- Dr. Darrell Bock
- Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, executive director of cultural engagement for the Hendricks Center here at Dallas Theological Seminary, and our topic today is human trafficking, and my guest, my very special guest, is Mike Bartel –
Mike Bartel: Hello, Dr. Bock.
Dr. Darrell Bock: – of F.R.E.E. International. He’s come in from Las Vegas to be with us. We did a podcast earlier with him in which he was here over Skype and this time we brought him right here in the flesh.
Mike Bartel: 3D.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So really pleased to have you. Mike, why don’t you begin by telling us how in the world does a pastor, because I understand you have pastoral background, end up in a ministry on human trafficking?
Mike Bartel: Well, that’s a good question. I come from a rich history of ministers in my family and my grandmother was a church planter during the Great Depression and World War II, and that’s really what we thought we’d be doing. And I guess what really began to draw us into this is when we were engaging with international students as campus pastors at Purdue University. It was in the day-to-day mix of working with them, hearing what was going on in their own culture, in their own countries, that this issue came into play.
It was January of ’95 and it was like all of us, it was kind of one of those moments when you can’t believe what you just heard. We get that response with a lot of people with trafficking and it was so seared in our head. We never felt like God was calling us full time to it, whatever that might mean at the time, but it became an exploration, a place of prayer for my family, a place of prayer for our churches as we moved forward, and it just got to a point where we really felt God was saying, “Hey, this is an area that needs to be engaged,” and we stepped into that space.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So it says you’re co-founder, so is your wife the Part 2, or is that someone else?
Mike Bartel: That’s my gorgeous wife. Her and I together, actually, as we put this burden on the plate of those in our life who we trusted, we’re spiritual mentors, we were seeking God’s direction and it was really through our being open, and honest, and vulnerable with those we trusted with our life, that they kind of put this on our plate for us.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So F.R.E.E. International, tell us about that as an organization. How long have you been around and what do you seek to do?
Mike Bartel: We actually started full-time work and missions with human trafficking in Southern Asia with another organization, and through the course of what that all entailed and interacting with the churches here in the United States and an understanding of the problem of trafficking here in the States, we decided to come back and we started F.R.E.E. International back in 2007. It focuses on the states. It focuses on trafficking of all sorts in the States, both sex trafficking of minors and adults, labor trafficking, those things that would overlap with that, as well as international trafficking. So the international piece to F.R.E.E. right now is actually from our work overseas. We have an international network of organizations, faith-based organizations and missionaries that work with us on a day-to-day basis and we collaborate at an international level to be effective.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now most people if they think of sex trafficking in particular will think about international sex trafficking. That certainly is my exposure. My original exposure was in Thailand. I made a visit to a ministry. We ended up in a church, talking about church ministries. I was totally unprepared for this and the major church ministry outreach that they had was in this area of rescuing people out of sex trafficking, and so they think, “Well, that happens over there.” But that’s not the case, is it?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, well, there’s definitely different places in the world because of theological structures and cultural things that this issue is more evident, like India, dealing with the caste system and different things like that; Thailand, upwards of 16 percent of their whole economy is based on commercial sex industry. But it affects every country in the world, every country including the United States, and just like in the United States, there’s different places in our country where it might be a little more evident than others, like Las Vegas, where we’re based, would look different than Des Moines, Iowa, but it’s not a matter of if it exists there or not. It’s just a matter of knowing how to recognize it considering the cultural pieces that fall into play, whether you’re Midwest, or coastal, or whatever it might be.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So what exactly does your ministry do? And you’ve got I think you said 26 people who work for you in the ministry. Are they coordinators? How does it work?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, we actually when we started, it was just my wife and I and we were building a reputation for ability to do the work and be competent, but also how collaborative we are, and our focus was on the local church. We believe that God called a people out of darkness and into the light, his Church, capital C, to reach this world, small and great alike. In a pragmatic context, that means the local church. What does that look like in each community? We began to resource and power that and began to see effectiveness and the more people who had a unique call in their own life to work towards this issue. They saw how effective we were, and how collaborative we were, and inclusive we were in our work within the faith community, and so they decided to jump on.
So really in the last two and a half to three years, our team has grown to the size it is, and they’re all missionaries so they’re all self-funded. Even though F.R.E.E. International is its own not-for-profit, each person on the team is self-funded and that allows us a great mobility, and great flexibility, great creativity, and our partners love us because we’re not angling for the same money that they do to exist. And so that’s the context of which FREE is. We’re a missions organization but we work to find, rescue, embrace, and empower victims of human trafficking and forced prostitution.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Okay, let’s work through that acronym. Find, that’s the most obvious thing I think to someone who thinks about this kind of ministry. I guess the question is where do you find them? Well, let me start with some basic questions. What’s the average age of someone who ends up being entrapped in sex trafficking?
Mike Bartel: Well, the stats that our government uses that’s largely believed is anywhere between 11 and 14 years old, so 13, 14 years old is the average age of a girl when she’s first commercially exploited for sex. So for it to be trafficking, there has to be some sort of commercial exchange, some sort of monetary value in the acquiring of that sexual act, and so between 13 and 14 years old.
Dr. Darrell Bock: That’s amazing, and so you’re dealing often what, with runaways? Is that the most common?
Mike Bartel: Well, it’s all the above, but obviously some of the most vulnerable are the kids who are living on the street. They’re runaways. Twenty-two hundred to 2,300 kids are reported missing every day in this country. There’s more than that that go missing. Those are just the ones that are just reported, but in 48 hours, one-third have been approached by a pimp, trafficker, two-thirds within 72 hours. On top of just the exploiters, you look at especially the boys, they end up trading sex for a place to stay, or a meal, or whatever it might be.
Dr. Darrell Bock: And that’s actually what I was going to ask next is how do they get entrapped?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, well, that’s one way it works. That’s a way to survive their environments, ’cause any 14-year-old on the streets is vulnerable. They can’t get a car. They can’t get a job. They’re vulnerable and they’re easy to spot when they’re out on the street, and so those would-be predators seek them out in that way.
But those aren’t the only ones that are vulnerable. The No. 1 risk factor for somebody who ends up sex trafficked is a self-esteem issue, and this isn’t meant to cause fear. It’s just a for instance. If a pimp is looking to recruit in a mall, he’ll look for a group of three girls and focus on that third wheel of the group, and “Man, your eyes are beautiful.” If she doesn’t have a stable family environment, or an absentee father, or any number of things there, there’s a foothold for that exploiter to work that into something that benefits him financially.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So one place you find them is on the streets. Where else are the places where you might locate?
Mike Bartel: If we’re dealing with labor trafficking, other ways with the refugees that are coming in and the immigrant camps, there’s a vulnerability out there. Among the ladies, oftentimes those who are from other countries brought in are both labor and sex trafficked. And so to appease a certain population of men in those immigrant communities, young girls might be used in that environment.
You can look on the labor side, too, and look at the hospitality industry and knockoff goods that are being sold and door-to-door magazines. You’ll see people from other countries that are selling magazine subscriptions door to door. We’ve worked cases where that was a human trafficking case. And so those aren’t always the case but those are some vulnerable environments. Any commercial sex club, strip clubs, other places around there, you’ll find vulnerable populations
Dr. Darrell Bock: On the labor side, does the fact that someone might be undocumented make them vulnerable?
Mike Bartel: Oh, absolutely. Just like any 14-year-old on the street is vulnerable, anyone who is here, doesn’t have legal status in this country, they’re vulnerable. Even if we had the best laws in the world to adjust for that, oftentimes those who are being brought in from other countries don’t know how America works. They only know how things worked in their own country. So the process of exploitation in that country, those assumptions are used against them to keep them enslaved here. And so not only that, but oftentimes those who are brought into this country who are trafficked came here legally but the people who brought them in then take their papers so they’re without their passport, they’re without whatever their legal status is, and then that’s used against them as well.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So that’s Find. Next is Rescue. What is involved in that?
Mike Bartel: Rescue, actually we’re moving away from the term rescue because it becomes a loaded term. We are not a vigilante organization and we’ve always explained rescue as holistic, so in the explanation, rescue works perfect, but we’re working towards the other R word which is restore, which is really what we mean by rescue anyway, a holistic healing, spiritually, emotionally, physically, the education piece, all those things that many of us typically have gone through in our life that allow us to be the person that we are that’s been removed from these children’s life, in this life of exploitation. We try to move down that process of healing by ministering in each area of their life.
Dr. Darrell Bock: And that’s actually a pretty serious move because it’s going to take time to bring that restoration because of what it is the person’s been through, issues of trust, et cetera.
Mike Bartel: Yeah, it really takes a lifetime. I know in the past, we worked with one of my favorite organizations in the world is Teen Challenge, and I remember early on in their existence, as I read this history, there wasn’t space for them to really exist within the faith community because it was seen as social work and the church doesn’t do social work. But what happened in the process of that is these people were coming, and they were coming to church. God was ministering to their need at the altar and they would say, “I was addicted but now I’m not anymore,” which is great.
Those stories are awesome, but in the sense of restoration of somebody that’s been sex trafficked or however that looks, I’ve never seen a case where there’s this instantaneous healing and oftentimes I think it is because there was never a normal place in their life to begin with. They don’t have a place to go back to to even know what a healthy relationship is, what a healthy community is, what love is, because oftentimes the very people who got called out to protect them, the father, was either the one who exploited them or was absent. So it takes a long process of healing to begin to show, and model, and pour into their lives healthy relationships to begin with.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So the next E is embrace. Is that right?
Mike Bartel: Embrace.
Dr. Darrell Bock: And what’s involved in that?
Mike Bartel: Embrace is really tied to just meeting those immediate-felt needs. I’ve done some disaster relief work with some friends of mine. A hurricane comes through town, everything’s destroyed, families, what they need first and foremost is a bottle of water, is some extra clothes, and a cot to sleep in while all this disaster gets sorted out and repaired, and just like restore, that’s a long-term process. So with us, when we look at embrace, it really is just a matter of meeting somebody’s immediate needs.
For instance, there was a few years ago with a friend of mine, we worked a situation to get a girl out. She was 26 years old. She had been out on the street prostituted by pimps since she was 13, so half her life. She wanted out. She called my friend. He called me because I was close by. I went to get her and when I picked her up, she had a trash bag about that big and all it had in it was some lingerie her pimp bought her and then the soap and the shampoo from the hotel she worked because he would never provide any of those personal items for her. And so that’s all she had in her life, 26 years old and she had this trash bag full of stuff.
So as part of that process, I wouldn’t say – a trust-building process, not a healing process but a trust-building process, we went and some churches give some gift cards. We went shopping with her as far as some ladies did to help her, mentor her, love her, choose clothes that didn’t accent what was for sale anymore but that showed her dignity and who she was, and just provided those immediate needs for her, and it’s through that process that she entered into a relationship with Christ and a long-term approach to healing.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now I think I’ve heard you mention that the number of beds that are available to take care of people caught into sex trafficking is a pretty low number, that there isn’t much available, so that when you go to meet these needs, there really is not much of an infrastructure of support around it.
Mike Bartel: Yeah, that’s right. One of the big gaps in service is oftentimes there needs to be a demarcated space for some of these girls to heal even if they come out of loving families. So we look at that same kind of thing oftentimes with say a man or woman who’s come home from war and lost friends, and that no matter how much that family loves them, there’s space that needs to be addressed that needs a high level of competency and some time away. And so shelters in this country, when we first started, there was for minors, for under 18-year-olds, there was less than 50 beds in this country set aside for restorative care of girls who’d been trafficked. That number in the last seven years has only increased slightly to around 200 beds in the whole country.
Dr. Darrell Bock: That’s the whole country. I mean think about that. That’s 4 beds per state, if you want to think of it that way.
Mike Bartel: And for thousands upon thousands of people who need it. Now I’ll say this, too, as awareness has come into play with what this looks like in groups that have engaged it, the number of people who need those beds has increased. The reason there were so few beds is it wasn’t being identified. It wasn’t being engaged. And now the beds so far are behind on really what the awareness is to engage.
We were given a property that we’re on the end of developing. It’s going to be 20 beds administered to girls between 10 and 16 years old who are either recovered and they were being prostituted or they were put through kiddie porn, but it’s a heavy lifting process. So over the course of seven years, shelters have come and gone because it’s such a resource heavy thing to do and other groups who have started homes didn’t have necessarily the best network in place to address the trafficking side of this, and so we’ve seen houses open and then close, but that’s a huge need right now in our country.
Dr. Darrell Bock: And another thing that often happens is that when someone is rescued, they need to shift locations. They need to get out of the town that they’re in.
Mike Bartel: That’s right, and actually there’s a piece to that. It’s just a gap in need. There’s a lot of gaps, but in foster care, we’ve got some churches and faith communities that have jumped all in with foster care and they’re ready to take people in, but as it pertains to trafficking, you can’t take a girl or a boy right off the street and put them right into foster care and have it be effective. It works never, not because the family’s not competent but because there needs to be this demarcated space where that girl, that boy begins to wrap themselves emotionally and through counseling through what that trauma was, so when they do enter that home, that home becomes an empowering environment for them, not one they have to flee right away.
So I think once some of these shelters start to take place and we get ours in place, it really puts into play a whole list of other services that our faith community can really help with but it has to be in its place or it’s not very effective.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So this home that you have is designed to, what, house these girls for a time and be a transition place basically? Is that the way you’re thinking of it?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, although I would say it’s residential care, so it is intensive. They’ll be getting their schooling there. They’ll be getting their counseling there. It’ll be an intensive holistic place of healing. But again, if there’s trained foster and adoption care families in this field on the back side willing to receive them, it frees up more space for our beds because we can release them into a family environment.
Dr. Darrell Bock: That’s what I mean, right.
Mike Bartel: It frees up more beds, so we don’t have any more beds but we have opportunity to move them through the process faster with that.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So about how long, roughly speaking, might someone stay in one of these kinds of facilities?
Mike Bartel: Well, we’re looking at two years’ worth of programming, but in the end, it’s somewhat open ended. It doesn’t have to go two years or it might go more than two years. When we were in Southern Asia, which is a different context, obviously, but some of the girls had been there three, and four, and five years. Every person’s different.
Dr. Darrell Bock: But it’s a pretty long-term operation. To really cover this, you would need lots of these kinds of places, in many ways, is that –
Mike Bartel: And different types. So there’s needs for immediate safe houses. There’s needs for those who are over 18. There’s various types of shelters that are needed and all of them are lacking but one of the areas where it’s most lacking is in that residential care for minors program.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now the last letter is Empower. Just today, I’m learning it. So what’s involved in empowerment?
Mike Bartel: Obviously, the ultimate goal with our organization or all of us who are people of faith is that those that are exploited in the end carry the same testimony we do, which is that Christ makes everything new, but there’s all sorts of pieces in this empowering process that need to be addressed and so we’re looking at those next steps. How do we help them get plugged in, if they’re so inclined, into scholarships for college, to take those next steps in their education, to be nurses, and lawyers, and doctors, and whatever they want to be, let them dream again as far as what they think they can be? Where their identity was so wrapped up into what was being done to them, how do we open their eyes to what the possibilities are and how do we create an avenue to that being plausible for them, jobs that bring dignity instead of shame?
How do we work with small business owners and entrepreneurs to train these ladies in how to take care – because some of them have criminal records that’s of no fault of their own and so when they go put in for employment somewhere and there’s 50 people in this economy that we have that are applying for the same job, where do you think her resume is going to fall into that list of jobs? So we have to create options outside of that structure for entrepreneurial growth and we’ve had some major corporations jump in, too, going knowing they have criminal backgrounds, we’re going to create space for a certain amount of jobs that have high mobility for those we partner with?
And we partner with a group called Saber that does that. They’re a Fortune 100 company, works hospitality, Travelocity, other things. So we’re looking at in the empower piece to create options to seeing these girls, these boys move forward in a life that has hope to it, a hopeful future for themselves.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So someone comes to the end of this sequence and I take it you’ve got examples of people who have been rescued out of this and have they worked their way through F.R.E.E.? Have they gotten to the point where they’re empowered?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, there’s different areas of that, right, because we’re intersecting with all these girls, and boys, and families at different levels. Where we’re doing direct outreach, obviously we’re going to put in place with ourselves and what we have capacity to build in or other organizations we partner with each aspect of this process. We’ve received girls who have been recovered by other groups that need certain help or needed to be relocated that we’ve brought in and we’ve tried to get set up even in Las Vegas for work, for employment, for other things, spiritual discipleship, that type of scenario.
So we’ve engaged in all these areas at different levels of the process of their healing, and again, we have great success stories of girls we’ve worked with who were hurting and are now doing all right. Some of the girls, and boys, and families that we’ve worked with, or girls and boys, have different things going on that make it an act of love and we’ve had to recover multiple times because they’re bipolar, and they went off their medication, and found themselves back. So it’s just an ongoing pursuit with some of them.
Oftentimes, we’ll get, “How many people have you rescued?” and it just depends on how you want to define it. It’s a matter of do we count her five times because we found her five times or at what point during this process of healing do we check the, off the list, and I don’t think that ever really happens. It’s like a community of faith. We’re constantly engaged in each other’s lives as we move forward to being more like him.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Obviously, there are structural relationships that are a part of this and I think I want to start here. Someone looks at an organization like yours and they go, “I guess that’s a church ministry.” I can see how you’re helping people, and restoring dignity, and reaching out to people who are vulnerable. There are passages like Proverbs 14:31 that says that, “The oppression of the poor is an insult to God but to actually show them favor is to do him honor.” So there are texts that support the kind of work that you’re doing, but other people will go, “Well, that sounds kind of social gospelly.” So how do you see yourself? I know you talk a lot about seeing yourself as a mission, so what does that involve?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, we are a missions organization. Again, I think where God has honored F.R.E.E. and where he’s given us favor with all these different agencies that we’ll impact during the course of this segment is we’ve honored the local church as God’s chosen agency to reach the world, small and great alike, whether that’s somebody in the boardroom, down the street, a teacher in the school with our kids, or a girl in a legal brothel in Nevada, it’s God’s people, his Church, capital C, and pragmatically local church, as far as effectiveness, that’s been tasked at doing that. And so as a missions organization, we’ve structured F.R.E.E. as not a parachurch, here we are. We’ll do the work and you guys can root us on from the sidelines.
Dr. Darrell Bock: And give your money.
Mike Bartel: Exactly, give us money, but that we look at the local churches. It has everything it needs. Obviously God’s bigger than all of this to begin with, but even just strategically to reach their community. Even a church of 50 people or 100 people, if we’re working with them, they hit every segment of that society. They’re truck drivers, and educators, and policeman, and politicians, and all of them are sitting in these churches as a part of a move for the great commission to reach this world, the tasking that we have. And so F.R.E.E. International honors that by saying here’s a specialized group that isn’t always easy to see and always easy to interact with, and there are some complications on the back side because of all these things that’s been done to them, but how do we empower the local church, but more than how do we empower the local church, we philosophically believe the local church is that agency to do it.
So as a missions organization, at the heart of everything we do is obviously the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now our motivation to love happens no matter what our response is on the other side, however we also realize that we could set the table for all the stuff that we talked about in the first segment, but in the end, what is the profit that a person gaining the whole world then and still lose their soul? Now we’re not making decisions for people but we are very honest not only with the girls we approach as we build relationship to them, as we interact with them, but also the agencies we partner with, being able to bring the gospel to attorneys general and law enforcement agencies, but at the same time, the church has all those people in there.
So how do we work with a pastor to create a missional approach to these people’s jobs that allow them to be the connection point to the vulnerable through their own church?
Dr. Darrell Bock: So part of your point is that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and create your own organization to make this happen. You just need to utilize the resources that you have available within your church and if you just have people that are sensitive to what they’re capable of because of what they do, the job that they have, or whatever, you actually mobilize them. The empowerment, if I can say it that way, happens in two directions. It isn’t just empowering the person who’s rescued but you’re also empowering a person for this kind of a ministry who says, “Look, you’re in a natural place to be a protector. You’re a teacher who sees a vulnerable child in your school and you befriend them and give them self-esteem.” That’s a part of the process.”
Mike Bartel: That’s exactly a part of the process. That’s why Christ left his church here. If we said a prayer to God and why didn’t he just throw us up into heaven and say, “Well done. You’ve finally built a relationship with me.” Because he wishes none should perish. But to get to some of these people takes a little bit of added help and it definitely requires collaboration, and like I said, all these sectors are within the church already, so how do we identify with it, partner with it, resource it, and empower it to be able to do that through a local church leadership context?
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now one of the fascinating parts of this as we’ve talked about this is the relationship that you’ve built with two segments of what I would consider to be civil government. One would be the law enforcement range, and actually, we earlier did a podcast with you and Darlene Line, who interestingly enough was just a student in one of my classes who I got to know, and I heard that she was interest in this and she’s the one who made me aware of how much of a problem this is in the United States. And we talked with her and you. She did the whole law enforcement angle of what she can and can’t do as a law enforcement person and how you all come alongside them. So there’s the law enforcement people, but then there’s the whole legal side of government as well, the people who discover and in some cases have to prosecute these kinds of cases, et cetera, and you’ve been very involved with those two groups. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?
Mike Bartel: Yeah. The fun part about what we do is in building these relationships. We have found whether it’s the governmental side of this, whether it’s the legal side, or even law enforcement side, that none of those agencies overall are scared of partnering with the local church. What they fear is not what the church represents. What they fear is that we step outside our boundaries of what we’re tasked at doing within culture, so they fear vigilantes. They fear things like that. So in building relationships, we’re able to build trust even among those agencies.
A couple of times in the last couple of years, I’ve been able to present to all the attorneys general of the United States of America and it was based on work we were doing in the faith community leading efforts around the Super Bowl. But it was in that, that we would receive individual calls and still do from attorneys general saying, “How can you help us build relationship with the local church that we can empower them?”
A government can’t end trafficking. They can create laws and structures that allow those who are on the ground to do better at addressing the issue. Law enforcement doesn’t have enough resources to go after, and to find, and to prosecute all the criminals that are working with trafficking. It’s the second largest criminal enterprise in the world.
Dr. Darrell Bock: They can’t do any restoration to speak of at all.
Mike Bartel: They’re not tasked with restoration. That’s not their job. So all of them recognize that this takes more than just their agency to do it, however it takes the right relationship with that agency. To us, it’s more than just a referral from law enforcement to do the work. To us, it’s a relationship to know how to interact both in outreach and the aftercare side of this for causing this to happen.
So we have major partnerships with the University of Miami School of Law. They are starting a legal fellowship, the first of its kind focused on human trafficking, and their only partner in that is F.R.E.E. International and they know we’re a missions organization. They’re not scared about that because they know, again, they just want what their best skill set is to be best put out throughout the country and they’re not scared of the faith side of that and we’re honest with that. We’ve worked with the National Association of Attorneys General. When we do major outreaches, we partner straight up with FBI and state law enforcement agencies. And so even as a missions organization, because of our competency, and because we have a right understanding of what they do, and what our roles are, and right relationship, we see great effectiveness happen through them.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So that’s the law enforcement side and the I guess the legal side and part of what you do is build these relationships and connect, if I can say it this way, this government, these non-church agencies, to what’s going on because they’re in the middle of all of this too. They’re in the middle of the same space trying to help people, but they have limits as to what they can do. So in some cases, they’re able to hand off some of what they find, or discover, or come across, and you can pick up the ball from there. Is that their attraction in terms of how they see you operate?
Mike Bartel: Well, and they can elevate stuff they’ve seen as effective and promote it even if it’s faith-based. So in the end, if we’re talking governmental side of things, they promote us because in the process, they look good, because you have a real qualified way of success on these many girls were recovered, these many missing kids were found. When we worked with KlaasKids and the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking at the Super Bowl in Miami, we worked with Miami Vice. They actually gave us all the missing kids they’d been looking for for months and in three days’ worth of outreach and just roughly about 50 faith-based people out of the churches there, Miami Vice gave credit for clearing three precincts worth of missing kids off the books and there was numerous minors that were being trafficked that were recovered.
It wasn’t like it was an uber professional cat and mouse game with the pimps and stuff, which we do. It was a matter of we knew what we were looking for, we had the right information because we had the partnership with law enforcement, and we were given the right platform to get into the areas and do the work. And everyone wins and that’s built over the years for that very reason. So yeah, they don’t want to just hand something off. Most of these agencies like to take some of the credit for it, too, which is fine, because all we’re doing is building capacity into our outreach for girls and families to be found.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now there are two stories that we’ve talked about that we haven’t developed. One we talked about when we were prepping for this and one involved the state of Mississippi and the other involved an organization called Teen Challenge, so I’m going to let you take those in turn. Let’s talk about Mississippi first.
Mike Bartel: Yeah. Out of the work that we did around the Super Bowl in New Orleans, and we as in collaborative, right, so F.R.E.E. International played a role with all this and but there’s a couple of other great organizations we partner with. We don’t do this in isolation. We have them as great partners, KlaasKids, which is a national missing kids organization, and it was successful to the point where Mississippi was going, “Hey, we want to get more involved.”
And actually in some ways, they painted themselves in a corner because on the governmental side of things, they were saying, “Hey, we want to get behind human trafficking. We’re going to require all of our agencies to be trained on human trafficking or start the process of training.” And so the law passed so it mandated training.
Well, what happens when you make people aware of an issue and they start to see it? People are found. Victims are found. Then it’s like, “Well, we don’t know what to do with this.”
Dr. Darrell Bock: “We don’t know where to go.” Yeah.
Mike Bartel: “We didn’t think that part through.”
Dr. Darrell Bock: Four beds.
Mike Bartel: It wasn’t because they were dumb. It was just a matter of you didn’t realize how fast you were going to get the response and success you were. So we were called in to talk about that, to go how can we build capacity and for the so what of this, the restoration side, and so we were talking to them. It was going to be a half-hour meeting. It turned into almost a three-hour meeting and three assistant attorneys general there we were talking to and we were talking about how do we get the faith-based community involved, and this, and that. I began to poke around even in their own lives and I was like, “I bet you guys go to church, don’t you?” “Oh, yeah. I’m a Sunday school teacher at this evangelical church.” “I’m a board member, my husband’s a board member at this church.”
And so part of that conversation for me is I needed to get them to realize missionally that we’re not talking really two separate things here, that God had tasked them in this role to also be the bridge into their own local churches in the faith community to go, “Hey, we’ve got people in all these areas. Let’s start that process of restoration.”
So in the last couple of months, we have a new couple down in Mississippi that’s been tearing it up down there and over the last few weeks, they’ve trained over 500 educators in the state and actually I was down there a couple of months ago with our partner, KlaasKids, and trained over 200 law enforcement agents in the state, and 11 cases have come out of there, just out of the school system alone from that, that are very young kids, as young as eight years old, and we’re finding out more about how trafficking works in Mississippi because of those stories. A lot more of that’s tied to families rather than pimps.
So when you learn that stuff, you find even more how the church can engage, because if a bulk of the trafficking is being done by individual families towards their own kids, then how does a church engage in that family structure environment to change how they frame what that’s all about?
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now that’s Mississippi. What about Teen Challenge?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, Teen Challenge is a phenomenal organization. In fact when I first started working with human trafficking in Southern Asia, it was with Bombay Teen Challenge, which is one of the great points of God’s transformative power in the world, one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. So I love Teen Challenge, but as referred to in the first segment, Teen Challenge probably wouldn’t have been able to exist had they not had these stories of God almost miraculously changing people’s lives in a moment at an altar. And groups like F.R.E.E. International probably wouldn’t be able to exist because of that whole understanding of this is a social gospel or this is social work and not the gospel.
Teen Challenge I want to say proved that different as though they had something to prove. It’s just God moved in a way with that organization to show this wasn’t social work. It was God’s transformative power working in these unique situations to change lives. Well, with human trafficking, it’s a whole different scenario because, again, these children, self-identity is formed early on and their abuse and everything they’ve got through, the world is different than what it is for most people and how they view themselves in the world.
And we’ve worked with Teen Challenge a lot, but even in the Teen Challenge environment, we’ve seen a lot of girls that have been trafficked identified through a Teen Challenge structure because they went there to deal with their addiction but when the relationships were developed, and the story was told, and the spirit began to move in their lives, come to find out a lot of what they were in, their drug addiction even, was not a result of good girl gone bad as much as it was a way to cope with what was being forced on them in the prostitution and all that.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So we’ve talked about attorneys generals. We’ve talked about law enforcement. I imagine there’s a lot of counseling that’s involved in all this as well and how does that connect to what you do?
Mike Bartel: Yeah, all sorts of counseling is needed. We have a new couple joining our team, counselors, therapists are going to oversee our restore aspect of things. Again, it’s one couple, so it isn’t like they’re going to counsel hundreds of girls that are being rescued around the country but it’s a matter of resourcing even our pastors. I’ll say as a pastor, because I’m a pastor by DNA, by even how I function, and in all the great education I got even in my Bible college and graduate school work, a lot of these things I was never trained or equipped to deal with.
Dr. Darrell Bock: I didn’t hear about this in my four years of seminary.
Mike Bartel: Yeah, and broaden out, I mean one in four girls will have been sexually molested by the time they hit 18 in our country and it’s one in six to seven boys. I’ve had an 88-year-old woman in a walker in front of my wife and I weeping because her dad molested her from 8 to 18 year’s old. When she left the house, she never looked back. God saved her. She was in this church for 70 years. She loved the people in the church but she never felt she had a safe place to heal from that story, so at 88, for the first time, she had told her story.
And so pastors hold the keys in discipleship but also in the ability to not be the counselors for all of these people but as we’re made aware more of this exploitation in our own churches, how do we bring healing into those situations? We’ve had so many ladies come to us broken and not because the pastor of the church didn’t know what they were doing but just this topic became a safe place for them to tell their story. So on the counseling side, I think it’s equally as much how do we counsel trafficking victims. We can draw that back a little more and go how do we meet the needs of the people in our church who actually are hiding their pain and we don’t even know it?
Dr. Darrell Bock: Now what kind of training is involved or do you do training for people who say, “I’m interested in this area,” or are you more directive referral? Is it a combination? What goes on?
Mike Bartel: We do a lot of the training but our training all comes out of the work, so we educate towards engagement, is how we do it. So there’s a lot of groups out there doing great things but they’re not practitioners. They train. They resource but it comes out of what they’ve learned or what they’ve read and not out of their practice. And again, I’m not belittling that. I’m just saying we do a lot of training because out of our practice, we have real world examples of how it could look in unique environments.
Dr. Darrell Bock: So it’s on sight and you go with someone who’s in the midst of this and you just watch them do what they do?
Mike Bartel: If it’s a counseling environment, obviously those people who are on our team and have that expertise will come in and help, and resource, and train specific to that space that the counselor will do. If it’s law enforcement, we’ve trained whole law enforcement agencies in California and they’ve received professional credit to be able to do that that they need every year. We’ve trained in hospitals and nursing programs how to identify through the process of intake. We’ve trained in almost every niche area you can train for credit. Our favorite spaces are the church, though, where we can train in the broader sense, identify where the synergy is between those who want to engage and then build those specialized trainings out of that original exposure to the issue.
Dr. Darrell Bock: This question just hit me while you were talking and don’t ask me how it came in, but we’ve talked about the streets being a dangerous place, et cetera. What are college campuses like? Are they a dangerous place for this?
Mike Bartel: Yeah. They’re a dangerous place and obviously a marvelous place to talk about issues related to – it’s a loaded term. I don’t mean this in the political sense, but social justice or compassion-type issues. So it’s a great way to engage future practitioners because they’re already going, “This is what I want to do with my life,” and you can empower it early on and point it in the right direction.
But there’s also a lot of abuse, a lot of rape, a lot of things like that on campuses, a lot of vulnerability, and I don’t have any stats to go, hey, this is a cesspool for human trafficking, but there is a vulnerability to a campus environment. Kids are out on their own for the first time. Great parenting is great parenting.
Dr. Darrell Bock: They’re in debt.
Mike Bartel: They’re in debt. Yeah, all sorts of different vulnerabilities that could come into play. When we worked major events, we’ve seen girls who’ve flown in on their own nickel. They don’t have pimps. They’re not trafficked, but see their only option is to dance or to do the things to pay for their school, so they start to make these wrong choices because they’re not really seeing the different options.
So we have campus clubs called F.R.E.E. University that we’ve been developing. We’ve tried to empower the university setting, for again, our expertise and training, so we can come in and train Social Work Departments and things like that, and build a bridge towards the Christian groups on campus. Just like the church we think should be leading on a lot of these issues in the public space, in a university space, we like to build bridges to the Crew, and Chi Alpha, InterVarsity, and those different great organizations working on the campus.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Yeah. I have a son who does sports law, and interestingly enough, he’s done Title IX work where he’s gone into the universities and he’s basically said, “Are you prepared for situations where sexual abuse is going on and how do you respond to it?” and making sure they’re in compliance with Title IX requirements. I thought Title IX was just about sports. So it’s very, very pervasive, what we’re dealing with. It’s in all segments of life and all kinds of corner that you wouldn’t even think about.
And then the other interesting side that I think you mentioned is when you’re dealing with college-aged students who are thinking about their careers, that’s another place to encourage people to think about what’s the connection between the vocation that you’re going into and the possibility of your being able to help in this area.
Mike Bartel: That’s right, and we really emphasize that heavily because we actually have a post-grad program. It’s a year-long apprenticeship program to take those who are coming out in their field of expertise where they work with us in Vegas and some of these major events but we’re missional in that approach. Exactly the stuff we’ve talked about here, how do we get them to see their vocation missionally but empower it not only into their own tribe, work group that they’re going to be with but how does that translate in the church and the faith community where they can empower that process and that effectiveness?
We bring in missions teams all the time from churches and campus groups who come work with us in Vegas for four days so we can expose them to the issue, expose them to what it looks like on the ground, and then help them for a day or two see the skills and the tools we use to engage it in the context of Las Vegas so they can bring that back home and find the right context for that as we consult with them in that process.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Well, Mike, I really do appreciate you coming in and talking to us about this. It’s a vast area. It’s an area that for a long time was – I don’t mean the pun – was underexposed but now has become very public. A lot of people think about it in significant ways. They wrestle with can I do anything? What’s possible? And the idea of this kind of ministry connecting to the local church and drawing on the variety of resources, of people seeing their vocation in a way that they can contribute in some way easily is very, very helpful. The idea that college campuses are places where people can get prepared and even create a vision for being able to do these kinds of things.
There are lots of ways that this can work, so we really thank you for coming in and talking to us about what is a topic of need and an area where the church can step in and be of real help.
Mike Bartel: Thank you.
In this episode, Dr. Darrell Bock and Mike Bartel discuss the fight against human trafficking in America, focusing on F.R.E.E. International’s ministry to people being trafficked and those freed from trafficking.
- The origin and mission of F.R.E.E. International
- Find: Statistics on people being trafficked
- Restore: Healing process after being freed from trafficking
- Embrace: Meeting immediate needs of people in transition
- Empower: Restoring dignity for people freed from trafficking
- Developing relationships with the local church
- Working with government and civil agencies
- Counseling and the restoration of people freed from trafficking
- Counseling and the restoration of people freed from trafficking
- Training available from F.R.E.E. International
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Michael Bartel and his wife Denise began their work with victims of human trafficking in 2004 as a part of an international organization working to rescue and restore victims of human trafficking throughout the Eurasia region. Seeing the overwhelming need in the United States and sensing a growing desire from faith based organizations and communities at large to do something about it, Michael and his wife returned to the United States in 2007 to start FREE International.