How Our Discontent Upended Sex Trafficking in Anchorage, Alaska
It may sound strange, but I left my church to be the church.
I had spent 23 years in ministry, 15 of those years in Anchorage, Alaska, where I was on staff at ChangePoint, Alaska’s largest church. I served there as a women’s pastor, discipleship pastor, and community groups pastor. But other women leaders and I grew increasingly discontented with roles serving as vacation Bible school master set designers, Bible study leaders, and working at the information desk. I had to admit that if all my fancy programs and ministry efforts went away, my city would go on as normal. Hosting bake sales and Christmas tea parties no longer seemed like enough.
We began to pray for an inroad into our broken city where we could make a difference. I knew that any transformation had to start with me.
Anchorage is considered the rape capital of the nation. According to a recent study by Covenant House Youth in conjunction with Loyola University, we have the highest incidents of youth suicide and childhood sexual abuse in the country. We live in a hotbed for crimes such as sex trafficking.
As we prayed, my ministry took a huge turn. I found myself leading a group of women who had left the confines of the church service and became crime-fighting machines who would eventually upend sex trafficking in Anchorage.
Before you pat me on the back, let me be honest. I worked tirelessly to tell God that I was not qualified for this call. I spent a lot of time rehearsing all the reasons God was making a huge mistake to call me into the darkness of this work.
Gwen Adams onboarding a new mentor.
My journey started by admitting that I was reading all the labels that I wore more than I was listening to God’s call in my life. I had to rip off those disqualifying labels. I was not disqualified to reach Native Alaskan people because my skin was too white. I was not disqualified to reach the younger generation because I was too old. I was not disqualified to walk with victims of sexual abuse because I was never abused. I was enough—my skin color, gender, age, attitude, intellect, and past were all perfect. I was created on purpose, for a purpose. God had not run out of people to do the job and taken me as a second choice because he was desperate. I was exactly the woman God created for the call he placed on my life.
I put on my big-girl pants and found a spine in the bottom of my desk drawer, under the little sticky notes with quippy reminders to “pursue unity” and “blessed is the peacemaker.” I committed to get up every day and fight like it mattered to me that women were being trafficked in my own city. I quit doing my part building excellent church ministry and instead focused on laying down my life for women who were without a voice, trapped in the margins, modern-day slaves.
We church ladies revolted. We peeled off our church masks and stood side by side in this strange call. As a group we had lost our taste for cozy gatherings of ladies around teacups and floral centerpieces. Bible studies with good coffee and real cream would never be enough again. We were even done being content with discipling one another and loving each other well. It was not enough, not even close.
But I didn’t know where to start.
So we did the one thing we felt equipped to do. We prayed. We moved our prayer meetings to text groups, calling the project Revolt. We engaged the broader church community to pray with us around the issue of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in our city every Wednesday from 12:00 to 12:15 pm. We asked them to stop and pray right where they were for fifteen minutes, once a week. We sent out a reminder text with a note on what the focus of our prayer would be.
More than 800 people joined the text-prayer group.
The next thing we knew, prayer groups started popping up in workplaces around town. Even British Petroleum offered their boardroom during the lunch hour for any employees who wanted to pray during their lunch break. A childcare group met to pray. Walking groups walked and prayed. Not only the church ladies but our whole church began to see that maybe, just maybe, we could have an impact in this dark arena.
We were growing in numbers, but so far we were nothing more than a ministry of prayer and community awareness. Yet those months of prayer cultivated a passion in us to see change. Every time I drove past a woman whom I would have formerly identified as a prostitute, my heart would break. I wanted to know her story and what had led her to this place. The stats told us that it was unlikely she was working for herself. Someone owned her, owned her body. Before our team was engaged in work that might cause burnout or more harm, we were becoming spiritually fit.
Finally, our team had graduated—or at least we had learned a few things. We were engaged in discipleship and were committed to abiding and honoring Sabbath rest. We had obeyed and prayed as God had led.
Priceless packed more than 100 Christmas gift boxes with hats, gloves, socks, and hygiene items.
In my time of prayer one day, God whispered into my heart that whatever was asked of me, I was to say yes. I was willing.
Then the call came. A state trooper wanted to meet for coffee. The only preparatory statement he offered was, “I need to talk to you about Priceless.” Our nonprofit, Priceless, was in its infancy; we were little more than a mob of church ladies who prayed against sex trafficking in our state. I was curious why a trooper would call.
As I walked into the coffee shop, I saw only one man standing alone. He didn’t look anything like I expected. He was tall and built but seemed meek and mild-mannered. “Are you Ed?” I asked.
He recognized me right away. As he began to outline the trafficking case at hand, he said he believed it could be the largest trafficking bust in our country at the time. He needed to act sooner than expected, because the investigation might have been compromised. He went on to explain how remarkable it had been that they were even able to uncover such a ring. “It’s as if the sun, moon, and stars have all lined up for us to uncover this sex trafficking and drug-dealing network.”
Ed explained that they had begun an investigation nine months ago. In that time they’d had significant, unprecedented breakthroughs in terms of getting the necessary testimony to build a case.
Nine months ago?
That was the very month we had begun Revolt. It wasn’t the sun, moon, and stars that had lined up—it was 800 prayer warriors in Anchorage who had stopped every week to pray for a breakthrough. God had just answered those prayers!
Ed looked a little taken aback but accepted my enthusiasm with a smile and a nod. Then he said something I will never forget: “Is Priceless willing to walk with the survivors?”
We were not ready. I didn’t even know what “ready” meant. But I said, “Yes, of course we are ready.” The words rolled right off my tongue without consulting my brain first. I could not scoop them up and shove them back into my mouth. I tried a disclaimer: “To be totally honest, all I have is about 50 willing, crazy church ladies with very little training, but if that’s OK with you we are in.” He replied, with obvious notes of his awareness that this whole thing was a crapshoot, “I’m desperate and don’t have much of a choice. I’ll take the crazy church ladies.”
Just like that, I had accidentally given us a new name and a new mission.
Since we started Priceless in 2012, we have loved, mentored, and served more than 200 survivors of trafficking. We have trained over 850 mentors from dozens and dozens of churches through our mentor training weekend called Engage. We have helped launch several anti-trafficking efforts across the country. We have even been involved in legislative changes at a national level. And we partner with programs like FREE, the Covenant’s anti-sex trafficking initiative. The work continues and I could not be prouder to be one of the crazy church ladies.
Do I believe that the whole church needs to stop what we are doing, pack up camp, and race to the margins? I do. Maybe not everyone will close up shop, walk away from church programming, and walk with survivors of sex trafficking. Not everyone will start their own 501c3 and rally a community to fight violent crime. But reaching a lost broken world won’t happen if we don’t step out of our comfort zones. More important, we cannot discover the heart of God if we hide in our safe places with people who think like us and look like us. Is it hard? Yes, but discovering the heart of God in such stunning beauty that can only be found in the dark places has been worth every single tear.
Priceless is a nonprofit organization that trains volunteers to mentor survivors of sex trafficking. Under the umbrella of Love Alaska, Priceless exists to engage, equip, and mobilize the faith community to serve people whom society has marginalized.
Program participants tend to enter Priceless through referrals. We work closely with the FBI, state troopers, the Anchorage Police Department and probation officers, juvenile detention centers, the prison system, and various shelters. Sometimes women are referred to the program by another survivor.
Upon referral, Priceless makes a basic assessment and then connects the survivor with a mentor team who helps them navigate the resources available.
In addition to mentoring, Priceless now has a cyber-sex crimes team who provides assistance to law enforcement with low-level internet searching to identify possible connections to trafficking. Our education team provides anti-trafficking training for healthcare professionals and internet safety training for parents, teachers, and teens. We have an emergency shelter. And we partner with Covenant House to identify victims of trafficking among homeless or displaced youth in Alaska.