By Grace Gaddy
A 15-year-old girl recounted her painful story to police. She told them of a man who went by “Santana.” The man arranged for someone to lure her into his Florida residence, where he raped her, recorded images of her unclothed and forced her into a life of prostitution.
Eric Antwan Bell was arrested Sept. 1 on counts of producing child pornography, unlawfully possessing a firearm, and aiding and abetting the sex trafficking of minors. Bell was accused of sexually abusing the girls and advertising them for prostitution via various Internet sites.
Three months after appearing on Fox’s “America’s Most Wanted,” and following a multi-agency and federal FBI investigation, Bell was arrested. Authorities traced the accounts of sex trafficking over several states extending back to 2008, according to information from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and an article in The Jersey Journal.
This case of trafficking underage girls is one of many cases appearing in the United States, said Tomi Grover, director of TraffickStop, an anti-human trafficking education and awareness campaign. Grover leads a coalition connecting Texas Baptists, churches, state conventions and other anti-trafficking groups across the country.
Most recently, organizers joined forces to launch an initiative known as “10 at 10 for 10.”
“We hope to unveil for the tenth of each month to become a focused day of prayer from Jacksonville to Los Angeles along the I-10 corridor, because the FBI has named I-10 as the primary trafficking corridor in the United States,” Grover said.
The initiative debuted at 10 a.m. Monday with a conference call for each time zone. The plan encourages participants to “adopt” points along the I-10 route such as a local truck stop or mile marker at which they can focus on prayer, raise awareness by posting information against trafficking, or any other activity God opens for them to shine light into the darkness, organizers said.
The I-10 prayer came about through efforts by Texas Woman’s Missionary Union, which seeks to mobilize people to combat human trafficking through WMU’s larger national initiative spanning two years, known as Project HELP: Human Exploitation. The project is in its second year.
Carolyn Porterfield, multicultural consultant for the WMU of Texas, said the I-10 prayer strategy is a step in the right direction.
Grover affirmed her stance, noting that the largest section of that highway runs through Texas.
“So many people have access to I-10, and it is the primary east-west route,” she said.
Therefore, it provides the main route to facilitate human trafficking, Porterfield and Grover said.
“Our hope is that people will really become serious about praying [about] how they can be involved for a solution, a difference in this issue,” Porterfield said.
In 2006, The U.S. State Department released a report stating an estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year. The CIA estimated that number to be higher, between 40,000 and 50,000. That equated to one person every 10 minutes, according to the TraffickStop website.
“It’s really very multi faceted in the ways people can be involved,” Porterfield said. “It’s a dark issue. It’s probably an issue that most of us don’t want to have to know about. It’s a very complex issue. In some ways it’s a hidden issue.”
But it’s something organizers say must be addressed.
In addition to covering the “I-10 pipeline” in prayer, participants can engage in a variety of efforts, from individual to international, Porterfield said.
Getting involved might begin with a simple self-education of the laws concerning trafficking, she said.
Then people could encourage lawmakers to pass legislation aimed at the issue of human trafficking.
Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, is working to do just that. The CLC regularly visits with Texas lawmakers on behalf of various Texas Baptist interests such as fighting human trafficking.
In May, the group witnessed the fruits of their efforts while watching Gov. Rick Perry sign Texas Senate Bill 24, which made it easier to prosecute traffickers. Texas House Bill 3000 also created a new first-degree felony charge in the penal code, meaning that offenders convicted on at least two trafficking offenses are punishable with up to a life sentence, and “a second conviction warrants life without parole.”
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Paynter said. “You’ve got to have people that go to the Legislature. You’ve got to have people that work in a community to build a safe house [for victims]. You’ve got to have people that raise money. You’ve got to have people in job training. So there’s just a lot of moving parts.”
And the I-10 prayer strategy is one of the most important parts, Grover said.
“Without prayer, we will not see opportunities for us to experience God, to respond to God and to be involved in anything that will include prevention, intervention [and] restoration,” Grover said. “I don’t think that there is ministry without prayer. Otherwise we’re just doing it in our own power.”
To minister to the needs that trafficking creates, prayer is the hardest but biggest work of all, she said.
“I learned a long time ago that prayer is the work, and ministry is the reward. So when we start praying, people become aware, and then they respond to what God’s doing,” she said.