As I prepared to leave the Philippines and my 15 months’ service with International Justice Mission fighting against cybersex trafficking of children, I started to regularly have this question asked to me. The first couple of times I heard it, I just kinda made this creepy Tina Belcher moaning noise until the person asking would take pity on me and let me weirdly moonwalk away.
The question on everyone’s mind?
What was the big takeaway?
At first, I would develop some kind of specific amnesia like my 15 months of service was a particularly realistic fever dream. Then I would get angry at this impossible task of summing up the highest highs, the lowest lows, the banality, the miracles, the relationships, the traffic! into one concise Instagram caption about what this season of life meant to me. Then I would accept defeat, responding with something like “it good” with overwhelmed crazy eyes.
I began to become thankful for the question because I finally had to sit down and come up with something true and authentic so I didn’t keep freaking people out when they asked. [And boy did they ask, although it’s funny…I’ve been home for five days now and no one’s really asked me anything like that. Instead they say, “how was it?” to which I’m now replying with “it good” and crazy eyes.]
So if you asked me that question and I was weird about it, here’s what I would now like to say about the biggest takeaway from my time in the Philippines.
I could have chosen any one lesson I learned from observing the way my colleagues worked in the field of justice and that would have been sufficiently inspirational. They all, in unique ways, lived out the Gospel in their work and every day I discovered a new and rich facet of God’s heart from watching them.
From the Aftercare department who works to provide the best models of care for the extremely young survivors of online sexual exploitation, I learned of God’s pain and joy. It is impossibly painful to remove a child from their family when the very people who should be protecting them are the ones exploiting them; you keep thinking over and over again “this is not the way it should be”. That pain amplified by every single life on earth must be what God feels separated from us. But there must be only that much more joy when we are set right and discover a personal relationship with Him and join into His family; much like the joy we all feel when survivors of cybersex trafficking are restored to their inherent worth in healthy and loving environments.
From the Legal department, I saw lawyers work cases that took years and years, bogged down by bureaucracy, human error, slow court dates, scared witnesses, apathetic judges, and every other single roadblock imaginable. Sometimes they would lose after all of that effort but because of their heart for their clients who needed justice and the peace from knowing that their perpetrator would be held responsible for their crimes, they would appeal time and time again. That tenacity is how our God fights for us and how He works for our good despite our inability to see all the pieces.
And from the Investigations department, I saw Internet Crimes Against Children investigators brave through the seediest parts of the internet, trapping facilitators of explicit material of children by posing as pedophiles. They literally took the sins of others and wore it as a mask to rescue those most vulnerable who will never know of their sacrificial actions this side of heaven; this is what Jesus did for every single one of us. He took on our most horrific sins and saved us all.
Watching this spectacular show of the Gospel translated into modern anti-slavery work, I began to see an underlying current, a tension, woven throughout it.
I’m not talking about fun, flirty romantic tension, like I had with the NAIA immigration officer who constantly threatened to deport me.
I’m talking about the tension that comes when we enter into Kingdom-work and put our faith into action: the best way I’ve heard it described is the “now and not yet”.
Living in the “now” means that as a follower of Jesus, I believe that I get to act in audacious faith because God has already won the battle. I get to live in freedom and declare His victory over sin and death because He has already declared it over all His children. I can look in the face of evil (and I genuinely believe that cybersex trafficking of children is the most grotesquely horrific evil in our modern world) and know it has no power. God can and will end it, as Jesus affirmed when He said “it is finished”.
But we also live in the “not yet”; I recognize that this world is so incredibly broken. Without sin, we wouldn’t have to do this work; we wouldn’t have children exploited and abused. We wouldn’t have impunity. We wouldn’t have people driven to commit this darkness.
There is a constant question that anyone who learns of evil may ask, that I myself asked countless times during my time with IJM, which is why does a good God allow this?
I learned to hold two truths in two hands, in perfect balance. That is God has conquered over sin and we live in a sinful world. That He has a perfect shalom, a righteous justice, that we will rejoice in one day but for now, He has prepared this work of justice and service for us to bring it into an imperfect world every day. That it is His victory and His call for us.
This tension is the reality of the work of justice and it is my greatest takeaway.
I know that I will continue working in the sphere of justice, which I understand now, cannot be separated from the ultimate essence of justice which is God’s shalom. Whether with a non-profit, a law office, a survivor center, or the State’s office, wherever I’ll end up in my career, I will hold this tension because I believe I am called into a larger tapestry of Kingdom-work.
If you had asked me in June 2017 what I thought my takeaway would be from this time, I would have secretly hoped it would be a job in anti-trafficking, an amazing work ethic, or better cross-cultural communication. The longer I worked there and saw just how brutal the crime was, I would’ve said better coping skills or a magic button that would end cybersex trafficking immediately when pushed. As I learned to love my life in Manila, I would’ve said the ability to eat all the rice I wanted and stay my vaguely curvy size, or a gorgeous Filipino boyfriend who would love me unconditionally but also accept that I would never, ever, ever prefer Jollibee over Chik-fil-a.
I would have never expected God to work on my heart so much and completely wreck my complacency of leaning on my own understanding. And I’m just so humbled and grateful He has, because I’m somehow still learning every day that I’m so dumb.
I hoped this shed a little light on my time in the Philippines and what God is doing with IJM’s fight to end cybersex trafficking. Check in in a bit to catch upcoming posts about readjusting from the metropolis of Manila to the cornfields of Indiana, learning to love this season of life as a weird spinster living at home (with eight other people), and other stories from the Phils.
As always, love you all!