From Acts to Austin

In March 2015, Terri Ingraham drifted off to sleep in her Austin, Texas, home. With a background in event planning and a creative, beauty-loving personality, she wasn’t prone to overthinking or dwelling on any given topic for long; instead, as she laughingly admits, she more often than not jumps from one idea to another without hesitation.

But this was no ordinary night, and as Ingraham soon discovered, she served no ordinary dream-giver.

In minutes, Ingraham heard a voice in a vivid dream. “Be Lydia! Be Lydia! Be Lydia!” it cried. She had no idea who this Lydia was or what the instructions meant, but she felt the words were important.

“Lord, put this in my head and help me remember it in the morning!” she yelled back as the voice continued crying out.

Then came the morning. Not typically one to remember or put stock in dreams, Ingraham woke up, practically leapt from her bed and reached for her journal.

Within minutes, the 47-year-old had, as she tells Citizen, a six-page “download from the Holy Spirit.” Details like serving lemonade and hosting events for local Austin residents flowed from her pen. That made sense, Ingraham reasoned, because as an event planner and talented party-thrower, she regularly served refreshing drinks to guests.

What didn’t make sense was the reason she was making lemonade and hosting people: To fight the scourge of human trafficking.

As a mother and stepmother to five children (including one adopted from China), Ingraham knew about and wanted to prevent evils like child abuse. But she really had no idea what human trafficking was, the scope of the problem in her state, who was being trafficked—or what someone like her could do about it.

Just two years later, Ingraham has her answers—and thanks to her trafficking prevention and education organization called (what else?) beLydia, so do thousands of other Texans.

Loving Like Lydia

After her dream, Ingraham spent the next few weeks in intense prayer and Bible study. She revisited the story of Lydia in Acts 16, about a well-to-do woman who became a Christian and opened her home to Paul and his friends. Though she is only mentioned in a single chapter, Lydia is still known throughout the world as a giver of welcoming kindness. She used hospitality as a demonstration of her obedience to and love for Christ.

God, Your will! Ingraham prayed. Whatever you want me to do, I’m ready, I’ll do it. I want to be like Lydia and respond to the Gospel.

Responding specifically about human trafficking— defined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as “modern-day slavery … involv[ing] the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act”—required research first. What Ingraham learned shocked her.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center—a project run by Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.—the Lone Star State is consistently ranked among the five worst for the crime. Experts at the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault from the University of Texas at Austin estimate more than 313,000 people are currently being trafficked in Texas, including 79,000 minors being sold for sexual purposes. The sex trafficking of children alone costs the state around $6.6 billion annually in terms of police costs, foster care and legal fees.

These facts smacked Ingraham with force; within 30 days of her dream, beLydia was a registered nonprofit organization. In the space of a few weeks, Ingraham went from not really knowing about trafficking “beyond writing a check and donating [to a charity], or maybe participating as a volunteer” to creating her own trafficking prevention and awareness organization.

“There’s a part of Texas that no one knows about—it’s a big part, and it’s very dark, and a lot of scary things are happening,” she tells Citizen. “When you look at Texas and Southern manners, it’s still these sorts of people who are raping children and [adults], and that’s because there is so much money involved.”

According to the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, traffickers annually make more than $600 million from labor-trafficking victims alone in Texas; the sex industry is even more lucrative.

Like the biblical Lydia (who also lived in a city desperate for salvation), beLydia’s mission is to make Texans aware of what trafficking looks like in their neighborhoods, as well as to prevent them from becoming victims by teaching them how traffickers operate. The method? Hospitality, using fun at-home parties with friends and family to share the message of prevention and awareness.

Hospitality as a Tool

Though beLydia’s six contract employees and expanding volunteer force initially raised money to help fund other anti-trafficking organizations and programs, today it focuses exclusively on trafficking awareness and prevention conducted through at-home parties and community events.

“What we’re doing is asking women and men to open up their homes and invite three or more people over to have a conversation about trafficking,” Ingraham explains. “Our Home Awareness Program is scripted so that anybody can host [a beLydia party]; you don’t even have to know what [trafficking] is fully. As long as you’re willing to open up your home, you can have a conversation about what’s happening.” Guests also watch a video featuring a trafficking survivor and participate in a question- and-answer session.

That’s how Sherri Hopson first learned about beLydia and its mission. The mother of an 11-year-old daughter, she was horrified to learn that not only was trafficking taking place in Austin, but her daughter’s age group was often being targeted.

“I knew God was speaking to me,” Hopson tells Citizen. “It became very clear that I was not well-educated in the area of social media. I learned that night at a friend’s home a few simple things I could do to help prevent the predators that are online every minute from finding my daughter.”

Over the last three years, beLydia has hosted more than 2,500 Austinites at 40 community events and at-home parties while raising $60,000 for anti-trafficking efforts (all organizational costs are funded through private donors). And though beLydia’s attractive website and seasoned party style is bolstered by Ingraham’s profession, she emphasizes that beLydia hosts can choose any approach.

“It could be coffee, you could pick up cookies from a bakery—you don’t even have to serve food!” Ingraham says. “It’s more about the fact that you’re opening up your home to other people and having this conversation.”

To that end, beLydia has launched an ambitious Home Awareness Program to reach every household in Austin, then Texas—and then the nation. How it works: At the end of each event, the host asks his or her guests to sign up with beLydia to host their own event. Next, beLydia provides each new host with a Home Hospitality kit containing tools to reach and educate 10 guests on the realities of Texas trafficking, including scripts, wording for the invitations and an easy-to-follow timeline. From there, each guest has the chance to host his or her own event—creating a domino effect.

“Assuming there are 10 guests, and those 10 guests [eventually] invite 10 more, we can reach a thousand [people],” says Hopson. “This is our goal until we get to everyone.”

And beLydia means everyone. Cynthia Horton, a beLydia board member, tells Citizen that’s exactly who is needed to fight trafficking.

“The scope of the problem is so broad and so wide, which means it’s an ‘all hands on deck’ sort of issue,” she says. “We need people from every facet of society— including churches, counselors, prayer chains, intercessors. Everyone has a role to play.”

Shattering Myths

beLydia’s team realizes that when it comes to trafficking, like a deadly game of telephone, misinformation abounds.

The biggest myth: Only people who storm in like superheroes to physically rescue helpless young women from the clutches of evil on the other side of the world can fight trafficking.

“We need people to learn to tackle trafficking in a trauma-informed way,” Horton says. Medical providers, teachers, neighbors and community members who can recognize the signs of trafficking—and then help restore victims to their rightful places in society—are just as necessary as the initial rescuers.  

On that note, beLydia plays a crucial role: Most anti- trafficking groups focus on either rescuing victims or rehabilitating them afterward. But beLydia focuses on raising awareness to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place.

“We’re never going to help stem the tide if there’s not a prevention aspect,” Horton explains. “beLydia gives people who want to be involved in fighting human trafficking an effective way to do so.”

Another major myth is that trafficking is a “women’s problem,” since females are trafficked at higher rates. Ingraham’s husband Scott attended beLydia’s inaugural event—and was gobsmacked by what he learned, especially about the link between pornography and trafficking.

“It transformed him,” Ingraham says, along with many men she speaks to about beLydia’s work. “We need men to help get the word out! We need them to address the demand of pornography-fueled trafficking. Because once you speak [about trafficking realities] to men who once wanted nothing to do with the problem, they suddenly get fired up and want to do something to help.”

Christina Ross knows that intense desire to get—and stay—involved. As beLydia’s COO, she had to decide whether to keep working or resign when diagnosed recently with breast cancer. She chose to stay.

“Like any war, you don’t stop fighting because you get attacked. You look the enemy in the face, work to defeat him and let him know you will take that pain and turn it into determination,” she tells Citizen. “The cause is too important. Nothing and no one can stop us from doing God’s work.”

Because ultimately, with a full-time job at beLydia’s helm, Ingraham knows her organization’s mission is exactly that—and it’s working.

“Almost every time we speak, we’ll have someone email or call and say, ‘I’m a teacher and I think I have this student who may be trafficked,’ or ‘I know there’s something going on my neighborhood,’” she says. “Those let us know we’re making an impact.”

All thanks to a dream, and the dream-giver, of course.

“The only reason I’m doing any of this is because God put it on my heart,” Ingraham says. “There would be no beLydia without God, and we will never take Him out of it. We will always be focused on sharing Him and His light and love with others.”

For More Information: To learn more about beLydia’s work and events, visit belydia.org.

Originally published in the June 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.

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