It was summer in the early 2000s. I had spent many days sitting at the feet of local leaders working in urban contexts, from the garbage villages in Cairo, Egypt, to the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Our trip ended with a short stay in Bangkok, where I saw children made available to paying customers from every country around the world. But, people said, it was even worse in Cambodia. The testimonies, the stories, the on-the-ground reality of young children available for sexual services shattered me. Videos of 5-year-olds destroyed my ability to forget. What could I do about what I was seeing?
I had a choice.
I could try to forget what I saw. I could opt out, and decide that my life and my energies would be put to something different. But the faces of the people in these terrible situations looked familiar. Parts of my face — my flat nose, my black-brown hair, were found in theirs. That was when I made the decision to opt in.
So what does it look to stay engaged? For me, working at International Justice Mission (IJM), means entering into these dark stories daily. It’s not easy, but two things keep me going. One is the clients themselves, and the other is the glimpses of the miraculous.
At IJM, we work with children who are coming out of terrible situations of violence. They are asked to testify before a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense lawyer in places where such crimes are usually never reported or investigated. It is likely that nothing will come of it. They are asked to testify against an adult who committed acts that cause the children to feel ashamed, embarrassed, or confused. I’m sure that they would like to not know the violence that accompanies trafficking. They would like to opt out. However, for them, that is not a choice
My hero is a 5-year-old child, who speaks even though the social cost to him is bigger than to the person being accused of the crime. The child speaks for himself, and as a result, for others.
So where is God in all of this? While I did see God move mountains, more often God showed me miracles in the mundane. I think of the investigator, who spent a month going to every single gas station in Guatemala City to try to find one suspect. All we had was a description of his teeth and no photo.
I sit next to a director as she files expense reports, and goes through a paper process. It’s easy to want the glory, but would we still want it, if we knew what a slog it is? It reminds me that the pursuit of justice is an invitation to follow God. We have to be relentless and faithful in order to persevere.
In Guatemala, we visit a home, a final visit to a client. I meet a young boy, a survivor of his uncle’s crimes. He is developmentally challenged. He smiles, eyes on the table in front of him, but doesn’t speak unprompted. We sit around warm glasses of Coke and his social worker asks about his favorite part of the aftercare program he graduated from. He goes back to his room — pulls aside a fabric draped in the doorway, into an unlit room, and pulls out a plastic pencil box. Inside are his two most prized possessions: a cell phone and his pin that says, “I’m a hero.” He holds the pin with pride, shows it to the director and says that the pizza party was his favorite part.
And remember Cambodia? Through the small and tireless acts of many and the intervention of our powerful God, the scarcely-dare- to-dream-it-reality is this: the Cambodia of the 2000s is not the Cambodia of today. Pedophile message boards announce that the party in the town of Siem Reap is shut down. IJM’s studies report that finding young minors for sale for sex is more and more rare. Cambodia still faces many challenges, including labor and human rights issues related to trafficking. But in the area of young minors available for sex, there’s a change.
Nikki Toyama-Szeto is senior director of the Institute for Biblical Justice and Global Prayer at IJM, where she engages Christian leaders and their communities in the biblical call to seek justice. IJM, where a number of SPU students have served as interns, is a global Christian organization that protects the poor from violence throughout the developing world. IJM partners with local authorities to rescue victims of violence, bring criminals to justice, restore survivors, and strengthen justice systems.