A Winnipeg woman just celebrated one year of being in business with her thrift store called The Overflow, which helps women who have been or are being trafficked right here in Winnipeg.
Shona Stewart grew up in Victoria, B.C., and spent almost two decades in the sex trade in B.C., Alberta, and the United States.
After finding a saving grace in Jesus, she now works in four areas of ministry to help women and children out of being trafficked locally. One aspect is running the thrift store located on Selkirk Ave, which is open three days a week.
She says, "God called me into this ministry because I was stuck in it for 16 years of my life. I had many, many traffickers who used me. Even one of the police (officers) from Missing and Murdered Women in Vancouver said, 'Shona if you didn't find Jesus, you'd be dead right now."
Stewart also counsels women coming out of being trafficked, is starting up a Bible study for any women wanting to know more about God, and has rooms available in the apartment above for women needing a place to be safe, especially with their children.
After being in the sex trade for a long time, it was a call from her mother that prompted her to get out.
Stewart says, "I got out when I was 38 years old. My mom called me, I was out in Calgary. I owned my own business, a massage parlour. She was dying of lung cancer and she said 'My dying wish is that you get out of the sex trade."
From there she moved back to Victoria, B.C. where she grew up, to take care of her mom. They both met the neighbour who happened to be a Christian.
"She invited us to a banquet at the church. I was very hesitant, so was she, but she talked me into it. It was an ALPHA banquet. That introduced me to the idea that Jesus loves even prostitutes and tax collectors and it struck my heart. They asked who wanted to come back and ask more questions and so we signed up [for the ALPHA course]."
She says, "After the third video, I said, 'I want that'. I was always looking for unconditional love and peace in my life."
From there Stewart took a counselling course. Then she felt led to go to Briercrest College in Caronport, SK, where she took two degrees over the span of seven years.
An opportunity to help women and children here in Winnipeg presented itself at which time she became a minister through Alliance Church.
Stewart worked her ministry for six and a half years in Winnipeg before she became burnt out. She still has PTSD, and so she took two years to recover.
Then a year ago, after feeling like God had renewed her strength, she opened The Overflow thrift store where women can come as they are and find what they need.
"Everybody in the community says the store is a blessing. The women come in for coffee, talk, shop. One woman came in the other day and said, 'I overheard, are you an addictions counsellor?' I said yes, and she poured her heart out."
Although Stewart says the store hasn't made a lot of money, if any, it is changing the atmosphere.
She says, "The store is making a difference in the kingdom. It's becoming what it was supposed to become and God's blessing it, and the women I'm serving. It's awesome."
The only way Stewart can help women who are in the same situation she once was in herself is by the grace of God, according to her.
"We get so little glimpses of them transforming, when they come to Christ or I baptize them, I couldn't be happier. But it takes a long time."
Stewart has counselled one woman for six years.
"Now that's what I'm trying to do. Not look at the impressive, but the important."
Recently a woman with children moved into one of the apartments until she can get on her feet.
"We try and help women and their children so it doesn't become a cycle. I have a rule, no boyfriends allowed."
The rule became a clear one after one of the apartments got trashed from a physical fight a couple had.
Another two-bedroom apartment above the thrift store is now being used to host Bible studies. Eventually Stewart would like to run an ALPHA course there, as it had a big part in changing her life many years ago.
She says, "Please pray for protection. For these women I've baptized, they've fallen back. I know it's a spiritual battle. Pray for wisdom. Please pray for the barriers. The barriers there are easy to fix but we need prayers. For the women and myself."
Stewart feels she is doing what God has called her to, using the skills she has. However, she is looking for people to come along side her to expand the services. Her ministry is called Set the Captives Free.
She says, "The police really want to work with me in getting an emergency room open. That means somebody has to pay for a room that is $500/month. It's hard to have these emergency places and we're praying that that can happen. Many trafficked women come from across Canada, from Quebec."
This coming Sunday, Stewart is being licensed into the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ at a church in Niverville, Man.
When it comes to helping those get out of being trafficked, Stewart says, "Remember all these people you see have family that loves them, they're humans that God loves. Prayer can move mountains. Pray for the whole human trafficking spectrum."