margaret-kuester-story1.pngThis summer, I had the opportunity to participate in the Westside Fellows Program through Candler. I worked at a nonprofit organization called House of Cherith, which provides trauma-informed care and transitional housing to women coming out of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Before working with House of Cherith, I had studied and worked with victims of sex trafficking around the world. Despite growing up in the United States, I only recently learned about the horrific trafficking statistics that happen domestically. According to the House of Cherith website, over 2,000,000 people are trafficked each year in the USA, and $290 million is spent annually on sex trafficking in Atlanta specifically.

Despite severe physical, emotional, and mental health damages to survivors, there is also a shortage of housing and supportive services for trafficked victims in the USA. House of Cherith seeks to provide housing and long-term care for women, and to psychologically, emotionally, mentally, and physically prepare them for their eventual transition to the real world. They are a faith-based organization, but accept and assist women from any faith background.

I did not realize just how purposeful my time at House of Cherith would feel, especially since I grew up in Atlanta. As a Westside Fellow, I was able to work closely with the psychological clinicians and behavior health specialists. I had the opportunity to research and write programming, and I was able to shadow the clinicians as they led their specialized courses. I was also entrusted to lead multiple courses myself, guided by clinicians, as well as my own research and pastoral care education, which allowed me to see the harsh realities that these women had faced.

In particular, I had the unique opportunity to propose, plan, and teach a course centering on healthy sexuality. I wrote programming to bridge the proverbial gap between a biblical and faith-based ideology and practical steps towards healthily engaging in sexuality after being sexually exploited. I researched and addressed toxic purity culture, with the help of Pure by Linda Kay Klein. My research was also guided by the 2014 Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics article “Christian Ethics and Human Trafficking Activism: Progressive Christianity and Social Critique,” co-written by Candler’s Assistant Professor in the Practice of Ethics and Society Letitia Campbell and Yvonne Zimmerman of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

While my research was directed by my faith and Christian spirituality, I also recognized that many of the women at House of Cherith did not come from overly spiritual backgrounds, nor would they identify as Christian. In this course, I sought to engage in an open dialogue about healing from sexual trauma in a way that does not codify anything sexual as inherently evil. I tried to be psychologically analytical, while still turning them toward the grace and solace that the gospel gives. As someone who grew up in toxic purity culture, this research allowed me to process my upbringing and background, too. It was a gift to have been trusted to plan and lead a course like this.

I will forever cherish the time I spent at House of Cherith. I can bear witness to the strength and resiliency embodied by each of the women. I am honored that they trusted me to lead and invest in their lives. I was honored to come alongside the women in their journeys. Each of them continues to inspire me to be a stronger and more empowered woman.

Top photo: Hannah Busing on Unsplash.com