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Sex trafficking: Christians called to be modern-day abolitionists

NEW YORK CITY (BP) — Raleigh Sadler says he’s just a Florida boy who wears cardigans — he has no business kicking down the door of a brothel.

“It’s pretty much scientifically proven that guys who wear cardigans don’t do that kind of thing,” he joked.

But when God got hold of Sadler at a Passion conference in 2012, he had no doubt about a few things: human trafficking was, in fact, his problem, and even if he didn’t kick down any doors, he had to do something.

“Before then, I remember people talking about human trafficking, and I couldn’t have cared less. I’m not proud of that,” he said. “I thought it was a Third World problem, and it didn’t affect me.”

And now Sadler, a North American Mission Board missionary (@raleighsadler) and college pastor at Gallery Church in New York City, calls himself an abolitionist.

It’s a title he says every Christian should have.

“Our freedom in Christ should drive us to be agents of freedom for others,” Sadler said. “People ask sometimes, ‘Why are you so passionate about this?’ and I ask, ‘Why did Jesus help the weak and vulnerable? And why don’t you?'”

He said his goal is to see churches not only be strong in sharing the Gospel but also strong in abolition, to help the weak and “shine light in the dark places.”

That’s why he organized a panel to talk to a crowd of 60 New York church leaders at Metropolitan New York Baptist Association on April 27, focusing on human trafficking as well as labor trafficking.

Panelists included “modern-day abolitionists” Jimmy Lee, executive director of Restore NYC; Diana Mao, co-founder of the Nomi Network; and Jonathan Walton, director of InterVarsity’s NYCUP.

“It’s a very important issue, and we feel like God is really doing something here,” said George Russ, MNYBA executive director, noting that this was new territory for the association.

“I think our churches are community minded, but this is not the kind of community need associated with what our churches are currently doing,” he said.

A greater awareness is needed, Russ said, along with a deeper commitment to “meet the real, raw needs of people.”

“It takes a new set of eyes,” he said, “to see and to be aware.”

Angelina Eckbert of All Angels Church said she feels like she has that new set of eyes now.

Eckbert, a photographer, had an emotional experience photographing a family involved in trafficking and hasn’t been the same since.

And during the lunch break of the panel discussion at MNYBA, she went on a guided prayer walk with a small group to some massage parlors operating in the shadows just blocks from the MNYBA building.

“To know these places were right here was amazing — right under our noses,” said Eckbert, who lives on the Upper West Side and passes these places every day. “The best thing I can do is to get my [photography] work out there artistically” to raise awareness, she said.

That’s exactly the kind of response Sadler said he’s praying for.

“Southern Baptists aren’t historically known as people who fight slavery,” Sadler said. “I want to see that changed, for Southern Baptist churches to rise up against injustice. I want to see them adopt a lifestyle of abolition.”

For starters, that means prayer, he said. And the steps might be unconventional — like adopting a massage parlor.

Sadler adopted one a while back, and now it’s gone.

“I started praying over it, and I would lead teams and we would pray over it,” he said.

He found the parlor the same way that potential customers would — by doing Internet research, but always with someone else present, he stressed.

“The things you see online are absolutely heartbreaking,” Sadler said. “They describe a girl point for point and what they did with her.”

It’s written like a vacation review, not as if she’s a person, he said.

His broken heart prompted him to pray fervently and even to pay a visit to the massage parlor, not just pray outside the building. It was tucked on the 13th floor, hidden behind a crude wooden door with peel-and-stick numbers, a buzzer and a security camera.

As Sadler entered the hallway outside, “I knew they would be watching me, so I walked around like I was lost,” he said. “I prayed that those people who are exploited would be freed and that no one could buy sex here anymore.”

A while later, he visited the 13th floor again, and the brothel’s door was gone, the room empty.

“I tried to call them from a payphone to see if they had moved, and the number had been disconnected,” Sadler said.

As he walked outside, he noticed a painting on the side of the building that he’d never noticed before.

“It was a lion’s head, and it said, ‘Call to me, and I will answer you.’ It sent shivers down my spine,” Sadler said. “At the end of the day, I haven’t seen the police reports, and I don’t know what happened. But I do know that no one can buy sex there anymore. And I know that God desires to answer prayers.”

Sadler said he saw God answer his prayers back when he was serving in West Virginia. After God “wrecked” his world at Passion, he decided to take on state law.

“You could get a slap on a wrist, but state law defines the nature and trafficking and thus increases the penalty,” Sadler said.

He prayed, talked with government officials and mobilized students from several universities to show up and support the legislation.

It passed.

Now Sadler and other Baptist leaders are hoping to take on human trafficking in New York City, this time by awareness and prevention. That means partnering with more than 75 other organizations to put on an event called the Price of Life Invitational on many of the metro New York area’s college campuses this fall.

“We will have visual displays to draw people in and force them to wrestle with the issue of human trafficking,” he said. “It’s really raw and meant to raise awareness.”

And the awareness, Sadler said, is aimed at drawing people to get out on the street and love the vulnerable. He’s organizing groups to hang out at the Port Authority in Manhattan where teenage runaways congregate.

“There’s a 98 to 100 percent chance that within 48 hours of being on the street, they (runaway teens) will be approached by a trafficker,” Sadler said. “They don’t abduct them on the spot — they lure them in by offering food and a place to stay.”

He said he wants churches to show them love before the traffickers ever get a chance.

“I want people to know where our churches are because our churches are relevant and standing against injustice and standing on the Gospel,” Sadler said. “If we actually did that, we’d be dangerous.”
Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist. Kara Bettis contributed to this report. Raleigh Sadler’s blog, Urban Grace, can be accessed at www.raleighsadlernyc.com. To learn more, visit priceoflifenyc.org or follow @priceoflife on Twitter. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).