Loving People Out of Their Trauma: Holly Hayes & Rebecca Smith
Holly Hayes: Understanding that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and understanding that in my own self, even today, helps me to be so much more gracious and so much more forgiving for all the hurts that have been done to me, because I know, too, that hurting people hurt people.
Loving People Out of Their Trauma: Holly Hayes & Rebecca Smith – Episode #249
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. In a life that’s had many hurts, where trauma is a part of daily living, one is vulnerable to the darker sides of our human existence. Though we can’t always know what a person’s motive is for destructive behavior toward themselves, we can ask ourselves this question; would Jesus love them through their trauma? Jesus was regularly seen communing with “questionable” people—often who were outcasts because of their moral or social status. In Mark 2:17, Jesus explains that it’s not the righteous he came to save, but those who were “sick with sin.”
Our guests this week have seen and walked through unimaginable trauma only to find that God was there to meet their needs. Holly Hayes, the CEO of The Sanctuary Project, was a victim of sex trafficking, descending to a point so low that she found herself in a basement crying out to God to save her—and when no one else would love her through her pain—He did. Rebecca Smith saw a need in her community for immigrant women who had only ever experienced less than ideal working conditions and were looking to make a fresh start. Through her company, Better Life Bags, she was able to employ many of these women and made a way for them to better their lives, even as her own life was made better by opening herself up to their needs.
Let’s begin with Holly’s story.
Holly: My name is Holly Christine Hayes, and I am founder and CEO of the Sanctuary Project. We are a nonprofit jewelry enterprise that employs and empowers women coming out of trafficking, violence, and addiction.
So I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in a good home, two loving parents and two sisters, and from the outside, everything looked really great. Both my parents were professors and I was a normal kid from all outside appearances.
Early Trauma Leads to Later Pain
What people didn’t know was happening was that I was actually sexually abused by a caretaker, a babysitter in after school care that my sisters and I went to. And so that sexual abuse was imprinting me, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was very young. This was ages three to five.
I didn’t recognize that trauma as what it was. I didn’t actually remember the sexual abuse. And so I just thought I was fearful. I felt afraid all the time. I felt anxious all the time. I was always wanting to please people. I wanted everyone to like me. And so very early on in my teenage years, discovered drugs and alcohol. And immediately when I discovered drugs and alcohol, I found what I thought was going to be the solution. I found the relief to what I was feeling, to that overwhelming anxiety.
And around that same time, my parents got divorced. And so I went from this really normal, healthy young girl who had trauma but didn’t know it to someone who began acting out in every sense of the word and in every way. And all of the sudden my inward trauma became very outward.
“I went from this really normal, healthy young girl who had trauma but didn’t know it to someone who began acting out in every sense of the word and in every way. And all of the sudden my inward trauma became very outward.” – Holly Hayes
By fifteen, I was drinking and using drugs every day. By sixteen, I had dropped out of high school and had my first of five abortions. I ended up in my first abusive relationship at that point as well. By eighteen, I was getting arrested all the time. By nineteen, I met my trafficker and I met him at a party, and I immediately was drawn to him and he immediately was drawn to me. I think he could spot everything I was from across the room. I think he could tell that I was addicted and that I had sexual trauma and that I was vulnerable and I was really the perfect target for him. He developed a relationship with me and after some time in the relationship, it became violent. Violence started to become really normal, both in my life and in that relationship.
And then after about a year into the relationship, he started suggesting that he could help me out by arranging jobs for me, by setting me up to be sold to other men. And at that point, I was so damaged and so heartbroken and just beat down to nothing and really felt I had no value. And so when he suggested this, he actually made me feel like I had value and that I was so valuable that men would pay for me. And so it felt like a step up even from what I had experienced. After a short time of doing that, I kept getting drunk and high and not showing up for the jobs he was lining up for me and he ended up kicking me out. And so at that point, I had been abandoned even by my trafficker and really had nowhere else to go.
So by twenty-one, I was homeless, addicted, completely lost, completely broken. And I was on the floor of a public bathroom just crying and watching my tears hit the floor one day and three words fell out of my mouth. I said, “God help me.” And I’d never believed in God, I had no experience with God, I didn’t know any God people. I wasn’t looking for God, but it was all I could think to say or pray in that moment. And that very night, I ended up meeting someone who got me into a recovery program.
“I was homeless, addicted, completely lost, completely broken. And I was on the floor of a public bathroom just crying and watching my tears hit the floor one day, and three words fell out of my mouth. I said, ‘God help me.’” – Holly Hayes
The Journey to Finding the Heart of Jesus
I started reading spiritual books and going to yoga and practicing meditation and reading every book Oprah recommended. You would think I cried out to God and then I was all better, right? It took years for me to even realize who that God was that I cried out to.
“You would think I cried out to God and then I was all better, right? It took years for me to even realize who that God was that I cried out to.” – Holly Hayes
I started looking everywhere the world says to look for God. But I never would have considered Jesus as God. I had only ever seen Christians in my life as the hurtful protesters outside of the abortion clinics who were picketing and calling me a murderer. And so there was no part of me that thought, Oh, this loving God who rescued me in the pit of my sin must be Jesus.
And I had this Bible. I’d actually stolen this Bible. I thought it was hilarious at the time. But I had this stolen Bible and I was desperate for God to speak to me. I was desperate to know who this God was that saved me all those years ago on that bathroom floor, because at this point, I knew I had been so miraculously rescued and everything I had searched for had come up empty.
“I was desperate to know who this God was that saved me all those years ago on that bathroom floor, because at this point, I knew I had been so miraculously rescued and everything I had searched for had come up empty.” – Holly Hayes
I hadn’t “affirmationed” my way into that rescue. I hadn’t “positive-thought” my way into it. I hadn’t “yoga posed” my way into it. I knew I had been completely rescued by this God and so desperate to find out if God could, in fact, speak to me in the stolen Bible, I put my finger in it and I said, “Okay, God, if you’re real and if you’re in here, speak to me.” And then I tipped it open and it was to the passage in John 8 where Jesus forgives the adulterous woman and says, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone at her.” And it was just the most perfect moment to have met Jesus, right? I mean, it was like everything I thought Christians were, these picketing, stone-throwing, judgmental characters that they had been in my life. And yet here was Jesus juxtaposing that with a supernatural mercy and His incredible grace. And I stood face to face for the first time with this God who had rescued me off the floor of that bathroom those years ago. And so it was so clear in that moment that Jesus was the God that would rescue someone in the pit of sin and give them a whole new life.
“I stood face to face for the first time with this God who had rescued me off the floor of that bathroom those years ago. And so it was so clear in that moment that Jesus was the God that would rescue someone in the pit of sin and give them a whole new life.” – Holly Hayes
My healing journey really began the day I met Jesus and the day I came face to face with the One who saved me, because then I got to learn who I actually was. And so I think that this dream of the work I do today really got birthed in that season of sitting and reading His story and learning about who God is and was and has been and will be, and seeing myself woven into that in this really beautiful and powerful way and then wanting in on the story.
I thank God for my story because the Christians I know today and walk with today—including my own husband and my in-laws—have all been active in protests like that and have stood outside of those abortion clinics, really operating out of what they think is best, really operating out of what they know as love. And so what’s been interesting in my life today as a Christian is I feel so blessed to be able to come in and enter some of these conversations as someone who’s been on the other side, because today I get to actually have conversations with people and remind them, “Thank you for being there and protesting at the front door. It hurt me. But I’d like to share with you that there was no one there at the back door when I had just had an abortion and my body had been torn apart and I was leaving and going back to my trafficker and an abusive situation and still addicted to drugs. And I didn’t have any other choices. But I’ll tell you what, if there had been a Christian at that back door to welcome me into their loving arms and ask me what I needed and how they could help, I actually probably would have accepted love and help in that moment, where when it was being protested at the front door, that’s not a moment that I would have had that opening.”
Let’s move to the back door and let’s actually start to love these women. And let’s actually start to bring them into our fold in the moment when they’re most vulnerable, in the moment when their body has just been torn apart, in the moment of their sin, because that’s where Jesus meets us and that’s where Jesus loves us. And that sort of mercy is undeniably attractive.”
Over the years, I started sharing my story more and just seeing more and more women fall into tears as they heard their story, too. And I began to build a community of women that I was mentoring and just working with and loving on. And most of those women are incarcerated when I meet them. And so I’d go into the jails and I tell my story and I teach you about trafficking and and then I’m able to develop a relationship with them while they’re in and then help to advocate for them when they’re coming out and help them to find safe housing and get connected with all the resources they need.
The biggest resource I saw missing was employment. I found that girls who had a lot of trauma around work, which we do coming out of sex trafficking, had so much trouble then going and just getting a job at a gas station or at Taco Bell. There’s so much trauma around work and around having to endure around servitude and having to obey a boss. There’s a lot of trauma that can come up for women. And so again and again, I saw women struggling and failing when it came to rebuilding their lives. And a lot of it was around this employment piece.
And so for years, I saw these issues and this pattern repeating in women’s lives and really just started to dream of the place that could employ women and be that safe landing place and be that place where women can find hope and restoration and healing around identity and work.
So I built Sanctuary Project in February of 2018, and we started growing quite quickly. So a little bit about the jewelry, everything in the line is meant to evoke a feeling of sanctuary.
I think we all find sanctuary in different places. For me, I love old churches, old cathedrals. And so I just love that feeling of sitting in a literal sanctuary. But I think other people find sanctuary, maybe in nature, or for a lot of our girls just in having their chains broken and being free from jail, maybe that’s their sanctuary.
We have pieces that are inspired by the marble cathedrals and we have a lot of marble pieces in the line. We have branches that are meant to evoke that feeling of sanctuary found in nature. We have a stained glass collection that’s inspired by the stained glass windows of great cathedrals. We have a chain breaker collection. All of our chains are meant to remind us of the chains we’re breaking off women’s lives, both literally and figuratively. And we have a coin collection, that is, we have a miraculous medallion collection that talks about how miracles have taken place in our lives and reminds us that we’re each miracles.
When I started Sanctuary Project, I knew I wanted to do a daily devotional time with the girls and to start each day just with a little teaching, but something simple and something for them to digest wherever they’re at in their spiritual journey.
I’ve loved Jesus Calling from basically the time I came to Christ. It’s one of the first devotionals I ever was given and I love how personal it is. I love that Jesus becomes so accessible in it. There’s this softness and openness that starts to happen in them, where a lot of girls have become willing to explore faith as a result. We’ve had three girls come in who were “profess-ingly” not Christian, definitely wanted nothing to do with it, worried about working for us because they thought it might be “too Christian” of a company and then by two or three months became devoted followers of Christ. I’ve gotten to baptize a couple of them. And so it’s been a really wonderful journey to just walk with these girls as they’re exploring faith and to offer a tool like Jesus Calling where it’s so accessible. It’s the very sweetest, most loving heart of God devotional I could possibly imagine. And every single day these girls feel so loved by the words in that devotional.
I have twelve women working for me right now, and every single one of them is vulnerable to an economic downturn, especially if I had to do any layoffs. And so right when COVID hit, the Lord told me to let Him work and to not let go of any of our employees. In the same day, we lost every single revenue stream. All of our revenue at that point was coming from pop-up shops and fundraisers. So I got on my knees because I know there is only one way to get needs met, and that is through prayer.
“I know there is only one way to get needs met, and that is through prayer.” – Holly Hayes
And I started praying really specific prayers like, “Lord, I need this much money. Lord, I need you to provide some sort of revenue stream that is this much.” And I mean, I started asking for very specific numbers even from Him. And what was so incredible is that He is so faithful to the people He loves, especially the vulnerable, especially those girls. And so as soon as I would ask, He would provide and it’s been an unbelievable year of seeing those really specific prayers met with really specific needs.
“He is so faithful to the people He loves, especially the vulnerable.” – Holly Hayes
And it’s not like I’m praying for, like, favor in abundance. I’m praying just to get my girls fed. I’m praying just to make sure that we meet payroll. I’m praying that these girls don’t end up homeless. I’m praying that they don’t go back to traffickers. And so I’m not like a “name it and claim it” person. I’m not someone who says “Just ask for it and God will give it.” But when it comes to meeting the needs of his Beloved, of His people, He is so faithful.
“When it comes to meeting the needs of his Beloved, of His people, He is so faithful.” – Holly Hayes
Narrator: To learn more about the Sanctuary Project or to purchase their jewelry whose proceeds benefit women who have been the victims of sex trafficking, visit SanctuaryProject.com. If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking, there is help. Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Stay tuned to Rebecca Smith’s story after a brief message.
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While pregnant with her first child, Rebecca Smith decided to sew her own diaper bag, and after friends reacted positively to the design, she was inspired to start an Etsy shop to sell some of her creations. Eventually, Rebecca decided to donate part of the proceeds from the bags to men and women in third world countries who were seeking to start their own businesses and build a better life for themselves, through a microloan organization called Kiva—and Better Life Bags was born. Rebecca shares how she and her husband began to be drawn to the people they were helping, and decided they would travel overseas to engage in mission work. But before they did, they made a move to a small town in Michigan, known for its cultural diversity, to immerse themselves in the lives of people whose backgrounds differed from theirs on every level. Though Rebecca’s mission to help others toward a better life never wavered, this challenging experience shifted her focus to something new God had for her life and career.
Rebecca: My name is Rebecca Smith, and I am a mom and a wife and a writer and a small business owner.
I went to college, got an elementary ed degree, and started teaching. My husband and I got married. When we found out we were pregnant with our oldest, who’s now ten, I quit teaching. So that summer, just knowing, I have a lot of free time on my hands before this baby comes. I made myself a diaper bag, picked out some fabric that matched his nursery, got together with a friend, and we spent all day just making this diaper bag, posted pictures on Facebook, and started getting a bunch of comments like, “Oh, this is so cute. Will you make me one?” Or, “You should open an Etsy shop.” And I had no idea what Etsy was. This was like ten years ago, eleven years ago at this point, so I then brainstormed like, Well, I can do this. I have some extra time on my hands. This will be a fun, little creative project until a baby comes. I have to have a name for my little bag company that I’m going to start.
An Unexpected Mission Trip
And I looked around at my desk and my eyes landed on this Kiva gift card that my brother had given me for Christmas that year. The Kiva website is a microloan site. You can scroll through profiles of men and women, mostly in third world countries, who are trying to start businesses of their own, like grocery stores or sheep farms or side markets. And you can loan them money so that they can have some capital to get going. And it was just really, it opened my eyes up. And at that time I was like, Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if I could give a percentage of every Etsy sale and help fund more of these microloans? And so it just kind of was a really simple name, Better Life Bags. But for me at that moment, it was just this simple: I’m sending ten percent of every sale overseas in the form of the loan and connecting the customer with this person who’s also receiving money. So that’s how it started.
About six months into this process, my husband and I moved from Savannah, Georgia, where we were at the time, to Hamtramck, Michigan. We just we have this plan, as all good plans are, that we wanted to do overseas mission work and but we wanted to move somewhere in America first that had a more diverse population than Savannah, Georgia, just kind of get our feet wet, maybe learn a language and then spend two years here and head overseas.
Well, Hamtramck is Michigan’s most diverse city. There’s a high immigrant population here, there’s twenty-six languages spoken here, it’s just really, really diverse. So we jumped right into this immersion experience.
It was one of the hardest experiences of my life, we moved right next to an abandoned home. And I was like, Where are we? Where did we just bring my newborn son to? This is where we have to spend the next two years of his life?
And of course, I mean, a couple of weeks into that, I find myself just on my bed sobbing to my husband, Neil, and just saying, like, “We’ve made a huge mistake, like, I will never be friends with anyone in this city,” which was why we had moved. We had moved to this diversity to get our feet wet, to see, like, what does cross-cultural ministry look like? Let’s make friends with our neighbors and learn a language. And I just didn’t want anything to do with it.
I just felt like; I have nothing in common with my neighbors. I can’t be friends with them. We don’t even speak the same language, like, it felt impossible. And Neil was very patient with me as I’m telling him that we made a mistake. And he just kind of reminded me of Jonah in the Old Testament of how God had called Jonah to this specific place, specific people group, and Jonah, like, physically ran the opposite way. Of course I was feeling like this is impossible. I wasn’t even trying.
How Do I Love My Neighbors?
So I started this experiment of just staying in the city, like walking the sidewalks here, going to the markets here. In that time, my husband was learning Arabic from a man from Yemen and he had a daughter who knew how to sew. And I was still making these bags and these purses just whenever an Etsy order would come in, during nap times and after my son was in bed. So he knew that I sewed and he wanted his daughter to meet an American.
I invited her to my house. I was so nervous. I was like, I don’t know how to dress. The women from Yemen are very conservative in their dress. So they cover completely from head to toe, just have their eyes showing. So I was nervous. I was like, Does she expect me to have my head covered? Like, What kind of food can she eat? I’m just going to try seeing why God has brought us here, because I felt like He had made a huge mistake.
So she comes over and I remember sitting in our living room. It was just awkward. She brought her kids. She had four kids. And she didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Arabic. So we’re just like smiling at each other and sitting there. And I had this spark of an idea, remembering that she also sewed and I asked her to follow me to the basement where I had set up my sewing machine for making these bags for Etsy. And we just spent the next hour, hour and a half sewing together. And I taught her one of the bags that I had designed and was selling. And it was just this common language between the two of us, was sewing. It was we didn’t have to have a conversation because we were playing with fabric and sewing. And it really just kind of took a lot of pressure off of that first meeting.
I wish that I could say that that started a lifelong friendship, but I honestly didn’t call her back for another year. It was not something I was eager to really put myself in that situation again. But God was patient and He grew this little Etsy shop to a point where I couldn’t do it by myself anymore. We had two kids at this point. I was working as fast and as long and as hard as I could. But I knew I either needed to shut it down and be like, “That was fun. But now I have to be a stay at home mom,” or I could hire some help.
And I remembered this woman who we sewed together in the basement and I had her phone number still. So I just decided to call her up and just see if she could help me dig myself out of this problem that I had too many orders. She knew exactly what I needed help with, she was very, very willing to do it. And so I started going to her house once a week and bringing my kids. And in the Arabic culture, they’re very hospitable. So I was invited in the first time I came over. And every time after that, you can never just drop something off at the house of an Arabic woman. She will invite you in and make you tea and cookies.
So it started this weekly rhythm of going to her house and dropping off fabric, picking up the bags that she had done the week before, and visiting with her and letting our kids play together. And about six months or so into this routine, she says, “Come upstairs, I want to show you something.” So I follow her up her stairs. And she had bought bunk beds for her girls, whereas before they’d been sleeping on mattresses on the floor. And then like a couple of weeks later, she says, “Look, I bought this dining room table and now we can eat our tea here instead of just on the couches.” And it clicked in my mind. I was like, “Wait, are you buying this with the money that I’m giving you to make these bags?” And she said, “Yes.”
She became our first seamstress at Better Life Bags. She did become this lifelong friend, we’ve been friends now for seven and a half, eight years. We’ve seen our kids grow up together. Have prayed with each other, have celebrated when God has done miracles in her life or in my life, and just developed this really beautiful friendship that I thought would be impossible and started just this whole new direction for Better Life Bags. Instead of just sending money in the form of a microloan overseas, we started investing in the women in Hamtramck who had a need for a job.
Our community is very low in economic status, jobs in general are really sought after in our community. But I think unique to Hamtramck is we do have a lot of first generation immigrants from lots of different countries: Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Poland, Bosnia. And so they’re kind of coming here and landing here first to kind of get their feet on the ground, to figure out, What this life in America is going to look like? So they have education barriers to getting a job. They have language barriers. Specifically in a lot of these Muslim countries, there is a cultural barrier where the women are not allowed to work outside of their home with men from another family. So to have this place that’s women-only, run by women, their husbands feel safe allowing them to come into our shop.
Embracing Things That Are Different
Like anything that’s different than what we grew up with or are used to is scary if you’re just entering it. But my challenge to myself and to people who are scared, I think any time we are confronted with fear of any sort of race, religion, like any sort of difference, is just meet somebody. Like, get a face and a name and shake their hand, get to know their story.
“Anything that’s different than what we grew up with or are used to is scary if you’re just entering it. But my challenge to myself and to people who are scared, I think any time we are confronted with fear of any sort of race, religion, like any sort of difference, is just meet somebody. Like, get a face and a name and shake their hand, get to know their story.” – Rebecca Smith
I love the phrase which is used in the Bible, “the still, small voice.” I think when we think of God, we think of He is going to come in, words written on the wall in thunderbolts and like, you know, He’s so powerful, but yet He speaks in these still, small whispers. And if we’re hurrying through life and rushing, we can’t hear those [whispers from God]. We’re just too loud and too busy to be able to hear His still, small whispers.
“If we’re hurrying through life and rushing, we can’t hear those [whispers from God]. We’re just too loud and too busy to be able to hear His still, small whispers.” – Rebecca Smith
I love Jesus Calling for the fact that it really does shortcut the point of the Bible—which is—we want to hear directly from God. And here is Jesus speaking to us, you know, in these really easy-to-digest ways.
Here is a passage from Jesus Calling from September 21st:
Wait quietly in My Presence while My thoughts form silently in the depths of your being. Do not try to rush this process, because hurry keeps your heart earthbound. I am the Creator of the entire universe, yet I choose to make My humble home in your heart. It is there where you know Me most intimately; it is there where I speak to you in holy whispers. Ask My Spirit to quiet your mind so that you can hear My still small voice within you. I am speaking to you continually: words of Life . . . Peace . . . Love. Tune your heart to receive these messages of abundant blessing. Lay your requests before Me, and wait in expectation.
God has a plan for each one of our lives. He has it laid out for me. He has this pathway laid out. And my only job is just to take one step at a time. I don’t have to run down the path. I can simply walk and God reveals the next step as it comes.
“God has a plan for each one of our lives. He has it laid out for me. He has this pathway laid out. And my only job is just to take one step at a time. I don’t have to run down the path. I can simply walk and God reveals the next step as it comes.” – Rebecca Smith
To me, the goal in life, in business, in parenting, in any of it is not winning. The goal is not to finish first, the goal is to finish and to finish well in the lane that God has given us to run. And so if God has given me fifteen women and that’s all He’s ever going to grow it to and all He’s ever going to give me, then I’m going to invest well in that lane and love those women well and steward exactly what He’s given me the best to my ability and the best that I can.
“To me, the goal in life, in business, in parenting, in any of it is not winning. The goal is not to finish first, the goal is to finish and to finish well in the lane that God has given us to run.” – Rebecca Smith
Narrator: To learn more about Rebecca’s products, please visit www.betterlifebags.com, and be sure to check out her newest book, A Better Life, wherever books are sold.
If you’d like to hear more stories about how God loves us through our pain, check out our interview with Tammy Arnold.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, #1 Billboard-charting artist Lucas Hoge shares how his music has been a powerful link to faith all throughout his life.
Lucas Hoge: I just always wanted to inspire to just take as much from this life as God has to offer. And my faith has helped me keep going because I feel like in my heart every day when I wake up that this is where God wants me. So even if it’s super hard right now, I feel like those trials—I’m going through those for some reason.