Beyond the Contrast recently caught up with Nichole Criss, an Apostolic world-changer who spent time this summer raising awareness of human trafficking in Ecuador. We were honored to be able to interview her and are excited to share her experiences with you today.
BtC: Nichole, we understand that this trip was due to the combined efforts of Justice Tour and Go International. How did you end up getting involved?
Nichole: I am a firm believer that there are no coincidences in life. I’ve had enough experiences to know that God orchestrates events in our lives to take place at a certain time for a specific reason and then it’s our responsibility to take action. That’s how my trip to Ecuador started.
I had just been accepted into a Ph.D. program and several times in prayer felt that it wasn’t the right time to begin that particular avenue in life. In response to that, I was searching for something else to fill my time with. I had begun writing articles for Coast to Coast Central (a blog centered around using fashion to bring awareness to human trafficking) who was co-sponsor of the Justice Tour with Go International when marketing for the Justice Tour 2015 was released.
When I read the tagline of the Justice Tour for the first time — Orphans. Prisoners. The hungry. The diseased. Victims of human trafficking. It is these people who cry out for justice in the world. — God spoke to me so clearly in my heart and said, “This is what you’re supposed to do. This is your calling for this season of your life, not another degree.” It was startling. It was completely unexpected, yet I knew that this was the “something else” that I had been searching for and praying about.
BtC: Your sensitivity to God’s will for your life is inspiring! In Ecuador, what were your group’s main goals? What kind of work were you there to do?
Nichole: The Justice Tour was started in 2014 with a specific mission to bring justice to orphans, prisoners, the hungry, the diseased, and mostly to victims of human trafficking. I have been involved with local efforts to stop human trafficking and have been a part of various campaigns over the last several years to raise awareness. So, that part of the trip was what captured my attention.
Originally, however, our team had been scheduled to go to Thailand and Cambodia. Due to events beyond our control, two months before we were scheduled to leave, we had a conference call with Greg, the director of Go International, who explained to us that going to Asia would have to be cancelled.
We were shocked! Upset. A little angry, and more than slightly disappointed. We had been so excited to ride elephants on our free day! Then as reality set in and we heard him speaking with passion about the people of Ecuador who needed us just as much as the Asians did, my heart began to soften. Greg explained that the decision to change the location of the tour was difficult for him too: he could stay true to a marketing campaign, or he could put the team’s safety at a premium and also follow what his heart was telling him to do.
That night at Bible study, God spoke to me again and confirmed that Ecuador was, in fact, His plan: that this was His way of selecting a specific group of people who would bond together to bring about change in a developing country where prostitution is legal and children as young as three years old are trafficked in the middle of streets in Quito, the capital city.
There were around thirty people total on our team, seventeen who went together from the States, and others who live there in Ecuador as well as others from Norway and Venezuela.
BtC: Wow! It sounds like you worked with a great team. Tell us about some of your group’s efforts in Ecuador.
Nichole: The highlight of the Justice Tour was the Night of Refuge, a one-of-a-kind party we held for the prostitutes within Quito at a well-known, upscale restaurant. The purpose of NOR was to give victims of trafficking a night off from their nightly routine and instead offered them hope, a renewed sense of worth, and a way out of the sex industry. We were expecting between 50-70 girls that night; there were 97 women in attendance — that’s nearly 25% of registered prostitutes within the city!
During the evening, we focused on building relationships with the women and just being positive voices in their lives. We did not talk about their profession, and even through the language barriers and somewhat awkwardness of speaking through a translator, we were able to communicate with the girls with love and even laughter. We played table games, ate dinner, and served them. We loved on those girls in a way most of them have never experienced in their entire lives — we didn’t judge them based on their job, on their past, on what they do: we simply gave of ourselves to them, to let them know that their lives DO matter, that they can have a future that doesn’t include the bondage and pain they’ve experienced for so long.
We were in Ecuador for twelve days and did multiple campaigns, held events, and worked with other non-profit organizations each day. We went to an HIV orphanage in Otavalo, which was heartbreaking. Those sweet little faces of the children there who have no idea they have a terminal illness; their little hearts that don’t understand why one day a friend is there and the next day she’s gone. They don’t know why they feel so sick sometimes. But amidst all of that, it didn’t keep them from smiling, from playing, from playing with frisbees and painting our faces with watercolor paints, and begging to play with our iPhones!
We spent time with an organization who provides shelter for girls ages 10-17 who have been rescued from trafficking. The non-profit organization teaches the girls life skills in order to make money to provide for themselves, their families, and even their own little babies in many cases.
BtC: Your time in Ecuador was undoubtedly filled with powerful moments. Are there any that stand out in particular?
Nichole: We held “Humans Are Not For Sale,” a visual art campaign in the middle of Plaza Foch (the party/red light district of Quito) that portrayed four girls from our team for sale with price tags around their necks and chains around their feet to raise awareness for victims of human trafficking. The intensity of this particular visual art campaign was especially difficult for all of us: seeing our friends dressed as victims of trafficking and being exploited in the middle of one of the most dangerous places in the city, hearing obscenities that were shouted, reaching out to people desperately trying to make them understand that no life is for sell, broke my heart in a way I never dreamt possible. For the last several years, I have had burden to make a difference in the world through helping women of all ages find complete wholeness through Jesus — but actually seeing the bondage. Seeing my friends take on the burden these girls go through on a nightly basis. Seeing the chains, the tears of shame in their own eyes for who they were portraying, and both the disgust and indifference of people in the plaza made the reality human trafficking so much more real for me.
It’s one thing to know and accept the fact that trafficking exists all over the world. It’s one thing to know the stats, to know that trafficking is the second largest, yet fastest growing, organized crime in the world with over 27 million people currently in slavery in a 32 billion dollar industry. But to see it happen. To experience it. To be right in the middle of it and to have it engulf every part of your being is sobering.
BtC: After being involved in something this important, how has your perspective on life changed?
Nichole: The “Humans Are Not For Sale” campaign was powerful for all of us. When we convened together afterward to discuss the event and to share our experiences, we broke. The bond that was formed that night enabled us to pull together for the Night of Refuge, for the Little People of Ambato, for the needs of those even on our team. That night was pivotal for me because it made trafficking real: when I saw a little child, no more than four years old, selling goods in the street and knowing that she wasn’t out there because her mother was making her, but because she had been sold, it made me angry. It made me know that I have to do something — I have to fulfill my purpose for being here in the world. It gave me an understanding like I’ve never had before that when Jesus commanded His disciples to “go into all the world,” it wasn’t just a suggestion. It really was a commandment. We are called to be the light of the world — we are called to be Jesus in our communities. We are meant to do and be more than puppets on a stick wearing pretty dresses drinking fancy coffees. We are here for a purpose, for a reason, for such a time as this.
Nichole: I wrote “Restore Me” during a really difficult time in my life and never thought it would be a song I would share with others. Last year I felt God prompting me to do something more with it so I went into a recording studio with it. It was supposed to be released prior to the trip, but ended up getting held in iTunes’ review process longer than usual and then went live the very day my team and I left the States for Ecuador.
It wasn’t an accident that it was released that day, though. It wasn’t an accident that the song I wrote during a time of intense prayer from the deepest part of my heart was with me as we worked to bring justice to orphans, the hungry, the homeless, the trafficked. It wasn’t an accident that my own cry for restoration, healing, and hope became a mission to bring redemption and love to others.
The chorus says, “Restore me, heal me, take my broken heart, all my shattered hopes and dreams. Mold me, redeem me, take me in Your arms and hold me. Lord, restore me.”
I was amazed at how during the trip that song continued to speak to me and gave me ways to relate to the girls we were working with — for while my own experiences with heartbreak and feelings of inadequacies are nothing compared to what they’ve been through, I was able to reach into my heart and find compassion and love for them. I was able to connect with them through that song and for the first time, I understood that this song was more than just another single on iTunes or a musician making her contribution to the world: I knew that it was the cry of people in need of love and salvation found only in Jesus.
BtC: It’s a beautiful song, and it’s amazing how God is already using it in ways bigger than you ever imagined. Now on a lighthearted note, we’ve seen from your photos that you tried zip-lining in Ecuador and visited the equator. Anything else you were able to experience for the first time?
Nichole: After all of the very heartfelt “present-ness” of our time in Quito and the surrounding areas, we had almost two full days of relaxation and free time in Baños, Ecuador. We went zip-lining through mountains and over waterfalls, hiking, adventuring through the town, and also went to the Swing at the End of the World. Honestly, so incredibly perfect: my heart will never be the same because Ecuador holds it captive!
BtC: Nichole, we can’t thank you enough for taking time to share your incredible Ecuador experience with us. Before we go, what would be your advice to someone who wants to get involved in the fight against human trafficking?
Nichole: My advice to someone who wants to get involved in the fight against human trafficking would be first to raise awareness in your community. Join with your local police department, FBI offices, and coalitions for fundraisers and volunteer opportunities. Most cities and counties are becoming increasingly involved in efforts to stop trafficking through research and preventative measures and are always looking for people willing to be active participants. Check out the Polaris Project for up-to-date stats, International Justice Mission for updates on rescue missions, and Google your own community to find local nonprofits you can join to become a world changer!
BtC: Wow, thanks, Nichole, for that amazing interview! For readers who’d like to keep up with Nichole on social media, you can find her at any of the places below:
Also, remember Nichole’s single “Restore Me” is available for purchase on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/album/id1018984965 and that 100% of the proceeds go to help human trafficking victims.