NYC’s Unlikely Defender
I’m so honored to have written the following article about Jimmy Lee, the executive director of Restore NYC, an organization that serves trafficked foreign nationals in New York City. The piece received a prize from the “This Is Our City” project of Christianity Today, and I am pleased that Jimmy and Restore NYC will receive more attention for the wonderful, life-giving work they are doing:
As a child, Jimmy Lee didn’t seem too interested in justice. By age 9, he had figured out how to win his classroom’s monthly motivational prize through a combination of cheating, stealing, and smarts. In 7th grade, he and his fellow athlete-friends would regularly morph into bullies, selecting weaker boys and girls, then knocking down their books and teasing them.
Fast-forward several decades, to a solitary, pre-dawn morning in April 2012. Lee sat down in his usual chair for devotions, thinking about a different segment of the weak and vulnerable. Just hours earlier, he had been introduced as the new executive director of Restore NYC, a faith-based organization that serves foreign nationals who are victims of sex trafficking in New York City. As he thought about what it must have been like for these women who have experienced horrific and repeated abuse, sometimes 30 times a day for years on end, the former aggressor found his defenses crumbling, and he wept.
“I sensed God was asking me to enter into their painful experience, to feel what he feels when this kind of abuse occurs,” Lee says. “To feel his sadness as well as his hunger for righteousness, justice, and restoration.”
Lee’s story is one of redemption, of a child with a limited moral compass transformed into a grown man pursuing justice, freedom, and equality for the most at-risk members of society.
From Aggressor to Advocate
Two events left indelible imprints on Lee and undoubtedly helped to shift this former child bully into an advocate for others. The first was his conversion to Christianity in early high school. The second was his decision to spend the summer of 1994 in South Africa, right after the anti-apartheid movement had reached its zenith with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. Witnessing history in the making had long-lasting ramifications for Lee: “I knew from then on that I ultimately wanted to do something with my life related to pursuing economic and social justice,” he says.
His time in South Africa also taught him about the importance of leveraging the political process to enact change. For this reason, Lee invests significant time and energy into advocating for policy decisions that will aid sex-trafficking victims. He is no stranger to press conferences and meetings with state and city officials. And the impact of Lee’s involvement in the political realm has not just helped Restore NYC, according Dorchen Leidholdt, who leads the statewide non-governmental organization Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
“Jimmy has changed the way that key players in the system look at the issue of trafficking,” Leidholdt says. “He made the decision to formally bring Restore into the work of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition and to join our campaign, which has been pivotal. He takes advantage of all the opportunities to advocate for trafficking victims and survivors. And male legislators can hear from Lee in a way they cannot hear from the rest of us. He demonstrates that this is not just a women’s issue.”
Read the rest of this article at the This Is Our City website: