Good idea or God idea?
When it comes to social justice initiatives, how do we handle a new idea?
We have a feeling that something would be the right thing for our church to pursue – even a clear prophetic word or vision; we might see another church doing a similar work and be inspired, or we might perceive a particular need in our local area. But how do we know that our idea is a God idea – how do we decide that this is the right thing for us to pursue, or that this is the right time?
Today’s story tracks how an individual call to one woman, to support survivors of human trafficking, became a mission pursued through the local church.
Her journey might give you some practical next steps as you consider how to carry forward a calling from God. It’s worth noting that her journey was not just a simple straight line from idea to implementation; neither was it a quick process!
One person’s vision
Back in 2008, the original vision for what was later to become RESTORE came to one church member living on the South coast:
“God gave me a picture of a young woman – olive skinned and crying; beautiful but dishevelled and desperate. And desperately beckoning me, ‘Come and help us. Come and help us. Come and help us'."
All I knew was that the woman was involved in some sort of prostitution. I was quite sure this picture was from God, but what was He was saying? I just wasn’t clear. After being in touch with an outreach from a church in Brighton to female sex workers and wondering if we should start something similar in Hastings, I started feeling uneasy. There was just something not right, or incomplete, about it. Then we were told by a local police inspector, that there definitely wasn’t a problem with prostitution in the town and that seemed to be a shut door for us. That was ok, if bewildering and frustrating at the time.
Four years later, when I wasn’t thinking about any of this, I heard on the radio a Matt Redman and LZ7 song called ‘27 million’. It was all about human trafficking … sex trafficking … and as I listened to it, I knew for sure that was what the picture all those years before was about. That was what I had to do. ‘Come and help us. Come and help us’, was the calling to go and help them. Go and help sex-trafficked women.”
The church’s response
In 2008 human trafficking and modern-day slavery were not such prominent public issues. There were some national charities doing good work, and the visibility of the issue was slowly beginning to increase in the lead up to the passing of the Modern Slavery Act (in 2015).
Locally, Hastings had been housing a number of refugees and asylum-seekers for many years, but human trafficking relating to sexual exploitation cases in the area were unknown.
It was nearly six years after the initial vision - after much prayer, preliminary work and contact with others - that the working out of the vision to be involved with survivors of trafficking and exploitation took shape.
The initiative was affirmed by the church leadership and became one of the King’s Church Hastings’ social action initiatives. Today the ministry is known as RESTORE and has a dedicated church budget.
From the beginning, a small group of people had been praying, but now more regular prayer meetings around the work were being held. Nothing was pursued or decided without the matter being first bathed in prayer.
Favour with others
Since 2012 the church’s profile and contact with the town authorities had increased, particularly developing relationships with the local police. Looking back, this was clearly God’s favour. In early 2015 - and building on these relationships - the church was able to organise and host the first of (eventually) six awareness-raising and separate training events around the whole issue of modern-day slavery and human trafficking, using the expertise of Stop the Traffik.
Instead of just the anticipated 20 police officers attending the initial event, altogether 94 people signed up. Those attending represented a range of local organisations, not only the police but including, staff from several local councils, fire officers, staff from the biggest local housing association, and the person responsible for taxi licensing.
The opportunity was not missed to tell a largely secular audience that, as Christians, the church wanted to bring forward the issue and help where they could; God is a god of justice and all people have inherent dignity and worth.
Soon after this first event came the creation of the Hastings Anti-Trafficking Hub bringing a lot of these local interests together. This was to lead later to the formation of DISCOVERY, a unit based in the local police station but involving sixteen partner agencies including the church, with the stated aim of tackling modern slavery and human trafficking in East Sussex.
Caring for those in need
Local actions by DISCOVERY to combat situations of exploitation in the town were most welcome, as often at the RESTORE prayer meetings the team was asking God to expose the areas of darkness in our local area.
Times of prayer were given over to praying for perpetrators, as well as victims, especially during these early days when the priority was the uncovering of criminal activity locally.
However we knew that the church’s calling went beyond awareness-raising and local enforcement (although it was certainly God’s leading that had allowed the church to, first, be a significant part in raising the profile of the issue locally and in seeing the professionals trained).
The heart of the vision was ultimately to care for women who had been rescued from situations of human trafficking. Making this transition from establishing links, and raising awareness, to actually supporting women in person was a key moment.
So what was the next step to helping survivors?
When local police or immigration actions, through DISCOVERY, were successful, anyone rescued would be moved out of the town to ‘safe houses’ elsewhere; they did not stay locally.
However, as Hastings was a designated Home Office ‘Dispersal Area’ for migrants and refugees, God opened a new avenue.
RESTORE had begun to discover and develop opportunities to get alongside a number of survivors (rescued from situations elsewhere in the UK) who had been placed in Hastings while they awaited their trafficking status and asylum decisions.
These women were already receiving some formal support, but as the other support agencies were stretched, in terms of their resources, those agencies appreciated the extra help that the church could give.
Opportunities arose to accompany some of the women to their legal hearings in London, while locally RESTORE was able to put on things like pampering events using the practical skills of church members in hairdressing or beauty treatments.
Several of the local women were helped to learn new skills though the Bramber Bakehouse project, while the church team appreciated training in befriending (particular on trauma issues) from the Snowdrop Project based in Sheffield; both charities working to empower survivors of human trafficking to live new lives free from their past.
As a Christian work it was always recognised that practical care was only one part of the need of those surviving trafficking. While caring for victims of trauma needed careful handling, God would start to open up opportunities to share about Jesus. An informal Christmas party will always be fondly remembered for the attempt to get very young children and their mothers acting out the nativity; the mainly Albanian participants having little English and no knowledge of the Christian story!
Then a chance meeting by one of the RESTORE team with an Albanian Christian in Berlin led to the production of a short DVD testimony in the Albanian language which could be given out locally. This was followed up with a second testimony produced in Albanian by a Kosovan member of the church.
In the meantime, a woman from Africa who had been helped through a successful, but arduous, trafficking-status and asylum journey, became a Christian. Other low-key opportunities continue to arise, to pray with or share Jesus with those being befriended.
This article gives only a snapshot of one work. Each situation will be unique but there is benefit in sharing our stories as there can be lessons for others.
• The work of RESTORE has been sustained by the original vision; but that initial vision had to be first clarified, tested and then accepted by the church leadership.
• From the beginning, in 2008, prayer has been key, and the current befriending work on the ground undertaken by only a limited number of trained women in the team, has always been actively supported by a much wider and faithful prayer team. As the work has developed over the years, nothing has been achieved apart from in response to active prayer at every move. The prayer times have always been focussed on seeking God’s justice and mercy and have regularly drawn on the fervour of Wilberforce and others in their quest to end the slave trade in their own times.
• God’s plans are not necessarily our chosen route. Before the church was able to start the work with survivors, which was the heart of the calling, it was led into the public arena of awareness-raising of the subject of modern-day slavery and trafficking. This eventually led to the establishment of a significant new initiative involving the police and other agencies.
• While we are often anxious to do things quickly and in our way there were significant times of waiting and praying.
• The vision has led to a work involving much sensitive pastoral care, because of the trauma, deception and coercion the women have experienced in the past, but the team has never lost sight of the Gospel hope and the need to share Jesus in both deeds and words.
Has God spoken to you about a specific mercy ministry? Are you in a season of waiting, or is God beginning to open doors? Consider who you could gather with to pray, and how the broader body of Christ could be involved in speaking wisdom, and bringing vision to life.
Written by Richard Wilson (Jubilee+ volunteer, and member of King's Church Hastings & Bexhill).