This week the Justice Response/VAST team continues our January ‘Vineyard Spotlight’ series in which we will hear from pastors, churchplanters, ministry leaders and activists who are working in the area of Justice Ministry in order to help empower others to engage. Today is the first of two articles from Jenna Stepp. She lives in Lewiston Maine with her husband, Shawn, and 3 kids. They lead the Pathway Vineyard Heroic Leadership Institute, a training school for young leaders. Jenna is also the Ministry Assitant to the Vineyard Eastern Regional Overseer Phil Strout. Shawn and Jenna have been involved in Kingdom focused ministry to young people since 2001 and love finding ways to engage in social justice.
“What is in your hand?”
I think the first time you hear the horrifying reality of a child being repeatedly raped for profit your blood boils. You want to run as fast you can into wherever it is happening and tear those precious children out of it. Or you just fall into a puddle of tears and feel the grief of heaven overtake your heart and you know that your view of the world has just taken a permanent shift. I think my reaction was a little of both. As I read the article about these girls in Nepal that were being tricked to think there were “good jobs in the city” waiting for them, only to find themselves servicing multiple customers a night without hope for escape, I just wept. I’d traveled to Nepal during college and fallen in-love with the precious little ones we met. The thought of them being caught in such an evil web of perversion was inconceivable, yet somehow I knew that what I was reading was true. I was 23 years old, I’d been raised in the church, I had a degree in International Business from a Christian college and this was the first time I’d ever heard of human trafficking! That made me mad!
At that time my husband and I had taken the youth pastor position at a Vineyard Church in Massachusetts and we were expecting our first child. I knew it was unlikely I would be able to get to the “front lines” of the brothels and safe homes soon. However, I told my husband we’d be involved in the abolition of this slavery for the rest of our lives, though I was unsure of what that might look like specifically. A journey of hope began.
Not even a week after being exposed to this article, LOVE146’s co-founder Lamont Hiebert’s band Ten Shekel Shirt came to our church to do a concert. That was the first time I met people of faith that were engaged in combating human trafficking. I could not wait to give them my business card and ask if there was any way I could help them. I was not expecting to hear anything and was sure they got offers like that all the time, so I was shocked when they called me and asked me to come chat. This was in 2003 and they were still in their beginning stages as an organization, but it became clear that there were little ways, mostly through office assistance that I might be able to serve them. So, I began to travel to New Haven once a month or so, just to help and learn more. Rob Morris, president of LOVE146 guided me towards some key books that helped me wrap my brain around the issues and think through them without just being reactionary. The book that really stood out to me during that initial exposure was Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugan, founder of International Justice Mission.
It was during this season that I came to understand that the fight to end human trafficking is complex and long. Each one of us has to do our part. My husband and I wrestled with what our piece of this puzzle might be. One of the clear answers for us was not to wait but to simply use what is in our hands. We didn’t have a lot of expertise or money to give, but we did have a youth group, friends and a church network…so we decided to give our voice. We started with that youth group. We found some great curriculum through IJM that guided us, we researched with the youth and began to help them teach their friends. And the awareness and action grew.
Then we were put in charge of the youth task force for the East Coast, which means planning events, trainings and such. So, we started adding “Jesus and Justice” workshops to the winter retreats. Each year the attendance at these workshops grew. We began hearing back from those youth about the ways they were applying what they had learned at the retreat in their high schools. Awareness and action grew. Then an entire winter retreat revolved around the issue of God’s heart towards justice and how we, as believers, can respond. Our goal was that there would be no youth that would graduate, having been part of the Vineyard movement on the East, and not know what human trafficking was, how Jesus felt about it and what we as Christians can do about it!
My husband and I then decided it was time to go and see it for ourselves. We were beyond excited as we took our little family, joined up with some likeminded justice-seekers and traveled to the Philippines. I think the craziest part of that journey was having my 2 ½ year and 4 month old girls in tow. I would walk into a brothel with my little blue eyed baby strapped to me, the women would flock our way. During this trip we also connected with an NGO that is on the prevention side of child trafficking, called Arms of Love. One little girl had seen her old sisters caught in prostitution as she and her siblings begged for food on the streets, making her a definite target for traffickers. Our family became one of her sponsors. Now, through Arms of Love, this little lady is in a wonderful school, has a community that teaches her about God’s love, is a light to all around her and she will never face the horror of child sexual exploitation. Prevention is so cool.
[Jenna’s second article will be posted on Thursday…be sure to come back and check it out!]