The Broken Road to Rio

09/23/2016 .
Clayton Heilman  .  Storyteller

It’s about to begin. Excitement and tension saturate the atmosphere. The crowds gather and stadiums begin to fill. Torches light up and the noise of the cheering crowd echoes through the streets. The lights and camera crews all pointing the spotlight on individuals travelling from around the world to compete for one prize. A place where hundredths of a second can be the dividing line between victory and heartbreak.

In the shadow of the celebration and games, injustice is alive and thriving. Security for tourists, athletes, and public officials is a legitimate concern for the Olympics in Rio. Police, military, and private security stand at every corner and entrance, armed and ready; prepared to protect the influx of visitors from a potential terror attack. Just a few feet away, in plain sight, traffickers sell girls on the street — with no fear of punishment.

In view of this imbalance, a local team from Saddleback Church headed to Rio on a PEACE Trip; raising awareness and partnering with local churches to help these victims. The team consisted of Damon, a teacher, Sharon, a physical therapist, and David, a nurse. All three of them just normal people with a passion to make a difference. They know they can’t fix everything, but they had to do something.

Damon and Sharon, husband and wife, experienced abuse during their childhood. They didn’t want to get involved with other victims of abuse through the trafficking ministry, but felt compelled to get involved when one of Damon’s students ran away and became a victim of a trafficker. She turned to someone she knew and trusted for help when she was on the street and he betrayed her. “It hurt too much not to get involved,” Damon said.

There were many reasons the team could have used to cancel their trip to Rio. The threat of terrorism, contracting the Zika virus from mosquito bites, and the potential harm at the hands of traffickers who demonstrate no regard for the law or human life. But they went anyway. The team knew that God had a purpose for their trip and would protect them.

As they prepared to go, they knew God had prepared the right contacts. One of the Purpose Driven churches in Rio that has partnered with Saddleback for years had the team visit and share during a Celebrate Recovery meeting. Through his conversations, Damon realized the stigma around abuse victims in Brazil. Victims aren’t free to reveal their story without being shamed and shunned by the people around them.

“The culture in Brazil doesn’t want to talk about the problem of abuse,” Sharon said. Even little kids that are abused have the stigma of guilt and shame forced upon them. They were told of instances where people tried to talk about abuse and ended up as outcasts.

“When we shared our story they were able to see that we were broken people but that God was still using us in amazing ways all over the world,” Damon added. “We weren’t special, we didn’t go to school to be missionaries, we are normal people — it’s amazing what God does through normal people, even if they’ve been hurt from abuse in their past.”

A member from the church was supposed to drive them around Rio to meet with some of the groups that work with orphans and those in poverty — the most vulnerable to abuse and trafficking — but when he got sick, the pastor volunteered to personally drive the team.

They met with a young girl, Tatiana, that was also working to raise awareness about trafficking in Rio. Tatiana was a victim of abuse at the hands of her own family. At a young age she was handed over to traffickers — her body sold for sex and constant physical abuse. When she ceased to be of value to her trafficker he beat her face in, crushing her jaw, and shot her eight times — leaving her for dead in a ditch. When she regained consciousness locals discovered her body and helped her get medical care. It’s a miracle she survived — most trafficked victims don’t escape. Tatiana was lucky. “For many of these girls, death is the only way out,” Sharon said. Now, Tatiana’s only goal is to help other victims.

The team also drove through the Olympic Village and venues where athletes were competing. They wanted reach out to girls being sold on the streets in the midst of the busy crowds. Across the street from the beach volleyball competition the busy avenue was lined with vehicles with shaded windows. The traffickers stood on the street next to their girls, renting time with the girls in the cars — right next to the local police providing security for the Olympics.

“The reason they can be so bold is there are no consequences for what they are doing. The police stand there and do nothing about it. There’s no repercussion for the trafficker — there’s no punishment for the men buying sex,” Sharon said. “If you get trafficked, there’s no hope.”

Away from the crowds in the busy street, the team found girls working in the Olympic Village without their traffickers hovering over their shoulder. They were able to briefly talk to some of these girls and pray for them.

Before they left, they gave each of the girls a new pair of flip flops, decorated by volunteers at Saddleback Church. Every one of the colorful, vibrant sandals held a unique message for its recipient.

The team prays over each pair of flip flops, knowing God has already chosen a specific girl to receive them; reminding the girls they are loved, beautiful, and valuable — no matter how anyone treats them.

That night they met with seven girls, all but one under the age of 15. But they had exactly seven pairs of flip flops, and they all fit perfectly — confirmation that God was guiding them. They were confident they had connected with the right girls that needed whatever prayers and hope they could offer.

Damon, Sharon, and David know that simply being out there praying for these girls suffering from this crime against humanity can make a difference. During their time in Rio, they were able to connect with several churches and train people in simple ways they can get involved to continue to raise awareness and help the victims of trafficking in and around Rio.

“Everything we do is church to church,” Sharon said. “We hope those local churches can keep going after we’re gone. Anytime we go on a trip, we partner with local churches.”

Not everyone can or is called to travel around the world doing missions work. For those that want to help locally, the Saddleback Anti-Human Trafficking Team is making a significant difference reaching out to victims in Southern California. Volunteers put together the flip flops to give away, write encouraging messages for victims, host meetings to learn about current issues and raise awareness, and most importantly, pray together. “You can get involved at any level with our ministry. You don’t have to walk the streets late at night to help trafficked victims,” Damon said.

As the team moves forward, they will continue to partner with churches, locally and globally, to train people to reach out to these girls and boys that are suffering on the streets. This crime affects nearly every country across the globe. The need is massive, but the team believes God is opening the right doors, making significant headway to achieve justice for victims.

The process is already under way to partner with churches for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, and the team plans to send another group to the 2020 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo.

“You just have to be willing to take a step and trust that God can make it happen,” Sharon added. “We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone.”

Click HERE if you’d like to learn more about the Saddleback Anti-Human Trafficking Team and how to get involved.