I have shared pieces of this story before. The version where I am not the central character. The parts where I have yet to name the ways it sent me spiraling. How it upended my purposed life. It is the story I keep returning to. The one that becomes more clear as time passes.
It is a warm June morning when I find myself on a hotel loveseat, in between two of my cop friends. By the time I arrive, they have been working the sting for hours. They beckon me to sit so that I can see what is happening on screen. So I can read what the sex buyers are saying and follow their responses, the women they are pretending to be.
I know these Officers to be parents, spouses, believers and the dissonance between some of our God-conversations and this online chat shatters me. In this hotel room, I feel the weight of their role to end human trafficking, and I am overwhelmed with both gratitude and grief. Another cop pulls ice cream bars out of the mini-fridge. It is all so surreal. I sense evil lurking.
After lunch, I join uniformed Officers in the unmarked van outside. I am both uncomfortable and relieved that they aren’t apologizing to me for their language. Their role is to wait for the signal from inside the hotel, after the chat has yielded enough information to track down the make and model of the buyer’s car, and to intersect him before he even enters the building. A call comes in on the radio and we speed across the lot, swerve in on an angle, and they jump out of the van. For a moment, it’s all so exciting. But shame is near. I smell it.
From inside the van, I am surprised to watch the Officers extend dignity to the buyers, explain everything with kindness. I wonder if it’s their honor that elicits the buyers’ shame, because that’s all I see in their eyes. Every one of them, every time. And it’s their shame-filled eyes that haunt me the whole way home. The whole next week. The rest of the summer. Something new has claimed space in my bones that I cannot shake.
Though I don’t have words for it yet, this is the beginning of the end.
I have been training and organizing and writing about this hideous thing called sex trafficking for years by this point. Reading and watching films and attending conferences without obvious impact on my soul. Curious and studious and eager to grow as an advocate, a galvanizer. I’ve played a role, but it’s been largely, mostly, from the other side of the screen. In that, my role has not been face to face with victims, survivors, sex buyers, or traffickers.
Until shame looks me in the eye and the heavy harm of brokenness comes crashing, unshakeable.
I can not shake the words my friends wrote in order to catch the men.
I can not shake the unsuspecting kindness of the rough uniformed Officers.
I can not shake the look in each of the men’s eyes as evil circled.
And I descend.
My energy evaporates. I resent each new request to train. Frustration mounts at sluggish movement from community partners. I feel stuck and obligated. Loyal, but drained and vision-less. In a sudden, grinding-halt I have lost my way.
It is a gift, though I will not say as much for quite some time.
The sadness, anger, resentment are all so loud. Feelings that have been held at bay for years come rushing forward, demanding an audience, and my soul quakes at the onslaught. I teeter between feeling betrayed and rescued. I had held it all together for so long, I barely recognize her.
My fortified walls of protection had been cracked open by the proximity of evil. Which is why, of course, I eventually see this as a gift. Why, eventually, I allow the tenderness- welcome it, bless it even. Why, eventually, I’m able to receive the invitation from God to start something new.
But the path there is brutal.
Summer fades into fall and winter mocks the warmth and tenderness that cries to be heard, seen. In me. The warmth and tenderness in me, as I hesitantly waken to the fullness of my own brokenness and embrace the duality of strength and softness, fierce and lovely.
Beth Bruno is passionate about issues of injustice and a global sisterhood. Often, this looks like curating the stories and work of incredible women and calling her two teen daughters at least once a day to “come watch this.” Married for 23 years, she and her husband share a love for dark chocolate, dark coffee, and bold wine, among other passions. Their son is headed to college so Beth is not thinking about it by nursing an obsession with Turkish hot air balloons and European villages on her Instagram feed.