Twelve years ago, Pastor Paul Palmer and his wife felt the nudge to move their family from California to Atlanta and plant the Atlanta Dream Center in one of the poorest, most desperate parts of the city. As a younger man, Pastor Paul had lived through a painful history of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, theft, and other illegal activities. Once he turned his life around, he channeled his energies into helping others stuck in terrible circumstances by reaching them through the love of God. The Atlanta Dream Center has helped thousands of people on the streets of Atlanta in myriad ways. Ask anyone on the streets — from prostitutes, to the homeless, to at-risk inner-city children, to drug dealers and addicts, to pimps — and they will tell you about the deep respect they have for Pastor Paul and his family. His presence in this giant city speaks to the importance of nurturing a close-knit community that lets others know they are cared for and they matter.
I can speak first-hand to the importance of the Atlanta Dream Center. As a part of the graduation requirements for the ministry and leadership academy I graduated from this spring, we had to go on two mission trips. The options ranged from Haiti, Ireland, Germany, Jordan, Israel, Honduras, to Atlanta. Even though local, domestic mission trips are sometimes not seen as such, I chose to go to Atlanta for both of my required trips, knowing I would get the chance to participate in prostitute ministry.
On my first trip, I met a woman we will call “Hope.” We were eating lunch in the Dream Center kitchen together, making small talk. Hope asked me where I was from, and we bonded over the simple fact that we were both from Alabama. I asked her how she got to Atlanta, and she told me the story of how she started out stripping in Huntsville when she was 18 years old, and how the bright lights and potential for more money drew her to Atlanta. In no time at all, Hope became one of the millions of women snared in the sex trade.
After a few years of stripping on her own accord, Hope was lured into being pimped out by a man who claimed to love her. What was once her own decision would become a life that she could not control. Forced to service between twenty to forty men a day, she was hopeless and turned to alcohol and drugs to try to escape her dark reality.
One Friday night, a couple of young women from the Dream Center’s Princess Night ministry approached Hope and asked her if she would like a rose, telling her that she was loved and beautiful. She couldn’t remember the last time someone told her she was beautiful and didn’t want something from her. She didn’t believe in God, and she didn’t believe in love. Most of the time, when these girls accept a rose, they risk being beaten and raped by their pimps.
Hope accepted the rose. They gave her a rescue hotline number, but she knew she would be putting her life in danger if she called them. Friday night after Friday night, the same people came to tell her that she was loved and beautiful. They were interested in her life, they knew her name, and they prayed for her. They wanted to love her when she was a social outcast and everyone else looked down upon her. Through months and months of short conversations, prayers, and roses, a relationship between Hope and the Dream Center staff was formed. One night, Hope left the streets and found refuge in a safe home run by the Atlanta Dream Center, a safe home so secret and secure that only a couple staff members know where it is located.
Hope would never go back to working the streets. She enrolled in the Dream Center’s ministry school, graduated, and now helps other young girls and women leave the nightmare world of prostitution and live with freedom, hope, and dignity.
The Atlanta Dream Center has seen hundreds of girls rescued over the past few years through the Princess Night ministry, but as this is more of a seed-planting operation, stories like Hope’s are rare. Typically and far too often, young girls and women are lured into sexual slavery and used up until their bodies can no longer handle the abuse. Their pimps or brothel owners get them pregnant, they sell the babies to pedophile rings, and when prostitutes die, the pimps harvest the women’s organs to sell on the black market. Hope was, indeed, fortunate. She was Princess Night’s first princess.
A year after meeting Hope, I returned to the Atlanta Dream Center on another short-term mission trip with my college. Princess Night rolled around, and all the girls loaded into two vans, and all the guys loaded into another. We went to an area of town that is cheap motel after cheap motel, sex shop after sex shop, strip club after strip club, by far one of the shadiest areas I have ever seen. My good friend Ashley and I got out of the van with a staff member to talk to a girl on a dark road, close to a spot where girls will go to hide when they need a break.
I glanced at one girl who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. She was anorexic, strung out on drugs, and had cuts on her face. She looked completely and utterly spent. I looked in her eyes and saw nothing. There was no life left, she was empty and hopeless.
We approached her and asked if we could talk to her. She gave us permission, and we handed her a white rose, saying, “We just want you to know that you are pure, loved and beautiful.” Tears rolled down her cheeks and she whispered the words, “Thank you.” We asked if we could pray for her. She said yes, and we hurriedly poured our hearts out to her. We handed her a rescue hotline number and said goodbye. Walking away from her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I couldn’t bear the thought of her precious heart being violated by another sick, selfish man. But we had no other choice but to leave. I prayed that God would protect her, keep her safe and hidden, and that she would call the rescue number and leave those horrible streets forever.
I have never felt more broken or helpless for someone else’s pain than I did in those moments. I got back in the van and wept uncontrollably. That night, 27 million slaves were reduced to one face that, for me, will forever be the face of slavery. They are so much more than numbers, or “just prostitutes,” as society likes to label them. They are individuals. Stories. People. Daughters. Sisters. No little girl dreams of prostitution and being abused in ways she never meant to be. Political correctness aside for a moment, think of the little girl who dreams of being a princess and longs to be beautiful, seen, loved and cherished. Princess Night is an incredible ministry restoring hope to women who might otherwise never know freedom again.