VERONA – Most people think sex trafficking happens only in big cities. The Rev. David Ball of Anchor Church in Verona wants people to know that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s happening right now in Tupelo,” he said. “It’s happening in Oxford and Saltillo and Hattiesburg and Jackson. It’s everywhere because the men who operate in this realm and drive this industry are everywhere.”
Sex trafficking, according to the Memphis-based advocacy group Citizens for Community Values, is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transporting, obtaining, or maintaining a person by force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of a commercial sex act or any commercial sex act in which the person performing the act is under 18 years old.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 7 runaways reported in 2017 were likely victims of sex trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 34,700 reports of sex trafficking in the United States from 2007-2017.
Ball, 52, said most people, even those who attend church, would prefer to ignore the reality of sex trafficking and its underlying causes.
“You mention pornography in the church and every head goes down,” he said. “Nobody wants to talk about it; it’s a dirty little secret. But if it weren’t for the porn and drug industries in America, there would be no sex trafficking.”
Ball said his own awareness of the issue grew out of his church’s involvement in drug-and-alcohol recovery ministry.
“We wanted to get outside the walls of the church,” he said. “So we started doing faith-based drug-and-alcohol recovery ministry about nine years ago. We opened Transformation Ranch For Men, and a couple of years later we started a similar program, Transformation Home, for women.”
Ball said many of the women coming to them for addiction treatment had been involved in sex trafficking.
“A lot of times a girl gets trapped by a boyfriend who introduces her to drugs,” he said. “The next thing you know he’s saying, ‘Sleep with this guy and he’ll give us drugs.’ Most girls get pimped out by a boyfriend.”
Ball said many of these sex acts are filmed and marketed as online pornography.
“With iPhones anybody can make these videos, and they get sold as porn,” he said. “These girls are forced to perform with a smile on their face while inside they’re crying out for help.”
Ball said the men who exploit underage girls for sex don’t always fit the profile one might expect.
“They’re local people – bankers and lawyers and whatever,” he said. “ A lot of these men will go off on ‘business trips’ or to the Super Bowl or something like that and hook up, and then they’ll crawl back into their church.”
Ball said stories from the victims of sex trafficking are heartbreaking.
“I was blown away,” he said. “Some of these girls were coming out of the most violent, sad, destructive environments you could imagine. One girl had been raped 27 times, starting when she was 10 years old, and another had been pimped by her mother for a sex act when she was 2.”
Ball said those recovering from such experiences are understandably traumatized.
“These girls are an emotional wreck,” he said. “They are just broken to the point where getting out of bed is too much. And going to bed is even worse, because that’s where all the bad things happened to most of them. A lot of them are scared to death to go to sleep, because if they close their eyes they’re afraid someone will crawl into bed with them.”
Ball said he and the members of Anchor Church, under the auspices of Grace and Mercy Ministries, have purchased a 52-acre plot in Lee County where the future home of “Transformation Garden” – a 20-bed residential recovery facility specifically for victims of sex trafficking – will be located.
“These girls need a safe place and unconditional love,” he said. “They need someone to hold them as they cry without wanting something in return. For obvious reasons, it will be run almost entirely by women.”
While the emotional and often physical pain these young women have endured is nearly unimaginable, Ball said he has seen firsthand the kinds of personal transformations for which the facility will be named.
“The biggest fallacy is those people who say these girls will never be whole again,” he said. “We’ve got girls who, through the power of Jesus and the cross are living free and transformed. Some of them are married with kids and they’re doing great.”
Ball said he and other members of the faith community will host a sex-trafficking-awareness meeting in Tupelo on Sept. 21 at a location to be announced.