Our Story: Why We Fight for Freedom

As told by Hope Inspire Love co-founder Steve Thurston

It was a brisk Spring morning as I traveled on the subway in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I stood there, holding on to the long, vertical railing of the train car. Although there were several empty seats, I planted my feet squarely next to the door. The train stopped prematurely, then slowly inched toward the next station.

I stared out the window, scanning my eyes around the platform, curious to see the surroundings of the bleak, underground station. Out of the corner of my eye emerged a young girl. Frail, thin limbs, and dressed in minimal layers of clothing despite the frigid morning air. She walked onto the subway. Her cheekbones were scant and weathered, and her heavy eyes looked down at the metal floor as she shuffled towards a seat.

She hardly looked to be breathing, blinking, or alive as she sat down with her companion next to her. She sat there in what looked like a deep, black velvet dress with folds that reflected the catchlight of the subway ceiling lights.

I could feel the dampness of the train on the skin of my hands, and the smell of stale air filled the space. It felt like being immersed in a bath of deep reverberations that echoed around me as the repetitive rumbling breached through a small opened window above my head.

I elevated my gaze a bit and looked around at some of the other passengers, then looked back at her again. Something about her continued to confiscate my attention. Her long, tangled hair hung like dead branches on a mahogany tree, fragile to the touch, left to dry on a warm summer’s heat. With a few streaks of gold, her hair was more rosewood than walnut, glowing like dark honey.

Her face held little trace of life. She slowly looked up. Her pale blue eyes, hollow like a deep chasm, connected with mine. She looked to be around 14 or 15 years old, maybe younger, but I couldn’t definitively tell. Her gaunt eyes made her look older than her years and her makeup made it hard to get a bearing on her exact age. Small brown freckles stood out from her bleached face, like the tips of grass struggling to grow on dry ground.

Looking at her, I found love in those eyes. Eyes full of dreams. Eyes with a story. I also found something vulnerable in those eyes. They felt exploitable without consequence.

My gaze drifted reluctantly over to her companion, who I initially perceived as a father figure, but something was out of place about the relationship. There was no intimacy, no familiarity, no love for one another. He wasn’t a source of safety but rather an impetuous, isolated adversary. His arm jutted out sharply over her neck, with ownership and strength. As his arm wrapped tightly around her, she shuffled in her seat, uncomfortable and smothered by his large size. Looking to be around his mid-thirties, he seemed too old to be a boyfriend.

For a quick second, she broke protocol and made eye contact with me again. I couldn’t tell but it felt as if she was reaching out with overstretched hope that someone, like me, might intervene. I didn’t. She looked down.

She tried to look up again, but the man turned quickly and pressed his hand on her arm, an aggressive move that startled me. The knuckles on his hand were white from the pressured grasp. Others sitting around me also noticed. We all noticed this man, this adversary, and his victim, the girl. We all noticed that something was not right.

Was she a victim or was I just being unreasonably suspicious? The man sternly whispered something to her, unintelligible to those around them, asserting his dominance with his words and flinty expression. I knew instantly from the look in her eyes that his words had hit their mark. Her shoulders slumped as she gazed down again, lips curled and forehead tilted towards the floor.

Where were they going? What was their destination? Who was she? Why was she with this older man that radiated hardened disdain through his body language? Why was he so aggressive? Was she a victim? I asked myself again. Why wasn’t she fighting back? Why was she not asking for help? Why wasn’t she walking away?

Question after question about the girl, her companion, their interactions, and everything in between about the situation filled my mind. My unspoken questions received empty answers in return.

As the train traveled towards the next station, nobody around me moved. No one interjected, not even me. We all watched as the man maintained control over her. There was a void, like a vacuum of nothingness, between them and all of the other passengers. It’s as if everyone traveling in that train was hypnotized, or even enchanted, unable to think or move. No one reacted and no one seemed bothered to.

I slowly put my hand into the right pocket of my jeans, sliding my hand over my mobile phone that laid there confined in its chamber of denim. I pressed my hand around it as I hesitated. I became frustrated with myself, not knowing what to do. This was a moment I was not expecting. A moment I had not asked for and a moment I was completely unprepared for. All I could think about in that moment was the lights that danced on the fabric of her dress. My mind was trying to trick me and distract me to avoid the situation.

The muffled voice of the conductor came through the speaker, breaking my trance and transporting me back into reality—to that very moment, to a girl in a subway, who looked uncomfortable, disconnected, and draped with bleak undertones of fear.

My heart raced. I seem to recall this inner voice nudging me to do something, but it wasn’t an audible voice. It was as if God was speaking to me in the back of my mind, directly into my soul. My stomach dropped. That gut feeling, that internal intuition you get when you know something is terribly wrong overcame me.

Should I call the police? My hand was still clenching my phone in my pocket. What should I do? Was I destined to be on this train, at this exact moment, to rescue her? To be her deliverer? To be her savior? My faith wavered, craven at best.

It’s hard to convey what transpired in the 25 to 30 seconds that had passed since the train doors closed. It all just happened so fast. A blur.

Her head slowly lifted again. I could see her bleeding out emotionally through her gaze. The man stood up, pulling her up by the arm. Her eyes swung back to me. They searched beggingly. Maybe she saw a glimmer of hope in me.

I looked away, shameful. But I dared to glance back at her once again with eyes full of confusion. My heart roused faster. I know this sounds strange, but I felt pity at first. Maybe it was all in my imagination and she was just a stubborn, little teen traveling with her stern father. My confidence eroded when the pity started to subside. I felt that little voice come back again. Save her, the voice in my head trembled.

Once again, I felt that something was deeply wrong. Was she being exploited? Is this what human trafficking looked like? I did not know the exact signs of exploitation, but something pushed me to dig deeper in my vague memory of stories I had heard and movies I had watched. But nothing made sense.

Fear and anxiousness overcame me, so inescapable that I hesitated. I couldn’t breathe, as if someone was pressing on my chest. I looked around and no one was doing anything. More specifically, I wasn’t doing anything.

Save her, I yelled. Somebody save her! I felt like I was yelling, yet nothing came out of my mouth. A silent soliloquy. No one could hear me. I couldn’t hear myself.

As the train pulled into the station, it jolted, shaking for a brief moment and then stopping abruptly. The metal screeched as the heavy subway doors opened. It was a sound I had heard several times before, but this time it felt deafening. Adrenaline coursed through my veins like a cold river, urging me to do what I could not. I stood there, paralyzed, disappointed with myself. I could hear my pulse banging in my ears. Maybe it was her pulse. I couldn’t tell.

The man clenched his hand tighter around her arm. His resentful eyes narrowed and told a story of power and dominance that I had never seen before in any kind of father-daughter relationship.

I knew at that exact moment, this was a girl that was being trafficked. How did I know? I didn’t, but my common sense told me it was. My emotions and intuition told me. That little voice told me. God’s Holy Spirit told me.

God had planted a seed in my heart that day. As months passed, I was convinced that anti-human trafficking awareness was the spire of my purpose on this planet. The purpose of the air I breathed daily was to fight this injustice and to educate myself, as well as others, about these atrocities.

That same evening, I shared my futile encounter with my wife Amy. Words flew out of my mouth as I tried to recall the subway’s events. The details. The girl. The emotions. The missed opportunity. The overgrown roots that seemed to choke all hope left out of the girl’s eyes.

Amy and I sat at different ends of our suede, oversized couch looking at each other. I bit my lip tightly in an attempt to hold back my failure and disappointment in myself.

My words slowly made their way out of my mouth as my hands hung limply over my knees while I shared my dismay over the magnitude of the situation, questioning myself as I tried to make sense of it all through my explanation. Hopelessness seeped deep into my bones as I grieved over the girl. A moment that carried forward a past decision that couldn’t be undone. But my heart began to stir as we sat there in the faint evening.

I knew Amy was not there yet. The realization was mine, the calling at that moment was mine. We always had done ministry together in the past. Life-changing ministry surrounded by our family. We’ve always had a heart for missions and a drive to love on people. But this was different. This had profound transformation and hope written all over it. God had convinced me. But now God needed to convince Amy. That took time.

I wouldn’t say I was giddy with excitement, but a powerful serenity filled my soul, the kind that ignited from the inside out. I felt deliriously propelled in this new direction we were being called to fight for.

Our focus was initially scattered, filled with nervous anticipation that tingled through our thoughts and emotions of what all of this meant for us, for our family. We prayed about this, about our future, about our work. It was a scary moment in time. We were walking into a new stage of our lives purely by faith and obedience. Scary because it didn’t make very much sense to us, but we had to trust him.

The day came, January 2017, for us to plant our roots deep and start Hope Inspire Love.

The moment we said yes to being world-changers, to fighting this vicious crime, the doors started to open. To our dismay, doors would clearly open, and fast, as if God were kneeling besides us in place as we prepared to start the sprint in the fight against human trafficking. With a wide, supple grin, he seemed to boast the words, “This is your time, this is your place, it’s time to run.” It wasn’t just a ruse to get our attention or a vague command to love our neighbors as ourselves. It came forcefully, it was specific.

It was time for us to make a difference in the lives of those that did not have a voice. A time for us to shine a light on exploitation and modern-day slavery.

But on that day riding the subway, the girl whose voice had only been her silent, pleading eyes, slipped away with the man, unnoticed. But I noticed. We all noticed.

The man pulled her through the open doors and out of the subway car. She followed hastily, obediently. Everyone around me that had witnessed the whole interaction just stood there. Motionless. Watching. Looking. Nobody moved. No one said anything. My muscles tensed up. I felt like a coward.

The man’s steps gathered pace as he carelessly walked away with the girl in tow. The subway doors closed with galling resistance and complete silence filled the cabin of the train as it started to drift away.

My eyes closed. My heart sank. Tears gathered behind my eyes as I stood there silently, until I got to my destination.

But this story is not about me, or about our family, or about our ministry and mission, or about how it all started. It’s bigger than that. This story is about that girl, finding freedom from violent oppression. This story is about her resilience to survive while pursuing freedom. This story is about a girl who shouts and screams at the top of her lungs for help, and one day she will find her voice, and you and I will be ready to hear her.

This story is also about you. Because we can never underestimate the power of a single action. The ripple effects you create can be far beyond what you imagine.

The girl in the subway is worthy, powerful, brave, relentless, significant, and courageous. She is more precious than rubies. We fight for her and for her journey to freedom. But we pray that she will rise one day because freedom is our legacy.

The flame of her hope, and our hope, will burn in the darkest of nights for her, reflecting human strength, resiliency, triumph, and love!

Though the subway girl doesn’t know it yet, one day she will be free, because we will never stop looking. We will never stop advocating for her. We will never stop her voice from being heard. One day, soon, we will see the love in her eyes again.

Steve & Amy Thurston
Hope Inspire Love