Human Trafficking in San Rafael
Almost two years ago I asked the people of San Rafael First UMC to do prayer walks around the neighborhood to see where we might be called to serve within the immediate vicinity of the church. People began to ask questions about a massage parlor that was across the street, and right at the same time some neighbors contacted us to see if we could help with this ‘spa’ that was offering illicit massages to men. As we explored what was going on we discovered that women were being dropped off in a white cargo vans and left for several days at a time, before the next ‘shipment’ came in. I began conversations with the Marin Organizing Committee (MOC) and we formed a research team around Human Trafficking. This issue felt close to home for me as a friends step daughter had been caught up in being trafficked for sex for a few years. She was a young woman who was hurting after the death of her mom, and fell under the spell of a man who flattered her, brought her drugs and got her addicted, and then sold her for sex, controlling her phone, money and life. Her dad ended up rescuing her, but not until some serious damage was done. At first it felt like our enquiries were falling on deaf ears. Both the chief of police and the DA were not interested. But we kept pressure on them and began to speak with others from around Marin County who were also beginning to do this research and push for action. The City of San Rafael heard enough of our voices to begin to take us seriously and hired a firm to go after massage parlors who were breaking codes, an easier route than trying to catch them in the act. Our parlor had more than 35 violations in a short time period. The DA also began to take notice and went from saying, “Trafficking is just the latest catch phrase and doesn’t happen here,” to starting a Marin wide task force against it. As we continued to pray and speak and spread awareness things started to change. The City of San Rafael alone has 80 massage parlors and it is estimated that only 20 of these are legitimate. Others are having strict fines imposed and a moratorium has been placed on new massage businesses being given permits until the rouges are chased out. People are starting to listen when we say trafficking is happening right here (and not just sex trafficking but domestic trafficking is big in Marin too). And the best news: the massage parlor across the street from our church has just been shut down, their business license revoked, and the landlords unable to rent to another massage business again! When we saw this we immediately contacted the landlords to see if we could rent the building for 2 months (without telling them our plan to hold a human trafficking awareness art exhibit with speakers and movies), but were turned down. We suspect the landlord had something to do with the massage business. We are in the process of working out how we can use the church for an awareness campaign, and hold a prayer vigil at the old parlor. I praise God for the eyes and work of all who saw what so many turned a blind eye to. The parlor was in business for 14 years. And I continue to pray for the women involved. One member of the MOC team is beginning to offer individual counseling to women escaping the trafficking business, and we have many partners now in the county who are exploring the idea of a safe house too. It’s amazing what happen when you pray!
Rev. Alison Hendley