s long,” Sterling said in a mumble.
I didn’t push it and we continued to make small talk while I saw him interact with the babies. It was clear deep down Sterling dreamed to be a father. Then God told me to ask him his story again.
“It’s long,” Sterling said once more.
So the conversation continued as I discovered he was originally from Nigeria. I asked him what his dream was when he was growing up in Nigeria. He told me he always wanted to be a professional soccer player and he still plays soccer every day. Then I felt the Spirit’s nudging yet again to ask him about his story.
This time Sterling was open to share with me.
Though I had been informed about what Sterling and Gabrielle do for a living, as far as I was concerned, I had no idea.
“There’s nothing good about what I do,” Sterling uttered. “There’s no good in what I do. There’s nothing good about who I am.”
All I could do was look into his eyes while passionately praying the Spirit would radically move through our conversation.
“I never wanted to be where I am today,” Sterling continued. “I never wanted to do what I do. I know what I do makes God angry. I know I make God angry because of the things I do.”
Sterling fled from Nigeria a year and a half ago because of the fighting. It took him two months to get a visa from a guy who told him about a business opportunity with a Japanese company in South Africa. When Sterling arrived he discovered that it was all a lie.
Having spent all his savings to get to South Africa, Sterling was stranded in the city in need of a job. With South Africa being a difficult place to find a job, and him being from Nigeria, he said his only option was to be a security guard. Sterling has a business mind – he can’t imagine wasting his intelligence by guarding an apartment complex for hardly any pay.
After playing soccer with some friends he made in the neighborhood, they told Sterling about their own business opportunity. Selling drugs and girls is a quick and easy income to obtain in South Africa, and many immigrants who come to find a better life but cannot obtain a job find themselves deep in the street business.
“I want to get out of this,” Sterling said with an angry undertone. “I am sick of my life in the city. I just want to leave and be done with this kind of life.”
“Sterling, do you think someday there could be something good about what you do?” I asked in surrender to the Spirit’s leading.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch all of that, what?” Sterling asked.
“You said there is nothing good about what you do – that there is no good in what you do,” I began. “My question for you, Sterling, is: do you think someday there could be something good about what you do?”
“Ahh, I don’t know,” Sterling said.
“Tell him about my love, Meghan,” I felt the Lord speak to my soul.
I began to tell Sterling the Good News about Jesus Christ. Sterling grew up in a Christian home, so he knows who God is and he has heard about Jesus. He knows Satan is attacking him. He believes he is the one who is holding himself back from following God.
“Sterling, until you know God – you cannot get out of this,” I shared in love. “You can continue to try, but you’re never going to get out because you’re just not strong enough. You need God to get out of this. He is stronger than you. He is stronger than Satan. It is not just you that is holding you back from following God – Satan is putting up a fight too.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” Sterling agreed.
“The only way there can be something good about what you do and who you are is if you have Jesus,” I told him. “Sterling, there is nothing good about us. There is no good in me and you. Jesus is the only one who is good. We cannot make ourselves good enough to be ready to follow Him, because we’ll never get there.”
“I don’t know,” Sterling said – his face revealing the shame he is trapped in.
“Sterling, God loves you just as much as He loves me, and God loves me just as much as He loves you,” I encouraged. “All of the bad in our life, all of the things we do that we hate – Jesus took all of that upon Himself when He died for us on the cross. That is why He cried out, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus was carrying the sin of the whole world. But the Bible says that ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Even when we feel like we are at our worst – when we feel we have become the person we hate – at such a time as that, Christ died for us. He died for me and He died for you, Sterling.”
“Yeah,” Sterling spoke quietly in contemplation.
“Sterling, imagine I brought you a gift today, even though it’s not your birthday, I brought you a present,” I said with my hands holding an invisible gift box. “But here’s the thing, until you take that gift, until you receive it, the gift is not yours. I can sit here and hold it out to you, ready to give it to you, but if you don’t receive it you would get up and leave without the gift – and I would be left here waiting to give it to you. It’s the same with God. He has this incredible gift of love and forgiveness that He is ready to give you through His Son, Jesus, but until you receive it – it’s not yours. God isn’t going to force you to love Him – that’s not love. But until you receive that gift, God is not going to live in your life.”
“Ahh, I just know I am keeping myself from God, but it’s not my fault,” Sterling said.
“Sterling, until you give God control, this is never going to end,” I spoke plainly. “I promise you that God will give you the strength you need to get out and will provide for all your needs, but only if you believe in Him and ask Him to take control of your life. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to be able to get out of this on your own. The only way you can be set free from this is with God, because He is stronger. I promise to pray for you every day. But I can’t make you choose to follow God. I do hope you will give Him control sooner rather than later, but it is not my choice – it’s yours.”
“Thank you,” Sterling said. “I’ll think about it.”
“Has anyone ever shared that with you before?” I asked him.
“No, not exactly,” he answered. “Not in those words.”
“Sterling, are you ready to come join us?” the social worker asked as he entered the room.
God burdened me to write Sterling a letter and to give him my Bible. I committed to pray for him every day – and I am. I ask that you will pray for him too. God has begun a good work in Sterling and I am faithful He will bring it to completion.
After we took Sterling and Gabrielle to lunch and dropped them off at their flat, we prepared for a weekly service that a local inner-city ministry holds. The ministry had arranged for a former drug dealer and pimp who received Christ to come share his testimony and invited girls and guys of the streets to participate in the evening.
When the service came to a close I saw Gabrielle across the courtyard reading the Bible I had given Sterling. She said Sterling wasn’t able to make it, but she wanted to know if I got a chance to talk with him while she was meeting with the social workers. I told her what we talked about and she said she was hungry.
Once she got her plate of chicken and rice the ministry had prepared for the homeless, she told me how they both want to get out, and how God is clearly working. Just the night before, they had been kicked out of their flat because Sterling owes the landlord 11,000 rand (South African currency), which is why they were in different flats that morning.
“We don’t know where we’re going to sleep or what we’re going to eat in the morning,” Gabrielle said. “I would like for Abbey to be adopted by a family that can love her and care for her. Things are really difficult for me and Sterling as it is right now, not including Abbey.”
We talked about God’s perfect timing and how they both want to get out of this business.
“It is like God is saying, ‘Get out of there. I don’t want you here. I don’t want you doing this anymore.’ Meghan, how did you leave the life you were living before?” Gabrielle asked.
“God,” I answered. “Really. When I decided to follow Him for the rest of my life, I gave Him control. He just shows me the next step – which usually doesn’t make any sense and it scares me to death – but He gives me the strength I need to take it. He never leaves my side and He meets all my needs. I promise you, if the two of you believe in God and ask Him to take control of your life – He will save you.”
“But I’ve prayed for a year now of doing this business, and nothing has happened,” Gabrielle said. “Some people tell me there is no God.”
“I can never believe that because I have seen God work in my life far too much for me to even think about the idea that He does not exist,” I shared in honesty while giving examples of His faithfulness. “If you both follow God with your life and pray to Him with FAITH that He can bring you out of this – I am faithful He will. But you must have faith. If you don’t have faith in God, you don’t have anything. You must believe in Him and not yourself.”
“It’s just, I have promised to never leave Sterling and he has promised to never leave me,” Gabrielle admitted. “I love him. No matter how difficult or not difficult life is, we both don’t want to leave without each other.”
“But if you both don’t want to leave each other behind and you both want to get out, I cannot imagine a better time to get out,” I said. “But the only way you guys are going to be able to truly get out of this and start a new life is with Jesus. There is just no way you guys can do this on your own – you’re just not strong enough – but God is.”
“I keep telling Sterling to go to church and fight against Satan, but he just doesn’t,” Gabrielle said as we headed toward the car to take her “home”.
“Well you keep encouraging him,” I told Gabrielle. “I’m sorry the Bible has my name in it and it’s got markings through it, but every time you see my name or the markings you can just remember that I’m praying for you – because I am.”
As we drove up in the dark to the same flat where I had met Sterling that morning, I felt nauseous looking at how many girls lined the sidewalks on both sides of the street waiting to be picked up and used, their owners not far away.
Gabrielle thanked us and exited the car. I opened my door and stood to hug her tight.
“I love you, and I’m praying for you sweet friend,” I spoke quietly. “You are beautiful.”
As my teammate and I drove off into the night to head back to our homes, I tried to understand how God chose for me to live in freedom while these girls are slaves. I tried to grasp why my opportunity to come to South Africa was not a lie while guys my age were deceived by an opportunity to come here. And I cannot understand – all I know is God is abounding in grace and shows us new mercies each morning. I did nothing to deserve the life He has given me, but He called me His daughter and has given me life so that I might take every opportunity to share that gift of life with all those dying around me.
Human trafficking can be summed up in one word: deception. Guys are deceived. Girls are deceived. The enemy is the ultimate deceiver and it disgusts me to see his work flourish. God is in control. He has reigned since before time began and will forever reign and conquer the enemy. God can bring an end to the slavery that plagues every nation on earth.
Do we have faith that God can do that? Are we ready to face the costs that come with surrendering to His will? Do we have the endurance to persevere through the persecution that will come our way? Do we believe God will give us the strength we need to fight to free the over 27 million slaves around the world? Here’s the thing, there are far more than 27 million slaves around the world. In a world of 6 billion people, billions of souls are slaves to the enemy – are we ready to do whatever it takes to help them find freedom in Jesus Christ?
We have been set free from sin. Should we keep our freedom to ourselves believing no one else deserves it? By no means! There are plenty of excuses we can hide behind that keep us from devoting our days to knowing God and making Him known by sharing the Gospel with the hurting souls that surround us at home and abroad. But those are not sufficient excuses. There is no excuse for not living a life worthy of God sending His Son to die for. Sure, we’re going to screw up – that’s our nature. But what’s our aim? What’s our motivation? What’s our purpose?
On Friday I shared with Sterling and Gabrielle my favorite verse in Scripture, and I feel led to share it with you today:
“I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.” –Philippians 3:13