Several nights each week, Kelsey Talbott (M.A. ’08) ventures out on a rescue mission — one that leads her into the shadowy brothels and seedy streets of Athens, Greece.
Equipped with food, literature and God’s love, she hopes to build relationships with women involved in prostitution, many of whom were lured from other countries by the promise of a better life, only to end up in the city’s thriving sex industry. A better life is still possible, she tells them.
While it can be easy to feel insignificant when realizing the darkness and gravity of the problem in Athens — where an estimated 10,000 women are involved in prostitution — Talbott is encouraged by each individual story of a life transformed, she said.
“It’s not about numbers; you can’t define success that way,” said Talbott, a recent graduate of Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. “It’s about that handful of girls who are able to find freedom and restoration and a new life that was intended for them.”
Talbott has long been passionate about working with women and helping them understand their worth and value. Before coming to Talbot to strengthen her theological foundation in 2004, she had worked for several years with homeless teenagers and women and men in prostitution in Seattle — a ministry she continued in Los Angeles.
But it wasn’t until a few years ago that she began to research the evils of “human trafficking,” where victims are forced or coerced into slavery or sex work, often being traded or transported across borders in the process. After educating herself on the issue, Talbott began to speak to churches and volunteer with the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force. She later accepted a position with the Salvation Army, in which she spoke to church, community and government groups to spread awareness and lead outreach efforts to victims in Los Angeles.
At a conference one day, Talbott found herself sitting at a table with Sandra Morgan, the founder of Lydia Today, a Southern California-based nonprofit organization devoted to serving victims of abuse and trafficking around the world. Before long, the idea came up that Talbott might be the person to relaunch the organization’s ministry in Athens.
Now in Athens with Lydia Today, where she’s been since December, Talbott goes to where the women are — on the streets or in the 24-hour brothels where women work 8 hour shifts — about three times per week. She and others bring drinks, cookies and health information, as well as stories written about women who have successfully left the industry.
“We try to let them know that there are alternatives to this work,” she said. “We can offer a listening ear, legal and medical help, and if they are ready, we are prepared to help them leave their situation.”
Recently, she witnessed a European woman begin this process. After a divorce, the woman had slid into prostitution to support her children. The woman had grown up in an evangelical church, and knew what she was doing was a sin. But she didn’t believe God would forgive her. When one of the outreach workers assured her that God would indeed forgive her, the woman responded, “I know you have God in you, because he is speaking to me right now.” Soon after, the woman started looking for a new job and began attending church with a local believer.
Unfortunately, many women aren’t willing or ready to leave prostitution behind. And even when individual women do decide to embrace a new life, the larger societal problem remains: Many in Greece are unaware of the plight of women in the sex industry.
“Rescuing girls is so important and obviously life-changing for them, but it is a Band-Aid on a very serious problem,” said Talbott.
To counter this, Talbott hopes to implement community education and awareness campaigns in Greece, stating that awareness is one of the biggest weapons in the fight against human trafficking. Already, she has hosted several workshops for victims and church, ministry and community members, using a comprehensive course designed to prepare caregivers to deal with the vast array of issues that survivors face. However, she is praying for how to raise awareness on college campuses and other public arenas.
“People can’t stand up against something they don’t even know about,” she said.
Talbott will return to the United States in December, but plans to return to Greece in January. She’ll remain there for as long as God keeps her there, she said, adding that the experience has taught her more about what it means to rely on him.
“I have learned the importance of prayer and staying close to God in new ways, as I believe we are on the front lines of spiritual warfare and bondage here,” she said. “God has reminded me of the [difference] it is making.”
Follow Kelsey’s experiences in Athens at her blog.