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A Sexual Abuse Survivor Helps Fight Human Trafficking

Bankrupt and unemployed, Cory Nichols found a new calling

Cory Nickols

The Christian writer Frederick Buechner once described a person’s life calling as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

To my own astonishment, that’s what my work feels like every day. I’m director of strategic partnerships for an organization called Destiny Rescue, which liberates women and children from sexual enslavement, concentrating mostly in Asia.

Why am I so astonished that I landed this job? Well, if you’d known me 10 years ago, you’d be astonished too. Back then, I was the one with deep hunger. I was jobless, bankrupt, living in my dad’s basement. I carried the deep wounds of childhood sexual abuse. I hungered for work, for purpose. For a reason to hope. But I was lost.

God met me in that dark place. He brought me to where I am now. Maybe my deepest gladness comes from doing work that, in its own small way, extends the mercy that was shown to me.

I was a teenager when everything fell apart. My parents announced to my three brothers and me that they were divorcing. We were shocked. As far as we could tell, Mom and Dad were a loving couple united by faith. They’d planted several churches in our rural community outside Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Dad moved out. Not long after, someone took advantage of my distress and sexually abused me. I was too young, too scared, too unmoored to tell anyone. I lived consumed by fear and bitterness.

I could have abandoned my faith, blaming God for the end of my parents’ marriage and the trauma of what came after. Instead, in college, I sought church as a refuge. I prayed more, not less. And I felt God’s grace. I forgave my dad, whom I’d blamed for the divorce because he was the one who moved out. I even forgave my abuser after he admitted what he’d done and told me how sorry he was.

I thought I was moving on. I earned a degree in landscape architecture and found a job at a firm in Atlanta. I bought a house. A car. I hoped to marry someday.

The economy crashed in 2008, and optional expenditures like new landscaping were one of the earliest casualties. My salary was reduced; then I was laid off. I searched coast-to-coast for work, but no one was hiring. Mortgage and car payments piled up. I owed more on my house than it was worth.

I had no choice. I declared bankruptcy, held a garage sale to get rid of furniture and moved into the basement bedroom of my dad and stepmom’s house. I wasn’t even 30. I had felt as if God were leading me on a good path. Where did the path go now?

One morning, I awoke and tried doing some devotions. The basement wasn’t a cozy place. The floor wasn’t carpeted, just finished concrete. A dingy lamp by my bedside provided reading light. I came to a passage in Isaiah: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives.”

A voice spoke inside me: “Cory, I want you to set captives free.”

What? Where did that come from? The feeling intensified. A powerful sense that God wanted me to free captives. What did that even mean?

I was an unemployed landscape architect. I had to rack my brains to come up with anything in my background that connected with that command.

I remembered learning about American slavery in fifth grade. I grew so outraged, I wanted to be reborn in the nineteenth century to fight on behalf of slaves. In high school, I stood up for an overweight girl bullied by a couple of star basketball players.

Not the résumé of an antislavery crusader. And there were no slaves in America to free—or so I thought.

I couldn’t shake the feeling. Not knowing how else to respond, I got more involved in a church my dad and stepmom had planted. I shared my story with the congregation—the breakup of my family, my sexual abuse, the loss of my job and bankruptcy.

People identified with my financial struggles and family turmoil. They were inspired by the healing in my relationship with Dad. I started getting invitations to speak at other churches.

“You have an amazing story, and you’re so honest. Have you ever thought of writing a blog?” a friend at church asked one day.

I barely knew what a blog even was. One thing I did know: Bloggers were a dime a dozen. Did I have anything unique to offer?

Still, I wondered. People at church seemed moved by my story. Could it inspire others too? What did I have to lose? I signed up for a free blogging service and began writing.

The response was slow at first but positive. Soon I had a small audience of regular readers. “Every day, the first thing I do when I get to work is look for a new blog post from you,” someone wrote. “Your writing really ministers to me and helps me get unstuck in life.”

Really? Something I wrote did that?

It would have been nice if the blog also provided a salary. I was still pretty much broke. I tried starting a landscaping business with one of my brothers, but we didn’t make good partners, especially as I spent more time writing.

Then one day an e-mail came to me from an editor at The Good News, a Christian news publication. “We came across your blog, and we love it. We want you to become a contributing writer for us.”

A job! It wasn’t landscape architecture. But it paid. And I’d begun to wonder whether writing was something God wanted me to do.

Not long after, a representative from a Christian organization called Destiny Rescue came to talk at an event at church. The nonprofit was headquartered near Fort Wayne. I’d never heard of it, and I knew nothing about human trafficking.

The speaker rattled off statistics about human slavery in the modern world. I was astounded to hear that at least 40 million people are enslaved, more than a tenth of them in sexual slavery.

Most slavery—forced labor, prostitution, forced marriage—occurs outside the United States. But the U.S. is not immune. Thousands of people live as slaves in present-day America, forced to work in the sex trade, in farm fields and in sweatshops. Americans spend $144 billion annually on computers, clothes and other products made in places where slavery is prevalent.

Hearing those shocking numbers, I felt something well up inside me. Pain. Fear. Memories I thought I’d dealt with years ago.

I had dealt with them. I had genuinely forgiven my abuser. But the pain, obviously, was still there.

Free the captives. Compared to the suffering of child prostitutes in Thailand, my episode of sexual abuse had been minor. But it had still scarred me. The speaker described how Destiny Rescue was saving children from sexual slavery. I couldn’t just sit there. I had to do something. But what could I do?

When the talk was over, I approached the speaker and blurted out, “I would love to write about your organization.”

A few months later, I was on a plane to Southeast Asia, where Destiny Rescue’s founder, Tony Kirwan, oversaw a network of safe houses providing children rescued from the sex trade with shelter and help reintegrating into their communities once conditions were safe.

I was taken to a red-light district in Thailand. It was a miniature Las Vegas, with blinking lights, blaring music and women and girls outside bars and clubs, beckoning to western businessmen and tourists.

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I saw a young girl in front of a bar. “There’s no way that girl is 18,” I said to someone in our group. The girl’s eyes were glazed. She looked as if every reason to live had been taken from her.

For a moment, panic gripped me. Maybe I shouldn’t have come. I knew all too well the violation that lay behind those eyes.

Yet this time my memories did not get the better of me. New feelings welled up alongside the despair. Anger at this corrupt system. And a burning desire to do something about it.

That desire must have been obvious for the duration of the trip. A few days after I interviewed Tony Kirwan, he offered me a job. “You seem to have a passion for this issue that goes beyond reporting,” he said. “We need a writer on our staff, someone who can help spread the word about what we do.”

Did I jump at this opportunity? Ashamedly, no, not at first. The prospect of living overseas was too intimidating to me. I told Tony no and returned home. I couldn’t sleep for two weeks. At last I asked Tony if the job was still open.

“Of course,” he said.

I’ve been working for Destiny Rescue since 2012. One thing I tell audiences about our efforts is that two of the leading causes of child slavery are poverty and family breakdown.

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I have known poverty and family breakdown. Not like some of the children I’ve seen in Southeast Asia. But I was reduced to what felt like almost nothing. What had seemed safe and secure vanished. Only God endured.

I feel blessed and privileged to do this work God has called me to. Truly, it is a place where deep hunger and deep gladness meet.

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