Telling a remarkable story of healing and redemption, Sean and Scott talk with Lisa Michelle, who survived two decades of exploitation, and who now ministers to girls in the sex industry. She tells the story of her healing, her reconciliation with her abusers and her ministry to girls caught in human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm co-host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today we have a guest coming on that I've been looking forward to talking with for a long time. Lisa Michelle and I met on a trip last year to Israel, kind of a leaders trip. And Lisa and I and my wife sat down over a meal and she started sharing her story. And number one, I was just blown away at her willingness to share the story, God's grace, but I also thought our listeners need to hear this. So Lisa, thanks for your willingness to come on the program today.
Lisa Michelle: Hi guys. It is an honor to be here. I'm thrilled to be able to share my story with you.
Sean McDowell: You have a powerful story of redemption and healing. And in your bio, you kind of just jump right in. So we're going to jump right in here and you describe, "emotional scars from complex sexual trauma and domestic violence." Again, thanks for your willingness to talk about such a sensitive topic. But would you be willing to share of your story with us for starters?
Lisa Michelle: Absolutely. Growing up for me, I don't have memories of playing on a soccer field. I wasn't a cheerleader. I didn't go to my high school prom and, as a matter of fact, I didn't even attend my own high school graduation. I was petrified to stand on that stage in front of everyone. And I let fear dictate my choices in life and I did my best to avoid anything where I felt vulnerable. And the reason was is because, as a child, my dad wouldn't let me speak. Every time that I would try to speak around our house, he would backhand me and say, "Shut up. You don't have a voice. Be quiet." So I grew up with this fear of man and this fear of speaking and sharing my thoughts and my voice. So I avoided anything where I had to even stand in front of people. So I missed out on my high school graduation. I also knew that most of my family probably wasn't going to come to that as well because I didn't have a good family structure.
Lisa Michelle: I grew up in a broken home just outside of San Francisco, California. I was a misfit, an outcast. I just didn't fit in. And my childhood, for me, was one of survival. It was one I would have liked to have forgotten. My mom was a waitress and my dad was a bartender and because my dad was in the bar scene and he was an alcoholic, I grew up around drunkenness, filth, Hell's Angels, and just a place where little girls probably shouldn't be doing their homework and staying up until three or four in the morning.
Lisa Michelle: When my dad drank, he became extremely violent. He was an angry, abusive man to our family and to myself included. We would watch him beat my mom and us kids all the time. He got taken away to jail. And there were other violent acts against other people that happened around us all the time. So I was living in this constant state of chaos. As a child, I didn't feel safe and I lived in fear all the time. My dad, being an alcohol, wanted everybody around him to drink. So when I was a little girl, he would give me alcohol. So by the time I was 12 I started to drink on my own. I started hanging out on the streets in San Francisco. And during this time, I was repeatedly sexually abused and exploited for over ten years by three separate men. One of those men was my father and it happened from such a young age that I had no idea that it was wrong. I became hyper sexualized from that and it left me vulnerable to a man who lived across the street from us.
Lisa Michelle: He was vile, twisted, perverse man and he was kind of like a grandfather type who ran our local mortuary. My mom was going through a divorce, she had no idea who this man was. But he was a pedophile. He lived in an apartment on top of that mortuary and every time that I would stay the weekend, and yes, I stayed the entire weekend, he would drug me and then he would sexually exploit me through the use of pornography. And to this day, the things that happened to me inside that mortuary are just too disturbing to even share. Being sexually exploited at the age of seven through the age of nine by this man was devastating to my mental health. Those years of continual trauma led to drug and alcohol addiction, self harm, and living a promiscuous lifestyle trying to fill the void from the pain.
Sean McDowell: Lisa, my father was sexually abused for seven years. His dad was a drunk, his older sister committed suicide, and I've grown up hearing just this heartbreaking pain that he went through. And sometimes people respond by just thinking, "Well, you know, that's an exception. A lot of people haven't experienced that." How common is your experience in the culture and even in the church?
Lisa Michelle: It's very common. I spoke this weekend at a Chosen conference in San Antonio, Texas. We have 1500 women there and after my testimony I was inundated by women. I couldn't even ... I still to ... right now, today, I'm getting emails and text and phone calls of women reaching out to me. The most heartbreaking to me was the five 14 year old girls that came up to me and told me their stories for the very first time. So our church has an opportunity to serve women like me and has an opportunity to open up the dialogue. I believe that's what God did this Saturday, was just open that door wide and we need a support group in that particular church, especially for our teenage girls. But there were many women, mature women, that were there that hadn't shared their story or started the healing process either. So I believe that's what God's using me for, is to be a voice, a really strong voice, in the church and to help women self identify and to start the dialogue and start the healing process.
Scott Rae: So Lisa, finish the rest of your story if you would. What changed in your life that turned things around for you?
Lisa Michelle: Sure. So I am hanging out on the streets of San Francisco. It's actually a street called Broadway. It's littered with strip clubs. On the very end are two heavy metal clubs. And I'm hanging out in the alley way there with my girlfriends that are just like me, misfits. And we're drinking Thunderbird. And I am barely 17 years old and I end up meeting the drummer for this rock and roll band, 80s rock and roll. He's 32 years old and I ended up running away with him across the country and being with him for almost four years, living the rock and roll lifestyle with bands like Guns N' Roses, Poison, Tesla, Great White. And just living this hardcore drug-filled crazy lifestyle. And as I'm on the road a couple times I almost ODed. I got really weary and I knew I needed to start to get help, so I moved back to California.
Lisa Michelle: I started waitressing in a diner until I went to school to become a makeup artist. I got into AA, I got into recovery, and I thought, "Okay, I'm going to clean my life up. I'm going to do better than my family. I'm going to make a new start." Well, on my first day of work as a makeup artists, I was invited into the underground club scene. From that night on, I transitioned into clubbing, partying, and being a socialite for almost eight years. Diving deeper into my addictions.
Lisa Michelle: But one day I started to question my life. And I knew there had to be more to life than what I was living. I felt empty inside. I felt hopeless. I felt used and like I had no future. But two things happened to me that changed the destiny of my life. And the first one was a simple church invite. Never underestimate a simple church invite to anyone. I was working in the salon as an esthetician. My sister was doing nails and she was working on a male client and I was walking by her station. And her client reached out to me and said, "Hey Lisa, I'd like to invite you to church this Sunday." And I looked at him and thought, "What on earth? He's lost his mind!" I said, "Why would you invite a girl like me to church?" And he starts busting out laughing, he says, "You know what, you're right. You're probably going to catch on fire when you walk through those doors this Sunday. You're probably one of the biggest sinners I've ever met in my life, Lisa. But I'll tell you why you're going to show up to church this Sunday."
Lisa Michelle: And I looked at him and thought, "Okay, wow, why am I showing up to church?" He goes, "Because there's really hot guys there." And I went, "Oh, okay." I looked at my watch, I looked back at him and I said, "What time? I'll be there." And I had no idea what I was saying yes to. But God knew how to get this girl to go to church. I showed up to church for all the wrong reasons. I showed up to church for over a year for all the wrong reasons. But what happened was every Sunday I started to hear this message about a father's love that I hadn't ever experienced here on this earth. About a daddy who loved me and wanted me and he adopted me and I was a daughter of the King. And I thought, "I want this."
Lisa Michelle: So I ended up giving my life to the Lord. I did a complete 180. I got baptized in that church and I turned away from my sinful lifestyle. I began to change the way I lived, the way I thought. I lost my desire to party and hang out with my partying friends, all by learning the word of God. And having a personal relationship with him. And I'm going to share the second thing that happened.
Lisa Michelle: It was a woman that I heard speaking publicly about her sexual abuse. As she started to share her story, I had never, ever heard somebody talk about sexual abuse and put words to this. And I sat there in horror listening to her tell her story. I was having a physical reaction. I started to feel sick to my stomach. My hands were sweating. I didn't know what was happening to me but I quickly realized that she was articulating what I had been through as a little girl. And for the first time, as a 28 year old woman, I realized I had buried a deep, deep secret inside my soul. And at the end of my story, she said, "If you, too, have been molested, sexually abused, or exploited, would you please find somebody safe and tell them?" And I picked up the phone that day and I called my older sister. And I started. The floodgates just opened because all these memories started coming back.
Lisa Michelle: And I shared everything I remember. She confirmed it. We cried for hours on the phone together. And it was the day that I found my voice. It was a day of freedom and a day of heartbreak at the same time. But it was amazing. It was amazing. It opened up the floodgates of healing.
Sean McDowell: Lisa, thank you so much for having the courage to share your story. I think you've probably already answered this to a degree but what are some of the barriers for our culture as a whole and even the church just to waking up to the reality of sexual exploitation?
Lisa Michelle: Yeah. I think that our church today thinks that it's not happening in their community, let alone their church. I was thinking about it this morning and a memory came back of me going to see Clayton Jennings. I had never heard him preach before he came into San Antonio. I slipped into the back row and sat next to these two guys that were on the end there and quickly realized that, "Hmm, I'm not sure if these guys are supposed to be here and I'm not sure what they're up to." Their eyes were roaming the room, back and forth, and they just seemed very interested in everything else that was going on except [inaudible 00:12:48].
Lisa Michelle: And this guy next to me, his leg next thing you know, is touching my leg. And by the end of the time, before I got up and left, his entire body was halfway onto my feet. He was violating my space and every time that his phone went off it was this heavy metal, really demonic music. And a picture would pop up on his phone and it was of the girls that we minister to. And it was either a prostitute or a stripper. And it said her name on it, I could see everything. And he was messaging back and forth and he must have messaged 20 girls in the short time that I sat next to him. They just kept going back and forth, so I quickly realized this guy has got to be a trafficker. And here he is, sitting inside a church service in the back row. He sat in the back on purpose so he could visualize the room and see who his next victim was. And I was shocked. Here I came to hear somebody I really was looking forward to having a [inaudible 00:13:47] and getting in the word, and here this guy was trolling the church female congregation.
Lisa Michelle: So I got up and went to security and let them know you have somebody that is a predator that is sitting in that back row and you need to look into this guy. And they had never seen him before, so he probably just goes from church to church to church. I work in the juvenile justice system with young girls that have been confirmed as trafficked. I was meeting with them yesterday. I had six in my classroom yesterday, and they have met their predators in church, in youth group. They have met their predators in apartment complexes. It's just amazing to me ... in the school system. So they're everywhere and they're roaming around. And if you think it's not happening in your city, it just is. You are already behind the times if that's your thought process.
Scott Rae: Lisa, I'm picking my jaw up off the floor. What you said is just unbelievable. I can't envision that people would come into our churches and use that as a recruiting ground. That's just staggering to me. I suspect will be to our listeners, too.
Scott Rae: Tell us a little bit about the ministry that you have. It's pretty unique stuff because you minister to girls who have been trafficked. You minister to girls who have served in brothels. You minister to girls who perform in strip clubs. Tell us a little bit more about your ministry to these girls.
Lisa Michelle: Sure. We're called No String Attached. We go into our local strip clubs here in San Antonio and our brothels and we go out onto the streets with law enforcement. It's incredible. We now have a team of law enforcement that escorts us and we have the ability to reach a girl while her pimp is within earshot and have communication with her without him being able to do a thing, which is amazing. But we want to reach these women with a message that God loves them. He sees them right where they're at. And that we have a way out for them if they want it with no strings attached. And we want to show that tangible love of God to each woman.
Lisa Michelle: Two Saturdays ago we walked into a strip club and there was a girl that I was handing a gift to, and you could tell she was starting to turn around and walk away from me. But I caught her. It was just like there was no escaping it. I handed her a gift and she looked at me and she said, "You know, you've been coming in here for years and I've done everything to avoid you. I've got in the back. I've waited until you've left." And she said, "But this time, I can't escape you. You're right here in front of my face." And she said, "Tonight's my last night working here. And I think I'm supposed to meet you tonight." And I said, "What's going on?" She said, "Well, I'm getting married in a couple months and my fiance doesn't want me working here anymore. But I have to tell you the truth. I don't know how I'm going to do it on my own." She said, "And I read your bio and you're a support group for women that are leaving the sex industry." And she's like, "I think I need your help." And she's like, "I don't know what else to do. I just feel like I'll just come right back because I don't even know ... I'm only leaving because he wants me to."
Lisa Michelle: See, she hasn't found the reason for why she even entered into the sex industry. So we help women start to sift through their story and start to process and really go to the root that brought them to that place where they never thought they would go. I met kindergarten teachers. I've met Starbucks workers, DirecTV workers, you name it. These women work every day in our communities and then they go to the strip club and have a whole new persona.
Scott Rae: So Lisa, are there some common elements, some common parts, of the story of these girls who end up in the sex industry?
Lisa Michelle: Yes and they're just like me. They-
Scott Rae: What are some of those things that they tend to have in common?
Lisa Michelle: Yeah, being fatherless is the number one thing. Not growing up with a real strong Godly father figure in the home. And looking to men to meet that need that just they'll never find from man or sex or drugs. They're just not going to find that. And growing up with sexual abuse is another one. So those two things are the root that usually will draw them into that. They don't know their worth or their value yet. They don't know their potential. And that's one of the things that we help draw out of them.
Sean McDowell: Lisa, I mentioned earlier that my father was sexually abused for seven years from about age six to 13 and he became Christian years later than that. And even though his world view was transformed and experienced forgiveness, there was a long process of healing where he needed other believers in his life and had to really ingrain certain biblical truths. In other words, it didn't just happen over night by praying or showing up in church. I'm curious, when you have some of these girls come, what is the message and the process to really help them to be set free?
Lisa Michelle: Well I have to share a little bit about what happened to me. So when I first got married, I ended up meeting my husband at that church that I was going to looking for men. And we got married and a year later, we moved to Arizona. And that deep wound had been opened up inside of me and I didn't know what to do with it and neither did anybody around me. So digging up the past proved to be too much for me. I was diagnosed bipolar. I was diagnosed clinically depressed. And I was under psychiatric care for nine years. And I was in a fight for my sanity. My sobriety came a lot easier than my sanity did, because what happened was just becoming a Christian didn't make all those things go away like you said. It really was a lengthy process and still to this day ... like when I first got my job a year ago going into the juvenile system and meeting these 13 and 14 year old girls and hearing their traumas and finding out how much mine relates to theirs, there were still pieces in me that I was like, "Wow, okay. There's still a little area there."
Lisa Michelle: I feel like it's a lifelong process. Although I feel free and I have that freedom in Christ, I do feel like there are triggers and there are things that can come at us that can kind of bring that up. But we have an easier process of going through that. So we offer trauma informed care for our girls that are coming out of this type of sexual trauma and helping them overcome PTSD. We offer equine therapy. It's amazing to watch what a horse can do and some of the modalities that are used with that. And watching a woman ... I equate equine therapy as like four or five talk sessions, you go to one equine therapy with a horse and you've really grown leaps and bounds. So that's been incredibly healing for me and the girls we minister to.
Lisa Michelle: I highly recommend EMDR. If you haven't heard of that, it will help to overcome the PTSD and it's part of psychotherapy as well. That for me was probably one of my biggest go-tos in going back and revisiting my trauma and having my mind and my brain reprocess and reprogram all of it. And it is a reprogramming in your mind, because for me to stand up in front of a large audience ... the first time I had to share in front of a junior high and high school, I think there was over 5,000 kids there and I literally thought, "I can't traumatize these kids. I can't do this." And I ended up sharing my story and saying it all out loud and I thought, "Oh my gosh, it's so freeing to just get it out." And then I end up finding out that there's a line of children waiting to talk to me in that school that were being trafficked by their own family members.
Lisa Michelle: So it's happening. It's happening especially in our schools today as well. So I hope I answered that all the way.
Sean McDowell: You did, yeah. Lisa, I get to speak and talk with a lot of junior high and high school students. And I see so many of them who just see the surface attraction of kind of the sexual culture, especially through pornography, that you're talking about. If you had a young person who maybe didn't have as difficult of a background as you had, but just saw the romantic side of the world and had no understanding of what really lies behind it, what are some of the things you would say to just help a young person kind of wake up and realize you're dealing with life and death. And people are getting so profoundly hurt by this in ways you don't see.
Lisa Michelle: Yeah, our children are exposed to a [pornified 00:22:52] culture and just at the click of your phone or your mobile units, it's like there. And if you think your child hasn't viewed it, you're already behind the times, too. Because the chances are they have. I highly recommend any parents get a program on their computer and on their mobile devices to keep track of that, because even my daughter just googled the other day 'doing the splits' because she's in cheer. And 'doing the splits with another woman' or something like that, and it went straight to an explicit site. And I got an immediate text say, "Your daughter just tried to go to this site." And it showed what she googled in the top bar. So she wasn't looking for it but our culture and these porn companies are out there looking for anyway to get into the brains of our children.
Lisa Michelle: Once they see it and they're exposed, that's where it's really hard to retrain because then they get addicted to it. But the young girls and the youth groups and the youth camps we're speaking to, nothing is going to ever satisfy you. No boyfriend, no amount of love that you feel on the inside for a guy, will ever, ever fill you up like the love of God. And once you experience his love and experience that fully and unconditionally, you will be so adorned by him. You won't want anything else. So you have to experience his love in order to see these things that are in the world will not fill you up.
Scott Rae: Yeah, Lisa, a question for you based on your experience with some of these girl that you've dealt with. We hear a lot in the culture, particularly from the more radical feminist side of the culture, that's try to bring dignity to the sex industry. That a lot of the women, obviously adults not the kids ... but the adults who are in the sex industry, a lot them are there consensually of their own volition. And they make the case that it's sort of a no harm, no foul type of thing. What do you make of their argument that a lot of the women are in this consensually?
Lisa Michelle: Yeah. I think that a woman that makes that statement has not experienced what the women that we meet in the clubs and the brothels have experienced. And I think they're misinformed. And when you're working in a club and in the beginning, the girls see it as all glitz and glamour and lots of money. But the very first time where their consent is taken away from them and they've been raped and something has happened to them where they no longer have a voice or they're being told to do things that they no longer have a choice anymore at all, then that changes. And that's the trend of the sex industry. You can start out for a good year and not be exposed to any of this. And you can have a filter on, saying, "Oh the sex industry is real sex work. I bring home a thousand dollars a night. And I haven't been treated like that." But the longer you're there, the more you're going to get exposed. So for me, I don't agree with that. I don't see that. The women we serve and work with, that has not been their experience.
Sean McDowell: Lisa, would you be willing to share your thoughts just about the Me Too movement. And I know that comes somewhat of a loaded question because people kind of line up on both sides of this. But are there positives that come from it? Are there concerns about it? How have you seen this development shape the culture in the church?
Lisa Michelle: I, for one, was really happy to see the celebrities that I've seen that started this movement have been a part of my brother-in-laws film and have been a voice in the under current of all of this for a long time. There are some things I agree with, some I don't. But for one, I'm very ... it is great that the conversation has been started. It is great that we can say, now, me too. There is such different sides to each side of it. But for me, I love that the church itself is starting to wake up to this and we're starting to see that side of it gain some momentum as well. We've seen some big leaders in the church start to tell their stories and start to speak out and to say what has happened to them.
Lisa Michelle: And I love that, too, because that's the culture I grew up in and why I was so quiet all the way up until a 28 year old woman. Because I was petrified to speak out loud and to say what had happened to me. And I didn't know what would happen to me, I didn't know what people would think of me. So I love that we're getting women to open up and to see other leaders rise up in that area. But as far as that entire movement ... yeah, I can see both sides of it. I kind of stay neutral in it and I am thankful for it starting, though.
Sean McDowell: You're working on a book. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what it unique?
Lisa Michelle: Yeah. I think it's a book of healing and a book of forgiveness. The story between my dad and I. He was my biggest abuser and perpetrator and because of all that under current of abuse, let me susceptible to my other perpetrators. So the Lord has given me the gift to forgive my dad and to have a good relationship with him today, to have led him into a relationship with the Lord and to be by my side right now.
Sean McDowell: Oh my goodness.
Lisa Michelle: He's in a hospital on his dying bed right now and I every time just rush to him. The story between us is just incredible. So it's such a story that if you have had the worst of the worst pain in your life happen to you, it's amazing how God can transform the heart of the woman that has been hurt like that. So it's called Finding Beauty In Your Scars. I would have never thought ... I spent ten years not speaking to my dad and hate him with a vengeance. And I actually had such a bad view of the sex industry, the strip clubs, any man out there ... I could not stand men. I had a warped view of everything because of my father.
Lisa Michelle: And all of that has changed. And even the Lord leading me into the ministry has changed my heart so much because I've been able to see the realities behind that strip club door and that brothel door. But it's a story of healing and forgiveness and the power of God and how he can take an absolute broken mess of a girl that was diagnosed bipolar, that has been medication free for 19 years now. I was not bipolar. I was going through PTSD and complex sexual trauma and I needed healing in my brain. And its just a message that needs to get out there.
Scott Rae: Lisa, you also do a lot of public speaking. I think our audience would be very interested to know what kind of events you speak at and how someone can get ahold of you.
Lisa Michelle: Yeah, so I speak at women's conferences, junior high schools, high schools, camp retreats, college campuses. I love to go to safe homes and speak to the girls that are in the trenches. The juvenile facilities, youth events, youth camps, non-profits, of course churches many times on Sunday mornings. And I've been the keynote speaker at fundraising galas as well as a survivor leader. If anybody wants to get ahold of me for a speaking engagement, they can reach me at Lisa@LILYNCO.net or my agent. It's booking@TheMIagency.com.
Scott Rae: We'll be sure and put that in the podcast document that we post here so people can readily get ahold of you for that.
Sean McDowell: Lisa, thanks so much for coming on. Scott and I are both professors, philosophers, and we're supposed to be dispassionate. But we're both here just in tears, just heartbreak for what you went through, for what so many young girls and young boys are going through today. But just thanking the Lord for your redemption, that that relationship is restored with your father. That was true with my dad and his father and it's just a testimony to the power of God's grace. So thank you for speaking up and just your boldness and clarity. Let us know when the book is out. We'll do everything we can to spread the word and just keep speaking boldly and thanks so much for coming on the show.
Scott Rae: Thanks so much, Lisa. What an incredible story of redemption.
Lisa Michelle: Thank you guys. I appreciate you so much.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, conversations on faith and culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Lisa Michelle, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.EDU/ThinkBiblically. That's Biola.edu/ThinkBiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.