Mary Frances Bowley. The White Umbrella: Walking with Survivors of Sex Trafficking. Chicago: Moody, 2012. 208 pp. $13.99.
“It’s horrifying and absurd to think that there are currently more slaves on earth than at any other time in human history.” – Louie Giglio (12-13)
“Outside of my home, I lived a normal life. I made good grades, played sports, and had a few close friends. But on the inside, I felt dirty and worthless. I felt like I needed to hide. Sometimes I wanted to die. If anyone had paid attention, they might have noticed how the light in my face had been extinguished.” – Sex trafficking survivor (22)
Sex trafficking and sexual assault occur every day in our communities. Each year, thousands of girls are forced into sexual exploitation—most of them younger than 18. The emotional and spiritual suffering this causes is immeasurable. But there is hope.
The White Umbrella is an important new book in the fight to raise awareness about the horrors of the sex trade. Founder of an Atlanta organization fighting childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, Mary Frances Bowley tells the true stories of victims, survivors, volunteers, and experts in order to bring the painful human reality of the sex industry into sharp relief.
The book tells stories of survivors as well as of those who came alongside to help victims to recovery. It describes the pain and the strength of these young women and those who held a “white umbrella” of protection and purity over them on the road to restoration—all realizing that the God who loves us, enters into our suffering, and stands with us makes hope, healing, and new life possible.
Meet the Girls
In The White Umbrella, we meet Shelia, who at the age of 12 was kidnapped, gang-raped, and forced to sell her body for months before she escaped; Jessica, a girl who’d been abused so often she was afraid to speak; Angela, a woman who was abused as a girl and who became a second mom to a survivor named Shelby; and Mary Frances, who leads a model program for survivors of sex trafficking. Each has a dramatic story of both suffering and hope to tell.
The stories highlight the way our stereotypes often blind us to the suffering occurring right around us. As the author writes:
Most abuse victims are not easy to spot, and there is no stereotype for a sexual abuse victim. She does not necessarily have to come from a single-parent household with a low socioeconomic status. Her ethnicity does not make her trauma more likely, nor does the city where she lives. Instead, she could be a work associate, a child in Sunday school, or a kid at the neighborhood bus stop. Well-meaning people often act upon misguided assumptions about who is abused, yet so many of these hurting children are slipping right under their good-natured noses. The reality is that there is no profile for these silent sufferers (62).
The stereotypes about those exploited in the sex trade have tragically often led to misguided crackdowns that treat the victims as criminals, further alienating them and doing more harm than good. One of the stories here is a heartbreaking example, as an underage girl survives kidnapping, gang-rape, forced drugging, and imprisonment, and finally escapes to find help, only to be “arrested and put in a juvenile detention facility—all for a crime she never wanted to commit” (41). The tragedy is increased when survivors are faced with such shame and judgment not only in society, but also in the church: “Girls who are survivors of sex trafficking are branded on the streets as prostitutes, sometimes quite literally as their pimp burns his mark on their neck or ankles. But they did not choose this work, and it is doubly tragic when these young women are branded once again by stigma and shame when they walk into the wider community, and even the church” (69).
Road to Healing
Thankfully, The White Umbrella offers not only stories of exploitation and suffering, but also concrete advice for how to connect with and come alongside survivors on their road to healing. Drawing from her experience, Bowley explains, “We have seen the most effective recovery by our girls take place in the context of relationships. We have the credibility to help girls and women only when we offer them an authentic, ongoing connection. After all, it is only through our relationship with Jesus that we are restored to our Father” (193). Entering into someone’s deep pain as a conduit of God’s love is difficult, to be sure, but it’s ultimately rewarding. “Walking with someone through crisis recovery is scary, disappointing, exciting, and thrilling,” Bowley writes. “Most of the time, you feel helpless and out of control. That’s where your dependence on God can flourish—and you can both get more out of it” (194).
The White Umbrella offers principles and guidance to anyone with a heart for these hurting young women and children and a desire to help. It is a resource for individuals or organizations seeking to learn what they can do to assist these victims in becoming whole again, and will help anyone trying to connect in a meaningful way with someone who is in crisis. Crucially, it points to Jesus as the healer and redeemer of the abused and the suffering, the one who is both the source of hope and healing and the motivation for us to wake up and work for freedom for those in captivity:
Jesus Christ came to set the captives free, and Christians have the amazing and humbling opportunity to be his hands and feet in this redemptive rescue. Christ calls us to reach out not only to those who are in physical captivity in brothels and bad situations, but also to those who are captives in their own minds to lies and distorted understanding that was formed by terrible experiences in their past (71).
God loves to set captives free from sin and bring hope to the suffering, and as Christians we are invited to join him on that mission.
Download chapter 1 of The White Umbrella here. For more resources on sexual abuse, browse the human trafficking and sexual assault categories at www.JustinHolcomb.com, and see Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault.
Justin Holcomb is a pastor at Mars Hill Church, where he serves as executive director of the Resurgence and leads the leadership development department. He is also adjunct professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary and previously taught at the University of Virginia. He and his wife, Lindsey, are the authors of Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction. You can find him on the Resurgence, Facebook, and Twitter.