“Not Just Hearts But Shackles”

An Interview with Jamie Gates

Written by Rylie Shore
Aug 27, 2019

When we find ourselves nose-to-nose with the uglier sides of being human, we’re often tempted to ignore, to numb, or to freeze. Our flawed reality—clanging with poverty, violence, and human trafficking, to name a few—can leave us immobilized, unsure of how to help and doubting that our efforts will create even a glimpse of lasting change. And yet, our incarnate God and the reformers who go before us extend an invitation: step toward the mess that Jesus already inhabits and invest in the divine movement from oppression to redemption.

San Diegan Jamie Gates accepted this invitation and leapt into the mayhem with both feet and two companions: deep faith and unquenchable curiosity. As an anthropologist, researcher in human trafficking, professor at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), and passionate singer in the Martin Luther King Community Gospel Choir, Jamie starts with questions and he starts with people. He treks to the margins, takes up residence, and becomes friends with those who have been outcast. He asks them: what support do you need and what does healing look like on your journey?

In the spring of 2014, Jamie coordinated a faith-based conference in Kansas City that spotlighted human trafficking and urged the Church to engage in its complexity. He invited a survivor of human trafficking, also a dear friend, to headline the conference, where she told her story publicly for the first time. She concluded with an exhortation, an answer to his question: “Make it possible for those of us who are survivors to get our college education.”

With a solidified vision in sight, Jamie returned from Kansas City and dove headfirst into dreaming, planning, and advocating for survivor scholarships with his two colleagues, Kim Jones and Michelle Shoemaker. In 2016, they launched the Beauty for Ashes Scholarship Fund for survivors of human trafficking to earn their college degrees. In December of 2018, Jamie celebrated with the first two scholarship recipients as they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. 

“The scholarship is tuition to get an undergraduate degree at PLNU, but it’s more than that. The scholarship is way more than just the money. It is a whole community of people who say we believe in you, and we are going to walk with you,” Jamie explains.

In tandem with the launch of the Beauty for Ashes scholarship was the release of Jamie’s study, “The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County.” Through years of focus groups, interviews, and data analysis, Jamie and co-researcher Dr. Ami Carpenter (University of San Diego) illuminated the breadth of human trafficking in San Diego. Among their findings: half of adults arrested for prostitution are victims of human trafficking; 80 percent of victims are born in the United States; and the average age of entry into sex trafficking in San Diego County is 16 years of age.

Amidst the weighty uncovering of an 810-million-dollar sex trafficking economy and throughout interviews with members of over 100 San Diego gangs immersed in the industry, something remarkable was burgeoning. Jamie’s faith was growing deep roots into the belief that healing and deliverance must extend beyond the victims to the perpetrators as well. 

“We engage in the work of restoration by being in relationship with people who are broken and where the broken system is most hurtful,” he says. “We got to know victims of trafficking, but we also got to know traffickers at the same time, and we assume that redemption is possible for everyone involved.”

For Jamie, this unwavering commitment to enact justice includes a lifestyle that is peppered with generosity and deep friendship. As his former student and mentee, I have watched as he and his wife have filled hungry bellies and refreshed weary hearts around their large dining room table that frequently hums with activity. On birthdays and graduations, my classmates and I received a cherished item from his house, perhaps a painting that hung in his living room or a zebra-striped pillow that decorated his couch. On campus, he is the professor who listens until his students are heard, then responds with a question rather than a neatly folded word of advice. 

Through his deep faith and pursuit of justice, he has found the value of living into the questions, rather than chasing after the answers themselves. Through conversations with Jamie, one will always find an invitation to do the same.

In your ongoing research and work with survivors, what does transformational healing look like?

In the last year I have watched three survivors walk across a platform with a Point Loma Nazarene University undergraduate degree in their hand. Two of them are social workers, and their pain and grief and exploitation is literally transformed into a career that will alleviate the pain and the suffering and the exploitation of others. That is a miracle. But I will also say, we underestimate how long healing takes. What we think should happen in a fairly short amount of time once all of the supports are in place is actually only the beginning of a much longer process. 

The other miracle I have seen is us learning how to be more patient and how to settle in for the long haul. That means figuring out how to not just raise money for a scholarship for now, but asking, how do we set a pipeline of supports in place? How do we help give a soft handoff when they’ve gone from our care to the next level where they might need care next? I think sometimes the miracle is in our own hearts, as we develop the patience, and being willing to say, “It’s ok if six or seven years down the road someone is still wrestling with their trauma.” We will not see massive victory all at once; victories are small, incremental, and come over time.

In your research on gang involvement in sex trafficking in San Diego County, you found that “the scope of trafficking in San Diego County is wider than expected” and “the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 16.1 years of age.” How do you maintain stamina and cling to hope?

Listening to story after story of exploitation, looking deeper into the powers and principalities that are broken, and recognizing that evil is as dark as it is—there is no doubt that it wears on you. I am always crying out to God. I am always praying and I am always drawing others around us to pray. I am desperate for worship because worship puts me in a space that is not the darkness.

I have such a vibrant faith community around me that continues to speak healing things into my life. I do find myself heavy-hearted often, but I don’t find myself in a deep depression. I find myself anxious that things change, but I don’t find myself hopeless that they are not going to. Because I know that I am a part of something much bigger than myself—I am a part of a God that is bending the universe towards justice, and in some ways it is my job to be patient when that is not happening as fast as I think it should happen.

You frequently talk about the theological concept of “prophetic imagination.” How does this interact with your ongoing work of engaging social issues?

Nurturing the prophetic imagination is a phrase I use about our work all the time, and I got that phrase from an Old Testament professor, Walter Brueggeman, who was a student of the prophets. He recognized that the prophets of the Old Testament measure the wealth and the worth of a nation and a people by how well the widow and the orphan and the stranger are doing—how well the least of those in a society are doing, not by how much wealth or power there is, but by how well a society is taking care of the most vulnerable among them.

I follow Jesus when he says he has come to bring good news to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and to declare the year of Jubilee. I believe he was freeing not just hearts but shackles.

“I am desperate for worship because worship puts me in a space that is not the darkness.”

How have you taken the call to engage in social reformation and transformed it from an occupational calling into a lifestyle?

I grew up in a racially divided South Africa as a white kid but a foreigner. And so all the big questions of race and privilege and access were a part of my upbringing but were something I only reflected on deeply after getting out of that environment. When I came back to the States as a college student, I listened to early mentors, like Tony Campolo and Ray Bakke, who were not just preaching about justice but were finding very practical ways to enact it with their lives. I said I want to do that—I wanted to figure out what that looks like for me. 

So when I got married, my wife and I moved to Kansas City for seminary and we did that. Michelle [my wife] and I were the only white family in the all-black Blue Hills Church of the Nazarene. We lived as resident assistants in an intermediate housing program for homeless families as part of our early life together. We were constantly seeking a path to be involved at the margins.

When we moved to San Diego, living in a neighborhood where we would be the minority was important to us. We moved into National City where eight percent are white families, and we put our kids in the local schools. We intentionally live simply in a modest house in a modest neighborhood where we are racially in the minority. We intentionally learn how to be present with our neighbors. 

One really important example of this was in 2017. One of our undocumented neighbors, a father of three who had become our family friend, was picked up by Border Patrol. His 19-year-old, 17-year-old, and 12-year-old twins were left at home. We walked with them and helped the community come around them. We went to their court hearings, and it grew into changing the city. My wife and I stood behind pulpits and podiums to help the city bring an ordinance in place that helped make National City a welcoming city, which meant that law enforcement, social service agencies, and libraries would not ask about immigration status before offering services. 

The family was eventually reunited, the kids were old enough that the parents could apply for citizenship under their children, and we now have a city ordinance that makes my neighborhood safer because people can feel more free to go to law enforcement if something happens to them.

As a grassroots leader in the human trafficking movement, how do you invite people into hard conversations?

Two assumptions when walking into a room of people: One, you assume everybody has something meaningful to contribute, and two, you assume that redemption is possible for anyone.

With those two assumptions in hand, even when people say hurtful things, you know that is not all of who they are. Not even people who have committed grotesque crimes. Nobody is the worst thing they’ve ever done. The cause you are working on is big enough to where it’s worth being patient through that mess. 

“Two assumptions when walking into a room of people: One, you assume everybody has something meaningful to contribute, and two, you assume that redemption is possible for anyone.”

What is your antidote to moments of discouragement?

The brokenness of the people and the systems we are dealing with on a regular basis is real, tangible, and it hurts. So much of what is hard comes at us fast and without warning, and what I am trying to think through now is the pace at which we move–to not be overly busy all of the time, to give time and space to handle the complexity, to take measured next steps as opposed to grasping at whatever comes our way. I am working on having wisdom about not taking on too much, and self-care has become really important.

What practical advice can you share for those who are striving to create empowering spaces for the marginalized?

You can’t engage in all injustices at the same time, but they are all connected to one another. If you look at something like human trafficking, you can find links to poverty, racism, gang life, sexism, nimbyism, and domestic violence. All of those things link to one another, but you can learn about those other dimensions by spending significant time going deep on one issue. 

People think that to get involved in the brokenness of the world, you have to fix it all at the same time and get involved in all of it. I don’t think so. I think you go local, specific, and deep. From there, let God use that profound knowledge and those deep relationships to influence other places and other people and other times. 

How can people of faith resist oppressive systems and engage in the work of restoration?

People of faith have to include in their faith the fact that there is structural and systemic brokenness in the first place. If our faith is only about how right our hearts are with God and each other but not also about how right the world is, how right the economic systems are, how right and just the politics of our place are, then faith is not at its fullness. 

The first step is for us to have a theology, for us to have a vision of faith, that wraps its arms around the brokenness of our unjust systems. We have to get close. If everyone around you continues to look like you, and you haven’t built bridges with the way you live, where you work, or where you go to school, I think you are missing some of the beauty of the Gospel. 

Photos by James Galt.

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