Saturday, December 10, 2011

Give This Christmas Away



Okay people! I thought about writing a very heart wrenching story to get this point across, but decided to just get to the point instead. There are some pretty amazing young women I happen to know in Manila, Philippines at a safe home called Safe Refuge who need your help right now, (if you're one of the few people who follow this blog, you know what I'm talking about). These are women who have been rescued from all kinds of lives, such as prostitution, poverty, extreme abuse, disease, etc. And now they are SAFE. But rescue is just the first step. They are all continually walking out journeys of healing and redemption. And that requires resources and finances.

With Christmas coming up, there are MANY expenses that Safe Refuge has. My dear friends Naomi and Marybeth Hamilton who run Safe Refuge amaze me with how they trust God to provide for them literally day to day. God provides, and he often uses his SAINTS (yeah that's you and me in case you're wondering) to rise up and be His hands and feet. Like I said in my previous blog post... as you're tearing open that ipad and xbox Christmas morning, there are children of God simply grateful that they have a Christmas feast and a place to live and a "family" who has adopted them in (example... women and children at Safe Refuge).



SO, I'm not trying to lay the guilt on you, I'm simply saying there's a need, and we need to respond. ASAP. I don't care if you can give $5 or $500 or $5000 (I'd go for the $5000 if you can), the point is, GIVE something. I personally know this ministry and have spent two Christmases there. Christmas morning at Safe is definitely a special time and the girls are grateful for what God has done in their lives.



Giving is easy. Simply click here... and donate through Paypal. It is tax-deductable.

And finally, click here to watch this Christmas slide show that will give you a better picture of the precious women and children you are supporting... enjoy! (and grab a tissue).

Oh and pass this along to your friends!

Merry Christmas!

Michelle


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Spend Less on Gifts. Give More Presence.

Do you remember when you were a kid... the few days after Christmas, and seeing all your friends back at school or church? The question of the week was, "So what did YOU get for Christmas?" I always hated that question. It seemed like it was a competition of who got the best stuff. My family was not poor, but we certainly never had the financial means for the kinds of gifts that many of my friends would get. And honestly, my sisters and I were always very thankful and happy with what we did receive. Even on into my teen years and adulthood... I still hate that question. Today I hear young people sometimes bragging about the ipod, cell phone, laptop, and xbox they got.

Now I'm not trying to be Scrooge or anything. I love getting presents. I love giving presents. I love watching those I love open their presents. I'm all for giving and receiving presents. What I hate is the attitude we can sometimes possess of ungratefulness or discontentment, even in myself. It creeps up and we often barely notice it. The truth is, if your receive even ONE significant gift this Christmas, you are farther along than most of the world.

The fact is, while you are ripping open all your gifts on Christmas morning here in the US, it is night time on the other side of the world, and a little girl is locked in a dark room, being forced to have sex with a man twice her age. The fact is, while you're eating honey baked ham and sweet potato casserole, a family is being forced to make bricks 15 hours a day with no pay and little food.

So what can you possibly do to help a little girl or a family on the other side of the world living in slavery that you've never even met? You can't possibly be the Liam Neeson hero, storm in and rescue this little girl, bringing her to safety. Well no, maybe you can't do that... but you CAN be a hero.

This Christmas, cut back on just ONE gift. We all receive tons of gifts and can spare just ONE gift. Instead of asking for that camera or iphone... you can ask for a rescue operation! You can ask for a victim to have proper legal representation in court. You can ask for an aftercare package with basic necessities for a victim after they've been rescued. You can ask for vocational training and counseling for a victim as they begin their new life of freedom. But how you ask?

International Justice Mission has put out an amazing "Gifts of Freedom" catalog this year with dozens of opportunities of how you can help a victim of slavery. From investigations to legal representation to aftercare... there is option after option of how you can help. Ask for one of these "gifts", or purchase one of these "gifts" in honor of your family member or friend. You'll receive a beautiful card to give to them as well.

You see, simply 1% of this year's Christmas spending in the US, is equivalent to 1 MILLION RESCUE OPERATIONS. That means millions of people set free.

Maybe you can't spare a lot this year. I know... my budget is pretty tight this year too. BUT, I certainly can sacrifice $25 or $50 so that someone else can simply LIVE IN FREEDOM. And instead, spend time with those you love. Handmake something. Write a beautifully encouraging note. Let's make our lives more rich with love instead of material items. In the end, it's much more satisfying than that weird gadget you probably didn't need.

If you're not completely convinced yet... watch this amazing clip of how we can give freedom together this year. And check out this page to find out how you can be apart of this Advent Conspiracy.


Advent Conspiracy from International Justice Mission on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It's the Small Things


The jet lag has finally worn off. I milked it for as long as I could as an excuse any time my brain didn’t function properly this week, ha! We’ve been home for 12 days… a day for all 12 hours of the time difference, as they say. But life is back to normal I suppose. Back to work, back to home church, back to family and friends, back to life as I know it for right now. I wanted to post some final thoughts on the trip. I could write pages of course, but here are a few things that are dear to me.

This trip was quite a whirlwind of events and God definitely taught us so much… including every fruit of the spirit, particularly patience. There were many amazing times, and also many difficult times. But those difficult times only help shape us into the men and women of God we are destined to be.

What was my favorite part of the trip? I don’t have one. I have several.

Our time with the girls was sweet, and of course never long enough. Just the ministry of presence means so much to them and to us. If there’s one thing that always stands out to me the most, however, during all my times in Manila, it is to never underestimate the power in the small things.  Our team accomplished a lot during our time there. We came with a huge goal to reach and very little time to accomplish it. Olivia, Jeycob and Tony did a phenomenal job filming… every single day… morning until night. And the Safe Refuge girls and staff were incredible with their willingness to accommodate the film crew in order for the story to be told. It was extremely stressful and tiring at times, but everyone pushed through by the grace of God.

But what are those small things and moments that mean so much?

When you walk down the little ally leading to Safe Refuge, open the front door, and all the kids come running to you, yelling your name and jumping straight into your arms.

When one of the girls opens up a small piece of her heart to you… decides to be vulnerable for a moment, and shares part of her story with you.



When you’re standing in church, worshipping God, and look around at those worshipping alongside you, knowing their traumatizing pasts and what God has redeemed them from.

When you hear one of the little girl's voices singing “He loves us, oh how he loves us, oh how he loves us, oh how he loves...”

When one of the girls looks at you with the sweetest eyes and says “I love you Ate (sister) Michelle.”

When you hold a tiny baby in your arms and get to sing God’s love songs over them and whisper prayers in their ears.



When you see all the girls at Safe, gathered around in a circle with their Bibles, sharing and learning and seeking God together.

When you see the girls who have been rescued, redeemed and healed now speaking into other girls’ lives who still need healing and restoration.

When you see one of the girls who scarcely had a childhood, was sold for a sack of rice and once called “dog” on the streets, now caring for and loving her precious little girl.



When one of the girls excitedly tells you her passions and the goals she’s working towards in her life. To become a lawyer and defend those who are in similar situations as she was.
  
Watching the girls dance on the worship team on Sunday mornings. Some of whom have come from pasts of sexual exploitation and dance bars.

Watching the staff of Safe Refuge discipling and loving on the residents whom they pour their lives into.

When one of the little boy gives you a butterfly kiss on your cheek and then giggles.




These are just some of the precious moments I live for when I’m in Manila. Though I didn't use their specific names in describing them to you, to protect their identity, each of these moments with them are etched on my mind forever. And I ONLY get to experience them because of the work and sacrifice that Naomi, Marybeth and the staff have given of themselves. These moments happen because they both, along with the staff, have obeyed God’s calling on their lives and live by the grace of God every day. Salvation, trust and healing don’t happen overnight. It’s there because of the unconditional love and dedication of my sisters in Christ. I am so humbled every time God allows me to share in the beautiful outcome of their simple obedience. Naomi, Marybeth, the staff and the residents at Safe Refuge continue to change my life by demonstrating the power of God’s redemption, healing and love.  

So, until we meet again... beautiful people of Safe Refuge... hopefully in this life, and if not, then when we are sitting at the feet of Jesus together, basking in the love of our daddy. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Light Shines. Darkness Flees.





It was late in the afternoon and we all loaded into the van and headed out to our desired location. After several minutes, we crossed a small bridge, entering into a new part of the city, and turned onto the main street. The atmosphere instantly changed as we saw bars lining the road and signs that lit up the names to their dark entrances.

We didn’t have to search long to find what we were looking for. It revealed itself right before our eyes, unashamedly walking the streets or sitting in caf├ęs drinking coffee or beers: white men with Filipino women draped on their arms or sitting at their sides, at their disposal. It wasn’t even dusk yet, when this particular street really comes to life, like a playground with little children just being let out for recess.

Our group checked-in to a nice hotel to set up a base and prepared for a night of watching and filming what takes place in this red light hub, every single night. We split into three groups and started walking the streets. As the darkness approached, the artificial neon lights continued to light up the street and the techno music pumped through the air. The darkness brought out more and more men. Tall men, fat men, scrawny men, old men, young men, business men, American men, British men, Australian men, Irish men, Middle Eastern men, Indian men, Filipino men… they were all there. It felt like Disney World for grown ups.  What ride could they go on next?

We went to eat some dinner and then a few of us walked back to the hotel to sit in the lobby and watch. The hotel is known to be a spot where men bring girls for a little rendezvous, paying her to give them any sexual favor they wanted. Sure enough, we didn’t have to sit long before the men started trickling in and out. The hotel conveniently placed an ATM machine right by the entrance. Men came out of the elevator, took out cash, and then headed out to the street… like a kid in a candy shop, coming back a couple hours later with a young girl at his side.

Our team stayed up most of the night, walking the streets or hanging out in the lobby. Our purpose was to be able to show in the documentary what prostitution and slavery looks like in Manila; to show the reality of the lives of some of the girls now at Safe Refuge, before they were rescued and set free. Though our small team got footage of so many different images and situations, there was one significant moment that took place that night that is vividly etched in my mind forever.

I had a very small, high-quality video camera with me as we sat in the lobby, so it wouldn’t be noticeable that we were taking footage. As the men walked into the hotel with a girl, we nonchalantly followed them into the elevator with the camera. We did this a few times, getting good shots, though feeling helpless to do anything, knowing the exploitation that was about to take place.

After a few times of this, we followed one particular husky white man with a little Filipino girl into the elevator. She was no more than 5 feet tall and looked quite young. As we stood in the elevator with them, shame instantly came over her. I don’t even remember seeing her face, as she tightly grabbed the man’s shirt, hiding behind him. She barely came up to his waist. She softly let out whimpers of “oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” along with quiet cries. The man just stood there, staring straight ahead.

I'm not sure why this one struck me more than the others. The irony of the situation was almost unbearable… to see this young girl, practically begging this man to protect her, who is instead about to exploit her. The very person God created to be a protector and provider, was twisted into an abuser and stripper of innocence. When we arrived at their floor, they quickly walked out the elevator doors and we proceeded back down to the lobby.

I’m not even sure how to wrap my mind around such evil… to be so close to it and yet not know what to do about it. I wanted to scoop her in my arms and protect her, because all the men in her life obviously weren’t. I walked out of that elevator with my heart pounding in my chest, barely able to see straight and tears bulging behind my eyes ready to explode.

Only the spirit of God can battle such evil. We definitely knew and literally saw that the longer we stayed in that place, on that street, in that hotel… the forces of evil were stirred up. Because where there is light, darkness cannot bear it and has to tremble and flee.

Naomi cannot save every girl that is enslaved in poverty or prostitution. Olivia cannot capture the stories of every single daughter of Manila. But we can save and capture the stories of the few that we are called to. We’re not asked to meet every need, but we are simply asked to respond to the Call.  


Friday, October 14, 2011

Great is Thy Faithfulness


We arrived in Manila late last Friday night! We’ve been here a week already and time has flown by. I always cherish the times I am able to spend here with Naomi and Marybeth and the girls at Safe Refuge, though they may be short.

So many precious moments have already taken place that it is hard to write about them all. I wish I could bottle up each moment and remember it forever. Though it’s been busy, when you sit and actually ponder and think about the work that is taking place here, it’s quite overwhelming. Every time I visit, I get to see more lives being transformed and set free due to the obedience of Naomi and Marybeth walking in God’s calling.

Sunday was a special moment for me. It was the 17th anniversary of the church here that Safe Refuge attends, Harvest for Christ. Pastor Ed and much of the congregation are involved in the lives of the Safe Refuge residents. Anniversaries here in the Philippines are a huge deal. They prepared a special service with worship, songs, dances, dramas and a message to celebrate what God has done.

As we entered the church, we were lovingly greeted by faces that were quite familiar to me and exchanged hugs and smiles. Everyone eventually found their seat and the worship team and small choir gathered at the front of the small church to start. The keyboardist gently started to play the melody of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” as Marybeth played the violin and the choir ever so softly began to sing. It was one of the most beautiful choruses I have ever heard. The spirit of God instantly fell in the room as the words resounded in our ears.

“Great is thy faithfulness, oh God our Father. There is no shadow of turning in thee. Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not, as thou has been thou forever will be.”

I looked a couple rows in front of me to the front and saw Naomi holding Jassal, a little girl with a heart condition from Welfareville, a slum here, that she has helped take care of the past few years. This little girl would not be alive if it weren’t for the grace of God and Naomi taking the time to reach out and help her.

I looked right next to me and saw one of the Safe Refuge staff members, who was a former resident, holding her little girl in one arm with the other arm raised up towards God. Her eyes were closed as tears streamed down her face and she sang the words to the song. Her story is one of rescue and redemption.

Seeing these two precious moments brought me to tears. Looking around the room and seeing the utter faithfulness of God in the lives of these people caused love and compassion to well up in my heart. What a privilege it is to be here even for a few weeks at a time, and be allowed to share a small part of the lives here.

“Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness, morning by morning new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided, great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me.”

~

Last night we spent most of the night in one of the main red light district areas of Manila to get some footage. Though I’ve experienced and seen things like this before, last night was definitely an intense experience. It’s too much to write about now but maybe in a later post.

Tomorrow we leave to go just outside the city to a province and lead a dance workshop for some of the girls in the surrounding churches. The rest of the team will be filming and getting some footage in the province area.

Pray for us as we have three more weeks left here!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Be a Whistleblower




The rusting police vehicle drove up to the dingy bar that lit up the night in an otherwise pitch-black wilderness of war torn Bosnia. Kathryn, a US police officer on a UN peacekeeping mission, got out of the vehicle with a few other trusted local Bosnian police officers, including her friend, Viko. The handful of officers lost no time in rushing into the bar, bringing out the owner and arresting him.

Kathryn made her way into the cave of filth, reeking of alcohol and smoke. She stared into the faces of several frightened young women, plastered in makeup and wearing clothes that barely covered their bodies.

“Hey, these girls, work here! They all have… documents, passports… and you, can **** off!” said another bar manager. Viko immediately started searching for the girls’ documents.

“Fakes!” said Viko, after finding their passports. The police then arrested the other bar owner.

Kathryn frantically looked at the girls. “Okay girls come on, you’re safe, just come. Let’s go, don’t be afraid, we can all go now! Raya, it’s going to be okay, come on Raya.” She looked into the eyes of one girl in particular, Raya, who was already rescued once, but due to violence and corruption, was retrafficked and brutally punished by her captors. Kathryn once promised to protect her.

Raya took a step forward, looking back at Kathryn with a slight smile that lasted for a moment then vanished from her face. She stopped abruptly. “Raya come on, let’s go, what’s the matter?” cried Kathryn.

Kathryn turned around, only to see half a dozen American police officers entering the bar, piercing the young women with their disgusting, threatening stares.

“What the **** are you doing here?!” she snapped at them.

“We got a call about this raid,” the man said matter-of-factly.

“Oh yeah? From who?” Kathryn quickly realized there’s been a tip-off.

The women in the bar looked into the eyes of the men that were supposed to protect them, but were instead some of their regular customers. With the threatening stares of these American police officers, Raya knew going with Kathryn meant torture and possible death. She already experienced it once when she was retrafficked.

“Get out! Get out, get out, get out!” Kathryn screamed at the American men.

A fierce struggle ensued as Kathryn plead with the women to go with her, while she cursed and attacked the corrupt force behind her.

“Don’t look at these guys, don’t be afraid of these guys! Just say you want to go and I can walk you out of here! Raya look at me. You are safe… please, just say yes!” she desperately cried.

Raya finally looked at her with pleading eyes, then looked at the men standing behind Kathryn. “No,” she said and ran out of the room crying.

It was more than Kathryn could bear, as she started to attack the despicable men behind her. “What is wrong with you?! We’re supposed to protect these people!”

Viko finally grabbed her, “Look at me! Kathy! We cannot force them. Nothing will hold up in court. Please understand… they will be brought down here and punished. You want blood on your hands?”

Kathryn walked out of the bar in utter defeat, knowing full well these women had no choice. Stay in the bar and endure the abuse and rape, or try to leave and face the severe consequences of torture or death by the men in power. Kathryn was a woman with good intentions, but the enslaved women knew the corrupt force of men behind her would crush them.  

~

This scene is from a recently released movie based on a true story, entitled “The Whistleblower.” (Watch trailer here: www.thewhistleblower-movie.com). Since watching the film, this scene is engrained into my mind, replaying over and over. It depicts the reality of so many situations around the world: enslaved people, a rule of law with good intentions, yet a corrupt people who will not enforce it and instead prey on the weak.

I cannot get the face of that American police officer out of my mind… his disgusting, selfish eyes and lustful, threatening stare. There is a whole force of people just like Kathryn, around the world, who have jobs, because of men (and women) like this… men who were designed to protect the vulnerable; to rise up as warriors and fight for the innocent and weak.

Do we hear of raids on bars where dozens of trafficked girls are sold for sex here in the US? Not often. Does it exist? Absolutely. In fact, the true story this movie portrays proves that corruption, lust and abuse filter all the way to the top of the power chain.

But even more so, I think this scene is metaphorical of a direction our western culture is headed. We are not the first culture in history to continue down the destructive path of worshipping the goddess of sex. And the devastating consequences subtly creep up like a lion stalking its prey. It infiltrates every part of society, from our families, to our churches to our workplaces.

The goddess of sex is broadcast into our homes every day. It’s displayed on magazine covers in the grocery store. It rears its ugly head in the questionable conversation you just had with a coworker. It sneaks its way in with a sweet, seductive stare from a young woman you see in church. It sticks its foot in the door when you decide to think about your needs more than your sister in Christ. It gains a small victory when you don’t make an effort to guard your brothers heart. It wins when it has emasculated an entire generation of men who have forsaken their true calling of being protectors and providers. It wins when it has convinced an entire generation of women that they are an object to be played with and they need to manipulate to be loved.

It’s so subtle that it becomes normal. And we proceed to tolerate it, almost unknowingly.   

Is this being written in anger? Maybe. It’s incredibly easy as a woman, to go into an angry, bitter rant against men. But that would be letting the enemy win. No, my fierce anger is towards our despicable enemy and his cohorts. He hates us, men and women, children of God. But we will not entertain or tolerate him.

~

I suppose these thoughts come because in two weeks, I will get to help pour life into a group of women and children who have faced abuses I cannot imagine; and assist a team in documenting their stories of hope. Through that, I know God will bring healing not only in their lives, but also in my life. I’m so excited for this month-long endeavor, the journey ahead, and the team of justice warriors I get to work with, serve, and glean incredible wisdom from!

(Updates to come.)

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Girls of Manila

Update on an upcoming team project I'm working on!


Taxis and tricee cabs sped by us as we walked down a busy street in the heart of Manila late one night searching for a place to eat after a long day. It was my third month of living in the Philippines with Naomi Hamilton, a missionary nurse and midwife. I came straight out of college and it was my first experience of living overseas long-term.

This particular week held great challenges. One of Naomi’s dearest friends just lost her mother to cancer. She was known as “mama” to many people who knew her, and though I had only known her for a few months, I saw the incredible amount of wisdom and joy she imparted to those around her. Naomi stood by this precious family as they watched “mama” fight a long, hard battle against cancer and then go to be with her Heavenly Father.

I learned that Filipino customs are unlike the traditional funerals we know here in the United States. There is a week-long wake, the grieving family is expected to cater to and feed all the friends and relatives, someone is expected to stay with the body at all times, not to mention many other superstitious customs.

As we walked down the busy street this particular night, my western mind tried to process these experiences. In the weeks before that, I walked through one of the largest slums in Asia. I sat in the 10x10 shack that a family of eight lived in. I witnessed the chilling injustice of corruption and the often deadly effects it has on the vulnerable. It seemed that every day, Naomi dealt with situations that we can’t even fathom in the United States. And there I was, trying to process these foreign customs, superstitions and sometimes spiritual bondages. It was overwhelming.

Naomi among friends in Welfareville, one of the largest slums in Asia.

In the midst of our conversation that night, I finally asked in tired frustration, “Naomi, how do you do this everyday? This is almost impossible work!” She looked back at me and spoke two words with a peace that I saw rise up from her soul, “God’s grace.”

Those words were so simple, but they penetrated my entire being. I always knew about God’s grace, but it wasn’t until this moment that it became real to me. “God’s grace is sufficient.” Grace that I often took for granted. Sadly, it’s not until we face insurmountable circumstances that we realize how much we need God’s grace.  

This particular night that held this profound lesson happened five years ago. Those six months spent in Manila provided more opportunities to rely on God’s grace than I ever imagined. Learning from Naomi’s example set a foundation in my life for future missions opportunities that I’m living out today.  I realized that heroes are not those with incredible gifts, talents and courage. Heroes are those who rely on the grace and blood of Jesus and allow Him to use their offering of “rags” and turn it into his riches and glory.

Just before I left Manila, Naomi opened a shelter for women called “Safe Refuge.” Over the past five years, I’ve been able to return to Manila several times and witness the amazing lives changed through this ministry. The need is great, and we have an opportunity to work on an upcoming project that will help expand this ministry!

The second home birth I witnessed in Manila in 2008 of a Safe Refuge 
resident who gave her precious baby up for adoption.

The Girls of Manila
                 
Stories move people to action. We hear unfathomable statistics everyday, but they often get stored in the archives of our minds, quickly to be forgotten; however, a story pierces our hearts. A story makes injustice very real to us and motivates us to do something about it. Stories communicate truths and realities in a way nothing else can. Jesus used stories as a very strategic method of speaking to his people.

What better way to show the atrocities of injustice, as well as the miraculous redemption of the young women and children in Manila than by storytelling? Myself, along with a few others are teaming up to do just this. We will be traveling to Manila for a month to film a documentary of the work and ministry of Naomi and Safe Refuge. We will document how a humble vision has turned into a work of God that is literally rescuing lives every day, physically and spiritually. 

Our hope is that this film will not only provoke people’s hearts to get involved in this work, but that it will expose, convict and change our American culture filled with apathy, sexual promiscuity and pride.

Needless to say, we need your help. If you would like to contribute financially to this endeavor, please contact me directly at michellelenk@gmail.com. Any contribution, no matter how small, is greatly needed and very much appreciated (all are tax deductable). Also, please pray and intercede for us. This is a huge project being taken on in a very short amount of time, in a culture that does not work as efficiently as what we are used to. We will face hurdles and setbacks. But pray for God’s protection, favor and divine grace through it all. We know that God will work in our lives as well, as we are documenting the lives He has redeemed in Manila.

-Michelle