Kendra A. Gracia grew up in a Christian home in the Chicago suburbs, the daughter of a Pentecostal pastor. Yet as a teenager, she began skipping school and hanging out with friends in the Windy City who partied and took drugs on a daily basis.
Arguing ensued at home and Kendra, at 16, ran away. To survive, she began dancing at risqué parties, which led to being drugged, raped, and eventually sexually trafficked as a minor.
An abusive man took control of Kendra, leasing her body to make money, but otherwise keeping her essentially in residential captivity for three years. The man moved her to Alaska, then North Carolina.
“There is a lot of coercion and mental abuse involved,” Gracia says. “It’s a fear-based game that they play. I was more scared of the consequences of not obeying.”
Trapped in the hopeless lifestyle, Gracia prayed to God for the first time in years, promising to help others in similar situations if He allowed her to escape. One day, after her abuser left the house, Gracia fled to a neighbor’s home and phoned her father, Kent Lunstrum. He immediately went to North Carolina to rescue her.
Once back home, in her mid-20s, Gracia underwent counseling to try to unravel the trauma she experienced. But therapy made few inroads.
Then in 2016, Nicole M. Phillips, founder of Lavished Ministries — a nonprofit that helps women transition out of the commercial sex industry — spoke at Treasure Seekers Church of God, the church Lunstrum pastors in Fox Lake, Illinois.
Gracia felt an immediate rapport with Phillips, whose ministry is based in Panama City, Florida.
“I wanted to be a part of what she was doing,” Gracia recalls. The women kept in contact through Zoom calls, and Phillips befriended and mentored Gracia back to emotional health.
Lavished Ministries, — based on 1 John 3:1, which describes the great love God lavishes on his children — has grown considerably since its formation in 2014. Monthly outreaches at strip clubs have expanded to include 85 women and 80 children, as Lavished Ministries staff and volunteers distribute such gifts as jewelry, makeup, and baked goods. They regularly minister not just to dancers, but also to personnel such as disc jockeys and bouncers.
Phillips, 28, is executive director of Lavished Ministries, as well as a U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries and an ordained Assemblies of God minister.
Through collaborative efforts, Lavished Ministries has assisted in providing food, temporary housing, school supplies, mental health services, medical services, transportation, job placement, and legal services to women in need.
The organization is sustained by partnering with 50 congregations, with donors including individuals, churches, businesses, and, ironically, strip club owners. Phillips says it doesn’t bother most of those who exploit women that Lavished Ministries is trying to convince their workers to leave; they figure they can be replaced easily.
The ministry has placed high-risk women escaping domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and human-trafficking into long-term programs to begin their healing process. Women leaving the industry are paired with a mentor and are invited to join a support group. Lavished Ministries offers Bible studies and life-skills classes.
Part of the educational process of reacclimating former sex workers back into society is letting them know their value in God’s eyes isn’t based on sensuality.
“We let them know they don’t need 4-inch nails and glitter on their face,” says Phillips, who attends First Assembly of God in Panama City.
Soon after the coronavirus pandemic caused some strip clubs and massage parlors to shut down, Lavished Ministries began offering an escort outreach online to women who posted prostitute advertisements on websites. Typically the personal announcements contain a photo, a listed age (which may be incorrect), a fake name, what services the woman offers, and how much she charges.
“People don’t realize how easy it is to buy another human, including a child,” says Phillips. “You can order what you want, just like a pizza.”
Lavished Ministries staff members and volunteers connect with those trying to sell their bodies via the internet, telling them they are loved by God and pointing them to additional resources.
“It’s a whole new demographic of sex workers,” says Phillips, who obtained a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies from SUM Bible College & Theological Seminary and will complete her Master of Organizational Leadership from SUM in June. Within three months of starting the online outreach, Lavished Ministries had connected with 400 women. After serving as a career missionary associate, Phillips expects to be appointed an Intercultural Ministries missionary in March.
Lavished Ministries now has 20 regular volunteers and five paid staff members — including Kendra Gracia. After working pro bono for Lavished Ministries for a couple of years, Gracia in October joined the full-time team as survivor advocate and case manager. Gracia is in charge of mentoring women clients and also shares her testimony in public forums.
Fulfilling her promise to the Lord, Gracia has helped 20 women in the aftermath of being trafficked.
“I’m happy to be free from that lifestyle and I am excited to help set other people free,” says Gracia, now 32. She married Sam Gracia in September.
Although her abuser didn’t receive jail time, a court did issue a restraining order to keep him away from her.
Photo: Nicole Phillips (left) and Kendra Gracia are both full-time staff members of the ministry.