Not a pretty kind of truck stop

I like to read a good story.

Story, I said.

A story is not the same thing as a report. A report might give you all the facts you need to know (the five W’s and H). But a story tells a tale. A story has characters, details, insight. There’s a beginning, a middle, an end.

A story by CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi caught my attention this week. Here’s the top of Marrapodi’s story on “The new Christian abolition movement”:

Greensboro, North Carolina (CNN) —The truck-stop hooker is no Julia Roberts, the trucker in the cab with her no Richard Gere, and this truck stop off the highway could not be any farther from Beverly Hills, the staging ground for “Pretty Woman.”

The woman sports baggy shorts, a white T-shirt and frizzy hair. Her fat middle-aged pimp sits in a beat up red Honda, watching as his “lot lizard” moves from truck to truck, in broad daylight.  If this pimp has a cane it is for substance, not style.

She moves through the parking lot, occasionally opening a cab’s passenger-side door and climbing in.

The trucker and hooker disappear in the back for 10 minutes.

Danielle Mitchell watches from the other end of the parking lot and shakes her head.

Keep reading, and you learn that Mitchell is (or was) the North Carolina human trafficking manager for World Relief.

The nut graf:

Mitchell is trying to tackle a disaster in her home state.   And she is not alone.

Motivated in large part by their religious traditions of protecting the vulnerable and serving “the least of these,” as Jesus instructed his followers to do in the Gospel of Matthew, World Relief and other Christian agencies like the Salvation Army are stepping up efforts and working with law enforcement to stem the flow of human trafficking, which includes sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

“Jesus didn’t just go around telling people about himself.  He also healed the blind and healed the brokenhearted, he freed captives, and I think that it would be ridiculous to walk up to someone who is hurting and tell them, ‘Let me tell you about the Gospel,’ and then walk away while they’re still hurting,” Mitchell says.

Up high, the Godbeat pro does a fine job of capturing the religious motivation of the main character. Overall, this story benefits from at least three P’s (none of which is “prostitute”):

Place: The reporter takes readers to the scene of the action and provides specific, compelling details.

— Personality: The reporter includes gems such as this:

This truck stop is the type you think twice about. It’s grimy and run down.

How badly do I really have to use the bathroom?  I bet I could hold out for another 12 miles.  That kind of place.

— People: The reporter puts a real human face on the movement, in the form of Mitchell.

However, there is one peculiar aspect to the story (hey, there’s another “P”). After proclaiming up high that World Relief is “stepping up” these efforts, the writer drops this minor bombshell deeper in the piece:

“Victims are not going to self-identify,” says Mitchell, who has since left World Relief and is considering going back to school after a lack of funding threatened to cut her hours to part time. “ They’re not going to say ‘I’m a victim of human trafficking.’ So the burden is really on the service providers and law enforcement and the community.”

Not sure I understand how World Relief can be “stepping up” efforts if it’s cutting back on staff. I’m sure this wrinkle did not make the journalist who’d already invested time in this piece overly jubilant.

My other nitpicky question: According to the story, the number of victims of human trafficking being referred to World Relief for services is up “700% in 2011.” That’s a big jump, yes. But what specific number of victims are we talking about? Is the writer quoting actual verifiable records? Or is that figure coming straight from Mitchell’s mouth?

Alas, this is not a perfect story. But I enjoyed it.

I like to read a good story.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    I agree with you. It’s sad that what I think of as news stories are more and more blog postings with all that implies, but I’ll take a decent story where-ever I can find it.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thank you for commenting, Jerry.

  • Larry

    You said “World Vision” but the story said “World Relief” so I assume that’s what you meant? Two different organizations.

  • Matt

    Correction needed to this post: World Relief and World Vision are two different organizations. You mention WV several times in this post, and kind of use the two names interchangeably, but only WR is mentioned in the article.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Larry and Matt,

    Thank you for pointing out the error. I have corrected it.

    The sad thing is, I am familiar with the difference and even included both in a Christianity Today story a while back. But my brain apparently didn’t get the memo. So I appreciate you letting me know.

  • carl jacobs

    I approached this story with a preformed definition of ‘human trafficking.’ In the context of prostitution, it relates to women who are kidnapped or sold into the life. We have all heard the classic tale of the pimp who hooks a runaway teenager on drugs and then uses her addiction as a lever to get her to prostitute herself. The important point of this definition is that it implies that not all prostitutes are victims of human trafficking. And that’s the disconnect I kept expecting the author to rectify. Why are the prostitutes in this story properly classified as victims of human trafficking? The author doesn’t establish the first basic fact of the story. Perhaps that is because the prostitutes stay 50 yards away from the story just as the subject of the story stays 50 yards away from the pimp. It struck me that there was no perspective given from a woman who had called the number and escaped the life. How hard would it have been to find someone who called that number?

    I think this story uncritically accepts the perspective of the activist who seeks to free women from prostitution. You can see it in this quote…

    Instead, she refers to a “woman or man who is being prostituted.” It is a slight change in wording that reveals a starkly different viewpoint.

    Yes, the different viewpoint is ‘The prostitute is always a victim.’ It enables the activist to approach the prostitute in a non-judgmental manner by saying “Look, I know this isn’t your fault. Other people did this to you. I can help.” That can be a good strategy for the activist who seeks to make a connection in order to offer aide, but it is not strictly speaking always true. Some women are to blame for their choices, but this doesn’t make any difference to the activist. Any woman could call that number she provides in order to get help. They aren’t going to turn her away just because she was culpable in the decision to become a prostitute.

    So why is the perspective of the activist uncritically accepted? A world that has so devalued sex struggles with prostitution. If a woman can go into a bar and hook up with whomever she might find, then why can’t she tread from cab to cab in search of money? It’s only sex after all. And yet people do find prostitution to be degrading. They don’t want their daughters or sisters involved in the lifestyle. They just aren’t sure why anymore. Perhaps it’s just easy for the modern world to think of the prostitute as a victim instead of asking hard questions about the purpose and place of sex in life – questions that cut too close to the foundation of the sexual revolution.


  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I don’t see the reporter as uncritically accepting the activist’s assessment but rather telling the story through her perspective. There’s a difference. Alas, the reader can determine what to believe. This is the writer’s characterization near the end of the story:

    The prostitute, or woman being prostituted, or potential human trafficking victim, gets back into the beat up red Honda with the overweight pimp, who drives off, maybe after catching a glimpse of a journalist and activist watching them from a safe distance.

  • Dave

    Carl, there is a social structure within prostitution and truck-stop workers are pretty near the bottom. A working girl that far down the ladder may not technically be trafficked (I’m sure there’s a definition) but still not be authentically free. So, in the context, the activist’s assumption is pretty close to fact.

    Hard questions about the purpose and place of sex in life do not cut at the foundation of the sexual revolution; they were the foundation. The commodification of sex — of which prostitution is only the most personal — is another matter altogether, and one might ding the mainstream for seldom turning its eye in that direction.

  • Julia

    I thought the St Louis Post Dispatch recently had a very well done and interesting article on the Sisters of St Joseph partnering with an anti-trafficing group to provide training for hotel staff in St Louis on how to spot human trafficking activity in their facilities.

    It begins with a woman who does meeting planning for groups, dealing with hotels across the country. The story starts with her sleuthing, using alternative newspaper ads, photos of available girls on-line and then matching the decorating in the photo’s room to the drapes, furniture and bed covers in area hotel rooms to convince hotel management that unsavory activity is going on in their establishments. The story is interesting to the end.

    The Millennium Hotel St. Louis was the first to sign the code at the request of Ritter and the Sisters of St. Joseph. Johnson said it was viewed as good business practice by the hotel’s general manager, Dominic Smart.
    “Most hotels who have signed the code of conduct have really done it in response to a scandal followed by huge public pressure,” Johnson said. “Smart was able to push this through at the Millennium in a proactive way. He felt it was the right thing to do to make sure the hotel was crime-free.”
    In a position statement, the American Hotel & Lodging Association endorses anti-trafficking policies in all hotels but does not specifically mention the ECPAT code.
    “It’s the right thing to do,” said CEO Joe McInerney, who noted meeting planners like Nix are increasingly putting anti-trafficking language in their request for proposals.

    Lots of people are quoted – hotel people, prosecutors, activists, a college student who had been trafficked herself and lots of useful information is given.

    When Ritter and the sisters conducted training among the hotel’s managers and staff, they tapped Katie Rhoades. A recent graduate of Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, Rhoades also is a survivor of sexual trafficking from age 18 to 21 that occurred in luxury San Francisco hotels.
    Rhoades, now 31, is starting a nonprofit group named Healing Action Network to provide outreach to victims of commercial sexual exploitation. She said hotels need to recognize the red flags and then know how to connect the victims with resources, which may not always be the police. The red flags include unattended minors in sexually provocative attire in hotel lobbies; cash paid for room transactions; youths without luggage who avoid the check-in; and youths who head right to the elevators without eye contact.
    At the Millennium, Ritter said, managers were shocked when they began their training.

  • carl jacobs


    I don’t think we are asking the same questions. The principle achievement of the sexual revolution was to privatize sex by means by abolishing all the obligations that were once attached to it. It severed sex from both marriage and children, and established personal gratification as its primary purpose. Whatever hard questions might have been asked, the answers given were notoriously self-serving and easy.

    One question that was overlooked (perhaps because it was too uncomfortable) is this. If sex has been privatized, then why shouldn’t it be commodified as well? It’s all a matter of autonomy. And it’s not like people aren’t coming to this conclusion already. How hard would I have to look to find a legal prostitute in Germany? That’s why this story focused on ‘trafficking.’ It neatly avoids all those questions by framing the fact of prostitution in terms of coercion. After all, this post-modern world defines immorality as the coercion of the autonomous will. It doesn’t know any other way because it no longer believes in objective truth.


  • Dave

    Carl, your two excellent points here, which I would gladly debate with you on some forum, are alas not connected to journalism and so this is not the forum.