Written By Ashleigh Pelto, USA
Ten years ago, when I was graduating high school and facing the prospect of starting college at a public university located in the middle of a cornfield in western Michigan, I had a plan. The “Plan” was to speed my way through undergrad, move to New York City, become a book editor for Random House, and live a shabbily chic life in a studio apartment in the heart of the city.
The primary issue with the Plan, (though, looking at it objectively, there are numerous), was that it was mine. And while 18-year-old me was fantasizing about the possibility of getting paid to read books for a living, God was working on my heart in a way I’d never anticipated.
Around the time I graduated high school, I learned about the existence of human trafficking. It horrified me, living in my small suburban bubble, to discover people today were being exploited in such horrific ways. I remember feeling the importance of facing this issue head on, of not allowing myself to retreat into my bubble of ignorance and safety. People around the world were trapped in suffering; what right did I have to look away or pretend it didn’t exist?
When I left for college, the Plan for my glamorous editing career was still intact. But knowledge of injustice had taken root in me. There was a small flame burning that I couldn’t ignore. So, I sought ways to feed it. I joined a student group dedicated to trafficking awareness. Our group was invited to a screening of the Exodus Cry documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, which investigated how sex trafficking manifested itself in communities around the globe. It was halfway through this screening that God broke my heart.
I remember the scene vividly. The documentarians were covering a segment on impoverished communities in Cambodia where traffickers would prey on whole villages and coerce parents into selling their own children into prostitution. I remember something inside me standing up and yelling, “NO.” I felt torn open. I drove home and sat in my car crying harder than I ever had in my life. I cried out to God, “Why? How could You allow this to happen?”
In my spirit, I felt Him challenge me, “What are you going to do about it?”
I dove in. And in diving, I developed a new “Plan.” Instead of book publishing, it became teaching. Chicago replaced New York. Instead of Random House, a prominent Chicago nonprofit dedicated to fighting sexual exploitation. The Plan was clear to me: I would graduate, the nonprofit would hire me, a 23-year-old with no experience, to co-lead their education department, going into high schools and educating students about the realities of trafficking. Upon graduating, I sent in my application in full confidence of this outcome, waiting impatiently for the Plan to get started.
Naturally, they didn’t call me.
I railed at God, “Why did You call me to this if You’re just going to slam doors in my face? Isn’t this what You wanted? Aren’t I doing what You asked?”
Clearly, I felt, God didn’t understand the Plan. He’d placed the burden of trafficking on my heart, guided me to so many opportunities to learn about and fight this issue. Why wasn’t He allowing me to do the work I felt called to?
Months went by, and eventually I found myself sitting in a church I’d never been to, listening to a sermon on Nehemiah that God used to speak directly to me. Nehemiah had his heart broken when he heard the land of his people was in ruins. Nehemiah mourned, fasted, and prayed (Nehemiah 1:3-4). He waited on God’s direction. And he waited. And he waited a bit more. Finally, when the timing and circumstances were right in God’s eyes, God provided Nehemiah with the means to complete the task God had laid before him. And he went (Nehemiah 2:3-9). And God used Nehemiah to bring restoration to the land.
My heart had been broken by God, and there were aspects of trafficking and my role in fighting it that I had fasted and prayed over. But always, in the back of my head, was my Plan. I expected God to work on my timing, for the circumstances to play out as I expected them to. I forgot that God was the one who had placed this burden on me, and it was only by laying it at His feet that I could expect to find success in a path to address it.
So, I surrendered my plans. And I fasted, and I prayed, and I waited. And I waited. And I waited a bit more. And, in the waiting, I found joy in the spaces and places God had brought me to: teaching high school and working with amazing students, reconnecting with old friends and participating in a young adult ministry, meeting the love of my life and marrying him. In the waiting, God began to show me the path He’d been leading me towards all along.
I had first encountered the idea of a legal approach to trafficking during a trip in undergrad where I met both a recent law school graduate and a judge dedicated to combating trafficking through the law. A few months after graduating, I attended a seminar put on by a Michigan senator discussing a group of trafficking bills she, alongside trafficking survivors and nonprofit leaders, had worked to pass into law. I discovered the University of Michigan’s law school had a Human Trafficking Clinic, which was dedicated to helping law students learn how to effectively meet the legal needs of trafficking victims, making it my top choice when I finally started applying to law schools.
Becoming a lawyer was never my Plan. But, as I reflected on the various seeds that had been planted over the years, it became clear to me that it was God’s. And this time, as I pursued this new path, I sought Him constantly. The whole time I was studying for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), applying to law schools, working my way through my legal program, considering post-graduate jobs, I was asking, “Is this what You want? Is this where You’re leading? Where do You want me?”
It wasn’t the Plan I thought I wanted. But it was the one God laid out for me, and it has been so clearly good. This fall―God willing I pass the Bar exam―I will start a two-year fellowship* working with a nonprofit to expand their legal services to address the needs of trafficking victims. From there, only God knows. But Micah 6:8 has served as a reminder to me recently, whenever I feel the itch to start “Planning” again, to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God according to the only plan that matters, His.
*My Equal Justice Works fellowship is sponsored by the Jones Day Foundation and Procter & Gamble