Fifty Birthdays, Fifty Miles . . . Fifty Lives
What difference can one person make?
That’s the question that Pastor Paul Jenkins and his wife Wendy faced when their hearts became burdened for those suffering due to human trafficking. And what they learned is that one person can be the “keystone” to making a dramatic difference.
Paul Jenkins is lead pastor of The Gathering, a church (with a congregation of 275 to 300) that he and his wife planted four years ago in the rural community of Albemarle, North Carolina. With a population of 16,000, the community is fairly insulated and sees few blatant signs of human trafficking.
However, about three years ago, God planted the seed of compassion into their lives for current and future victims of human trafficking. As they explored the issue, they learned how it wasn’t just an “overseas” issue, but one that hit closer to home than they knew.
“I was very overwhelmed when I heard about this modern-day slavery that was happening in our world,” says Wendy, who holds a masters degree in Social Work. “I began to educate myself and I came across the documentary Nefarious — anyone who has seen this movie knows the reality of what’s taking place.”
“We were shocked to learn that every 30 seconds someone is the victim of human trafficking in the world,” Paul says. “And then we learned that the Charlotte metro region is the sixth largest area in the United States for human trafficking violations!” Albemarle is located just 40 miles east of Charlotte.
Burdened, the Jenkinses — especially Wendy — continued to learn more about human trafficking, making connections with ministries involved in rescuing individuals being trafficked and/or ending the crime. The couple came to the realization that although awareness may be an important element in seeing human trafficking come to an end, the next step was just as important: giving people something they could personally do to be a part of making a difference!
Following their third medical missions trip to India in fall 2013, where they learned a pimp can buy a young girl for as little as $90, Paul decided that he would do something that would not only mark his 50th birthday, but would cause him to be a difference maker in the lives of trafficked women and girls.
“After talking to several organizations, I learned that it takes about $1,000 to fully restore victims — not just rescue them, but help them safely re-establish their lives,” Paul says. “I decided to run 50 miles on my 50th birthday and work to raise $50,000 to see 50 girls brought out of human trafficking.”
Paul is a runner and has run a handful of half-marathons and several full marathons, but 50 miles (nearly a double marathon) is a challenge of another caliber.
But with his church fully behind him in the effort, they used word of mouth and social media to start making the community aware of the challenge and the realities of human trafficking. As the months went by and Paul built up his endurance, the local media began to talk more about the effort. In fact, not only was the local media taking an interest, but the Charlotte media took note and sent a television crew out to do interviews.
Suddenly, the dedication of one minister’s family was not only impacting a single church or a small community, the message was reaching throughout the Charlotte metro region with a population nearing 2.4 million people!
Paul started his 50-mile attempt at 5 a.m. Saturday, March 19, with nearly $14,000 already pledged. People from the church and community joined in with him as he did 5-mile laps throughout the morning, finishing with 1.5-mile loops in the afternoon until he reached 50 miles, exhausted but also excited.
But running 50 miles wasn’t the only event planned for the weekend.
“The run was part of the ‘Weekend of Freedom’ in our church,” Paul explains. “On Friday night we invited the community to come watch the Nefarious documentary at the church to help raise awareness. The run was on Saturday, and on Sunday, we had Sandhill Teen Challenge come to the church to talk about how people, many who would likely otherwise be dead, found hope and life in Jesus Christ.”
In an interesting sidelight, Paul places credit to The Gathering’s growth and the success of the run in part to something he learned through the AG Church Multiplication Network (CMN).
“We received matching funds through CMN and AGTrust to help start the church, which was extremely helpful,” he says, “but what I’ve found invaluable is the network of ministers and relationships I have through CMN. And I’ve found that’s the same path to effective ministry to our community: networking with people with like interests and developing those relationships. For example, I had quite a few people from the running club ask me about the run and even come join me in running on Saturday — which just gave me an open opportunity to tell them all about what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how God is all part of this plan.”
The results of this “What-difference-can-one-person-make?” effort are pretty remarkable. Paul says that on Sunday, the church easily broke its all-time attendance record with 377 attending. “People told me they came because they heard about the run and what we were doing and wanted to see what the church was like,” he says. “We even had 47 academy cadets attend and several people came forward to accept Christ!”
Paul says so far more than $29,000 has come in towards the run, meaning 29 lives rescued and restored. “We are keeping the donation opportunity open for a month,” he says, “then whatever has been donated will be given to three human trafficking ministries.”
“There are practical ways people can help,” Wendy says about human trafficking. “Not everyone can go to India to rescue a trafficked girl or run 50 miles, but everyone can pray, everyone can give something. We pray that the run and the Weekend of Freedom have not only helped raise awareness of human trafficking, but also helped people become aware of what touches the heart of God and to respond to this overwhelming need with compassion.