Felicity is 24 years old. She was born in the Southeast, the daughter of an African-American father and a Caucasian mother. Though she is shy and soft-spoken, she has a spark of adventure and a twinkle in her smile. She was also sexually abused as a child.
“I don’t remember what I wanted to be …” she says. “Kids dream of doctors and stuff, but I don’t remember those years.”
When she was 16, Felicity was sexually abused by a family member and again by a friend of her mother. Soon after, her mom sent her to live with her biological father, where she faced even more abuse. Pregnant, Felicity began to cope with drug use, and ultimately gave the baby up for adoption. It was then that she moved to Washington state with her mom, where she met a pimp and began to work as a prostitute.
“He offered a place for me to stay and promised to protect and look out for me,” she explained. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t really the case. “My quota was $600 a night, and if I didn’t make it, I was not allowed to come back to the house,” she remembers. “So at times I would have to sleep outside…”
I first met Felicity through my work with R.E.S.T (Real Escape from the Sex Trade), a non-profit I had the privilege of helping birth, to help young women escape from sex trafficking. Seattle’s trafficking tumor first caught my attention about 6 years ago, when I was pastoring a church community in Belltown.
There, it hit me right in the face. Girls and young women in our neighborhood were being bought and sold for sex, like a commodity, on our streets. Many in our church community began reaching out to them. Eventually, they began to tell us their stories and we learned more about what was happening on the streets.
We learned that Seattle is ranked 3rd in the nation (behind only Portland and Atlanta) for the number of under-age sex trafficking cases it sees and that thirty-three percent of all national cases happen in or around the Seattle area. We learned that at any given time, there are between 300 and 500 under-age girls being trafficked in King County and that their average age when they enter the industry is just 12 years old.
“A lot of the women who disappear are the under-age girls,” Felicity explains. “I know of one. I haven’t seen her since she told on her pimp and she just vanished. Without a trace. She was like 16. It makes me think how many times something bad could have happened to me,” she shudders. “What if I just disappeared? Would anybody miss me?”
Luckily Felicity ended up with R.E.S.T. instead. “They helped put a roof over my head, put me in touch with Jesus, complete my GED,” Felicity says, “and now I want to go to school and do social work and speak out against sex trafficking and childhood abuse.”
R.E.S.T. is just one of many groups and individuals working together to fight sex trafficking in our region; to bring light out of darkness. That’s a pursuit that feels especially relevant this time of year. Historically, Christmas originated as a time of celebration, but also as a time of emergence out of darkness, despair and sorrow. This is an idea often lost in the ‘magic’ of the holiday season.
When the angels heralded that Christmas had finally arrived to the shepherds, they juxtaposed these images: “and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’”
Today, we see these forces up against themselves across our city. Seattle has a dark side, as Felicity experienced, and we can all empathize with the sorrow, pain, despair and darkness that Felicity has felt.
As I look around our Northwest community though, I also see people, resources, institutions, organizations and neighbors living out this Christmas story of bringing light into darkness, peace into fear, unity to division – just as the team from R.E.S.T. has brought healing and light to Felicity. I see a city of people not only not OK with the hurt that they see others going through, but willing to get uncomfortable to bring renewal to them.