Praying for the Johns

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The first time I heard about human trafficking, it was when feminists were offering begrudging praise to President George W. Bush, who spoke to the United Nations in 2003 about the global problem of sex trafficking. I made a vague mental note about the issue, but remained more or less clueless about the matter until I moved from New York to California and made some friends who were passionate about ending modern-day slavery.

One person introduced me to David Batstone's book Not for Sale, from which I learned that there are at least 27 million slaves today (some estimates now put the number above 30 million). Then my Bible study leader made a "rockumentary" about the issue, Call + Response, which used interviews, songs and footage from brothels and other settings of human slavery to explain the modern-day scourge.

Still, I never had a clear sense of what, if anything, I ought to do. Some of the more clear-cut responses seemed like they would involve an entire job change, so, like a lot of Californians, I focused on being a more conscious consumer. (Which is easy to do here, where being green, buying local and supporting fair trade are sometimes almost more fashionable than they are noble.)

Meanwhile, I was getting to know a new city and finding a new route for walking and praying, which had become a vital habit during my final months in Brooklyn. Because I preferred to take these walks during my evening walk from work, I soon realized that my route of choice, along San Francisco's Columbus Street, took me through a small district of sex shops and strip clubs whose lighted signs glowed in multicolored neon at night.

No other landmark I passed had close to the prayer-goading power of that intersection, yet few sites have been as difficult to pray for. Finally, after several days of struggling with this, I had a breakthrough. From then on, I began to pray for the businesses—workers and patrons alike. Sometimes I even stopped some of the women I thought worked there and asked them how I might pray for them.

But once I started biking to and from work, my route changed, bringing to an end my prayers for that block. I still cared for those with sexual brokenness, but for a while my prayers for those involved in commercial sex were dormant.

Then, last fall, I interviewed a woman who runs a safe house in New York for foreign-born survivors of sex trafficking. Prayer was a significant theme of our conversation. And although her focus was on helping the women, I came away from our conversation strangely haunted by the perpetrators. Who prays for them? I wondered.

In the coming days, an idea crystallized, resulting in something I'm calling Pray for the Johns Day. The main day of prayer is Tuesday, February 14 (yes, Valentine's Day). An additional day, Sunday, February 12, is an opportunity for churches to pray for the johns during corporate prayer. Although a "john" is literally someone who buys sex, the day is also meant to encompass men who pimp others, as well as those who contribute to sexual exploitation in more seemingly benign ways, such as porn consumption.

Praying for the Johns involves prayer that is two-fold: one, that johns would turn from their destructive, sinful ways (which is how the Bible views such actions: as sin); and two, that they would be transformed into men who could yet take up the good works for which they were made.

One of the underlying assumptions of the entire biblical story is that God does not give up on any part of His good creation. As theologian Albert Wolters writes, "God does not make junk. ... In fact, so positive a view did he take of what he had created that he refused to scrap it when mankind spoiled it, but determined instead, at the cost of his Son's life, to make it new and good again. God does not make junk, and he does not junk what he has made."

San Francisco has given me a new appreciation for that mindset. One of my favorite things about this city is its approach to "trash." Say you will, but these folks don't think much that we discard has truly exhausted its usefulness. We have blue bins for our glass, plastic, paper and aluminum, and green bins for nearly all our food and organic waste. The rest goes into a shrinking brown or black bin.