Shoshon Tama-Sweet has learned that for every coffee shop and independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, there is a dimly lit backroom where children are sold for sex. "The Bedroom, Good Times, the Five Dollar Pub—that's a huge joint—and the high school's across the street," he says as we cruise 82nd Avenue, Portland's prostitution "track," on the eastside. "You've got the church on the corner, Rite-Aid Pharmacy, and JD's Bar and Grille, the pink-lettered strip club."
Like many Westerners, Tama-Sweet, 36, had long considered trafficking an overseas problem. When doing development work in the coastal town of Mombasa, Kenya, he'd see teenage girls standing on the docks, waiting for tourists. "I'd read about trafficking in places like Cambodia and India," says Tama-Sweet, the son of hippie atheists. "I really didn't imagine it was a problem here. It just doesn't fit the idea of what Portland is."
That idea—of green parks, copious bike lanes, and a bubbling arts scene—recently landed Portland the tagline, "Where young people go to retire." In 2005, Tama-Sweet and his now wife left the grimy City of Angels for the City of Roses. Stephanie had just completed a master's in intercultural studies at Biola. The couple had considered missionary work in the 10-40 Window, but Portland's "sense of optimism and opportunity" drew them, says Tama-Sweet. "It attracts a lot of young people who want to change the world."
His own optimism, however, faltered when the couple moved to Cully, a neighborhood south of the airport littered with strip clubs and porn shops.
"I would see prostitutes walk down my street Sunday morning when my wife and son and I were getting in the car to go to church," he says as we drive through Cully. He points to a "juice bar," a new establishment for an 18+ crowd who can't drink but can watch porn and nude dancing. "So if you're a high-school student, welcome to the Sugar Shack. They're open 24/7.
"When you have this evil—people who enslave another human being's body and turn it into something sexually exploited on a daily basis for financial gain—this is the antithesis of what God wants. This is the antithesis of a beloved community."
Yet it is precisely this community that Tama-Sweet—in a network of Christians living in one of the least-churched states—has loved enough to begin transforming. Under Tama-Sweet's leadership, the Oregon Center for Christian Voices (OCCV) has in four years become Oregon's flagship nonprofit for passing laws that make it harder to sexually exploit children. In the same four years, two Christians in Portland's leading assault advocacy group and police department have created a unique model for assisting underage victims. Their model earned their county a $500,000 federal grant that created a special committee on CSEC ("commercial sexual exploitation of children"). Around the committee table are several committed Christians.
International Justice Mission (IJM) says these believers signal a trend among American Christians, who are wedding their longstanding emphasis on direct ministry to preventative efforts. In courtrooms, police stations, and the meager offices of tiny nonprofits, these Christians labor to end the vicious cycle of child trafficking before it starts.
Portland's trafficking problem goes back, inadvertently, to Oregon's 1857 Constitution, which contains one of the most liberal free speech clauses in the country, says Mike Hogan, IJM's Pacific Northwest director of church mobilization. For decades, legislators have interpreted, "No law shall be passed restraining the free expression of opinion …" to block all attempts to regulate the adult entertainment industry. Free from zoning restrictions, strip clubs and other "creative expressions" are peppered throughout the city, often near schools and parks. Joslyn Baker, a CSEC specialist with Multnomah County, says 65 percent of all Portland schools are within a mile of a strip club.