During International Justice Mission’s earliest days, founder Gary Haugen was parked in front of a Safeway grocery store one evening crying, worried that his fledgling nonprofit would not make payroll for its half-dozen employees. “This is how the dream dies,” he told himself, before phoning some friends for extra gifts that helped IJM through.

Two decades later, the $74 million organization has a lot of friends. Consider: A small group of donors paid to fly nearly 1,000 staff from around the globe to a conference in Dallas last September, where they joined 4,000 supporters to celebrate IJM’s 20th anniversary. Hundreds of international employees were welcomed with $50 Target gift cards and sent on chartered buses to spend them.

Donors “believed in what we were doing, believed that it was right to pause to thank and worship God for all that he’s done in the last 20 years,” said Sean Litton, IJM’s president.

Litton has witnessed nearly all of IJM’s rapid growth to become what it calls the “largest international anti-slavery organization in the world.” Litton’s time at IJM has taken him from the Philippines to Thailand and eventually to overseeing the organization’s day-to-day operations from its Washington, DC, offices. CT managing editor Andy Olsen, who himself formerly worked with IJM, sat down with the youth-pastor-turned-lawyer to talk about the evolution of IJM and the modern abolitionist movement.

You joined IJM in 2000. The organization was just a couple of years old, and combating modern-day slavery was only emerging as a Christian cause célèbre. What’s changed since then?

The world has clearly woken up to the problem. It’s trying to measure its scope and magnitude by keeping a Global Slavery Index. It’s beginning to see how impunity and lawlessness affect all of the other global agendas—from counterterrorism to consumer goods manufacturing to massive development projects.

Obviously, within the Christian church, there are so many wonderful people and wonderful organizations now running after the problem full-bore. We are at a turning point where, at some point, the numbers of people in slavery have to go down, and I think we’re going to start to see that happen.

You don’t think that’s happened yet?

We’ve observed measurable reductions in individual communities, but at a global scale, I don’t think anyone’s started to indicate that it’s going down. In the next five years, I think we’ll see it start to decrease.

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What’s the next decade look like for IJM?

I think the first thing to understand is there is this increasing awareness of how agendas are overlapping. We have consumer goods companies coming to us because they have slavery in their supply chains, but they can’t get rid of it because their manufacturing or the mining or the production of the raw materials are happening in situations where they can’t get the law enforced.

Or take immigration from Central America. In many cases, it’s women and children fleeing communities where there’s no law enforcement and no protection. There are places where governments are trying to do counterterrorism work, but they can’t do it because no one trusts the police because the police are predatory and abusive.

So in the next 10 years of IJM, we’re taking on that situation of “can we transform this broken justice system?” Honestly, when we started, we didn’t know how to do it because we were just direct service people. But it turned out that the service of running cases was this incredible way of diagnosing what was broken in the system. It also was a way to build bridges with the authorities. And as we partnered with authorities, the systems began to work in measurably more effective ways. In the communities around the world where we’ve been able to measure the prevalence of the crimes we were focused on, we’ve found anywhere from 75 percent to 85 percent reduction in the level of violence, and these reductions are happening in three to five years.

Now the question is: How can we take this model that we’ve developed and scale it? We want to get to a place where we’ve brought the protection of the law to over half a billion people by 2030.

Why is IJM so focused on measuring its results?

A lot of people are aware of this problem; they just don’t believe there’s a solution because there has been so much investment and so little results. We’ve got to convince the world that these systems can change and create a measurable impact in society. Then we’ve got to build such a groundswell of public demand for justice that it becomes politically and morally untenable to leave the poor unprotected. That will involve the church, it will involve local community leaders, local centers of power, and everyday people.

We have to build a network of partners that we will train and develop to accompany governments in these transformations. There is no quick fix. It’s a process of walking alongside these governments, helping them to fix the things that are broken, and measuring the impact.

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What are the biggest challenges IJM faces to accomplishing any of this?

Getting the right people to lead it—and I’m not just talking about in the United States. I’m talking all around the world. Another thing is transforming the organization itself, and specifically the infrastructure necessary to support the growth that we’ve experienced.

Those are internal challenges. The external challenge is the people who want to maintain the status quo. These are the slaveowners, predatory police, people who prey on widows and orphans, people who prey on small children. They are fundamentally our biggest challenge. But my experience has been, if we’re more committed than they are, ultimately we’ll win the day.

The common perception is that IJM began as an anti–sex trafficking organization. What types of violence is IJM focusing on now?

When IJM first started, the mandate was “injustice.” But what we learned over time is that if you take on all the different kinds of injustice that are happening, you can’t make any real impact in any single type of case or develop any real expertise. So we focused on where there was the greatest need and the least help. In the Philippines, we ended up focusing on sex trafficking and child sexual assault. In Nairobi, Kenya, we ended up focusing on police abuse of power and child sexual assault. In Guatemala, child sexual assault. And so on. But, interestingly, what IJM became known for initially was [fighting] sex trafficking. That was what viscerally grabbed people’s attention.

Now slavery has grabbed global attention. So our primary emphasis will be on slavery, such as bonded labor slavery in southern India. We really believe that we can end slavery in our lifetime. But we’re committed to and will probably have a growing emphasis on protecting women and children from violence because gender-based violence is, by far, the greatest category of violence that happens
in the world.

The United States and the West have been awakening in recent years to gender violence and to police abuses of power in our own context, but IJM does not currently work in the US. Should it?

We have challenges in the United States with violence against women and violence against children. We also have challenges in the United States with sex trafficking and labor trafficking and police abuse of power. I’m not denying that or minimizing it. But in the US, these things make the news. There’s public outrage. They violate our norms, and there is a mechanism in place to get justice. It’s not perfect, but it’s there, and in many cases, it’s very good. That doesn’t stop violence completely, but there is recourse. In the places where we’re working, these things aren’t even in the news. And there’s zero—zero, zero, zero—place to go for help and protection. We want to go where there’s no one else working at this time. I don’t know if that’s forever, but that’s for now.

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Does IJM’s Christian identity complicate its work with governments, international organizations, and corporations?

We’ve started working with Walmart in Thailand and with Target in India. They hired IJM because we are the subject matter experts. They know we’re Christian; it’s right there. But they’re hiring us for our skills.

In fact, there are a lot of other conversations going on. For example, we’re involved with the World Economic Forum and an alliance of companies called the Global Battery Alliance, a group trying to deal with, among other things, issues of violence and slavery in the communities where cobalt mining takes place.

There are more people coming to us from outside the Christian sphere than we can even respond to. A country we’ve never worked in, in the Middle East, asked us for help. If we can help them, we will. I don’t want to put up obstacles unnecessarily for people, and a lot of times if you start out with a lot of Christian language, they won’t ever even engage. We’re just trying to engage people on the merits, on their agenda, to see how we can help them.

IJM’s offices around the world practice certain rhythms of spiritual discipline—daily corporate prayer, morning periods of stillness, spiritual retreats. How does that interact with the very technical work of law enforcement and public justice systems?

When people join IJM, they’re invited into a community of spiritual formation, focused on Jesus. We affirm the authority of Scripture, we affirm the Apostles’ Creed. It’s as big a tent as possible—we have Catholics and Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, conservatives, not-so-conservatives. We also affirm our eager intention to obey Christ in
all things and our commitment to participate in a course of spiritual disciplines together.

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Seeking justice is really hard. When I talk about ending slavery in our lifetime, to me that’s impossible. But there’s this sense that this is what God wants, and so, for all of us, we’re stepping into something that’s beyond ourselves. We have to depend on Christ.

It starts with the leaders of the organization. If they buy into it, if they live it, if they have it in their bones, it will go through the organization. We invest a ton in our leaders and their own spiritual development so that they can then bring that to their teams.

We’ll build on that with skill and training and the other disciplines that are necessary to run an organization and to work cases, but fundamentally, it starts in our hearts and our relationship with God.

How do you manage the tension that God has called you to do something globally that, as you say, feels impossible?

When I was in Manila, I remember this American PhD student saying to me, “How many children are you going to rescue this year?” And I was like, “I don’t know, maybe 20 to 25.”
Our office budget was around $100,000—that was a long time ago—and he’s looking at me like, This is stupid. He’s talking to me across my dinner table and says, “Isn’t there a much better use of that money?”

And I honestly didn’t know. I understood what he was saying, and I understood it was expensive. But my response to that was, “If that was your daughter, you’d just leave her there?”

So there was a group of Christians that just said, “No, we’re not going to leave those girls in the brothel. We’re not going to leave this man rotting in jail. We’re not going to leave that widow and her children starving because someone stole their land. We’ve got plenty of resources. Let’s help them.”

It was Christians who did that. And then it was Christians who came along beside us and said, “We actually think we can transform these systems, based on what we’ve learned through this casework.”

I remember resigning from my law firm, telling my senior partner that I was going to the Philippines to rescue children from brothels. He just started laughing. He wasn’t trying to be rude; it was just so ridiculous. And I had no argument for him. I was just looking at God and saying, “I know that you love these children. I know that you hate violence. I know that you want it to stop. I know that your plan is to build your kingdom here, your plan is for redemption, is through your people, your church, and so I’m going to go.” I thought I might die, or more likely, I’ll just fail a slow, miserable death and come home, ashamed and embarrassed. But God just showed up over and over again.

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Now we have about 100 staff in the Philippines and the country has been transformed. When the government is working on anything having to do with violence against children, they turn to IJM. And today we have more than 5,000 churches involved in 51 countries raising awareness of the need to end everyday violence.

I believe that IJM is a creation of the church and that it’s developed something that is going to change the world. I think this is the invitation that God gives to every one of us. This is what God does when his people step out in faith. To me, the real story of IJM is “God is real and the Bible is true.”

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