April showers bring determined marchers.
After an early morning of heavy rain, hundreds in Modesto gathered to march to end sex trafficking Saturday. The raindrops stayed away for the duration of the #iamchange Freedom Walk up McHenry Avenue from Centenary Church. The event was a call to action for men of faith to help stop sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
"Men have the ability to talk about this abuse and lead the change," said Debbie Johnson, CEO of the Modesto-based nonprofit Without Permission that is fighting sex trafficking in the San Joaquin Valley.
Leaders from more than 20 churches from Galt to Bakersfield were involved in organizing the march. Their hope is to kick start a "Men's Movement" to combat the pervasive problem. Men are asked to "Honor Heal Lead Change," the event's slogan, through their words and actions.
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"I think this is such a positive message. It doesn't point the finger at anyone. But it encourages self-reflection," said Chinh Vu, the outreach pastor at Calvary Community Church in Manteca. "It's not an issue people want to talk about. But this is happening right in our back yard."
Without Permission was founded in 2010 and has since helped more than 360 victims of sex trafficking. The group focuses on prevention, justice and helping victims through its works with churches, public and private agencies, schools and law enforcement.
"I think a lot of us as men have taken a time out in life and we have decided to not have a time in. We've been sitting on the bench so long because we look at all the things that are happening in this world and we say it's too much," said the Rev. Brian Hunt, lead pastor at Crossroads Grace Community Church in Manteca, at the opening rally. "The problem with that is while the time out is happening the world is still going on. And, if you didn't know, Satan doesn't take a time out."
The day's guest speaker was Remi Adeleke, an actor and former Navy SEAL, who shared his life story with the crowd. He was born in Nigeria and grew up hanging out on the streets of the Bronx. By age 12, he was watching pornography, progressed to frequenting brothels and prostitutes, and considered sex a "drug" when he got older.
"It was more than a drug. It was like crack, cocaine, ecstasy all wrapped in one for me.... As I grew older I began to devalue women. I started to treat them like meat," he said.
His faith helped him out of that lifestyle.
Johnson said it was important to note that the Freedom Walk was not a protest, but a call to action. The crowd was about 90 percent male, and 10 percent female, as intended. While the organizers had hoped for about 1,000 participants, close to 300 came out despite the inclement weather. But those who did felt determined to make change.
"I am just tired of all these kids being hurt by this," said Modesto resident and Freedom Walk participant Thomas Allison, whose wife deals with sex trafficking through her work with the Stanislaus County Probation Department. "It's great to see all these men and families trying to put a stop to this."