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GAINING ACCESS: Calli Doris and a chaperone pull up to a brothel in Austin.
Tiffany Owens
GAINING ACCESS: Calli Doris and a chaperone pull up to a brothel in Austin.

Serving the sparrows

Trafficking | Forget armed rescues. Christian volunteers fight sex trafficking by building relationships

Issue: "Rejecting religious liberty," June 15, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas—The foyer of this brothel in Austin, Texas, smells of cigarette smoke and sweet incense. On the carpet sits a Buddha and an altar decorated with money, two cups of old coffee, and a dozen mangoes.

Calli Doris, an outreach volunteer with Redeemed Ministries, rings the doorbell and waits silently, holding little blue and yellow gift bags in her hands. Just when it seems time to leave, a sliding window cranks open and out peers a middle-aged Asian lady with harshly penciled red lips and jet black hair. She begins to shake her head and mumble in broken English about the owner, glancing nervously toward the back.

Doris smiles and shakes her head, offering the bags. “We just want to bless you,” she says. The woman’s initial confusion shows through wide eyes, but when she finally takes the bags and peers inside, her face splits into a smile. The bags are full of coconut-scented body lotion, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. Doris hands her three more for the other woman working here, refusing offers of money as she leaves.

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Back in the car, Doris, 27, prays quickly as she speeds down the highway toward more brothels. She’s a spirited blonde with a silver nose ring and colorful friendship bracelets stacked on her wrist. She first learned about sex trafficking from an episode of Law and Order SVU six years ago: “I was shocked that this was happening.”

Human trafficking is a shock to many. Many see it as an international problem, but the Christian nonprofit Redeemed Ministries estimates that traffickers currently entrap several hundred thousand Americans. Many are runaways, fleeing abusive homes. Pimps earn their trust through money and lavish gifts. But the sweet talk soon stops and these women find themselves trapped in a dangerous and sexually exploitative situation in their home country. 

Doris works for Redeemed, which has been fighting trafficking in Texas since 2005 by focusing on outreach, aftercare, and advocacy. She works alongside local business owner Nicole Marett, 25, and focuses on outreach: Their goal is to find brothels and gain access to the women—“sparrows,” they call them—working inside.

So far they’ve found 16 Austin brothels. Many of them are shockingly obvious, located in parking lots close to the highway, convenient for men going to or leaving work. Some buildings are small and sterile, with blacked-out and barred windows, and signs offering suggestively vague names like “Rose,” with the word OPEN lit up in neon lights. Other brothels front as massage parlors, lingerie stores, or gentlemen’s clubs. Some women work out of homes or hotels, and many pimps advertise online.   

Redeemed’s outreach model relies heavily on volunteers from local churches. But Marett said finding volunteers is difficult. Youth groups want to get involved, but parents are hesitant. The volunteers who do come are assigned to a brothel, which they visit in teams of three—two women and one man. The man drives and prays while the women go inside, bringing the sparrows gift bags and prayer. “Our goal is not to rescue,” Marett explained over coffee at a local café, “but to show the love of Christ and pray.”

When Doris stops at a second brothel, a young Hispanic woman answers the door. She eyes Doris warily but lets her inside, facing her timidly with arms folded over her body. Doris, unfazed by the woman’s lingerie or the pictures of pinup girls on the wall, introduces herself and offers the gifts. The woman accepts them, smiling shyly. When Doris ask if she would like prayer, she nods.

Later, Doris explains that rescue, if defined as Hollywood’s door-punching and gun-slinging reclaiming of trafficked women in movies like Taken, is ineffective. Given the psychological nature of their captivity, the women would likely return to their pimps and the volunteers’ credibility would wither. Real rescue is only possible once a sparrow realizes she’s a victim and decides to leave voluntarily.

Until then, she and Marett focus on forging trustful relationships with the prostitutes, essentially becoming women to whom they can turn if they decide they want to get out. They also build relationships with law enforcement, local churches, and legal experts so they can fully help a woman if she chooses to flee.

The life of Vee—not her real name, for her own protection—began to unravel when she got a boyfriend in high school and bought birth control, “just in case.” One day while she was out, her parents found it hidden in her dresser. Angered, they threw her belongings out to the street. Vee fled to live with her boyfriend and took up exotic dancing, earning up to $3,000 on weekends. During one night of work, she met a man who offered her more money if she would help him start a new business in Las Vegas.

—with reporting by Cheryl Keen, Rob Holmes, Karen Johnson, and Michael Reneau

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