Note: Ai Jin is part of a small grassroots movement of Christians from the underground church joining the fight against human trafficking in China, the world’s most populous nation. But it may take a while to change the mindset of house church Christians to view the works of social justice as part of their mission. However, when the Chinese church, made up of more than 100 million believers, embraces the fight against trafficking and prostitution, they could be the biggest global force in abolishing human slavery.
Every Tuesday, Ai Jin and two young women from one of China’s underground urban churches get together to pray before their outreach. They’re about to walk the streets of a red light district to tell girls as young as 13 who work in brothels that they can leave a life of prostitution. “Eight years ago, the average girl working in brothels was 25. Now it’s 14 and 15,” said Ai Jin. “I think it’ll get worse since it’s more difficult to find jobs, especially for girls from poor families with no education. They desperately need money.”
Ai Jin and her two colleagues work with Mercy Outreach, one of the first social enterprises of its kind in the region, which began in 2003. They offer prostitutes and trafficked women alternative jobs and a safe home to get restored. “At my church, my pastor told me that what I’m doing in reaching out to prostitutes is what Jesus did. That touched me and encouraged me a lot,” she said.
Ai Jin, 28, is part of a new breed of daring young women pioneers from the underground church who are reaching marginalized groups such as prostitutes who are not readily welcomed into house churches. “Before I started work at Mercy Outreach, I didn’t want to shake hands with prostitutes thinking their whole body was dirty,” Ai Jin said. “Every day I prayed for more love for the women. Now I can treat them like my own family.”
Mercy Outreach is based near the infamous Golden Triangle, a euphemism for one of the world’s busiest drug-trafficking routes that run through Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and bleeds into China, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is where a potent mix of extreme poverty, sex trafficking, rampant illicit drug production and complicit local government leaders and warlords combust in one of the world’s busiest drug trafficking routes.
Ai Jin and her peers see their work as part of a contribution to building a civil society – unlike some underground church members in the past who have traditionally steered clear of community service because of persecution. “Social work is a new area in China,” Ai Jin said. “Most people don’t want to help prostitutes because they feel prostitution is just their job to make money to support themselves. Others don’t want to get involved because they don’t want to get in trouble with the mafia and pimps who control the girls.”
Reaching mafia bosses for Christ
Yet Ai Jin and others at Mercy Outreach – mostly women in their 20s and early 30s – boldly speak to mafia bosses and brothel owners to offer alternative vocational training and to point out that what they’re doing is morally wrong. One man they met was trafficking girls from Northern China to a region near the border with Myanmar. He was going into villages and promising good jobs to young uneducated women, but then forced them into prostitution. When Sarah, the founder of Mercy Outreach told him what he was doing was wrong, he simply responded, “No one told me that before.”
She adds, “Just to be able to say that to a person, that what you’re doing is wrong, can start a chain of events that can make a difference in a person’s life. We want to close one brothel at a time, reach one mafia boss at a time… to reach this whole city for the Kingdom of God.”
The organization provides free medical support, mental health services and runs a social enterprise making and selling jewellery made by rescued women and former prostitutes.
Every morning before the work day begins, more than a dozen women on the morning shift in the jewellery workshop get together to sing hymns, pray and read the Bible. Kun Li, a petite staff member in charge of the main safe home, sits quietly in a corner with her head bowed in prayer. She says seeing the changed lives of the girls makes the intense challenges of this ministry worthwhile. “A lot of times I wanted to give up. But I’m encouraged by the fruit…the girls who have moved on and haven’t forgotten Jesus,” she said. It is seeing the girls grow in their faith that keeps her going.
One day at Kun Li’s house church of about 60, she was surprised to see a former prostitute from Mercy Outreach come and share her testimony. “She was totally released and healed,” said Kun. “In our Shanghai branch, several girls have experienced God’s touch. Five girls even went to a discipleship camp run by one of the house churches.”
China’s Gender Imbalance: a social time bomb
China’s “one-child” family planning policy, which began in 1979, will lead to a historically unprecedented gender imbalance of at least 24 million marriageable women by 2020. Because of cultural preferences, families wanted boys to carry on the family name, leading to sex selective abortions of girl foetuses, female infanticide and an alarming shortage dubbed the “Bachelor time bomb.” The high demand for brides in rural areas in China will only drive the demand for trafficked women in China and the rest of Asia. The U.N. says there are 117 million missing girls mostly in China and India.
According to the U.S. Department of State, in 2012 the Chinese police cracked down on 10,000 alleged human trafficking organized crime groups and placed more than 80,000 alleged suspects in criminal detention. However, the State Department says it’s difficult to know the exact numbers of trafficking offenses that were prosecuted since the Chinese government includes human smuggling, child abduction and fraudulent adoptions as trafficking offenses.”
To read Part 2, please click here.