“Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted, young and needy.” Karen Klett says that scripture, Psalms 82:3 to be exact, always comes to mind when she reflects on her church’s work with Street GRACE.
The passage also seems to underlie the motivation behind why Klem’s church, 12Stone in Lawrenceville, and leaders from about 39 other metro Atlanta area churches, have been inspired to partner with the metro Atlanta-based non-profit. The non-denominational alliance of churches, community partners and volunteers is dedicated to “supporting, enlarging and allying with those individuals and organizations working toward eliminating the commercial sexual exploitation of children,” according to its website. Anyone who thinks underage sex for sale is not a church issue, should think again, Street GRACE leaders say.
“God is a God of justice and this is a justice issue,” insists Klem. “These girls are victims and they need to be defended.”
Amy Sink, of City Church Eastside near downtown, says until she got involved with the group eight months ago, she had no idea how serious a problem this was in Atlanta.
“I thought this was more of a problem outside of the country, but I was shocked to learn that so many girls were getting trafficked right here in America,” says Sink, who leads her church’s P.A.C.E. (Protection Against Child Exploitation) Ministry. “I’m a mother of a daughter and I’d hate to see her treated in that way. Learning that this was also happening to a lot of girls from nice suburban areas was a real eye-opener for me.”
It is estimated that 375 girls are sexually exploited in Georgia each month, with the majority of the illegal incidents occurring in Atlanta. In that same time frame, about 7,200 men knowingly or unknowingly purchase sex from teen girls in the state.
“Are these all the lovable, sweet teenage girls we all dream of,” asserts Klem. “No. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve justice and protection. These girls are clearly victims who need to be protected. Many of them come from troubled homes. Some are just girls who met their predators in chat rooms online.”
“G-R-A-C-E” is an acronym for Galvanizing Resources Against Child Exploitation and member churches strive to help the organization live up to its moniker. The churches agree to financially contribute to Street GRACE. The congregations also participate in monthly volunteering opportunities that include a wide range of support activities, such as mentoring, tutoring, awareness forums, in-kind services and even sprucing up the facilities of organizations that work with victims and children who are at risk.
“A lot of people have been made aware of the issue but they don’t know what to do to help,” says Strategy and Volunteer Coordinator Amy Walters. “We provide them with opportunities to get involved.”
Continues Walters. “We work in the areas of awareness, prevention and restoration. We support the local organizations that are working on the front lines. We provide volunteers to the organizations that work on the prevention side and the organizations that serve as ‘safe houses’ for the victims.”
Street GRACE member churches assemble groups that pray in shifts around the clock for both the victims and perpetrators of these crimes. Members also raise awareness among state lawmakers at an annual “lobby day.”
“The next one will be February 1; we take single white roses to the elected officials at the state capitol and ask them to do something to protect our children from being exploited,” explains Walters.
Street GRACE recently added a short film to its awareness arsenal. The Candy Shop, a 30-minute, “Depression-era fairytale film” about the modern day child sex trafficking epidemic. Produced and directed by Brandon McCormick of Whitestone Motion Pictures, the film tells the story of a candy man who lures little girls into a sweet shop and they never escape. A crowd of 3,500, turned out for a viewing earlier this month at the Fox Theatre.
“It was incredible; such a great way to illustrate the issue as a fairy tale,” gushes Klett, of the movie. “You get the point of the issue, but not in an intrusive way.”
McCormick learned about the child sex exploitation problems in Atlanta at the 2009 lobby day event. The alarming statistics that he heard inspired him to use his filmmaking skills to raise awareness. It took nearly two years and some financial support from 12Stone Church for the film to get made. Now it’s a contender in the Doorpost Film Festival.
Street GRACE leaders assert that compelling stories have the ability to capture the minds and emotions of people of all types and ages and encourage them to become activists. The Candy Shop will be a part of a citywide campaign that aims to draw attention to the issue and drum up support for resources to protect Georgia’s children.
The organization was born out of the anger and frustration Fulton County Chief Juvenile Court Judge Nina Hickson expressed in 2000 after she’d presided over her 1,000th child prostitution case. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin in 2005, commissioned a report known as “Hidden in Plain View,” which revealed Atlanta’s problems to a broader audience.
“This is an issue for everyone,” says Walters. “When a child is bought and sold, that child is destroyed on so many levels. Our children deserve better than that.”
The report pointed out the hotspots for this kind of activity and one happened to be the corner of Peachtree Street and North Avenue — the very intersection where North Avenue Presbyterian Church (NAPC) sits. The church’s senior pastor Scott Weimer was so shocked that he teamed up with James Milner, senior pastor of Chapel of Love Christian Baptist Church and Franklin’s Faith-based Roundtable chairperson. After they hosted two community forums on the issue a group of eight churches decided to hire a consultant to develop a strategic plan for churches to unite with the public, private and social sectors to work on local child sexual exploitation issues. Street GRACE was formed as a result. The organization officially became a non-profit in 2009.
“We’re about raising awareness,” says Sink. “Keeping it hidden is not the answer. It’s more damaging if we decide not to talk about it. We all have to speak up and let everyone know that this is not okay.”
Interested in this topic? Check out www.JJIE.org’s interview with State Senator Renee Unterman of Buford who introduced a bill during the last legislative session proposing that prostituted girls age 16 and under be treated as victims, not criminals.
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta, Essence and People magazines and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.