By Mark Ellis
For the last 18 years, Annie Dieselberg and her husband Jeff have lived in the red light district in Bangkok, where they have inspired many with their efforts to rescue women and children exploited by the worldwide sex industry. So a few did a double take when Annie made a candid declaration recently.
“I have a scandalous confession: I have a favorite trafficker,” says Annie, founder and CEO of Nightlight Foundation. “You might ask, how someone who passionately fights to rescue victims of human trafficking could like a trafficker let alone have a favorite?” she asks.
Nothing diminishes her scorn for an industry that exploits and destroys millions of people in its greedy quest, with many innocents unwittingly caught in its tentacles. “Some of these people are victims and some are the exploiters,” Annie notes. “It would be easy to draw the line in the sand to clearly establish the acceptable and the unacceptable; the lovable and the despicable; those worthy of grace and those to condemn.”
These black and white characterizations have become more difficult for her. “It was easy, until I met Lionel, one of many characters in the drama of human trafficking. Exploitation is wrong – no ifs, ands, or buts about it, but hating an individual simply because of what they do becomes much harder when you know them by name,” she admits.
“Lionel is a nice guy but I hate what Lionel is doing. I hate it that he cooperates and is complicit with the selling of women. I hate it that the women under his supervision are being exploited and destroyed through this heinous crime. But since I know and like Lionel, I can’t just hate him and condemn him because of what he does,” Annie says.
Jesus offered redemption to a host of despicable characters, who were seemingly unfit for heaven. “I think it is in this tension that the gospel begins to look authentic,” she says. “The line Jesus drew in the sand was a line that erased our right to judge, to condemn, and to exclude those who sin from grace or salvation.”
Annie discovered that Lionel is actually a likable offender. “It would be much easier if I told you he is a despicable character. I could paint a picture of such evil and you would hate him as a trafficker. But it’s not that easy. I have talked to the trafficked women about Lionel. They also like him.”
She recently asked Lionel about his job and he confessed to feeling tired and weary. He told her that in the previous week one of the women was sick and needed to see a doctor. The bill was $700 and Lionel paid for it from his own pocket because she didn’t have the money.
Annie senses an unusual and surprising measure of compassion in his heart toward the women.
“No one wants to do this job,” Lionel told her. “This is the last job on earth anyone chooses and it’s what you do when there is nothing left.”
Annie thanked Lionel for allowing her to visit with the women. “You are welcome,” he said sincerely. “I like your group. You give gifts to the women. You are very welcome here.”
Some may wonder why Annie doesn’t call the police and have them put a stop to Lionel’s practices. “We’ve learned that hasty raids do further damage and chase the trafficking ring further underground. We know trusted investigators who are doing their part in this drama. It takes time. I have learned the hard way that when you pick fights with the gatekeeper the door slams shut. Right now we have access to victims and the opportunity to speak into the lives of the traffickers and pimps as well.”
Annie and her husband Jeff walk a delicate balance. “This is where we live and work – in this tension of hating the sin and the evil but of loving those who are trapped in its grip. Lionel is the gatekeeper and Lionel likes us enough to let us through the gate.”
“Lionel is my favorite trafficker but really no one should have a trafficker,” she adds. “There should be no managers of women in a sex industry. Until this modern day slavery is abolished, however, may there be more caring men like Lionel who do not intentionally abuse the women they manage.”
Annie lifts a quote from the Book of Romans, chapter five: “Christ died for us while we were still sinners.”
“Christ died for Lionel,” she declares. “The day is coming, I pray, when Lionel will request a transfer out of the kingdom of darkness and will be given a position in the kingdom of light as a defender of women.”