Faith and Freedom: A Chat with SWU's IJM Chapter President Madeline Johnson


Madeline Johnson is a Junior Human Services major at Southern Wesleyan University. She serves as the Chapter President for SWU’s IJM (International Justice Mission), works as the Campus Initiative Director for National Decency Coalition, and serves consistently in the Dominican Republic with Crossover Cups Missions.

Madeline is spirited and full of wisdom. She met with me to tell her story – how she became involved in the fights against human trafficking and pornography, how she strives towards discipleship as a leader, and how the Lord sustains her through the craziness.

Jahanna Schwab: Good evening, Madeline.

Madeline Johnson: Good evening.

JS: Thanks for meeting me and talking about some stuff. So, just to get started, I want to talk about how and when you first learned about or got involved in human trafficking.

MJ: So, when I was a sophomore in high school, I read a book called Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. The book is basically a retelling of the Biblical book of Hosea. I just fell in love with the picture that is portrayed in scripture of the Lord’s love for us and how his love is redeeming. He chases us when we run away, and that whole story just gave me a whole new perspective on the Lord’s faithfulness to us.

As I read that book, I was very burdened by the prostitute in that story. It put a new light on, in my opinion, how I perceive prostitution and sex trafficking and things that, as a 16-year-old, I really hadn’t heard much or studied at all.

So, I finished reading the book and I started to research modern-day prostitution – what that looked like – and really stumbled across human trafficking. In the next months, I mean, I just remember crying myself to sleep at night and grieving human trafficking and the brokenness of this world, in that context. So, I just start praying and asked the Lord, “What do I do about this?” and over the next few years just beginning to advocate when I could.

Then, my senior year of high school, I had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic with an organization called the Crossover Cups Mission. My mom, my sister, and I went on this trip, and on that trip we fed the hungry, we visited orphans and widows – very typical things that you would do in a foreign mission trip to a third world country.

But then we also went into a red-light district, which is a place in town known for sex trafficking, sex tourism. People come from all over the world to pay for sex with girls and children. So, we spent time one evening on the streets just getting to know some of the girls, and that I think was the first time that I had a hands-on experience with getting to pray with girls in prostitution and sex trafficking and modern-day slavery.

And after that (I guess it was 2017) I’ve been back for every summer since then, and pretty much lived down there in the summers. I work with the intern program to work with our mission teams that come in and work with our villages and our missionaries and really specifically pour into ministry in the streets. I’ve gotten to build relationships with girls.

I hope it’s not too much of a tangent from the question, but just the stories that I’ve learned from these girls – they’re not out there because they just want to; to be honest, I’ve never met a girl who just wants to be out there. We always ask them, “If you could pray for something, what do you want to pray for?” Their prayer requests are always for their family and their children who are starving or they need medical care and that’s why they’re on the streets.

And so, yeah, that’s kind of how I learned about it and my experiences with it.

JS: That’s awesome. So, you work as the chapter president of IJM or International Justice Mission on SWU’s campus. So how did you learn about and get involved in IJM and their fight for justice, specifically in college?

MJ: So, my freshman year of college (I’m a junior now) Clemson actually had just started a chapter and it was two or three other girls and myself, who was not a Clemson student. We started having meetings and planning different events and campaigns that IJM equipped us to do. They kind of took off from there on Clemson’s campus.

I started to open a chapter at SWU, and it really just took off. What happened is that as I began praying and asking the Lord to bring people, he did. People were coming and wanted to be a part of the chapter who the Lord had woven his heart for justice into their testimonies. I mean, just story after story, people coming saying they can’t get it off their mind, the Lord is putting it their head or that they’ve been personally convicted with certain stories and the Lord has changed their lives through it, which is incredible.

But also, I mean, we get to pray, advocate, and fundraise for the work of IJM and to end modern-day slavery. I think it’s the coolest opportunity in the world to get to encourage and empower college students, to use their voices for good, to use their resources, and to pray big prayers like ending slavery in our lifetime.

I think people would say that’s really radical, but it’s totally possible. We look in scripture and see the promises of God. You know, we obey. That’s what the church is meant to do – to do those kinds of things.

JS: So why do you think it’s important to educate other students and faculty at SWU about IJM’s work? How does that vision of fighting human trafficking – liberating those who are enslaved – how does that work into a Christian campus’s vision? Why do you want to make that happen here?

MJ: I mean, as I said, it is very biblical, the idea of justice and setting the captives free in obedience. So many times in Scripture, obedience is in the context of verses about going and telling and sharing the gospel and going and telling the Good News. That’s what we’re made to do. In Isaiah 61, it says go and proclaim liberty to the captives. That I believe is a huge calling in the church that really, sadly, has been neglected for so long. So, I think, number one, that’s why it’s important to engage a Christian campus.

Also, I don’t want to overuse the word justice, but – justice. As far as a Christian campus, I mean, it is the job of the church. But I also the Wesleyan church was really founded on abolitionist values. We have Freedom’s Hill on campus, which was a church. It was used as part of an underground railroad during the transatlantic slave trade. So many values of the Wesleyan Church were founded on ending slavery. So, I think that as a Wesleyan campus, we have even more opportunity to engage the church and to engage students. It’s part of our founding values.

“So many times in Scripture, obedience is in the context of verses about going and telling and sharing the gospel… That’s what we’re made to do. In Isaiah 61, it says go and proclaim liberty to the captives. That I believe is a huge calling in the church that really, sadly, has been neglected for so long.”

JS: That’s so awesome. I love that connection.

MJ: Me too.

JS: You’ve been serving with an organization recently called National Decency Coalition. It isn’t connected to IJM directly, but I wanted to talk about it because there’s definitely a correlation between the porn industry and human trafficking. So, can you tell me a little bit about your work there, what you’ve done recently, what you guys are trying to get passed?

MJ: So, I began getting involved in this organization last February. The Clemson IJM chapter helped support an event with a separate organization called Fight the New Drug – they’re basically working to shine a light on the pornography industry through media, science, research, really morality or religion aside. It’s science, research – “These are the reasons watching pornography is bad.”

So, we had an event on Clemson’s campus and over a 2-night event I believe we had 200 people. Or was it more? You were there.

JS: I think it was more than that, actually. I think it was 400.

MJ: Insane. College students coming on a weeknight to learn about pornography is not very common. But one thing that was mentioned in these presentations was that I think at the time, 12 states had passed pornography as a public health hazard.

Now, what this means is basically just a fancy announcement, a declaration that pornography and watching pornography is a health hazard to the citizens of that state. And so I researched a little bit in the days that followed and found out it had not been passed in South Carolina. So, I’m like, “Lord, if you want me to do something about it, just make it clear,” but legislation is not my cup of tea by any means.

I kind of forgot about it. In the next couple of weeks, honestly, nothing short of miracles. Just one thing after the other. I pray something, then I would end up on the phone with a former South Carolina legislator about something totally different on accident. She was just like, “Oh, well, just let me know when you get this legislation done and I’ll help you get it circulated and we can get a hearing scheduled.” Insane.

So as this is kind of going on, I (I guess stumbled, but I mean, it was definitely the sovereignty of the Lord) came across National Decency Coalition and just reached out. The executive director responded within a few hours, honestly, and said “I’ve been praying for a college student to come and join. Are you interested?” Basically, over the next few weeks, we researched more about South Carolina. The goal right now that we’re working on is passing pornography as a public health hazard like it has been passed at this point now in 14 other states.

So, in the past couple of weeks now I’ve begun to collect signatures in South Carolina. What happened is that this resolution was introduced a couple of years ago to the House. It died in committee last session. So, it was reintroduced and has sponsored this past January. And so as we go into session again in January, I’m really hoping to get it passed.

So, I was thinking, “How can we get creative? How can we get people on board? I don’t want this to die again, it’s really important that we get this done.” And so I thought, “Let’s collect signatures.” And within 48 hours, we already collected over 300 signatures.

I mean, you know, we’ve done campaigns with IJM and they’ve fully equipped us to do these things, and in 48 hours we’ll get like 60 signatures – and that’s considered amazing. So 300 in 48 hours with much less media, much less conversation, is honestly a miracle. So that’s where we’re at with that right now.

I guess I should mention – you asked about the correlation between the pornography industry and sex trafficking. The more that I’m working in National Decency Coalition, I should mention this too: it really is working to shine a light on the pornography industry through legislation, which is very unique, specifically working on legislation against pornography. We’re not trying to ban it, but to make people aware so they can make educated decisions.

At the moment, the amount of research is very low, and the statistics are very low. I would venture to say that I think 20 percent of pornography is made with sex trafficking. So, if you’re watching pornography, 20 percent of it is going to be sex trafficking, which is way too high. But, I would venture to say that the correlation is actually way, way higher, and there’s just not enough research to prove it right now.

So, I believe that in putting some serious parameters on the pornography industry, we could probably take out at least half of sex trafficking. And, furthermore, people who are buying sex or paying girls for prostitution – the chance that they are addicted to pornography is very, very high. Probably all of them. So, I think that that’s one way that we’re going to put the sex trade out of business. That’s one way we’re going to end slavery in our lifetime.

“I believe that in putting some serious parameters on the pornography industry, we could probably take out at least half of sex trafficking… That’s one way we’re going to end slavery in our lifetime.”

JS: Man, it is so cool to see how the Lord is using you in all of these different areas. But it all totally connects to justice and freedom and his will. You know, you’re just a tool that he’s using – I don’t mean that in a demeaning way, but you’re a tool he’s using and it’s such a ministry to me to see how powerful he is in that.

MJ: He’s been so faithful.

JS: So, moving on from National Decency Coalition. How do you think your role as chapter president of SWU’s IJM connects with Biblical discipleship? You kind of touched on this earlier, but specifically thinking about the roles of discipleship – how does that work in your position?

MJ:  I think for one, it’s definitely taught me how to lead and how to delegate and put people in a position where they are free. I don’t know, I think good leadership is when you can put someone in a position and free them to be themselves and to do the task that they need to do and that needs to be completed.

I think bad leadership is telling someone to do something just because I don’t want to do it or because it just needs to be done. But putting them in a position where they can do a task that they’re good at and they enjoy and do it in their own way? I think that’s when leadership and discipleship really become like one.

So yeah, as I mentioned, we’ve had students come and tell me the Lord like keeping them up awake at night. They can’t sleep because they’re thinking about IJM and things like that. Another student who is literally finding freedom from the pornography industry because he is realizing the correlation between sex trafficking and pornography.

Just really using Scripture and the commands in Scripture to encourage students to seek justice and specifically discipling people to do that through myself as learning leadership, and what that means. I can go on about that for a while, I think, but I think everyone’s a leader in some way or another. So, really just forming leaders who will be leaders in the church and leaders of our generation to seek justice and obey the commands of Scripture.

JS: Yeah, that’s so awesome.

So, how is the Lord sustaining you right now? This is a lot, and you’re not superwoman, you’re human. You’re a college student and you’re doing all of these advocacy things, but still eating and doing homework and having friends. How do you see the Lord’s hand just upholding you right now?

MJ: Yeah, I drink way too much coffee. But, you know, I also love coffee. I enjoy that. It’s definitely a source of joy. It’s like a means to joy for me. I don’t know, that’s probably unbiblical.

JS: Listen, God created coffee.

MJ: God created coffee. He did.

I think one is just staying in the Word. I mean, sometimes I wake up and it’s like there are a million other things. And a lot of days I fail. But, at the end of the day, people do not need to hear my voice. They do not need to hear me say, “Oh, you should work to end trafficking.”

They don’t need to hear my words. They need to hear the words of the Lord, because that’s what’s eternal. Just remembering that that’s the only thing that matters. Essentially, I think avoiding burnout is just focusing on, “What has eternal value, and what do I need to give attention to?” There are so many things that even as a college student, that the greater U.S. culture puts on us – things that we have to do or accomplish or be. I just don’t really buy it.

I’m so grateful for the chance to earn a degree and that I get to do these things. But at the end of the day, my degree is not eternal. But, some of the conversations that I have can absolutely have an eternal impact. So, I think it’s that balance of like trying to live and love people well here on a college campus. But also putting my eyes on heaven and really holding fast to that hope is how the Lord sustains me.

Also joy. The joy of the Lord is our strength. And I’ve really learned that – joy and gratitude. Holding on to those things is so much strength.

JS: Yeah, that is so important. I think we can all be better at both joy and gratitude.

MJ: Oh, yeah. I’m always working on it.

JS: Well, thanks for sharing a little bit more about your personal life. So just to wrap up: what is next for SWU’s IJM in the coming months? What can we look out for? What do you have up your sleeve, Madeline?

MJ: Oh, goodness. I don’t know. With IJM, I know we have some cool events planned that we’ll get to do with the other like 80 or 90 chapters across the nation, which is really cool the way they equip us to do those campaigns.

There’s a campaign coming up in the Spring – it’ll probably be February or March. It’s the big advocacy campaign where we work to rally students to reach out to members of Congress, asking them to continue funding to the fund called “End Modern Day Slavery Initiative.” It’s a big fund of money from countries around the world that is delegated to nonprofits working to end trafficking.

So, I think in the past years we’ve asked Congress to allocate 91 million, I believe, making sure funds are appropriated. So, we really rally college students to do that – to reach out to members of Congress.

Last spring, we did a campaign, and we got about 60 signatures on campus within 48 hours, which is really cool. So that’s one of our big campaigns that we’re really excited about. It’s always cool to see what happens on campus and the conversations that we get to have through it. We usually have more people join the fight and jump on the team. So, I’m excited.

JS: So cool. Well, thanks for taking the time to be with me and to share a little bit about your story and how the Lord is using you today, and some things we’ll be doing in the future. I love getting to talk to you and see how the Lord is working through you. So, thanks for your time.

MJ: Yeah, thank you. I’m so grateful.