Marked By Love

Ask Amor Sierra about her tattoos, and she’ll tell you about her heart.

For Sierra, 51, ink is one way she likes to tell the world about her two greatest passions: Jesus Christ, and seeing the human sex trafficking industry ended. And they tell the story of her life.

That story is a tale of redemption from some of the darkest things humanity can experience: Physical abuse, molestation, rape, drug and alcohol addiction, multiple suicide attempts, gender confusion and homosexuality. Sierra walked through it all—rejecting God not once, but several times along her route of pain. 

Maybe that’s why she now finds such an affinity for the women who’ve survived being trafficked for sex. She knows firsthand what they go through: feeling marginalized, abused, used and expendable—like a slave.

“In a perfect world, I’d love to not have gone through all that pain and suffering,” Sierra tells Citizen, “but God used that to bring me into a relationship with Him. I’ve always had a heart to help young girls who’ve been abused since I became a Christian. Once I found out trafficking was happening, that was just another branch of girls being abused and hurt that paralleled my life.”

Four years ago, she bought a tattoo shop in South Beach, Fla., without knowing anything about that industry, with the goal of using it to remove the inky brands that evil put on women’s bodies to mark them as something less than human—the property of their traffickers. Today, the Miami Tattoo Co. is one of the top-rated studios in the city—and in one of the great ironies of Providence, it’s directly across the street from a club where Sierra used to tend bar, do ecstasy and hang out with celebrities when she was deep in her rebellion.

Sierra knows firsthand the scars that trauma can leave on spirit, soul and body alike. And she knows now—to the depths of her being—what it’s like to have all those marks erased by blood and grace. 

Of the 28 tattoos she now bears, one of her favorites testifies to the mercy of the One who delivered her. Amid the symbols for several anti-trafficking groups—the A21 Campaign; The End It Movement; DeliverFund (chronicled in the May 2017 issue of Citizen, and on whose board Sierra sits)—are the words of Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” 

“On my forearm, it’s like a tree coming out of the Bible, like the Tree of Life,” she explains, pointing. “That was my story of the direction my life was taking before God, and then it bends and I have new life. The fact that it’s on my forearm is about not being ashamed of the Gospel. It lets me share my story with people.”

Shining a Light

Sierra’s life today looks nothing like it did as a child or young adult. She volunteers with nearly a dozen anti-trafficking groups in the Miami area, and last month began, will begin hosting a weekly half-hour show on a local Christian radio station dedicated to that topic.

“Amor is just one of those rare jewels in the community,” says Jorge Veitia, 49. He’s the executive director of the Life of Freedom Center, a local anti-trafficking group that works closely with churches in the area. 

“We don’t need people in the community to be experts on trafficking. We need them to be experts on how we can include the Lord’s love into deterring demand. She’s been a stalwart, steadfast servant who’s always humble. She doesn’t demand a lot of attention, but she’s always available. From day one, she’s opened up her business and has probably done the most street outreaches (of any of the volunteers). We’ve trained 200 people or more (to spot the signs of trafficking) through her shop.

Over the last few years, Sierra’s employees have become increasingly involved in the anti-trafficking movement as well. When they attend professional conventions, the Miami Tattoo Co. crew members are usually the only ones out of the thousands of artists there who remove trafficking victims’ tattoos—and they do it gratis. 

“Then the other artists want to try to get involved somehow,” says general manager Billy Gerardi, 38. “So we’re giving back outside our four walls—not just in Miami, but around the world.”

Sierra didn’t become an abolitionist until early 2013, when she heard A21 Campaign co-founder Christine Caine discussing human trafficking at a Christian conference. She tattooed her forearm with the End It Movement’s symbol—a red X—to help raise awareness.

 A few weeks later, she saw a news story about a 13-year-old trafficking victim in Miami who’d been rescued. Her pimp had tattooed his name across her eyelids. And with that, a fire was lit within Sierra’s heart.

“Once I got that red X tattooed, it opened up the door to really talk to people about it, and I realized you can actually do ministry with tattoos,” she tells Citizen. “They’re powerful. They can be used for bad or used for good. And when I saw the branding—I think what drew me was that I could turn this dark thing around and use it for good.”

Dark Blots

That kind of turnaround is what Sierra has experienced herself over the last 15 years.

Born to immigrants in Miami, she suffered dramatic abuse at her motherʼs hands. “I still have scars on my body from all those different whippings,” she says, noting that severe corporal punishment was just all her mother understood from her own upbringing. Sierra was often tied up and locked in a closet; beatings were a daily
occurrence.

When she was 6, a neighbor began molesting her. When she was 8, she was raped for the first time by a man who knew her mother—and that continued, along with exposure to pornography, on a weekly basis until she was 14. “It got to the point where I felt the reason I was born was to be sexually abused,” she recalls. As a result, she started putting on weight—being messy and dirty in an attempt to protect herself. Grownups started asking her mother if she was a boy or a girl.

When she was 9, her mother gave her a Valium one night—and Sierra was hooked instantly. “It numbed all the pain and took me to another world,” she says. She also began drinking alcohol, and by 11, she was using marijuana, then acid.

After her parents divorced when she was 14, Sierra’s mother married a cocaine dealer. She began using that as well. When she was 15, her stepfather began kicking her out of the house every weekend—forcing her to sleep in a park, a car, at friends’ houses, wherever—for a year. She eventually went to Honduras to visit her mother’s relatives, and stayed 10 months.

There, she saw people in the streets flagellating themselves on their way to see the Pope. Her cousins—deeply Catholic—explained they were doing penance for their own sins, or for relatives they were trying to pray out of Purgatory.

Sierra found herself staring at the bloody figure on the cross, thinking of the God she already felt she could never reach. 

He’s just like my mom, she thought. He whips us and leaves us there bleeding—and nobody loves me enough to pray me out.

Cutting the Pain

When she returned to Miami, a high school buddy told her two of their female friends were dating each other. It was the first time Sierra had ever heard of homosexuality, and she was incredulous.

“Like, boyfriend and girlfriend?” she asked.

“Oh, come on, Amor,” her friend replied. “You’re gay. Everyone says you are, and that’s why you left.”

Sierra went home, shocked. And then lies began flooding her mind. All this abuse, molestation and rape has been because you’re gay. 

So Sierra began hanging out with the gay girls at school, innocently trying out this new identity. Later, she met an older woman, who took the relationship into a not-so-innocent sphere. “Deep inside, I had all this turmoil. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right,” Sierra recalls. “I wanted to be normal, get married, have a family …” 

Her voice breaks with the memory.

As she got older, Sierra—angry at God, doing drugs and living homosexually—grew increasingly violent. When she broke a bottle over her own head during a drunken bar brawl, she noticed the physical pain somehow numbed her emotional pain.

“So cutting became a thing I did daily,” she says. And eventually, that led to her first suicide attempt, when she slit her wrist. 

At 20, Sierra spent four days freebasing cocaine in a drug house. That’s when she heard an audible voice she felt was God.

“Amor, why are you doing this to yourself?” He asked. “I love you so much. Stop it.”

That started her on a spiritual quest. She picked up a King James Version of the Bible and tried to read it, but found she couldn’t understand it.

Around that time, she was involved in several car accidents that left her with a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, a lot of physical pain and no place to live. She wound up staying with a cousin who was working as a prostitute—and seeing that sent Sierra back into an emotional black hole. She downed the entire bottle of prescription pain pills the hospital had sent her home with, trying to end her life a second time.

As a result, she was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital and spent two weeks in straitjackets, until her mother signed her out.

“I wanted to reach this God—and then a week later, I was hit by a car and run over,” Sierra says. “I remember being in the hospital and thinking, ‘There is no God. How can there be? Every time I want to do good, something bad happens.’ It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”

As she recovered from her injuries, Sierra once again needed a place to live. A friend invited her to stay in a house that belonged to a drug dealer, who also happened to practice the voodoo religion of santeria. Selling cocaine for him was the price of admission.

And Sierra was fine with that—until the drug dealer forced her to have sex with him at gunpoint. “That went on every day, for like a month,” she says. “And then it wasn’t just him—it was him and all his friends. And that went on every day for three months.”

In a third attempt to end her life, Sierra played Russian roulette with a handgun.

She pulled the trigger once … twice … three times, clicking off the empty chambers one by one. And then she tripped—and the gun fired the lone bullet into the wall. The dealers in the house came running and wrested the gun away. 

A short while later, Sierra was able to escape and hide from her tormenter for a couple of months, until someone else murdered him in a drug deal gone bad. (Years later, Sierra found out what she’d experienced in that house is also a form of trafficking.) 

She worked at the post office until her supervisor gave her a choice: Enter an addiction rehabilitation program, or be fired. She chose rehab. “And for the first time, I was with other people who had struggled, and it started helping me. They had this thing about choosing a ‘higher power’—and the one I wanted was God. I had this desire to be with God.”

But shortly after the program ended, she quit her job in a fit of anger toward her boss, then worked sporadically until she landed a well-paying job managing apartment communities. In 1991, a woman signing a lease looked across the desk at her and said, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Sierra recalls, tears behind her words.

“And I said, ‘No … can you tell me Who He is?’ ”

Dancing With Jesus

That woman put feet to her faith. In addition to sharing the Gospel with Sierra, she took her into her home to live with her family for the next year as she nurtured her newfound relationship with God.

“I still struggled with various issues and wanting to do drugs—but I had this hope,” she says.

The family helped Sierra get her own apartment. But when Hurricane Andrew demolished wide swaths of Florida in 1992, the family moved to a different part of the state, and Sierra was on her own. She began attending different churches—and encountered—for the first time in her life—modern-day Pharisees.

“It wasn’t OK to say I had been gay, and it wasn’t OK to say I’d been on drugs or my parents were divorced. There was all this judgment and shame,” she recalls. “I was still so fragile, coming out of what I had just come out of. I was still struggling with all the abuse I had gone through.

“If what those people were showing me was who Jesus was, then I didn’t want anything to do with Jesus. I went full atheist.”

Two cultural events compounded Sierra’s problems: A study purporting to find a “gay gene” was making headlines, and the comedian Ellen DeGeneres announced her lesbianism to the world. So Sierra went public, too: Tending bar at a club on the weekends in addition to her job with the apartment community, doing social drugs on the rave scene, looking more like a man than a woman all the time—and proud of it. 

“I actually believed I was a man in a woman’s body,” she says now. “If I’d had the money, I probably would have gotten a sex change.”

That went on for nine years. But in 2002, God re-entered the scene—this time, via a T-shirt.

Sierra was in her office at the apartment complex when she heard a commotion outside the door. There, she found one of her employees’ husbands wearing a shirt that said, “Ask Me About the Gospel.”

Sierra’s girlfriend was mocking him for it. The man, apparently intimidated, struggled to say anything. And the more he struggled, the more Sierra stepped in.

“The Gospel, man,” she goaded him. “What is the Gospel?

“And then, out of nowhere, I started saying, ‘The Gospel—’ ”(now her voice is breaking with tears as she shares the memory) “ ‘—the story of how God sent His son to earth to get beaten and bruised and hung on a cross to die for our sins, and on the third day, He rose again.’ ”

It was as if she was pleading with him to tell the whole Truth. The other people in the office stared at her in disbelief. Sierra could hardly believe it herself as she saw her life being replayed before her eyes.

“I felt like the scales were taken off, and how these last nine years I just mocked God. And God started showing me all the times I’d been abused that He was there, hurting for me, and how I hadn’t died any of the times I should have.”

Rattled, she gathered her girlfriend and left the office. 

In the car, her girlfriend launched in. “What was that?” she demanded. 

“I think,” Sierra replied, “that I used to be a Christian.”

Once home, she found a Bible in the shed and started devouring it. She moved into the guest room and told her girlfriend they should just be friends. Though she still struggled with a panoply of issues—lust, pornography, gender identity disorder, homosexual urges and drugs—she continued asking God to take it all away, renewing her mind with the Word. A month later, she had an epiphany.

“I read Matthew 19, which says, ‘Some are born eunuchs, and some are made that way by men … To him who can accept it let him accept it.’ It was like The Matrix, and someone had just downloaded an ‘I’m Not Gay’ program in my brain. The desire was just gone!

“Within a week, I stopped doing drugs. I still struggled, but I continued to seek Him daily, and my life really started to change.”

Removal and Recovery

Fifteen years later, Sierra moves with a profound peace, her hair long and dark, her nails painted a chic black. She has a great relationship with her mother, who is now a Christian as well and shares Sierra’s Miami-area home. 

“I remember early on having such a hard time with her having freedom in Christ, like, ‘No, Mom, you have to apologize!’” Sierra tells Citizen. “But God really worked on me, saying, ‘I forgave you, and you need to forgive her.’ So I finally just let it all go. People who know me from before really freak out (about my forgiving her). Like, ‘Are you kidding?’ But He gave me the heart to just let go of all that stupid stuff.”

Five years ago, Sierra felt God asking her to do something strange: Give up her job and follow Him. She was making six figures at the time, and ran from the call at first. 

“I was thinking, ‘Quit my job? Are you kidding?’ In my mind I had worked so hard to get to where I was at, and was making money. How could I give that up?” she tells Citizen. “But then I started noticing as months went by that spiritually, just internally, I kind of felt like I was in this cooled-off place with God, and I wasn’t happy. And then one day in September, I just woke up and said, ‘I think this is it. I’m going to tell my boss today I’m going to quit.’ ” 

With money in the bank and time on her hands, Sierra started volunteering in her church’s office during the week and in the services on weekends. In January 2013, she heard the Christine Caine speech that would change her life forever. Then she stumbled across an article about Chris Baker—a former youth group leader and artist in Oswego, Ill., who removes former gang members’ tattoos for free to help them fully exit their lifestyles. 

“I said, ‘I want to help. I don’t know anything about tattoos, but I’m gonna find a way to do that,’ ” Sierra recalls. 

That April, she happened to meet a man who was selling his tattoo parlor in South Beach. Thirty days later, she owned it. 

And true to her word, she reached into the community of trafficking survivors to help them break the chains to their pasts. 

“I didn’t know about trafficking. But from her telling me and all the stuff that was going on, suddenly I was recognizing things that I normally wouldn’t,” says Gerardi, one of Sierra’s first hires. “It was like, ‘This stuff is real, it’s really happening!’ and I noticed it more and more and more. I bet I tattooed girls who were being trafficked and just didn’t know.”

Overall, the survivors are a quiet group who seldom share their stories. “But you can see it in their eyes,” Gerardi says. “They cry because they’re so grateful (when the ink is removed). Hugs all the time. Then they come in and tell you they got a job and they just wanted to say hi.”

“Nothing you hear on the news really comes close to the realities these young girls and women have faced,” agrees Nick Sundstrom, 24, one of the few Christians on Sierra’s staff. “It definitely inspired me to be a better man and to really stand up for our women, to make stands in my personal life as well as publicly speaking out against things like pornography or the other ways this problem manifests itself.”

Removing tattoos from survivors and former gang members isn’t the only ministry work the staff at Miami Tattoo Co. do, though. They also provide free tattoos to cover scars for victims and former self-harmers. 

About a year ago, “I was praying about the cutting in my past,” Sundstrom tells Citizen. “I pulled Amor aside and told her, ‘I used to cut myself, and I’d love to do something to help cutters. That would be a great ministry.’ And she said, ‘Are you serious? I was just praying about that and wanted to talk to you about that today too!’ It was really sweet.”

“To help get rid of those scars is an incredible feeling,” says Gerardi. “They always cover them up with something happy.”

Coloring Outside the Lines

Sierra certainly doesn’t limit herself to reaching just one segment of the population with God’s love, though: For three years, she held church services in her shop—starting at 6 a.m. in order to reach the people on their way home from the club across the street where she used to party herself.

“We would walk in there, push all the furniture aside, put out the chairs, transform the place into a church service. And it was genuinely come-as-you-are, anybody and everybody would walk in there. The homeless would come in,” Carolina Fernandez, 31, tells Citizen. “Some of them would come in and sleep on the couch, but some would listen to the message and accept Jesus at the end of the service. You never knew what was going to happen, if someone would just stand up and say what they had to say and walk out. Everyone had to be on their toes. It was very grassroots.”

At first, Sierra’s employees thought that was weird—particularly Gerardi. But as the tattoo artists on their way into work began to mingle with the church volunteers after the service—often receiving prayer—things started to change. 

“It was just bringing good vibes to the studio, you know?” Gerardi tells Citizen. “It wasn’t my thing, because I’m not like that, you know? But it made me more open to certain things. She wasn’t pushing God, she was just opening the doors to the people to make them feel accepted—I don’t know. Whatever it was, it was a good feeling. I’d see people and they were down and out, homeless, and then a few months later, they were dressed differently and employed and saying, ‘See you at church on Sunday!’ ”

In fact, when the satellite service at the tattoo parlor moved back to a traditional church campus last year, Gerardi was upset.

“He said, ‘We don’t think it’s a good idea to stop the church service. We know our place has been blessed because you’ve been having church here,’ ” Sierra explains. “I had to say,  ‘Billy, God is good, and He’s not going to stop blessing us or be upset with us all of a sudden because we stop the church.’ 

“I get to have these conversations with people.”

For the last year, Sierra has been having conversations with kids in church youth groups nationwide, as well as in other countries: She’s a featured speaker on the nondenominational Kingdom Youth Conference, founded in 2015 by Nashville music producer Ryan Edberg. 

“Amor’s (kind of) testimony is something not a lot of other speakers have,” he tells Citizen. “You could tell, with the line of kids who just wanted to give her a hug (at a recent event) that she’d really touched their lives. Her testimony is so powerful and something every student needs to hear. 

“What’s unique about her is not just that she went through something and has a story some people can relate to—she has a lot of stories. She’s really speaking to every kid there that’s dealing with depression, cutting, struggling with homosexuality, abuse—she’s speaking to all of them.”

Sierra is finding fulfillment in all those arenas. But if you ask her about it directly, she’ll play it off in a humble, all-inclusive kind of way.

“As long as my business allows me to do these other ministry things I love, the sky’s the limit,” she says. “I just want God to continue to use me. The important thing is we’re all reaching people for Christ and using the platforms He’s given us to do that.”  

 

For More Information: 

To learn more about the Miami Tattoo Co., visit miamitattooco.com. For more information on the anti-trafficking organizations mentioned in this story, visit a21.org, http://enditmovement.com, deliverfund.org, and lofcenter.org, respectively.  To learn more about Ink 180, log onto ink180.com. For more about the Kingdom Youth Conference series, visit kingdomyouthconference.com.

Originally published in the August 2017 issue of Citizen magazine.
© 2017 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.