Local pastor fights sex trade in Thailand

Rev. Ronny Brannen is seen here with a few of the residents of House of Grace, a non-profit ministry he volunteers with in Thailand. Brannen is known as "Uncle Ronny" to the girls who live there.- Special Photo

Rev. Ronny Brannen is seen here with a few of the residents of House of Grace, a non-profit ministry he volunteers with in Thailand. Brannen is known as "Uncle Ronny" to the girls who live there.- Special Photo

COVINGTON -- Human trafficking and sexual slavery can be difficult subjects to talk about, but one local minister is tackling these problems without flinching.

The Rev. Ronny Brannen of Prospect United Methodist Church in Newton County has made 10 visits in the last dozen years to Thailand, a country that is on the U.S. State Department's watch list for failing to fully comply with minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking.

Brannen is part of Global Servants, a ministry started by Dr. Mark Rutland, president of Oral Roberts University. Global Servants is a non-profit ministry that operates House of Grace, a home in Northern Thailand for girls at risk of being sold into sexual slavery. Currently, there are about 115 girls living and being educated at House of Grace.

"Every one of them has a sponsor that clothes, feeds and pays for their school. They live there. For many of them, House of Grace is the first bed they've ever slept in," said Brannen, who became involved in the ministry through his friendship with Rutland.

The two first met when Rutland was youth pastor at Oak Grove Methodist Church in Atlanta. Brannen was one of his students. Later, Brannen served as choir director, youth pastor and assistant pastor under Rutland at Midway United Methodist Church in Alpharetta. It was during this time that Rutland started the non-profit ministry.

Brannen said his friend was burdened to get involved while in Thailand to preach at a conference. Shortly after retiring to his hotel room one evening, there was a knock at Rutland's door. When he answered, "There was a Thai man with a little girl with a dog collar around her neck and a leash hooked to her," Brannen said. "He said, 'For you.' Mark said, 'What?' He said, 'Virgin, for you, all night.' Mark said, 'Do you want me to call the police?' The man said, 'I'll call for you.'"

Rutland slammed the door in the man's face, then remembered the girl. When he opened the door again, they were gone.

"He tossed and turned all night, just furious," Brannen said. The next day, Rutland met with a Thai pastor for breakfast. "Mark said to him, 'Somebody ought to do something.' And that pastor looked at him and said, 'You somebody.' And it haunted him ever since."

House of Grace was established in 1988 and has since rescued hundreds of girls from forced prostitution.

"Prostitution is officially illegal but they turn a blind eye to it," Brannen said.

Girls targeted for sexual slavery are often those from the hill tribes in the north, who are not considered Thai citizens, even though they were born in the country, Brannen said.

"Businessmen" go to the villages and offer to give an impoverished family's daughter a job in Bangkok, or another country like Japan or Korea, and provide the family with two to three year's wages, "which is more money than they've ever thought of or seen," Brannen said.

"Part of it is they think their girl is getting an opportunity and they're getting a bunch of money to live on," he added.

But that's not always the motivation.

"Girls are mouths to feed that don't work in the fields. They do work them but not like boys. Girls area an added load," Brannen said.

If the girl is taken out of the country, her buyer will confiscate her passport, so she's trapped. "Where is she going to go, what is she going to do, she has no identification, no legal recourse, nothing and now she's stuck," he said.

It's Global Servants purpose to get to at-risk girls before any of this happens, because once they have been bought and are working in brothels, "the people who have purchased them are dangerous people to deal with" Brannen said.

Girls come to House of Grace on recommendation of local pastors. They've been taken in as young as 3 or 4 in extreme situations. One little girl who was orphaned was held in a chicken coop by her aunt and uncle. Other family members intervened and brought her to House of Grace. Not all are orphans, and many of the parents allow their children to live there, knowing they will be cared for and educated. Parents and family members are allowed to visit.

Unfortunately, every story doesn't end happily: "One of the girls, both of her parents died of AIDs and her grandmother took her out of the (House of Grace) to beg on the streets to support her opium habit," Brannen said.

But there are plenty of success stories that make the ministry worth the investment for donors and volunteers. The girl that Brannen and his family sponsored, named Pensi, is now a grown woman with a graduate degree in education, and an English teacher. She calls Brannen "father."

The girls stay at House of Grace until they finish school, get married or are able to support themselves. Some stay until their early 20s. Some of the girls who live at House of Grace go on to work there; one is now a resident director.

Brannen is known as "Uncle Ronny" at House of Grace. The girls get a kick out of his wild antics, from encouraging them to crack an egg over his head during a relay game to allowing them to smear their faces with peanut butter and throw cocoa puffs to see how many stick to fashioning a slip n' slide for them out of plastic bags and dousing it with soap and water.

Their laughter and joy is a reminder of how different their lives could be. Brannen was once taken to the sex district by a staff member with House of Grace who wanted to show him exactly what they are working to prevent.

There are bars there where girls are lined up in their underwear with numbers pinned to them, and menus are passed out for the men to decide what acts they want them to perform.

"I looked into the face of one of the girls and her eyes met mine and they were hollow," Brannen said. "There was deadness on their faces. The girls at House of Grace are filled with light, filled with laughter, filled with joy, with smiles on their faces ... They have life. What I saw there was death."

Global Servants has recently opened another home for girls, this one in Ghana, West Africa, where poverty and starvation are the major dangers. For more information on Global Servants and its ministry, visit www.globalservants.org.