This is a story I wrote for a magazine writing class. I’m hoping to have it published in Collegiate magazine, a Christian magazine produced by LifeWay. The story is about Freedom Week, the event to raise money and awareness about human trafficking that took place on Montevallo’s campus earlier this month. Enjoy. Blog version (more information, my take on Freedom Week) coming later.
The mood in Palmer auditorium changes as she takes the stage at “Freedom Night.” There is no more chatter, no more laughing. Every pair of eyes are watching her intently as she tells her story:
“There is a circuit from Atlanta to Birmingham to Nashville to Memphis to Chattanooga, and you’re trafficked quite often. But it’s not about transportation,” she says calmly. Looking into the crowd of college students, she continues her story:
“I have been raped more times than I can count. I stopped counting at 21. My throat has been cut, and a gun has been placed at my head and the trigger pulled. By man’s law I should not be here.”
Tajuan Lewis became a victim of sex trafficking at age 15. She was prostituted, beaten, and raped. It took her more than 25 years to understand what had happened to her. She was in and out of prison until one day, her eyes were opened to the gospel, and she received Jesus as Lord and Savior. She met her husband Kelly, and soon after, she was called to open the Well House, located in Birmingham, which serves the needs of victims of sex trafficking, caring for and helping women who have been abused.
Her story is just one of millions. 27 million, to be exact. According to the U.S. State Department, there are more slaves now than in any other period of history. The International Labor Organization reported that human trafficking generates more than $32 billion annually.
At the University of Montevallo, located in Montevallo, Alabama, students stepped up to make a difference during Freedom Week, held March 5-9, 2012. The event raised money and awareness for modern day slavery and human trafficking. A campus ministry, Ecclesia, led by Brian Fulton, sponsored the event as a result of hearing about trafficking at Passion Conference in Atlanta.
“We took a group to Passion Conference, and God had already been giving us a heart to help students find a way to be involved in providing and taking care of the poor and the oppressed. It just made sense to do this and get involved,” Fulton said.
The goals of Freedom Week were to raise $5,000 to go toward three different organizations: The International Justice Mission, The Well House, and She Dances.
Fulton quoted Isaiah 58:6-7, which says “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
“My hope is that people would begin to see that we are responsible, that we owe people justice. Humans are made with rights, and I believe, as a Christian, made in the image of God. Therefore, we owe justice. Justice isn’t a suggestion,” he said.
The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14. Almost half of all forced labor victims are under the age of 18, and more than one million children are trafficked every year. Sexual exploitation drives almost 80 percent of all human trafficking. The Lewis’ believe that the best thing people can do to fight these evils is to talk about it, confront it, and take the chance to be wrong.
“If you’re not willing to take a chance on being wrong, you’re not taking a chance on pulling someone out of the situation that they’re in, and they might be in bondage. You can’t see the chains, but the bondage can be there,” Kelly Lewis said.
On the night of March 6, more than 250 students attended Freedom Night, the headline event for the week. The event featured Jeremy Springer from She Dances, Tajuan Lewis, and Olivia Terry, a Montevallo graduate working with Make Way Partners. After the week was over, $5,700 had been raised.
“God blew our expectations for Freedom Week out of the water. The entire campus became aware that trafficking is rampant today,” Fulton said.
Brett Roney, a member of Ecclesia, added that the week was not simply for money, but for future efforts to help those in need.
“My hope is that through Freedom Week, one student will take the week’s heart-felt purpose, duplicate it in their lives outside of school, and carry it with them into their futures so that others will also come to stand for something bigger than themselves,” Roney said.
As the students continue to listen, Tajuan, becoming emotional, continues to speak. She explains how trafficking works, and that most victims that enter the Well House come from the state of Alabama. She says trafficking and prostitution can happen anywhere, and is not just limited to big towns like Los Angeles or New York City.
“In March of last year, there were 40 people arrested in Fort Payne, Alabama. Fort Payne is rolling green countryside. It doesn’t happen there. Or that’s what we think.”
Fort Payne, Alabama is where Tajuan was once abused.
“What’s sad, and what breaks my heart, is that 26 years later, we’re going back to the same house…in the same town,” she cries.
As she finishes her story, she ends on a positive note:
“I’m no longer a victim, and I’m no longer a survivor. I’m an overcomer!” She boldly proclaims that she knows Jesus saved her.
Tajuan’s story brings hope. Hope can be such a fragile thing. If not for the stories like Tajuan’s, the 27 million slaves around the world might not have any hope. If not for people like her and other organizations like The Well House, hope would seem like a laughable joke, an object of wishful thinking, not a tangible reality. This week, this event, and these students, weren’t just raising money or awareness. They raised something else, something more powerful. They raised hope.