Why These Empty Shoes Mean Freedom
It's Personal Story Series

“For You have delivered my soul from death, indeed my feet from stumbling, so that I may walk before God in the light of the living.”
Psalm 56:13 (NASB)

Since joining Exodus Cry’s Intervention team three years ago, I’ve sought out many individuals who are exploited through prostitution, offering them hope of a way out. Our goal in Intervention is to locate current victims, aid their escape of exploitation, and empower their dreams of life beyond the sex industry. We walk alongside them on the journey from exploitation to true freedom and we love witnessing their redemptive story unfold.

As an artist, I am passionate about art that powerfully conveys a message or story. I wanted to produce paintings around the theme of prostitution, highlighting individual stories but with the intent of inspiring hope rather than being overly harrowing (as the subject matter of course is).

Though physical chains are largely absent in this modern slave trade, there is one very visible and recognizable symbol of slavery, fastened about the ankles of sexually exploited women: stiletto-heeled shoes.

During the transatlantic slave-trade era, slaves were bought and sold with weighty shackles chained around their ankles. Women exploited through the sex industry today are not always sold with physical chains, however, psychological and spiritual bondage entraps them. Many feel there is no way out. Coercion from pimps, cultural systems, and lies about their own worth keep women inside the sex trade. Most women trapped in prostitution want to escape but believe they have no other option for survival.1

Though physical chains are largely absent in this modern slave trade, there is one very visible and recognizable symbol of slavery, fastened about the ankles of sexually exploited women: stiletto-heeled shoes. Inspired by the imagery of shackles and shoes, I began a painting series called In Her Shoes.

After I’ve built relationship with a woman who was being prostituted, and she has made the choice to exit exploitation, I ask her if she would like to donate to me a pair of her old stilettos shoes, as a symbol of the broken chains she is casting aside. I will then, with her permission, portray those shoes in a painting. Here are a few of those stories:

Vanessa’s Story

Vanessa* was rescued from the brothel where she’d been kept for over three years. She had attempted to escape twice but each time was found by her pimp, who threatened to kill her and her child if she tried to run again. After being brought to our Restoration program she began to rebuild her life.

Photo of High Heels

I entered Vanessa’s life as a friend, mentor, and art therapist. When I told her about the In Her Shoes project, she ran to her room and brought back a hot-pink pair of heels. She explained, “These are the only shoes I kept from that period. But I have so many horrific memories associated with them that I would love to give them to you, if you’d paint them!”

pinkpaintedshoes

One of my favorite parts about this art project is that I get to buy each girl a new pair of shoes, after she has entrusted me with her “old broken chains.” In Luke 15, when the prodigal son returns, his Father embraces him, throws a party to celebrate and gives his boy a new pair of shoes.

On the way to the mall to get her new shoes, Vanessa and I talked about the symbolic exchange of the old for the new, as described in 2 Corinthians 5:17, and how “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” This was one more step forward for her in understanding her redeemed identity as a celebrated daughter, and her new life in the Lord.

Rose’s Story

Not long after this, while in one of her college classes, Vanessa spotted a girl out of the window standing by a wall, holding a pair of black and silver stilettos in her hand. She felt compelled to talk to the girl so she went and found her after class. Vanessa discovered that this girl, Rose*, was being prostituted.

Vanessa encouraged Rose with her own testimony and implored Rose to apply for college, and to choose a new path. Vanessa told her about the In Her Shoes project and boldly invited Rose to give her the shoes as a symbol of leaving exploitation behind. Being deeply impacted by Vanessa’s story, she decided to give her the shoes!

High Heels photo

Just a few weeks later, Vanessa bumped into Rose in the corridor of her college. Rose excitedly told her, “I applied to this college like you said and I got accepted! I’m a full-time student now and don’t ever want to go back to the life I was living before.” Vanessa then presented Rose’s shoes to me for the project exclaiming, “I got my first pair!”

And so, the In Her Shoes movement continued. This was a powerful picture of a rescued woman becoming a rescuer, like the woman at the well in John 4 who, after encountering the saving grace of Jesus, goes on to proclaim the news of the Messiah to her entire town.

The Young Man’s Story

“I used to buy women in prostitution due to a severe pornography addiction. I have so much shame and I want to repent.”

Earlier this year, I was sharing about sex trafficking at a seminar and I had displayed the various pairs of stiletto shoes on the stage while I spoke. Afterwards, a young man approached me. He looked distressed. “I found the talk extremely difficult to sit through. I need to confess to you that I used to buy women in prostitution due to a severe pornography addiction. I have so much shame and I want to repent. Will you pray for me to receive God’s mercy?”

Slightly lost for words, I wondered if it might be more appropriate for a male to pray with him instead. But then I looked into his earnest eyes and recognized the courage it took for him to make this confession to me, especially knowing the work I am involved in.

So I prayed for the young man, pronouncing the forgiveness of Jesus over his life and calling him into victory in the violent battle against lust. We talked for a while and then he left. A few minutes later he returned, his own shoes in hand. “If the girls’ shoes symbolize their broken chains can I give you mine?” He quietly walked over to the stage and placed his shoes by the others.

Men shoes photo

That night he walked away knowing he was a free man, his own shackles of sin and shame left at the cross. In that moment I remembered an interview from an ex-trafficker, named Ohad—in our documentary, Nefarious—who aptly summed it up this way: “I was a captive of one thing, she was a captive of another thing, but God wants to set the captives free.”

Each pair of shoes in this project tells a story of a real life that was touched and transformed, serving as a visible reminder that, one by one, God is setting the captives free. Our prayer, in Intervention at Exodus Cry, is for more empty shoes belonging to sons and daughters who’ve been liberated from the shackles of exploitation. Please join us and help the In Her Shoes movement to continue! Thank you for being part of the story!

*Names changed to protect identities

Footnotes

  • 1. Farley, Melissa. Prostitution is Sexual Violence. Psychiatric Times. 2004. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/sexual- offenses/content/article/10168/48311].
Written by on October 20th, 2015