Growing Brave to Become More: Rebecca Bender and Patti Callahan Henry – Episode #187 Listen to Podcast
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Description: Fear of the unknown and fear of change are some of the greatest struggles we will ever face. Today’s guests, Rebecca Bender and Patti Callahan Henry, share how they found the courage to make a change, which led them to freedom and joy like they had never experienced. Human trafficking survivor and activist Rebecca Bender opens up about the life she was manipulated into and how, by listening to God’s voice and the strong spirit that He gave her, she found a way out.
Novelist Patti Callahan Henry shares how she left her job as a nurse to become a writer, and the story she wrote about C.S. Lewis’ wife, Joy, who also took a leap of faith that led her to a love that she never could’ve imagined for herself.
Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast.
This week we talk with two women who have known and seen what happens when we find the courage to make a bold shift in our lives: novelist Patti Callahan Henry and activist and author Rebecca Bender.
Rebecca Bender is the CEO & Founder of the Rebecca Bender Initiative and is a survivor, leader and author of In Pursuit of Love. Rebecca thought she was going to have the life she had always dreamed of when she moved to Las Vegas with her boyfriend, but the dream became a nightmare when her boyfriend became her pimp at the age of nineteen. Rebecca shares how she was forced into sex trafficking for nearly six years, and how during that time, she felt God pursuing her, and slowly building the courage in her that would eventually allow her to escape her captor.
IN PURSUIT OF LOVE
BECOMING A WOMAN OF PASSION, PURPOSE, AND
TRIUMPH REGARDLESS OF THE PAST
Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Bender. I’m a survivor of human trafficking, but I’m more than just my story. I’m a wife and a mother and the CEO and founder of a nonprofit and I’m an author of several books. But my newest [book] I’m really excited about, which is In Pursuit of Love.
Feeling Unseen and Unwanted
I grew up in a small rural town in Oregon of about 3,000 people. Back then, it was a little tiny lumber town called Cave Junction, Oregon.I had a great childhood. I was an only child. I grew up skipping rocks and swimming in swim holes, riding horses and bikes. I just had a great childhood with a lot of animals on small farms, cows and chickens.
One side of my family was a very strong Christian family, church pastors and Bible study teachers and ministers. I would go to church with them on Sundays or vacation Bible school.
But my life at home with my parents, and my mom and my stepdad, was just so very different than any form of going to church or faith at all. [There were] different forms of violence in the home, whether my dad was yelling and throwing things, or my mom had a new boyfriend that was really a jerk and didn’t treat her very well. It really desensitized me probably more than I even realized until more recently in my adult life. It left me, as a only child, feeling very unseen, unimportant, and unwanted, which kind of stuck with me. As I grew into my teenage years, I wanted to get out of my little town. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to explore what was out there.
[I was] happy to join the new group at school that invited me to that first party. [I was] happy to do it, because I just wanted to love and be loved. I wanted to be a part of something. I wanted to have fun. I was a varsity athlete. I was an honor roll student. I was busy. I was on prom court, harvest ball queen. But again, I was kind of a party girl, so I was great all through school and on the bus to and from away games. And then that Saturday came around, I found out where the nearest party was and went and hung out with friends and was always on the go.
That was what had become my norm. So when I would occasionally attend church with my grandma, I felt very judged. I felt like [they were thinking], Oh, this is the family that the prayer requests have been about. And I know those were never anyone’s intention, but it didn’t always feel welcoming. I felt like an outsider, which pushed me, I think, even further away from wanting to be a part of a community of faith.
”I felt like an outsider, which pushed me, I think, even further away from wanting to be a part of a community of faith.” — Rebecca Bender
Pregnant and Alone
I got pregnant at seventeen, had a daughter at eighteen, and moved into a college town that’s about two hours north of my family. And right away, I could tell that this was probably not going to be the adventure that I had hoped [it would be]. I didn’t have the support of my grandparents and my own parents and my aunts and cousins. I didn’t have any support. And suddenly, I was the girl on campus with the kid. Those vulnerabilities I had as a young girl, feeling really alone and unimportant, started to resurface. And it was at that time when I was questioning if I’d made the right decision to move there that I really started to get in with the wrong crowd.
That is when I met a young man who had a lot of ambition and seemed to have a lot of answers to my problems. You know, I’m a single mom living in poverty, trying to put myself through school. And he had all these answers, and he was funny and he was charming. My dream started to shift and morph into his. Everything became about we and us and our plans and our future instead of me having dreams that he wanted to support, like maybe a healthy relationship would do. Everything became his plans, but somehow, he was able to convince me that they would become our plans. You know, any attempt to fast track a relationship is a huge red flag.
Obviously in hindsight, as a healthy adult, there were a huge amount of red flags that I just didn’t know to look for. You know, things like frequently making trips out of town, not having a job that anyone can actually visit, but [having] enough things that clearly [show] they have a “good job.” Right? Really nice cars, really nice homes, being able to travel so much. How are you doing that if you don’t have a job that anyone can visit? Multiple phones. Engaging in culture that really degrades women, whether that’s music choice or concert attendance.Any time you are in a new relationship, your circles should be doubling, right? You’re getting introduced to his friends and him to yours and and vice versa. Instead, my circle [was] shrinking, [it became] seclusion and isolation. Whether [that was] moving you away or encouraging you to move to a different town. All of those became red flags that no one really noticed.
I thought I’d met the one. I thought I was going to get married, have a white picket fence. You know, we talked about having kids someday, and I just was completely in love. I was a nineteen-year-old girl, head over heels in love with this man who seemed to have all the answers to every problem that I had.
When we started packing up my apartment to move in, he told me that his job was relocating him to Las Vegas, and I had some other red flags. We had gone on vacation there once, and I think I was so in love that I wasn’t seeing clearly. And I’m sure I’m not the only woman in this world who’s been so head over heels at nineteen that you just kind of look aside at the things that may have caused red flags because you so hope and want this relationship to work.You know, you can’t imagine going back to hopelessness, so you choose to look the other way because you really want the dream that’s being dangled in front of you. I noticed some other red flags when we had been on vacation in Vegas, but again, I chose to believe him. I chose to believe the lies, because I really wanted this relationship to work.
”You can’t imagine going back to hopelessness, so you choose to look the other way because you really want the dream that’s being dangled in front of you.” – Rebecca Bender
Tricked into the Trade
I was in complete mental chains. Traffickers are very good at brainwashing. There’s actually a study out from Northern Colorado University that shows that domestic human trafficking, trafficking here in the United States, it fits all fifteen indicators of cult behavior, which was really eye opening for me when I learned that, because you could see how this high control leader really created this us versus them mentality, this controlling where you eat and when you sleep and who you’re in relationship with, who can be your friends, a complete isolation to outside information. And then the bonds that you form with him, whether it’s Stockholm syndrome, capture or bonding trauma. These are actual DSM-5 indicators from psychologists. These aren’t terms that just trafficking victims make up, like this actually happens to people when they’re in very controlled, isolated, traumatic relationships. And before I knew it, I felt just completely brainwashed and desensitized to this very hyper commercial sex industry.I still had moments of, Yeah, this still isn’t what I was sold, though.
This isn’t what I actually want to do. This isn’t what I want for my daughter. And I would kick back and I would push back and I would say, “Now, this isn’t what I was promised. This isn’t what you told me.”And the problem is, the more I would push back, the more hurt I would get physically. I can remember him actually saying to me once, he actually said it to the whole room, all the other women, he pulled me out in the middle and he said, “This one has a spirit that won’t be broken,” as if it was a bad thing.
And for a long time, I thought it was, and now I’m so grateful that God gave me a spirit that pushed back and said, no, something’s not right here. Part of my brain was starting to fall for it, but part of me was trying to hold on and grasp for a little bit of hope that this just this isn’t actually normal.
During my nearly six years that I was in domestic human trafficking, I was traded and sold between three different traffickers. There were moments in my life where I started to feel like I was going crazy. I started feeling like my mind was slipping away, and I would do things to try to keep myself present. But really, God began pursuing me.I was so, so filled with knowing that I could hear the voice of the Lord, the voice of the Creator of the universe who chose to talk to me, and that really kept me through some of my darkest times. I started to get very hopeless and suicidal, depressed. That’s when I started to feel my mind slipping. And I would just start praying, like I’d call out, “I pray for the spirit of peace in the name of Jesus.” I would pray this over myself while being trafficked.
“I was so, so filled with knowing that I could hear the voice of the Lord, the voice of the Creator of the universe who chose to talk to me, and that really kept me through some of my darkest times.”— Rebecca Bender
I think someone gave me a Jesus Calling devotional during my time of just trying to find myself. It was so great to have something that was very quick, but very deep. You know, Jesus Calling goes deep in a way that really speaks to your heart, and I loved the thought of Jesus talking to me the way that I had heard Him for so much of my life through so much of my trauma.
A Tough New Reality
Finally, in 2006, the feds raided one of the homes of my traffickers. And thankfully, in December of 2007, two of the other victims had been sentenced to a year in prison for felony tax evasion, and that gave me an opportunity knowing that my trafficker also was about to take a plea deal on a tax evasion charge. I knew that he wouldn’t be able to chase me as he had done in the past, when I had ran in the past.I packed up everything I could in our suitcases, and I grabbed my daughter and I fled. And I think that was really hard. Escaping was scary. It’s hard. But what’s even worse, what’s equally as hard is . . . now what?
Here I am, back in my tiny, small lumber town. You’re technically choosing homelessness. You’re sleeping on people’s couches, you’re getting on food stamps, I don’t know, I didn’t have a fork or a pillow. I had nothing. Living in a very small town with a criminal record, a huge gap in job history, a ridiculous amount of stigmas with the term prostitution. If someone were to run a background check [when I tried] to volunteer at my kid’s school or to get a job, it was this constant fear that everyone was going to find out what kind of girl I used to be.
This is my favorite part about God: how He breaks off chains, He breaks up shame. He can completely redo our lives. We can become new creations, but it takes a lot of work.
And I had this come to Jesus moment one night with the Lord, where I just cried out to God and I said, “I don’t want this either. I feel hopeless. I feel just as hopeless. I don’t want this life either. Is this all you saved me for? To live in government-subsidized housing and beyond poverty and riding the public bus? This is really hard, too, and I don’t want this either.”
“This is my favorite part about God: how He breaks off chains, He breaks our shame. He can completely redo our lives.” – Rebecca Bender
And I remember God saying very clearly, “If you give me the same amount of time that you gave the enemy, I will never be outdone.”And it’s like I had this revelation shift in my heart of, I can’t expect God to undo in thirty days what took six years to really take hold.
And so I said, “Okay, I’ll give you six years, but if it’s not better, I’m out.” I just had this moment of being real with God. You have to be real with God. He knows what you’re thinking, and He knows even more than you do what’s happening in your brain and in your mind and your heart. So just crying out to Him helps really shift and give you some revelation and helps you take your eyes off of your circumstance to see what He has in store.
“You have to be real with God. He knows what you’re thinking, and He knows even more than you do what’s happening in your brain and in your mind and your heart. So just crying out to Him helps really shift and give you some revelation and helps you take your eyes off of your circumstance to see what He has in store.” — Rebecca Bender
It was in that moment of declaring, “Okay, I’m in, I’m all in,” that I started accepting, I think, more of the support for my community, from my family, from my church. And God just did a radical shift in my own heart. I started loving the small town I lived in, and I started feeling and seeing a part of the community that I really had only seen through the lens of my vulnerable young self, where now I got to see this incredible community of people who wanted to come around me and support me and break the shame.
Finally Letting Go of Shame
I am now happily married. We celebrated ten years earlier this year and we have four beautiful daughters. My oldest daughter, who was with me during all of this, is now almost twenty years old and she is off at college—she’s a junior in college—and God is just doing great things in her life. We’re so blessed. We live on a tiny farm with chickens and eggs and a little garden. And I just love being able to travel and share the word of the Lord.I started the Rebecca Bender Initiative back in 2014, I started sharing my story back in 2008, and over time I started, the Lord kept kind of eating at my heart that I needed to do something.
So I took my story and created a law enforcement training and medical professional training to try to help community professionals. And year to date, we have trained over 100,000 FBI agents, undercover cops, and local law enforcement across the country. Prosecutors, judges.
Those relationships have grown organically, and we’ve been able to meet nonprofits, been able to help traffic victims in several cases. I’ve taken the stand as a human trafficking expert, testified in trials across the country, helped to prosecute traffickers. And what I love about the work that God allows me to do today is not only do we get to bring justice for the victim and we ensure that her and anyone who this person who had potentially had interaction with can be safe now, but I love that it’s also creating constant change in the community.
“What I love about the work that God allows me to do today is not only do we get to bring justice for the victim . . . but I love that it’s also creating constant change in the community.” – Rebecca Bender
You know, I was a girl who was pursuing love in all the wrong places, and eventually, that led to a trafficker actually pursuing me because of my vulnerabilities. But the whole time God, pursued us, and at the end, it’s really about, Will you let it all go to pursue Him?
“Those who’ve been forgiven much loveth much.” And I just kept owning that. If God took Rahab and put her in the lineage of Jesus and said to His disciples, “This one loves more than you,” how much more for girls like me? You know, Jesus loves girls like me—we’re all over the Bible. Put the shame on who should own the shame, which is the perpetrators. Don’t take that ownership of that on yourself, hand it right back to who deserves it. And it’s not you.
”You know, Jesus loves girls like me—we’re all over the Bible. Put the shame on who should own the shame, which is the perpetrators.”— Rebecca Bender
Narrator: You can find Rebecca’s book, In Pursuit of Love, wherever books are sold. Other resources are available on Rebecca’s website, RebeccaBender.org.If you or someone you care about is involved with trafficking, there is help. Call the National U.S. Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 to get help today.We’ll be right back with our next guest, Patti Callahan, after this message about a free new resource from Jesus Calling: The Jesus Calling Magazine.
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Narrator: For decades, the world has been captivated by the writings of 20th century British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, including novelist Patti Callahan Henry. As Patti grew curious about one of her favorite writers, she found herself wanting to learn more about his mysterious wife, Joy Davidman. After years of research, Patti wanted to tell Joy’s story and wrote a fictionalized account of her life called Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis. Patti walks us through her journey through writing and introduces us to the remarkable life of Joy Davidman and her remarkable story with C.S. Lewis.
Patti Callahan Henry
I am Patti Callahan Henry, I also write under Patti Callahan. I’m a novelist. I’m a nurse turned novelist, a real believer in the power of story. I live in Birmingham, Alabama most of the time, but spend another majority of the time in Bluffton, South Carolina.