On a recent Sunday evening, 135 people gathered at Ringgold United Methodist Church (RUMC) to discuss a deeply disturbing problem – human trafficking. In particular, the group was concerned about child sex trafficking.
"It’s a growing problem," says RUMC youth pastor Bobby Fleck. "We live at the hub of three exits off I-75, which is a major thoroughfare used by traffickers. Any exit where there are gas stations and motels can serve as a pit stop for traffickers."
The meeting at RUMC featured speakers Jenifer Duncan and Jon Lewis from an Atlanta-based ministry called Street Grace that specializes in fighting human trafficking. Also featured was a young woman who was rescued from sex trafficking.
Fleck lived in Atlanta, which is known for its human trafficking problem, for eight years before moving to Ringgold. He says that he and his wife have always leaned toward helping the most vulnerable victims of trafficking. "My interest started in seminary when I wrote a paper on human trafficking for my masters of divinity. It does something to your soul to find out about what’s going on."
Fleck says his wife took a trip to Thailand to visit House of Grace, which helps prevent children from becoming victims of sex trafficking. "Thailand’s top two exports are said to be opium and little girls," he says. "I have triplet daughters, so this breaks my heart all the more." The Flecks help a young girl in Thailand through a sponsorship program.
After moving to Ringgold, Fleck’s wife, Tiffini, and June Cathey, wife of RUMC’s pastor, attended a Street Grace meeting in Cartersville. That led to the recent event at RUMC.
More info: Ringgold United Methodist Church will be holding Internet Safety 101 on March 25 at 6:30 p.m., taught by John Winstanley from Fort Safety. RUMC is located at 7484 Nashville St. in Ringgold. Website: ringgoldumc.org/events/internet-safety-101. Phone: 706-935-4777. See also: StreetGrace.com and FortSafety.com.
"We were really pleased with the community turnout," says Fleck. "Mayor Nick Millwood was there, and so were councilmen Randall Franks and Kelly Bomar. Seven churches were represented. Phil Ledbetter from the Catoosa Family Collaborative and Dr. Lamar Brown from Catoosa County Schools were there, school counselors and nurses came. We beat the ground pretty hard to let people know about this and they showed up."
Also speaking at the meeting were Capt. Chris Lyons of the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Department and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent James Harris.
"Special Agent Harris talked about a sting operation conducted in North Georgia recently," says Fleck. "He couldn’t share too many details, but he said they put out an ad promising contact with young girls and got 25 calls within the first hour."
Harris explained to the group at RUMC that it’s an immediate felony in the state of Georgia just to make a call in response to such an ad.
The connection between online pornography and victimizing children is strong, says the Street Grace website. In a study of 400 million web searches, the most popular category of sexual searches was "youth," according to a Barna Group Study. Men who have engaged in paid sex are 270% more likely to look at porn, according to a study by Michigan professors Stack, Wasserman and Kern.
"We need to keep kids away from porn, teach them how to recognize threats, and deal with the predators," says Fleck. "Exposing the "buyers" – those who pay to use children – will be a big step, but we must also get parents more involved in keeping their kids safe and help kids learn how to keep themselves safe."
RUMC is committed to keeping young people from ever reaching the point of victimhood and will be holding future events to teach teens how to protect themselves from predators, including an event coming up on March 25, when John Winstanley of Fort Safety will be conducting a workshop for teens and parents.
"Porn is fueling the demand for child sex images and the sex trafficking industry," says Winstanley. "Teach your kids what a predator does, not what he looks like. It can be anyone – male, female, even another child who has been exposed to pornography."
"This is a real problem," says Fleck. "We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend it’s not happening."