The Greece I found that Wednesday afternoon in March 2010 was not the one I remembered from my honeymoon fourteen years earlier. There were no stunning, whitewashed buildings. No lapis-blue tile rooftops. No festive music. No outdoor market with vendors selling freshly pressed olive oil, mouth-watering feta cheese, fresh cantaloupe.
This afternoon, the streets were empty, black, wet. The normally crystal-blue Mediterranean pounded dark and rough against the Thessaloniki shipping port. Strange how fear, not just the season—this long, hard winter—changed everything.
Is this how they see it? I wondered.
"They" were fourteen young women, mostly Eastern European, recently rescued from sex trafficking. But they hadn't begun their journey as women—they'd been mere schoolgirls when lured from homes in the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Romania, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Nigeria. Sixteen-, seventeen-, and eighteen-year-olds. All girls who should have been giggling about music and basketball games, worrying about what to wear to school—not how to survive the next minute.
Securely hidden in a safe house run by The A21 Campaign, the rescue ministry my husband, Nick, and I had launched just six months before, we were to speak face-to-face this dreary afternoon with a part of Greece I'd never known. I kept reminding myself: This is not a movie. This is not "reality TV." This is real. This is real.
Questions hammered at my broken heart: How could this possibly happen in our world today? No matter how much money is involved, how can anyone be so depraved as to make sex slaves of others—let alone make it an international operation, enslaving not just one girl but hundreds of thousands, again and again and again?
Sonia, a Russian girl who had arrived at the shelter the previous day, interrupted my flood of thought.
"Why are you here?" she demanded, her eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Why did you come?"
Oh God, I prayed. Help me help them! I breathed deep and looked at Sonia for a long moment.
"There is only one rescuer I know," I told Sonia and the rest of the women, "with the power to free us from the darkest prison. That rescuer is the God I love, who loves us so much he left everything to come for us, to free us. He is the one who made us, each of us, for a unique purpose and a magnificent destiny. He makes right what the world makes wrong. His plans are for good, not for evil. His ways are straight and merciful. He came to give me a hope and a future—and to give you one too. His promises are true. His love is full of forgiveness and peace, joy and kindness, grace. He is the true rescuer. He saves us from any prison, whether physical or emotional or spiritual, the ones we're forced into and the ones we fall into on our own. He chooses us. He can make all things new. He loves us without condition, unrelentingly, forever. He loves us broken, and he loves making us whole again. And he asks those of us who love him to love others the same way. To choose them. To be agents of his hope, his forgiveness, his grace. He asks us to join him in rescuing others.