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“All I remember thinking was that I desperately wanted a Bible,” she recalls.
The same day she was released from jail, she met a team from Lavished Ministries. They listened to her story and assured her that God had not given up on her.
“The first time they prayed for me, I felt peace — something I hadn’t felt in a long time,” Monica says.
Monica is like a growing number of women whose lives have been impacted by Lavished Ministries, an outreach to those involved in the commercial sex industry. Founded in 2014 by Nicole Phillips, a missionary with U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries, Lavished seeks to build relationships and share the love of Christ in adult entertainment businesses across the Florida panhandle.
Once a month, teams of women head to Panama City’s strip clubs. With open minds and hearts, they listen as sex workers talk about their lives and circumstances. During these moments together, the teams get a glimpse into a world where loneliness rules and dreams are few. In response they offer friendship and a message of hope.
“The sex industry is extremely broad,” Nicole explains. “No specific ethnicity, race, gender, or age is excluded. Lavished Ministries’ core values are unconditional love, compassion, and relationship. We want exploited people to know that their story isn’t over.”
Their dreams are still possible.
The vast majority of those trapped in the world of sex trafficking and exploitation spend little time thinking of the future. People they trusted have failed them. Shame prevents them from reaching out for the help they need. Over time, dreams for a brighter tomorrow fade.
“As a young girl, I dreamed of my future,” says Aubrey, a woman reached by Lavished. “I would have an adoring husband, a loving home filled with happy children, and a rich and full life. I never imagined I would find myself living in a cycle of abuse.”
Aubrey married at age 24, expecting her childhood dream to come true. In a short time, her dream was crushed as her husband turned abusive. She suffered in silence for 10 years until the marriage ultimately ended.
A few years later, Aubrey met a man who seemed too good to be true. Raised in a Christian home, he made Aubrey feel safe and secure. She married him, believing this man would complete her and give her the life she always wanted.
Soon the same cycle of abuse began again. Eventually her husband resorted to trafficking her. By then her identity had become so distorted that she started to believe she was the problem — that something must be wrong with her.
Defeated, used, and seeing no way of escape, she pondered suicide. But through the urging of her sister-in-law, she finally found the strength to reach out to her family in Florida. Soon afterward, God orchestrated events so she could meet Kendra, a Lavished Ministries team member.
“Kendra introduced me to trauma counseling and connected me to resources to help me begin unraveling the tangled web of my life,” Aubrey says. “As I drew closer to the women at Lavished and saw Jesus’ love in them, I rededicated my life to the Lord. Through the support of my church, trauma therapy, PTSD treatment, mentorship, and legal assistance, I have reclaimed my life and my identity. The cycle of abuse ends here for me. I am giving the rest of my days to help set others free.”
Since Lavished began, Nicole and her team have had more than 15,000 interactions with individuals impacted by the sex industry. The resources now available to help the exploited are a far cry from the day the Holy Spirit birthed the dream of Lavished in Nicole’s heart.
“I was 17 years old,” Nicole recalls. “One night on TV I heard a woman talk about how she was trafficked in Las Vegas for many years. After hearing her story, I knew I wanted to help women like her.”
To prepare for her goal, Nicole outlined a plan to attend college, earn a degree, and move to Las Vegas. College and a degree were accomplished without great opposition. Moving to Las Vegas proved much more difficult.
“Every opportunity to move there fell through,” Nicole says.
As she waited for the next step to become clear, she started noticing the desperate need for ministry among sexually exploited women in and around her hometown in Florida.
“God slowly began burdening my heart for the women in my own community,” she says.
At Christmastime 2014, Nicole and two other women went to every strip club in Panama City, bringing small gifts and a simple message of Christ for the workers. With no expectation of acceptance, they were overjoyed when everyone — even club managers — expressed their appreciation. The team continued to go back regularly, and friendships slowly formed.
Six months later, Nicole was surprised by an early morning phone call. A woman from a strip club said her boyfriend was trafficking her, and she was tired of it. Determined to help, Nicole started the process of finding resources to help the woman — and others like her — leave the path of abuse and start dreaming again.
Since then, Lavished Ministries has developed an ever-widening network of services and organizations that offer help with housing, food, legal assistance, and mental health services. Nicole is also spearheading a new outreach called the Dream Program, a 16-week mentorship series for women recovering from exploitation in the sex industry. Each week, participants meet with a Lavished team member for accountability, help in developing goals, and learning skills that will help prevent them from drifting back into familiar destructive patterns. The program focuses on Jesus’ love and His plans for their future.
“Our greatest victories are seeing women encounter the loving embrace of Jesus for the first time,” Nicole says. “Many of them have experienced sexual trauma starting early in their childhood. Often this prolonged trauma was perpetrated by people they trusted. I often describe the women we serve as ‘tall little girls.’ They have a deep longing for love, and that’s ultimately what they’re searching for."
Several women who found freedom in Christ through Lavished Ministries are now valued members of the outreach.
Kendra had been trafficked for 10 years across multiple states when she heard about Lavished. As she began associating with Nicole and her team, she soon began putting the pieces of her life back together. Over time she has found freedom, deliverance, and wholeness in Christ. Her dream now is to help others who are trapped in a hopeless spiral of spiritual darkness, just as she was.
As Lavished Ministries moves deeper into the world of sexual exploitation, Nicole knows she cannot do the work alone.
“We need people to pray for our safety and for better collaboration between service providers and law enforcement,” she says. “The women we serve need prayer for emotional and spiritual healing.”
Another huge need is creating awareness of how wide the net of sexual exploitation and trafficking has spread across the nation.
“We are praying that more people will become aware of the fact that sex trafficking is happening in our communities,” Nicole says. “We want to take action to stop it and help others do the same.”
Nicole’s dream for Lavished is continuing to grow. Her new dream is a safe home for exploited women that can also serve as transitional housing. No housing of this type is currently available for survivors of trafficking in the entire 14th Judicial Circuit of Florida — an area covering six counties.
Nicole, Aubrey, and Kendra know by experience that when God gives a dream, they can trust Him to fulfill it. As God directs the Lavished Ministries team, they will continue to form relationships and point others to Jesus so those without hope can not only dream, but dream big.