ASE Asks: Sarah Gardner on the IJM Freedom Ride

Sarah Gardner in Seattle on the IJM Freedom Ride

“ASE Asks” is a series in which NCC ASE interviews everyday individuals who are making a difference in the fight against slavery and exploitation in their own unique and creative ways. We love to show our readers that you don’t have to be a “professional” to seek justice and meet the needs of the broken. If you know someone who NCC ASE should feature on “ASE Asks,” contact us.

Sarah Gardner is the Event Coordinator for NCC ASE in addition to her full-time position as a Neonatal ICU Nurse at Virginia Hospital Center. Sarah recently took part in the IJM Freedom Ride in the Pacific Northwest, traveling from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon.

ASE: What is the IJM Freedom Ride and how did you hear about it?

SG: The IJM Freedom Ride is organized by the organization Venture Expeditions. Venture Expeditions’ mission is to empower people to benefit the world and discover their souls through adventure-driven humanitarian efforts. I have known about, prayed for and supported the amazing work of International Justice Mission (IJM) for years but did not hear about Venture Expeditions until I came across their booth at the expo hosted during the 2013 Justice Conference in Philadelphia. After doing more research on Venture Expeditions I learned that one of their upcoming adventures was to support and bring awareness to the work that IJM is doing.

ASE: It sounds like an amazing opportunity. What made you decide to participate?

SG: I have felt God really tugging at my heart to seek Justice for those who are trapped in the world of modern-day slavery, to be an advocate, bring awareness, and be a light in the dark places. There were three things that really drew me into joining the IJM Freedom Ride team: first, the opportunity to support International Justice Mission and to contribute to God’s call for Justice; second, the physical adventure and challenge of training and riding a bike for over 400 miles; and third, the opportunity to see the beautiful Pacific Northwest in a unique way.

ASE: I can imagine that biking 400 miles required a lot of endurance and fitness! What kind of training did you have to go through to prepare yourself for the trip? Did you face any obstacles in getting into riding shape?

SG: Yes, this was physically demanding! It was also very demanding on my time and finances (I needed to raise $3000). Prior to the ride I had never ridden my bike over 12 miles, so all this was new to me. I originally thought I could ride my hybrid bike…I knew nothing about biking, and I still have lots more to learn! After already being chosen to be a part of the team, committing and donating to my ride I found out I did not have the right bike. I felt panicked and worried that I had misunderstood God and I was not supposed to be on this ride. I did not have the money to buy the right type of bike (prices start at $800-1000!). I prayed and still felt God was calling me to continue. I sold my hybrid bike for $400 and bought a brand new Cannondale (a really fancy brand) road bike on craigslist for only $600 (So I only spent $200). All done in 24 hours. God is awesome!!!

I found a new friend, Larry, from an unlikely place who would turn into my biking mentor. He is retired, has been riding bikes all over the country for years and a bike expert. Through his time, expertise and love of teaching/biking he got me ready for my ride. He fitted me to my bike (I didn’t know I needed to do that), talked through how to clean a bike, parts for a bike, nutrition while riding, setting up a training schedule, and always made himself available for any concerns or questions. He and his family along with my friend and family cheered me through every pedal stroke during the bike tour!!

I found that I really enjoyed riding my bike — it brought me a lot of peace and time to reflect on life and to talk to God. I’m a prayer partner with IJM and they send weekly emails, so I would spend a lot of time praying over these requests when I was on my bike. This always helped remind me why I was making these sacrifices, and they started to not feel like sacrifices anymore but something natural I would do for someone else; like visiting a loved one in the hospital — of course I would go visit. In the same way, of course I want to love, pray for, and sacrifice for the unknown individual who is hurting. There is no way for me to ignore this now that I know people are hurting and that God loves them just as he loves me.

ASE: Tell us about your experience on the Freedom Ride. Was it what you expected? What were some of the greatest challenges that you and your team faced? Would you do it over again if you had the chance?

SG: Looking back on the ride I sometimes can’t believe that was something that I did. The IJM Freedom Tour was an amazing and wonderful experience that I would do again. It was truly through prayer and teamwork. It makes no physical sense that I, with just under 3 months training, could ride 440 miles climbing over 20,000 feet over the course of 5 days. We were on some crazy roads riding on the shoulder with huge logging trucks zipping by us, and no one was hurt during the entire trip. I knew the mileage that we would travel, but had no idea how much climbing we would end up doing. We always rode in pairs, so no one would be alone (it happened a few times, but overall we stuck together). There were different levels of experience so we naturally grouped together with others that were on the same pace as ourselves. We had 2 support vehicles that would bring us snacks, help with flat tires or bike problems. We would stop about every 18-22 miles to reload on water and energy. During a ride like this you can burn up to 6000 calories a day, so I could eat anything — seriously anything. It was awesome!!!! Peanut butter and I continue to be close companions, although I can’t eat quite as much as I did during the IJM bike tour. ;)

The scenery and weather were fantastic. Every morning we would wake up around 5am and get on our bike between 5:30 and 6. The weather was always chilly and wet, but by lunch time the sun would break through and the ride would be magnificent. Each night we would stay in a different church on their floor in sleeping bags. The churches were always gracious with cozy places to sleep, eat a hot meal and anything else we needed. There was always a service scheduled for our arrival, so after showering and eating dinner together we would get to share our story, bring awareness to the issue of modern day slavery, the work IJM is doing and why we were riding across the Pacific Northwest.

The pace of life on the tour was harder than I thought — up early, riding all day, racing to shower, eat, and be in fellowship with hosting churches, in bed late at night to start it all the next day. This was hard for me and for others but we all truly worked as a team understanding daily needs and chores. Being in prayer with one another, supporting and encouraging one another when we could see one of our teammates was struggling — it really wasn’t about self on this trip. Our team focused on one another, being a team, and the whole reason we were doing this: to step out of ourselves and into God’s call to serve others, to bring justice to the oppressed, fatherless, widow and the poor.

ASE: Was there a particular leg of the trip that was more memorable or exciting than the others?

SG: Was there a greatest part of the trip? Wow, there were so many! Oh, I rode my first Century (100 miles) on Wednesday. We started out in Forks, Washington and rode 108 miles down to Aberdeen, WA. My friend Erica and I rode, shared, encouraged, and laughed together the full 108 miles! We had a celebrated high five at mile 100 as I said: “We did it, that was awesome, I never want to do that again.” All still true now except the last bit…I think I might want to do 100 miles again!!

Crossing the Astoria-Megler Bridge over the Columbia River from Washington State into Oregon on Thursday was so beautiful and powerful. It had been a cloudy day and the sunlight took over the sky pushing away the clouds about 3 miles before we crossed the bridge! So fantastic.

Some of the climbs would go on for over 2 miles!! I was sure I was not going to get to the top — at each bend I was sure the climb had to stop, but was met with the road continuing to incline — certain my racing heart and burning thighs could not take much more, each time making it to the top! But the reward of climbing 2 miles is getting to fly down…nothing like that here in the DC-metro area! It was indescribably exciting to be rewarded with flying down the hill, whipping through the fantastic rain forest, drizzle hitting my face, taking each bend with great speed and ease — indescribably amazing!! Absolutely worth the climb!!!

And of course I must mention the 19 other individuals from all places in their lives and all over the country (there was even one rider from Canada!). We had one rider who was 18 and two riders who were in their 60s! All different riding levels — many, like me, new to cycling, and others who were, in my opinion, pros! We were all united by our compassion towards God’s call to Justice. We were safe to share, be vulnerable and support one another through the highs and lows on the trip. Quite an amazing and inspiring group of people stepping out of what is known and trusting God to use them for his vision.

ASE: What are some of the greatest takeaways that you gleaned from the trip? What did you learn that you didn’t know about human trafficking?

SG: There were a lot of takeaways during my time on the IJM Freedom Tour, but God really started working on my heart on Friday surrounding suffering. I am still praying, reading and researching to understand…This was triggered by a fellow rider who was really physically and emotionally struggling to get through the last day. Her heart was breaking. My initial feeling and reaction was that I needed to fix her hurt and figure out the perfect thing to say to encourage her up the climb and through the ride. Her tears continued to fall as we stood at the bottom of the climb. Me and a couple other team members prayed with her, encouraged her and stayed with her as we began to walk our bikes up the hill. God started working on my heart — at first I was externally patient and encouraging, but inside I was sad because my plan for the day was changing, my ride was going to take longer, I was not riding my bike, I might not get to ride the whole day and on and on…Then God started to talk to me, “Sarah, it is not about you, your agenda, your time, or feeling good about helping someone. It is about not only being with those who are suffering, but entering into their suffering and being present. It is about trusting that I will give you the tools you need. Become a vessel and I will work through you.” I still don’t know what all that looks like but I am searching and praying and trusting that God is with me and will use me — and most likely not in the way that I think he will.

ASE: What kind of advice would you give someone who is looking to get involved with the issue but who doesn’t feel like they can do anything to help or perhaps do not have the right skills or knowledge to be effective?

SG: For those struggling with what they can do and who are thinking, “I am not gifted, I don’t know anything. The problem is too big, too scary, and I am too small”:  I am going to be blunt and say you are wrong. We serve a big God, nothing is too big for him. It’s not about what you can do, it is about trusting God to work through you. We see this so many times in the Bible — David and Goliath, the fish and loaves that fed thousands, Noah, the disciples, the stories go on and on. I like The Message translation of Ephesians 3:20-21: “God can do anything, you know — far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” I really like what Bob Goff says in his book Love Does:  “Jesus was always talking about a reverse economy.  He talked about how if you want to receive, you give. If you want to lead, you follow. That the poor are rich and you only really live for certain things if you are willing to die to them.” Much the same, God uses the ordinary for the extraordinary!

As for practical steps, first, start praying about it and listen to where God is leading you. Start reading and researching what is going on in your city, state, country and world. Other ideas — start being a prayer partner for some of the local organizations, IJM, A21, NCC Against Slavery and Exploitation. Reach out to these organizations and see where their needs are. Feel free to contact us here at NCC ASE if you want someone to talk to about getting involved, what you are struggling with, and to share your ideas!


Embracing A New Identity: A story from aone:eight’s Southwest Mission Team

This piece was originally published on the aone:eight blog.

An account from team member, Meg Biallas, on her team’s experience from the recent Southwestern USA mission –

“Why are you guys here again?”
“We are here because we want to spend time with you.”
“But why? I mean, don’t you know we are all just prostitutes?”
“That doesn’t matter. We don’t see you that way.”

Last month I was part of the mission team that learned about human trafficking and exploitation in the Southwestern part of the United States. The conversation above happened while working on a craft project with teenage girls at Streetlight USA, a restoration campus in Phoenix for trafficked children. The craft was fun and light-hearted, but out of nowhere, one of the girls asked us in a more serious tone, “Why are you guys here?” Our team leader, Circe, engaged with the young girl by denying her label as a prostitute, and encouraging her to see herself as full of worth and potential.  In fact, many minors who are trafficked don’t see themselves as victims (even though they are). Many, like this young woman, cling to damaging labels and blame themselves for their circumstances.

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In this particular activity, we encouraged the youth to create a “garden of my heart,” using different shapes to symbolize emotions, such as passion, joy and anger. After learning about the Streetlight philosophy from the staff, we made sure to incorporate the concepts of self-worth and positive images, as we taught them cultural dances, made ice cream sundaes and even during a slushy run to the nearby gas station.

Guests who visit Streetlight USA are invited to take home a painted rock as a memento. The rock is painted black to represent the darkness of the hearts of the girls when they arrive at Streetlight. However, the girls can paint colored designs over the black rock to symbolize their bright hope for the future.

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One of my favorite rocks, which I took home to give to one of my supporters, showed several flowers with rain pouring down from the sky. On it, a resident had painted this simple phrase: “Room to grow.”

As children of God, we see how no matter how dark our hearts, God’s light is always upon us. We find our identity not in the label others give us, but in the identity we find in God –
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:
The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17

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Just before we left Streetlight on our final day with the girls and staff, we added our name to their wall of volunteers, and included one of NCC’s core values: “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” Our prayer upon departure was that the young women at Streetlight – past, present and futurewould see themselves as bright and shining daughters of God.

A Message of Hope, a Call to Action

GolfUmbrellaDo what you can, where you are.

That was the key message that Mary Francis, Founder and Executive Director of Wellspring Living, shared at the White Umbrella Night of Worship at NCC Barracks Row this past Tuesday night.

Mary Francis was in Washington, DC as a part of the campaign for her new book, The White Umbrella. While centered around the trauma and horror of sexual abuse and exploitation, the book is primarily a story of hope.

The statistics are deplorable: 1 in 4 girls experience sexual abuse by the age of 18, the average age of a child first used in prostitution is 12, and there are over 300,000 prostituted children in the U.S., most of whom are girls. Mary Francis and her team at Wellspring Living face this reality every day. Yet despite the darkness and hopelessness that these numbers represent, Mary has found reason for hope in working with girls through the healing process. She has seen shattered lives restored, she has seen hate dissipate from the most wounded places, and she has seen forgiveness poured out freely from once-broken hearts. She has seen girls transformed through the power of love.

Located near Atlanta, Georgia, Wellspring Living is at the epicenter of sex trafficking in the United States. The organization “fights childhood sexual abuse and exploitation through awareness, training, and treatment programs for women and girls.” Started in 2001, Wellspring Living has grown to operate two residential restorative programs, an assessment center, a community counseling center, two independent living programs and four upscale resale stores that contribute to the operating costs of the organization. Mary’s first-hand experience leading this effort has given her remarkable insight into both the causes and cures of sexual exploitation.

The White Umbrella. Have you ever been caught in a storm without the protection of an umbrella? If the answer is yes, then you understand why that’s such an accurate representation of what sex trafficking victims face. The winds blow, the thunder claps, the rain pours. Girls who are forced into sex trafficking find themselves in the worst storm of their lives — physically, emotionally, psychologically — and what they need more than anything else is an umbrella. An umbrella offers a respite from the elements. And when it’s offered in love, we the umbrella holders, must draw near. We must hold the umbrella over the girl soaking wet, for she cannot hold it herself. The umbrella has many panels, representing the roles that different people in the community play in combating sexual exploitation. Whether we are educators, health professionals, police officers, advocates, or simply concerned citizens, we can contribute. If one panel is missing from an umbrella, the girl is not fully protected from the rain, and in this way, we must all play our part. Finally, the umbrella is white, the color of purity. For girls who have been forced into sex trafficking, their purity has been stolen from them. A white umbrella not only protects from further harm, but restores purity.

NCC  ASE would love to help you find your place in the effort to fight slavery and exploitation. Organizations like Courtney’s House, Fair Girls, and Restoration Ministries are doing amazing work, and are looking for volunteers to help them meet the needs of victims in your community. If you’d like to get involved, or just want to learn more about trafficking here in DC, send us an email:

The storm continues to rage in the lives of girls (and women and men and boys). So, what about you? Where’s your white umbrella?

Nicole Tosh


This is Why We Engage in Social Justice

This past weekend NCC ASE leaders embarked on a trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in order to participate in the 2013 Justice Conference. We were excited to grow in knowledge, spirit and in community with one another and with Christ.

Thousands of like-minded individuals were gathered in attendance with thousands more joining via web. Great leaders in the field of social justice poured into us with their wisdom and experience. We heard from renowned speakers such as Gary Haugen and Eugene Cho, among others. We learned about the importance of inter-agency and inter-NGO collaboration. We were entreated to consider social justice as an issue not just for the moment or for its sex appeal, but for the long haul.

Redemption is the byproduct of long and tedious obedience.” (sic) Gary Haugen

We also learned about the theology of justice. The theme of justice is found repeatedly in the Bible. Justice is incredibly near to the heart of God, but the key thing to remember is that it does not exist without grace and love. Following in the way that Christ loves us, we correct but do not condemn (Romans 8).

We learned about buying repurposed materials such as old guns in order to support reconciliation. We had the opportunity to meet and network with other organizations with similar objectives as us. The meaning of collaboration in Christ’s work became very real.

There are too many takes-away from this weekend to capture in a blog post. However, perhaps the most important was the power of stories told. Hearing from world leaders on the subject of social justice from a social and biblical perspective is amazing and useful.

Yet nothing will substitute for the power of stories told.

Hearing personal stories from people like Chai Ling and Sheryl WuDunn about the tragedies facing our brothers and sisters does more than show us that justice makes theological, economic, and emotional sense. It galvanizes us to act because the spirit of Christ that lives within us cannot reconcile with complacency. As Gary Haugen stated “compassion is not a feeling – it something that takes a hold of your gut and doesn’t let go.” (sic)

On the car ride home, we began to share our stories. Why are we here? What has galvanized our efforts toward ending slavery? How did we get to know Christ?

Everybody’s story is different. We all have different upbringings, struggles, and spiritual awakenings. However, inasmuch as we are different we are all the same. Everybody has been born into sin, and everybody who accepts Christ has been redeemed by grace. It is as simple as that.

This is why we engage in social justice. It is because everybody deserves the opportunity to be redeemed by Christ.

And we want to be the window through which they see Him.


Brooke M. Birkey


Seeing Life Through the Eyes of the Oppressed


Seeing life through the eyes of the oppressed
Tick tock time moves but I am standing still
No matter what I feel partially dressed
Unprepared for that city on a hill

Does God call me to live outside my soul?
To see your pain and engage
What chance do you have to be made whole
Pitted against the world and all its rage

Justice is bigger than you and me
More than ideals and dreams
To really reach out…touch feel see
Is much harder than it seems.

I’ll never be a savior but perhaps a friend
To live according to purpose divine
To say “Here I am God–please send”
To live attached to The Vine

To surrender my life to the way of Him
To carry the torch for someone else’s vision
Serving Christ you cant help but win
Today make a direct decision.

May He light my way and dream my dreams
May He be the light of my heart
I may not know what any of this means
And I think that is a great place to start.

Brooke Birkey

Moldova: I Need A Hero


Serge and Peter exude confidence. They are young, smart, funny, and good-looking. They are men’s men. And they spend their days modeling exemplary behavior to the youth of Moldova. Together, Serge and Peter teach at 19 of the 40 Russian public schools in Chisinau; they are positive male influences in a female-dominated educational system. Making small-talk with Serge three days ago, I asked him how long he had worked for Beginning of Life (BOL) as a prevention trainer. He responded, “Three years–it is good for me to do what I am passionate about.” Love that.

Three times a week, with the permission of the Ministry of Education, Serge and Peter go into schools to teach about domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and other societal problems. More important than telling students what they shouldn’t do is modeling what they should do. Serge and Peter place equal emphasis on empowering students to respect themselves, respect each other, and work hard to pursue their dreams.


Their intentionality has made a huge impact.

Hopeless teens have realized that suicide is not the only option, girls have empowered their mothers to seek help in abusive situations, and boys are stating that their pride in life will come from being good husbands and fathers. This did not happen overnight. BOL has been in schools for over 10 years now. These youth look up to Serge and Peter–they are heroes.

What would our world look like if each person intentionally pursued something for God’s Kingdom for 10 years or more? This world needs heroes–will you be one?

Helen Wong


Giving Hope Space to Breathe

This post is written by a friend/teammate of mine, Makeda, an executive pastor at a church in North Carolina.

Our team was split into four smaller groups and we went to visit families who are being helped by the programs being offered by Beginning of Life (BoL). As we learned from the founder yesterday, BoL started out counseling pregnant women and aiming to prevent abortion among teenagers. When they started, only 1 out of 5 pregnancies in Moldova resulted in a live birth. More times than not pregnancies ended in abortion with many using abortion as a form of birth control. I and two other members of our team had the privilege of visiting two single moms who are doing what they can to beat the odds.

T was one of many social orphans in Moldova; her grandmother raised her after her parents abandoned her. When she was 18 years old she fell in love with a boy but when she got pregnant he gave her an ultimatum, him or the baby. T chose her baby because she would not abandon her child like she was abandoned. T lives with her grandparents in a house barely large enough to hold them. Her daughter is now a little over a year and a half and has a smile that will light up any room.


We then went to visit V, a single mom of two. V lost custody of her oldest child when she went to prison. After she got out, she fought really hard to get her daughter back but it took many years and it has been really hard for them to re-establish a mother/daughter relationship. A couple years ago V met a man and fell in love. But when she got pregnant, he also gave her an ultimatum. V decided to have an abortion. She was in the OR and already about to go under from the anesthesia when she remembered what her grandmother had told her about abortion being a sin–she changed her mind. Using only her eyes she tried to tell the doctor she didn’t want to go through with it. Normally the doctors don’t listen because they assume the moms are just having cold feet about the procedure, plus it is costly to have to go through setting everything up again. This time, however, the doctor decided to wait until the anesthesia wore off to find out what she really wanted. V calls her son her “little miracle” and she has such hope for his future. His birth has also helped restore V’s relationship with her older daughter.DSC_0032

What struck me with both of these moms was the hope they had for their children’s futures. Both women want their kids to know love, to feel cared for and to have success in the future. Neither woman had much hope for themselves but had so much for their children. Like any parent, they want better for their kids than they had. But they are fighting an uphill battle as hopelessness seems to hover over this city like a dark cloud.

Hope struggles to find a place to breathe in this city. But BOL is bringing light and hope to Moldova.

In the afternoon we got to spend time with the girls at the Rehab and Restoration House. Prudy, Amanda and I taught the girls how to art journal. Y was one of the girls who really got a hold of the process. In her book she put the below picture and she explained that she wants to be a chef one day. She said “that’s me”. I LOVED that because most of the young people here are not taught to dream.


The reality of their day-to-day lives makes dreaming feel like a luxury. It’s the despair of being here that puts the young people at such high risks for being trafficked. But BOL is teaching these girls how to dream again, how to hope against hope that they can have something different. They are helping them find opportunities to make money and giving them other life skills they need to try to make it out there. They are helping them breathe in hope again. Y’s eyes danced when she looked at that picture and you could tell she believed it was possible.

There is darkness here and evil is present everywhere in this city. But BOL is striving to be a light in the midst of the darkness. Together with their partnership with Children’s Hope Chest, they are working to breathe hope and life back into their city one rescued or at-risk girl at a time. Their work is not easy but they believe God is with them and they are determined to see the evil in their city eradicated.

Would you pray for them with me? The work they are doing is important and our prayers are needed as they work to push back the darkness in this city.

Makeda Pennycooke