When We Fail

When people ask what I’ve been doing since graduating from Trinity Western, the conversation inevitably settles on my time spent working abroad. I had the opportunity to spend a year with International Justice Mission, an organization that combats violence against the poor in the developing world. I was assigned to a field office in the Philippines, where the casework focused mainly on human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. When I moved back to Canada, I learned very quickly that when most people asked about what I did, they wanted to keep the conversation fairly surface level. They were eager to hear about all the kids being saved, that it was an exciting year in a new culture and I’m better for my experience. While these things may be true, polite conversation tends to steer around some of the less cheerful elements combating human trafficking. It’s one of those stories I wanted to share with you.

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I can remember the most trying night of my time in the Philippines like I’m still there. One night around Christmas, we were given 24 hours notice that a rescue operation would be happening. As we reviewed the evidence collected before embarking, some of us were given a list of possible victims that would need to be identified. The list was almost a dozen pages thick, and contained the faces of many children that law enforcement suspected had been prostituted and abused online for the gratification of pedophiles around the world. One image has stayed with me, burned into my memory: the face of a little girl, no older than two. The most haunting part of that picture was her eyes; physically there was nothing different, but looking at that photo was gut-wrenching for me. I’m not sure why I remember that picture among all the others; maybe it has stuck with me because the experience was so strange. I just remember it leaving a deep pain in my soul.

We accompanied the local law enforcement to the house identified as the source of the images, and, as the police stormed the building, we followed. What we found was less than the desired outcome: hard drives had been moved or destroyed, the suspects were covering their tracks and using others to do their dirty work. Worst of all, of the few children that were there, we couldn’t remove any of them from the situation permanently. That little girl, like the majority of the children in our bundle of photos, was nowhere to be found. We never encountered her during the rest of my time in the Philippines.

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My boss told me very plainly when I started working that we will not be able to save everyone. Some of the people we identify will never be rescued. He told me I had to come to terms with that fact while doing this kind of work. He was 100% right. You will drive yourself mad if you expect to save every single man, woman and child. It isn’t possible. But that doesn’t stop it from hurting when you lose someone. I never talk to people about experiences like this one. Partly because I hate bringing up things that I struggle with, partly because I know most people will have no clue what it’s like.

I also don’t want to make it seem like my time in the Philippines was only painful. In truth, it was the best year of my life. The vast majority of our operations were successful, and we managed to help local law enforcement rescue hundreds of trafficking victims that year. Although we never encountered the girl in the pictures in the rest of my time there, the team has continued working with local authorities to identify and rescue children trapped in online commercial sexual exploitation. I was honoured to play a bigger role in the mission than I ever thought possible, and I was able to witness so many young women and children who were praying for rescue be freed by the most amazing group of Christians I have ever had the privilege of serving with.

This story describes one difficult situation in a sea of beautiful successes and experiences. In fact, this was one of the biggest points of growth for me during my time overseas. Wrestling with this experience led me to understand that just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we should give up before we even try. When people tell us that something is impossible we can allow that to stop us from doing what we think is right. The staff at IJM have so many stories of people that never should have been found that, by the grace of God, were placed right in front of them. These were golden opportunities that arose out of mathematical impossibilities, and these opportunities existed because people spurred on by the love of God refused to give up.

We all face challenges in life that seem insurmountable. No matter where you’re at there are moments when you feel like giving up in the face of impossible odds. But the wonderful thing is that we serve a God more powerful than any situation we might find ourselves in. I’ve loved reading some of the other stories of TWU Alumni who have faced difficulty, acknowledged the struggle, but continue to push forward.  It has certainly been an encouragement for me. If there is any community where people might understand and relate to my experiences, this is most certainly it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that sharing the challenges with those who can support you is the best way to grow from your experiences. While in the Philippines, I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic IJM staff members and local Christian leaders come along side me to help process these experiences, in addition to a supportive network of friends, family and mentors when I returned home. I hope you are able to find these people in your life as well.

You can learn more about International Justice Mission at ijm.org, and the Global Coalition to end slavery at enditmovement.com/coalition.