This past Friday I had the privilege of joining the women of Vite Transformate on their bi-weekly outreach. Vite Transformate is a non-profit dedicated to reaching women trapped in prostitution in Italy. Every other Friday night, the VT women boldly and faithfully walk the streets of Bologna in search of Treasures.
A treasure is “something of great worth or value that is stored up.” This definition couldn’t be more accurate for the kind of treasures we searched for last Friday night. Our “Treasures” came in the form of women. Beautiful women. Exploited women. Women in bondage of human trafficking. Thousands of these women stand enslaved on the sidewalks of Italy each night…without hope or freedom.
With sex trafficking being one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in the world, the severity of this industry and necessity for awareness and help seems to become more urgent as each day passes. As Christians, we pray for a tender heart, one that is broken for people that are broken. This is specifically experienced when we step out of the familiar and allow God to take us to the darkest of places. When it comes to the Treasures, the more aware you are of the darkness of each and every unique situation, the heavier the oppression feels and the thicker the discouragement.
I was nervous upon arriving to our first Treasure—I’ve spent time reading statistics, survival stories and watching documentaries, but I was anticipating making it personal—really getting into the trenches of this terrible reality. Because of the language barrier, my role was minimal. I stood behind and listened as the VT staff began conversing with the Treasures, offering friendship, hot tea, gifts, and letters with information to get help. Most of the women were calloused, a look of pain and distrust on their faces. Understandably…trust is such a foreign concept. You can plead, you can beg, you can promise that there is freedom if they would just believe, just walk away, just trust that what you’re telling them is true. But, they’ve heard it all before. False promises of freedom and opportunity—the very thing that got them in this situation in the first place. Most of these women are refugees from countries including Ukraine, Romania and Nigeria, brought to Italy with a promise of a better life, only to arrive and be forced to live out their most life-shattering nightmare.
“God is personal, He knows you. He invites you to taste and see that He is good… ” we pleaded to one of the Treasures.
“Perhaps...” she replied.
We soon came to find out she was 18 years old and had just been trafficked here from Romania a few months back.
The reality of this situation was unbelievably sobering.
“Keep an eye on those two men standing over there while we speak to her. They’re her controllers, they’re watching us,” Cristhina, a VT staff member, whispered to me.
My stomach turned.
As I stood back and listened to the exchange of conversation with each Treasure, my mind erupted with prayers. I begged God for a miracle each time, imploring with Him as if this were the final moment they had, knowing in the back of my mind that it very well could be. The situation seemed almost hopeless. Every time we walked away, I would turn back for a final look. As a client’s car would pull up to one of our precious Treasures, I would plead under my breathe,“please don’t get inside." I would turn back around only to find that to my horror, they were gone. Walking away was so difficult—each time felt like defeat.
Until I met Natalia*.
“There she is!” Cristhina called out, “she’s so sweet.”
“Really?” I thought, unsure of what she could mean.
As we approached Natalia, I could see her face light up. “I was just thinking of you!” she squealed. Hugs and kisses were exchanged as my curiosity peaked. Her excitement was contagious. She began to speak in such quick and vigorous Italian that most of what she was saying slipped right passed me. Although I didn’t understand, I was captivated. Intrigued by her animation, my focus stayed glued. She was beautiful. The Latin phrase “Imago Dei” replayed in my mind over and over, “she’s made in the image of God…”
Natalia spoke for 30 minutes straight, with barely a breath in between. Cars would pull up and watch us, waiting for their turn with her, but she didn’t budge. As she stayed and spoke, the VT staff swapped looks of sympathy, love, shock and instances of exasperation. “What is she saying?” I whispered, wide-eyed.
As the conversation came to end, more hugs were exchanged with promises to catch up and chat again soon. I found out she had shared everything that happened in her life the past two weeks, from her struggles to her desires. Natalia gave us the run-down of her most recent hospital visit, and even explicit details about her clients, which includes corrupt Italian police officers. I couldn’t help but to walk away in shock, yet simultaneously fascinated by her transparency. Natalia's honesty and comfortable willingness to be known fully was so obviously different about her.
“How long have you known Natalia?” I asked.
“A little over a year,” Cristhina shared.
I realized in that moment that her transparency was built on trust—a trust that took time. Over a year of time to be exact. An entire year of walking through the cold Italian streets in search of her. A year of conversations that initially began as calloused, short encounters which then evolved to what I experienced—long, transparent conversation. A year of pursuit. A year of building friendship and outpouring love—a love without judgement. A love that remains faithful. A love like Jesus.
As I sat peering out the car window into the darkness of the night after my encounter with Natalia, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own spiritual journey. Like Natalia, I once too stood alone in the cold, as my dear Savior night after night sought me out offering warmth, conversation, and a free gift—Himself. Initially, I wanted nothing to do with Him, but His patience, His gentleness, His faithfulness and His perseverance in loving me penetrated through my once calloused heart.
Jesus was firm, yet so incredibly gentle as He reminded me of such a deep and invaluable truth that night: Love is a committed pursuit.
A call to love like Jesus did is a call to stick around and invest your time and your effort, despite the moments of what may seem like hopelessness. Discouragement tells us not to persevere, but Jesus tells us to stand firm and continue fighting the good fight of faith.
Thank you VT for your committed pursuit, and for allowing me to witness the transforming power that love and perseverance have through Jesus Christ.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9