One of the amazing bonuses of hanging out in the social justice and anti-trafficking crowds is all the incredible people I meet and all the inspiring stories I hear, often first-hand. At a recent IJM Music and Arts Festival, I met Mary Anne at our booth. Our New Name booth was indicative of our work: simple and sincere. There were a few business cards, some small purple plants, and then a stack of copies stapled together. They were copies of a sex trafficking survivor’s story. Mary Anne’s story. As soon as I saw Mary Anne I thought to myself, “Now she’s a writer.” Obviously thoughtful. Unassuming. Kind and approachable. Really sweet too. And that’s when I felt a knot in my stomach that I just powered through and ignored. “No, she couldn’t really have been treated like that. Abused like that. No…,” as if my control in thought recreates reality. I took a copy that night but I wouldn’t read it for some time. I ignored what I didn’t want to accept. But finally I sat down and read. And entered her story. And wept. So hard I couldn’t see. And what I found was in not wanting to accept her story was really a refusal to accept mine. That perhaps the reasoning, “If you do the right things, you won’t be treated the wrong way,” may be flawed. Struggling with the belief that what happened to me must have been my fault because I must have done something wrong. Performance equals love. But what I found in Mary Anne’s story was another step of the healing journey God is taking me on. The step of seeing Jesus with me — the entire time. Never leaving. Never forsaking. Always faithful. And though some of us won’t understand the realities of being trafficked, if you live long enough you will be forsaken and misused. But it’s inside of that pain that we see — up close and in vibrant color — love, freedom, hope and aliveness in Jesus that we never would’ve experienced from afar. It’s a oneness with Christ you can’t find any other way.
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame…” Hebrews 12:2, NIV
“No! I can’t tell anyone that memory!”
“Really? Why not?”
Why not? Is she serious? Of course she is. My “unthinkables” always seem like “perfect reasonables” to my therapist, JoAnn.
“Because the details are disgusting, and it’s not something you talk about with people. It’s way too extreme.”
“Mary Anne, sex trafficking is in the news these days. Many ministries are working to stop it and to help victims recover. I’m sure this won’t be the first time your friends will have heard about the issue.”
“Well, I’m sure it will be their first time hearing about it in relation to someone they know.”
Sex trafficking. Just hearing JoAnn say those words hurts almost as much as the images that continually flash through my mind no matter how hard I try to blink them away. Everything in me rebels against accepting the reality that those words and images could have anything to do with me.
JoAnn continues voicing her reassurance. “I’ve had other clients during my years as a therapist who had been trafficked in some way. You aren’t the only person I know who has been violated in this way.”
I tuck myself in close and tight on the couch, burying my face. A few tears squeeze out. “But I’m the only one I know.”
“Are you afraid your friends won’t believe you?”
I shake my head no. “It’s not that. I’m afraid….” I swallow and make myself look up at her. Drawing courage from the compassion and strength her tender expression is holding out to me, I name my fear. “What if they never look me in the eye again?”
JoAnn leans in closer, holding my gaze in hers. “Mary Anne, your fear of being judged by people if you tell them your story is coming from shame. You still believe you were the one who did something wrong.”
“I know I didn’t do anything wrong.” I look down again and focus on the pattern of the couch. “But what if they weren’t doing anything wrong? If I’m just dirt anyway, then they were just treating me the way I deserved.”
“Honey, this is where you need to hear from Jesus. Can you express your fear to him and let him speak to you about it?”
Nodding, I take a deep breath, then close my eyes and give in to the images, emotions, and other sensations associated with this sketchy but intense memory.
“It’s a summer afternoon. It feels like I am about ten or twelve years old. I don’t know where I am or who has taken me there. All I can see are the corrugated metal walls of a large storage shed.” Whenever I open up a memory, I always see the walls first. That’s where I kept my attention focused while I was being abused, so I could block my experience of what was happening to me, so I didn’t have to remember.
Trembling, but determined, I turn my gaze away from the metal sheeting of the shed to the naked young girl held captive inside. “I hate seeing myself like that! I feel totally embarrassed and exposed. I want desperately to pull my arms and legs in to cover my nakedness and protect myself from what is coming next, but I can’t. I can feel the ties holding me fast at my wrists and ankles, chafing my skin as I struggle. I wanted to get away, JoAnn. I really did! I just wasn’t strong enough. And the men were so big and scary; I knew they would hurt me if I didn’t do everything they said.”
I look up, my eyes pleading through the tears, needing her to know I had done my very best to make it stop.
“I know you tried, Mary Anne. I know,” she murmurs soothingly. “I believe you.”
Crying, I keep pushing through the memory. “I hate that line of men waiting, gawking and jeering until they have their turn with me!” Before they ever laid a hand on me, they had already violated me. I could see in their faces they were creating in their minds images of exactly how they were going to get their money’s worth as they waited to add their money to a growing pile on the small, rickety table at the front of the line.
“And I hate that pile of money! Is that all I was worth, a stack of bills?” Actually, I wasn’t even worth that much. I wasn’t the one they were paying. “How could anyone think he had the right to use me to make money like that? I feel like a piece of worthless, disgusting filth.”
I still don’t have clear visual memories of everything that happened to me, but my body remembers enough to know what those men were paying for. I also have some memory of their voices—no distinct words, rather their mocking tone of laughter telling me exactly what they thought of me. I heard lust, but that isn’t what has echoed through my soul throughout the years, framing how I think about myself. It isn’t their lust that has done the most damage, but their contempt.
“I hate their voices, and I hate these feelings in my body!” One by one the men kept coming to me, stealing pleasures from a body too young to know how to give them.
“JoAnn, there’s something I’ve never understood. What did they get out of it? I was just a scrawny girl, years away from even starting to develop curves. What did I have that grown men would desire?”
“They wanted your innocence, Mary Anne.”
“I wanted to die. It felt like it would never end. When it gets too much, everything just goes black, but it feels like it never ends. It will never really be over. It’s too much.”
“I know this is hard, Mary Anne. You are doing great. I’m proud of you, Honey. You are being so brave. Don’t forget to breathe. Okay, this time, instead of letting everything go black, can you try to stay present in the memory and let Jesus help you in it? Can you see him?”
“Yes, he’s standing on the other side of the wall.”
“Can you invite Jesus to come inside and be with you there, or even take you away from it all?”
“No! I don’t want him to see me there—not like that. Please, I don’t want Jesus to see me like that.”
“That’s all right. Can you just tell Jesus what you’re feeling, what you’re afraid of?”
I nod and turn back to Jesus. I silently communicate with him. “Jesus, I am too ashamed to have you come near me. I’m terrified at the thought of seeing shock or disgust on your face if you look at me. I’m scared, Jesus, I don’t think I can do this.”
Immediately, the scene in my mind shifts, but I am so stunned by what I see that it takes me a minute to start describing it.
“Jesus is here in the shed with me, JoAnn. He is right next to me.” I stop, take a breath and then haltingly go on. “He’s on the cross. My view of him is from the back, but I can tell… he’s naked, too. And because of the nails, he can’t pull in his arms or legs to cover himself, either. He’s spread out for everyone to gawk at his nakedness—just like me—and those men are taunting him now, instead of me.” Jesus’ hand takes hold of mine and somehow his suffering becomes a refuge from all that is happening to me in that room. Each sharp pain in my body is swallowed up by the pounding of a nail into Jesus’ flesh. He matches my gasps for breath. I see the crown of thorns piercing all around his head and the blood pouring down his face and arms and feet, mingling with his sweat. Jesus is more of a sticky mess than I am. All of the shame I feel flows out from me and into him. I don’t feel it anymore. It’s completely gone. I guess it makes sense… I mean, how can I feel ashamed when Jesus is right there taking it all with me? It’s incomprehensible to me, but I just feel totally clean. And then suddenly, I’m standing free, clothed in a pretty yellow dress. I look up at Jesus, and it hurts to see him taking all of this for me. I ask him, ‘Is it okay for me to let you do this for me?’”
“It’s more than okay, Mary Anne. It’s my joy to do this for you. You are my joy.”
That’s when the grief hits, and I start crying really hard. JoAnn urges me, “Just let it go. Let it all out.” And, finally, I can. Before, I didn’t think I deserved to cry. Why grieve over garbage being treated like garbage? But as I cry, I can feel all the pain being released from my heart and pouring into his heart. As his heart breaks, mine is healed.
After a while, as my tears slow and I start to calm down, I notice something else in the picture. “JoAnn, next to the stack of bills, I see a pile of silver coins—the ones he was sold for.”
“Ask Jesus if he thinks that pile of coins represents his worth.”
“He says, ‘No, it doesn’t. But I felt the sting of it, just as you did.’”
“I feel this incredible with-ness with Jesus. I don’t feel alone. Jesus is with me, and he understands everything I experienced. And what’s really amazing, Jesus tells me that not many people truly understand what he experienced, but that I share some of it with him in a special way. He wasn’t just being with me, but somehow, he was able to experience me being with him. It’s so amazing! It’s hard for me to believe that he would feel something like that toward me…JoAnn, if Jesus and I can understand each other so well, could Jesus help my friends understand about me, too?”
JoAnn wraps her arms around me, and I relax into her embrace. “Mary Anne, think of the other times when you shared your stories of abuse with your friends. Don’t you think you can trust them with this one, too?”
I nod into her shoulder.
“I’m confident that most people you share this story with will understand, but there will be some who won’t.” She pulls back a little and lifts my chin up so I can see her face. “What you need to remember is that if Jesus isn’t ashamed to be your friend, then no one else has any reason, either.”
This is still a hard story to tell, whether to my closest friends or a crowd of people who are mostly strangers to me. Yet, each time I do, my story is received with honor, and I am embraced with compassion. Each time I heal a little more, and I feel a little bolder. I feel clean. I don’t have to be ashamed of my story, because Jesus was not ashamed to enter into it. As incredible as it is to me, part of the joy set before Jesus, that called him unflinchingly to suffering and death on the cross, was setting me free. Long after those men bound my body, shame continued to hold me captive, but Jesus has freed my heart, my spirit, and my voice. The joy set before me in facing my fear of telling my story is seeing many more people like me become free, too.
Dear Fellow Survivor of Sexual Abuse and Trafficking,
“Mommy! Mommy!…I wanna go home!…“No! Please, No!” These were the cries of a little girl that no one neither heard nor cared to hear. I was that little girl.
What about you? Were your screams loud enough to shake the walls, yet mocked as you were physically overpowered? Were you too paralyzed by fear to cry out or even to make a sound? Was the seduction of your young heart so subtle and your need for love and affection so desperate that the idea of saying no never even occurred to you?
Our bodies, our minds, our hearts – whatever sacred parts of ourselves were pinned down by our abusers, it makes no difference. Whether we were imprisoned in brothels, our own bedrooms, or simply our paralyzed wills, whether they secured their pleasures and our silences with money, attention, or threats, the same predatory evil was at work. However they “paid”, they were thieves, ruthlessly stealing our innocence, our trust, our joy, and our voices. I imagine that we all hold a silent scream within us. Silent, but not unheard.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,…
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53:4, 7 (NIV)
We were powerless to defend ourselves, but Jesus, the one who holds all the power in the universe, chose to become powerless in order to enter into our world of silent screams. Jesus took them into himself in his death on the cross so that he could resurrect not only our lives, but our voices as well.
The good news of the gospel is that there is not a single cry that Jesus hasn’t heard and taken to heart. There is not a single cry that will remain silent forever. While Jesus came to the earth the first time as a silent lamb, he will return as a roaring lion.
Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice,
to the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven
and sends it to the ends of the earth.
After that comes the sound of his roar;
he thunders with his majestic voice.
When his voice resounds,
he holds nothing back.
God’s voice thunders in marvelous ways;
he does great things beyond our understanding.
Job 37:2-5 (NIV)
If you listen, you can already hear the growing rumble in his throat. It is heaven’s outrage at every act of violence and violation of one of God’s precious children.
It is also Jesus’ invitation to join him in that rumble – one voice, one story at a time. When we break our silence and begin telling our stories, we begin to find our voices, and the world begins to hear. As victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, we needed someone to hear our cries. We needed to be rescued and to be healed.
Now as survivors, we have a story the world needs us to tell. God is calling us to add our stories to his story. Not just our stories of abuse and trafficking, but more so our stories of how God has met us in those experiences and given us his power to triumph over them. We have a unique opportunity to give God glory and magnify his name.
A day of judgment is coming when we will look in Jesus’ face and see in his perfect goodness and perfect anger the vindication we so desperately desire. On that day, Jesus will call forth all of our cries and transform them into a magnificent, holy roar. Heaven and earth will shake with our collective outrage and then joy, as we shake off every last vestige of fear, abandonment, betrayal, and violation still clinging to our souls.
We have been silent long enough. It’s time for us to roar.
Written by Mary Anne Q. Do not reproduce without permission. Contact Mary Anne for any questions pertaining to her writing: firstname.lastname@example.org