Naomi Zacharias is the director of Wellspring International—a humanitarian arm of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries—which is devoted to helping at-risk women and children across the globe. In this candid Q&A, Naomi Zacharias opens up on how she came to join the fight against trafficking, offers some insider advice for those who want to join the fight, and shares how she gets through times of discouragement. Come learn from Naomi Zacharias in person at Abolition Summit 2016, August 11-13.
How did you first get involved in anti-trafficking work?
In 2002 and a year after the September 11th attack, I had the opportunity to intern for the Office of Public Liaison at the White House. Organizing briefings for various constituency groups, I learned about several issues impacting the country including the economy, healthcare, and various bills up for a vote. But the area that really grabbed me was International Women’s and Children’s Issues.
I well remember a briefing we organized for the President to greet about 20 women the Administration had brought in from Afghanistan to complete a funded computer training course. The intent and hope was that it would better equip them to obtain a good job when they returned back to their home country. President Bush did not want media present at the room, so there were no cameras or the energy of media activity.
The room was quiet with hushed whispers, and when the President came out on stage, to his surprise every one of the women stood to their feet to applaud him, and then just as quickly fell to the floor on their knees before him, tears streaming down their cheeks in demonstration of their gratitude for what they felt he had given them. He was clearly taken aback, and uncomfortably trying to urge them to stand back to their feet eye to eye with him.
I will never forget that image.
I remember the impression of the appreciation on their faces, faces that revealed this was likely the first time they had felt so respected. And perhaps the first time they had experienced this from a male figure. It was powerful. It was redemptive. It made me want to be part of something that could inspire that kind of expression on the face of another who had been victimized, exploited, underprivileged, or silenced.
I had no idea how deep, how horrific the problem of human slavery had become around the world. I felt a responsibility and a call to participate, as well as a recognition of the privilege and gift it was to be able to do so. I explored different avenues of opportunity, and landed at Wellspring International and the opportunity to help create a meaningful way for individuals to respond to some of the urgent and tragic needs of humanity around the world.
It has taken me into some of the darkest corners – inside the small room of a brothel, through the hidden streets of red light districts. I have been able to speak to women working in prostitution and those who have been trafficked into sex slavery; to listen to their stories and recognize an inherent problem in our black and white distinctions of who is there by force and who is there “by choice.”
I have had conversations with brothel madams, I have seen the hard stares of pimps, and I have waved weakly to a 6-year-old girl saying hello to me from behind the bars of a brothel room where her mother recently died. It has opened my eyes. It has changed my perspective. It has helped me see a world outside of my own. It has left me, ever changed.
What would you say to those who are interested in getting more involved in the fight against trafficking?
To anyone interested in getting involved in the fight against human trafficking, I would first affirm they are stepping into a dark world that very much needs their voice and advocacy. I believe one of the most important first steps in activism is to be educated, to learn the realities of the world you are confronting.
Human trafficking is such an extreme example of a world that draws us in because we desperately want to fix something horrifically broken, and a world so much more powerful than anything we can “fix.” It calls us to be real–to recognize that we must change our definitions of success. We like to measure success in percentage–we have been conditioned to talk in terms of a “return on our investment,” and to find a number that reflects the reasonableness of the investment.
But this is different: it’s about human beings, and abuse, and trauma, and brokenness. You don’t see numbers in the 90th percentile for those that hang onto freedom. And yet, it is one of the most worthy investments of our time, our finances, and our person that we can make in this lifetime. It is the opportunity to be an advocate for another, to tirelessly work to help rescue them from a painful reality that they may know a kind of freedom in this life.
And it is the privilege to embark on a journey toward healing, because that’s what this is. It’s a picture that requires so many areas of participation–some will work in advocacy to raise awareness on the need, some will live in such a way that they advocate to change the cultural messages perpetuating the exploitation of women, of human beings and the commodification of sexuality; some will work to provide the financial resources that help to fund the rescue and rehabilitation operations, some will be on the ground doing the visible recovery and legal work, others will work in the critically important after-care process for a victim and survivor.
The point is, everyone can be involved. And for every single life it prevents from the trap of slavery and exploitation, or rescues from the traumatic reality of this, it is invaluable and worth every single bit of that charge.
Can you give a little glimpse of what you’ll be sharing at the Abolition Summit?
I consider it an incredible privilege to be participating in this event. This summit is promoting a message I feel is so critical to our time, one that it is very near to my heart.
For my talk, I want to take the opportunity to unpack the messages of what it means to be human: What does Pornography say it means to be human? What does Human Trafficking say it means to be human? What does the utilitarian worldview say it means to be human? And finally, what does the Christian worldview say it means to be human?
The issue–the devastation–of pornography is complex and real. Yet this is no place for judgement or shame. This isn’t “his” problem or “her” problem–this is our problem, collectively.
The global tragedy of sex slavery is impacting virtually every country, in ways insidious and obvious, and these worlds are intricately intertwined. As we explore how these various world views answer the question of what it means to be human, we can gain a clearer vision of the purpose, the richness, and the freedom we were intended to know in this life, as well as a better understanding of the One who created us with an identity far beyond our life experience.
How do you get through times of discouragement in your work?
There are many ebbs and flows in this field. Sexual slavery, sexual exploitation is a dark world, and once you step inside, I believe you carry a heaviness and sadness away with you. The times of discouragement, are quite honestly, plentiful.
For me, it is a process of continually remembering to take it one day, one person at a time. We want to save the world, but the truth is we are stepping into something so much bigger than any one of us. Many stories for those rescued do not end the way we want, the way we hope. For me, it has been helpful to realize that I have the opportunity to be part of a journey.
Sometimes you get to be part of the powerful moment of transformation and freedom you long to see; other times you trust that you are part of a much larger story. You do encounter beautiful, powerful moments of redemption. And you must hang on to those. You must remember, for they help to carry you through, to drive and inspire you through the many moments and seasons of stories that do not provide that visible demonstration of change.
And you realize, it is all worth it. For the one. For the one to come. I have also learned to look for and be intentional in recognizing and appreciating the beauty that is around me–in the small things that aren’t actually so small.
It can be found in the beauty of nature, in an act of kindness, in a demonstration of strength through the everyday yet heroic choice someone makes to be more, in the opportunity to read some of the great and gifted writers from today and from long ago, the gift of friendship, experiencing the first gust of wind or carousel ride through the eyes of my children, remembering that there is beauty in this life. And it is encountered not just in spite of the darkness, but often through it.