When Jimmy Lee first met Lisa*, she had recently been arrested on charges of prostitution. The New York City court system referred her to Lee’s organization, Restore NYC, to learn why she was on the street. It was discovered she’d left her country to start a new life in the United States under the promise of a legitimate visa and respectable job. But upon her arrival, she was forced into prostitution to pay off a large fictitious debt. She didn’t speak English well enough to seek help, and threats on her family kept her from escaping. Though she shared the sidewalk with millions of people, she felt unseen and forgotten.
Lee hears stories like Lisa’s far too often. As the executive director of Restore NYC—which works to reestablish the well-being and independence of sex traffic survivors—he is an expert at helping women rebuild the dreams they came to the United States to pursue. But he’s an unlikely advocate. For one, he’s a man challenging an industry where men make up the vast number of perpetrators and pimps. In addition, he spends more time meeting with board members and law enforcement than with victims. And his Ivy League education and Wall Street-studded résumé typecast him as someone who cares about figures, not faces.
“People ask if I’m a feminist,” he said. “Ultimately, I’m a data person. The numbers don’t lie, and they say that if we protect women and girls, it’s a good return for society.” Yes might be a trendier answer, but as a Christian who believes in the biblical mandate to value all life and as a financier who’s compelled by statistics, Lee is well equipped to answer Jesus’ call to defend the vulnerable and marginalized.
“The numbers don’t lie, and they say that if we protect women and girls, it’s a good return for society.”
Lee is passionate about trafficking issues, in part because he’s witnessed the detrimental effect of “rape culture” on women. He recalls spending a summer abroad in South Africa while studying sociology at Cornell University. It was 1994, shortly after Nelson Mandela was elected president—an era when AIDS was not yet fully understood. “I went back 15 years later, and 45 percent of females between 15 and 36 had HIV,” he said. The sheer number of victims led him to begin studying the injustices facing women and girls. In doing so, Lee realized that gender inequity and sexual violence contributed not only to the rise of AIDS, but also to human trafficking.
The vulnerability of foreign national victims resonates with Lee, especially because his mother could easily have been one of them. As a child growing up in postwar South Korea, the thing she wanted most was to come to the U.S. So when her family arranged for her to marry a Korean-American man she had never met, she boarded a plane in hopes of a better life. Luckily, Lee’s father was kind, and she was able to find her version of “happily ever after.”
Others, like Lisa, aren’t so fortunate. As many as 250 commercially exploited women are referred to Restore NYC by the local court system each year. Many, but not all of them, are trafficked. “We’ve worked with young ladies from Russia who thought they were coming to be models. Women, especially from Latin America, are romanced to New York by someone who says, ‘Come and we’ll have a beautiful life together.’ There are so many in other countries who will come without asking real questions,” Lee said. Once in the States, jobless and unable to speak the language, they are trapped—slaves in every sense of the word.
New York City’s diversity makes blending in easy and identifying victims hard. “You’re not going to stand out, no matter what country you’re from,” Lee said. Although the survivors represent a patchwork of ethnicities, Restore NYC primarily focuses its resources on two people groups: Asians and Latinas. “That’s where our expertise, language, and connections are, but if you go to our safe house in Queens, you’ll see women there from almost every continent,” Lee continued. Restore NYC’s facility stands in the epicenter of the trafficking scene running along the I-95 corridor, and within its walls, 11 residents at a time participate in a formal yearlong program designed to prepare them for an independent, thriving life. When Lee visits, he makes it a point to help the women feel that the home is theirs.
“I’m not a social worker. I’m not a counselor,” he said. “And I’m also a man in an organization that assists women who have been abused and exploited by men. That means I need to be sensitive about how I engage with them.” His small but dedicated staff is composed mainly of women who provide residents with things like counseling, legal advocacy, and job skills training. This allows Lee to handle big-picture pursuits, such as educating lawmakers and obtaining resources needed to carry out the ministry’s vision.
The church, more than any other entity, has the ability to shape the culture of commercial sexual exploitation.
Lee is currently working on what he calls a “prove strategy,” which uses real data and outcomes, to back up Restore NYC’s approach to complete restoration. “We can build more safe houses and help more women, and that’s a great thing,” he said. “But if we’re going to make an impact over the next decade or two, we have to prove that what we’re doing is making a difference and can be replicated—whether you’re in Austin, Los Angeles, or Chicago.”
Corroborating methods of restoration is no small task, partly because the data is not good (the U.S. government first defined the term “trafficking” just a decade ago) and partly because recovery is not easily quantifiable. As the sole evangelical organization that addresses trafficking in America’s most populous city, Restore NYC takes an approach different from that of other groups: They believe complete healing occurs only when those they serve are restored to the Father. “That colors what we do in pretty radical ways,” Lee said. “We don’t want to be another group that [helps] women to do something. We want to provide the opportunity to know [God’s] love by connecting them with churches and evangelism programs or asking if they would like prayer.”
The invitation to faith is essential for many reasons. First, the church can offer a deeper level of healing, beyond the daily tasks of cooking dinner and holding down a job. It allows the women to find acceptance, rediscover their self-worth, and regain hope. “Survivors are often viewed by society as being unclean,” Lee said. “To many, they are criminals, whores, or worse. It’s so important for the church to have compassion.”
In fact, Lee believes that the church, more than any other entity, has the ability to shape the culture of commercial sexual exploitation. “I think men in the church are especially well equipped to change the conversation,” he said, “because we know how God says we should engage with women. If the church can first be that model, that’s the way we change culture.” This means keeping sex within marriage, for starters, but also investing in families and promoting a biblical mindset about genders. He sees more men involved in the fight against trafficking than in years past, but there are still far fewer advocates than he would like. “I hope and pray for God to do a redemptive work in men and how we view sex. It can never be transactional—never just physical,” he said. “The church can be an amazing, winsome witness to the world of what that looks like.”
He borrows the title from one of Eugene Peterson’s books, calling this type of cultural evolution “a long obedience in the same direction.” Joining God in His work of restoration is not flashy. Lee won’t even use the word “rescue” because it implies doing something heroic. But to many of the women he serves, Lee is a knight in shining armor—one who helps them piece back together their vision for a better life. Lisa, the first graduate of the safe house program, is a testament to this fact. She is now employed by Restore NYC, which allows her to fulfill her dream of living and working in New York City.
On the computer in his small Midtown Manhattan office, Lee keeps a handwritten sticky note that was penned by a safe house resident—“God bless you. I am happy here,” it says, followed by a heart and smiley face. A quick glance at the worn Post-it serves as a quiet, affirming reminder that while statistics are valuable and compelling, so too are the survivors whose stories they tell.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the survivor.