How an Abolitionist, Joan of Arc & a Full Moon Taught Me How to Show Up For a Meaningful Life [Day 1, Part 1]

In the early dark of the first day of the New Year, I walk fields under the third quarter of a waning crescent moon.

And it’s that waning moon in a new year that makes me think of emancipation and what an abolitionist half way around the world told me back in August.

How when they pulled the lid off the shipping container in Istanbul, there are 30 bloated bodies of young girls —- and 28 seat drenched girls gasping for one breath of air that isn’t thick with the stench of rotting evil.

The abolitionist who’s standing in front of me telling me this, she’s talking so fast. Breathless. Like there’s only so much time.

Crisp Morning in December
Photo Credit: Julie Falk
Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp

The abolitionist, Christine Caine, a global evangelist born in Australia and raised by Greek parents with her own personal trauma of systematic sexual abuse, she gestures, past me, past Selena Gomez and her friend Ashley, who are broth sitting across the table from me, past a whole team of abolitionists gathered around this table in Thessaloniki, Greece — and Caine points toward the window.

Toward the Greek streets outside her window, toward the dock and the Mediterranean. And the more than 14 million containers circling the globe this very moment as she’s standing here talking to me. Shipping containers of Cheerios and double-ply toilet paper and stacks of Persian rugs destined for our pantry and back shelves and floors.

But how many of those shipping containers have fake interior walls with sealed pitch-black chambers where girls slowly suffocate to death?

How many women are wildly and desperately pounding on how many container’s sides, begging an indifferent world to actually hear?

Caine tells those of us seated around this table in Greece that that there would be no rescue for those 28 North African girls crawling out over bodies and this smothering premature grave.

There would only be police-uniformed men dragging them off to locked, windowless rooms on the back side of graffitied streets where, for 14 hell-on-earth days, none of those huddled girls would be offered any light, food, or hope — only bone-cracking beatings.

The uniformed men are no police officers, Caine tells us. Selena’s shaking her head, writing notes.

They are human traffickers masquerading as law enforcement to perversely enforce the twisted perspective that there’s no help these young trafficked victims can count on.

And none of these girls are being housed in any hotel — they are shut up in what’s known as a breaking room, the kind Caine would take Selena, Ashley and I to walk through. Where heavy cigarette smoke burns the eyes and clothes are torn off the body and over the course of a stream of endless days and nights, one’s sense of will and value and dignity is systematically broken. Breaking rooms for trafficked women — like the way dogs are broken in and trained. Yet categorically more inhumane.

When the remaining 28 girls were sufficiently violated into submission, Caine tells us, their captors smuggle them down to a dock, throw them into into a dinghy to be swept by waves into Greece and directly into its teeming highway of trafficking and brothels and sex dens. Into a trafficking highway where souls of girls are desecrated and maimed by men divorced from their own souls.

Where women’s bodies are taken and splayed as tools to gratify their cheap thrills and deranged hungers at the expense of a woman’s very being.

Somewhere across the Mediterranean, the battering waves upends the dinghy.

Caine’s voice drops low, slows, like she can hardly bear the weight of this story:

Only 5 of the shivering are plucked out of the sea by the coast guard — because 23 swallowed lungs full of salty brine until they were washed away out to sea.

Current death total of 60 original trafficked girls: 55.

Selena stops making notes. Lays her pen down on the table. There’s a palpable nausea in the room. How do you ask:

When will women carry enough gravity in this world to matter, to matter more than matter, mere things to be used to further the purposes of power?

Caine leans in and says how she sat with the surviving 5 girls.

Sat with them in the original Greek transition home of the anti-human trafficking organization she founded, A21, sat in a circle of young girls trafficked from all around the world, when one girl turns toward her and asks a singularly haunting question that still rattles Caine to the core:

“If you knew this was happening — why didn’t you come sooner?”

You can read the the brewing storm in Caine’s eyes, sense the shaking thunder of the question, see the flash in her eyes, feel the jolt of lightning, illumination, with her:

Why didn’t you show up sooner?

“I told her — I didn’t have any excuse,” Caine tells us in her rapid-fire Aussie accent lit with determination.

“But I promised her, for the rest of my life — I’d be about ending human slavery, everywhere, entirely, forever.”

There’s no claiming Switzerland neutrality in the face of injustices against humanity.

Why not show up for even one —  the way you wish someone would show up if it were you?

Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp

Caine turns to a photo on the wall behind her of a shipping container.

A freshly painted white shipping container with wide open doors on either end, with sinks for running water and mirrors and hot showers, and a torrent of refugees flooding the direly needed facilities.

Caine’s A21 had the shipping containers transformed into hot shower and water stations in less than 10 days at the height of the refugee crisis.

Every mirror, every shower door, in every container, boasts a pictorial bulletin, to cross all language barriers, each frame alerting to the signs of human trafficking that, more often than not, hides in plain sight.

It’s this work of Caine’s with human trafficking and refugees that earned the A21 organization the esteemed recognition of the Mother Teresa award.

“Those shipping containers?” Caine points behind her.

“Those shipping containers, actually giving life instead of taking the lives of young girls, are full circle for me,” she nods with the ferociousness of a promise kept.

And when I turn from Caine, you can see it in Ashley’s eyes, Selena’s, the room filling, us filling, with that one phrase that hangs in Caine’s office, can light a blaze of hope:

“Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.”

Why not show up when a bit of hell’s going down — and bring a bit of heaven down?

Containers may be made for stuff — but there’s no container on the planet that should be stuffed with girls.

When you stuff your life full of shiny things and turn away from human beings — how can you say you’re a container for His glory and are about the things of God?

Hope will not be contained to waning seasons, and hopelessness is not contained to any people, or a gender, or a place and Hope is the container for faith that ships out into the world.

Genuine faith always ships genuine hope.

And the truth is:

Hope shows its face whenever the people of God show up.

After dinner that evening, under nearly a full moon, Caine and her A21 teams takes us through a red light district in Thessaloniki, where we witness a man lean out of a car and negotiate to purchase a woman’s body for the night — for as little $6.

“All this — right beside a mall,” Selena nods in the direction of the sale, down the street from Club Fever. Then she turns to ask, “Will these girls be on the street to 6 am?”

The global operations manager of A21, Phil Hyldgaard, nods yes — and then points out a building down the street two young trafficked girls were rescued by A21. We watch men walk into brothels — one brothel cruelly named, “Free House” — that look more massive factories with walls of barred windows.

“There’s so many of them,” Selena whispers it under her breath. A sign flashes: “S*X THIS WAY.”

“These are streets that the mayor is proud of,” Phil’s nodding toward the window, toward the flashing neon signs.

And does he have daughters?” Selena asks dryly, not missing a beat.

Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp
Ann Voskamp

Across the street from the brothels — is the courthouse.

In Athens, several moons ago, prosecutors were fighting a case against traffickers before judges — while under that very same floor, in the basement of said courthouse, women were being held to service lawyers and judges at their leisure. How can women be housed like livestock to satisfy and gratify men?

“It’s hard to imagine the silent, internal screams of the women behind those barred windows,” Caine’s shaking her head.

When you know the Spirit of Comfort, how can you not be moved by that Spirit to help women who are solely held for men’s comfort?

When Selena turns, I can see it, over these streets of brothels, suspended in the vast blackness, is this almost-full iridescent rising moon.

The same moon that rises over Dallas and Sydney and Portland and Amsterdam and Miami and London and Atlanta and Toronto and Los Angeles and all the towns and back roads in between — the same moon that rises right over farm fields at home.

The same moon rising over a world of women waiting, women waiting who are running out of time during their one life here, time to be seen and known and valued, time to unfold any of their fragile, crumbling dreams, women who are holy containers of iridescent glory, oppressed and pressed into hell on earth behind barred brothel windows, waiting for the next John to take more of them — or for someone with a key to freedom to more.

Caine and Phil and Ashley and Selena and I look up over the brothels, memorize the moon that nightly bears witness to the unbearable, that bears witness to our vow to show up now and reach with a key, and all I can think is:

The oppressed and optimistic are all living parallel lives under the same sky, the same moon, but: When we show up, reach for each other, let our paths cross, let our hands touch — then the Cross shows up in the world — and hope touches us all.

Early on the first day of a fresh new year, when I walk fields dusted with snow, look up at white glow of the waning moon, I think of a whole world, a sisterhood, of women with their own waning time, who need just one person to show up for dreams to rise up, for hope to make full moons, and wasn’t it Joan of Arc who knew her time was short, so she laid it all down with one prayer: “I shall only last a year; use me as you can.”

This is the year to be used however you can.

As long as you have time, be used as long as you can.

As long as you get time, live given.

This is the year: Show up any way you can — and you’ll live the most meaningful way.

Why not show up for even one —  the way you wish someone would show up if it were you?

Why not show up when a bit of hell’s going down — and bring a bit of heaven down?

Why not show up now, not because it’s convenient — but because it matters?

Photo Credit: Julie Falk

I still and wait, right there under that first moon of the new year and there is the first resolution — realization? — of the new year and I will never see the moon the same way again:

Every moon rises like an SOS sent from our kin who are looking up at that same moon…

and if you show up now, reach out now — you not only touch the moon.

You touch them.


(Part 2 of what I learned from an Abolutionist, Selena and Joan of Arc coming soon) 


ANY WAY YOU CAN, ($1, $5)


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