By Vicki Brown
Savannah Oswald elbowed her way through the crowds on Black Friday 2014, searching for the cutest clothes she could find for her limited bucks. The then-high school senior cast a practiced eye over the racks and nabbed items nearly any teenage girl would love.
She hit the stores that day to shop for Christmas gifts for family and friends. Instead, God led her to think of the young women who would soon pass through the first safe house in Iowa set up to serve only survivors of human trafficking. The facility’s name, staff and location are not being identified for security reasons.
Oswald and other members of Ashworth Road Baptist Church in Des Moines have caught Amy Becker’s passion for young people caught up in trafficking. As part-time pastor of missions and outreach, Becker shares what she has learned since working two summers in Ethiopia with girls who had been trafficked.
She also encounters young adults daily as full-time Intervarsity Christian Fellowship campus minister at Drake University. Her ministry includes outreach to two area community colleges.
A number of people at Ashworth Road also were concerned about the issue and started an outreach to local strip clubs to open opportunities to talk to girls. When they realized Becker’s passion, they asked her to “help us get involved” in ways to directly help victims.
At about the same time, Becker learned about a woman who wanted to open a home for trafficking victims. Last spring, the woman had purchased a home to fix up and then to flip in the real estate market, Becker explained.
‘A whole new desire’
Her work at a homeless shelter for youth led the woman to believe the city needed a safe house. Becker explained that the trafficking rate has grown along I-80 and I-35, both of which pass through Des Moines.
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center notes that 19,991 cases have been reported nationwide by phone, email and website tip lines since December 2007.
Instead of flipping the home, the woman rallied businesses, churches and individuals to supply manpower and funds to convert it. She now serves as director.
Ashworth Road members signed up to help. Each July, the church hosts “Summer of Love,” a weeklong ministry to assist the community with cleanup, repairs and other projects. Last summer, the church’s teams, which included skilled construction workers, swarmed the house. The congregation has continued to send workers to help.
Though the house is ready, the director is looking for additional financial partners to secure the final funding needed to open. Ashworth Road members “are getting behind her,” Becker said. She is writing a grant to seek possible funds through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Supporters hope the home will open sometime this summer, she added.
Involvement with the ministry “has been cool because it’s been interesting to see people in church respond..,” the missions pastor explained. “I think people have had a whole new desire to get involved in this issue. … I think people are still shocked by it.”
‘A huge issue’
Passionate about social justice issues, Becker sometimes doesn’t understand why people of faith are often slow to get involved in solving them. “Christians are not always the ones who step up…. It seems you’ve got to work hard to get people to step up,” she said.
But the Des Moines faith community has surprised her. “It seems that the churches here are the ones who have stepped up to support” the project, she added.
Even before it opens its door to its first trafficking survivor, the safe house has touched lives — beginning with the woman who wanted to flip a house. Amy explained that when anyone asks the director why she started the home, she responds: “It is a practical need.”
Recently, she shared with students that the work has been a spiritual journey for her. “We pray with her a lot,” she said.
And the home has ignited passion in Oswald and other teens. As plans for the safe house were beginning to develop, Oswald and a few friends attended a community forum in nearby Ankeny and heard a victim share her story on video.
“When we got up to leave, we realized that the girl sitting in the row in front of us was the victim from the video. That really took us back and made us realize that this is a huge issue in Des Moines,” Oswald said by email.
An Ankeny High School student shared with the Des Moines teens that she and some friends had created material to spread awareness and prevention and had started a Teens Against Human Trafficking.
“After hearing that girls are bought for less money than the watch on my wrist, I knew I couldn’t not do anything,” Oswald said. “We kept in touch with this girl throughout the summer and then, during my senior year [at Waukee High in Des Moines], we created Teens Against Human Trafficking-Waukee.”
Then on Black Friday, Oswald spent most of her check from a part-time job to help get the safe house ready.
“God had really placed the safe house heavily in my heart and it was nearly impossible to resist the urge of buying things for them …,” she said. “At first my mom was not pleased that all my money was gone, but then she realized God provides and I have more than enough stuff.”
Though she will attend Iowa State University this fall, she plans to continue volunteering at the safe house.
“These girls/boys are bought for less than a pair of shoes and I just feel like it is my part as a child of God to help others,” she said. “I believe sacrifices and real change happens when it is inconvenient for us.
“So yes, seeing the total ring up to $320 was a little hard, but knowing I did a little something to help — it brings me more joy than any new shirt for myself would.”