When the tsunami hit in 2004, Eric Lyons dropped everything to help dig for bodies. The work he found later would be even more unconventional: fighting human trafficking.
As he took his seat on the plane, Eric Lyons didn’t have a clue about what he was getting himself into. Thoughts of Asian food and warm beaches flashed through his mind, but a harsh reality awaited him on the other side of the world.
It’s the kind of story most people wish they could claim as their own: disaster hits, and the overwhelming desire to help those who can’t help themselves drives you to drop everything and jump on a plane.
On December 26, 2004, a massive tsunami hit the coast of Southeast Asia, affecting 11 countries, killing more than 225,000, displacing an estimated 1.2 million people, and changing one man’s life forever.
Brought up in a sexually and physically abusive environment, Eric Lyons quickly learned the art of retreating. “As a result of feeling like I didn’t fit in my family or in this world, I tried to run,” recalls Lyons. “I tried to run from myself, and it always pissed me off because I could never escape myself.”
So early on, Eric had a need to try to make sense of a world that no longer felt safe. With no one to turn to, Lyons started self-medicating through alcohol and relationships with women. After the relationship with his long-time girlfriend turned unhealthy, Lyons’ playboy lifestyle in Chicago came to a halt, and he decided to distance himself from the nightclub empire he had built. So he moved to Dallas to pursue a cleaner lifestyle.
“There wasn’t anything I had stumbled across that was worth living for yet,” says Lyons. “I was just as ready to let go as I was to hold on to anything. What I was holding on to was fleeting and it wasn’t nourishing my soul. Without that, what is there to live for? All I had was a train wreck of a past and present.”
Shortly after his arrival in “big D”, Lyons caught wind of the devastation in Southeast Asia from the tsunami. With no medical expertise, no construction skills, and no previous experience overseas, Lyons searched for an organization that accepted “normal” people. With nothing to lose, he boarded a plane to Sri Lanka for a two-week trip to help dig for dead bodies.
“Life had been crumbling, and I wanted to make a mark; I wanted to be doing something important. I remember sitting on the plane as a non-believer and praying, ‘God, you are wasting my time and I am wasting yours. If you want something different out of me, I’m not coming back to this life.’ ”
Once on the ground in Sri Lanka, the group began digging for bodies. “Even though it was a month out, there were still missing children,” Lyons says. “Everyday someone was found; one day I dug up a schoolbook and I almost dug a little deeper, but I couldn’t. This girl never came home. I couldn’t throw the book away. I still have it to this day.”
After digging for a week, Lyons and a small group of volunteers decided to change the purpose of the trip. “We kept hearing stories about a special needs home called the Sambodhi House that wasn’t getting any support,” remembers Lyons. “We decided there were still lives to be saved. When we found the home, it was like stumbling into a world of neglect. They were all special needs people overseen by their own.”
The residents of the house were struggling to provide for their basic needs. Culturally, people with special needs are considered sinners from a past life; the untouchables, the discarded people. It was because of this stigma that they had been left to survive alone. Lyons and his group quickly changed their mission, and began clearing out debris to create a livable environment.
“Walking in was like watching a disgusting movie,” Lyons reluctantly
remembers. “Some were tied to their beds, and there was a man who was so emaciated that he looked like a POW.” He remembers pushing his way through the creaky wooden door and walking into the gray 3′x 4′ room with dusty concrete floors and drab walls, to notice a man sitting on the floor naked with a tub in front of him.
“Because he’s paralyzed from the waist down, he couldn’t reach the water to bathe himself. He would sit there for hours until someone would come back and find him and put him back in bed.”
Soon after this experience, Eric’s life would change in an even greater way when he returned home. Eric had wandered into IBC slowly that year, making a few connections in First Watch and in the Purpose Driven Life class. It was in the midst of a crisis in his personal life that Eric found a relationship with Jesus through a friend at IBC, and it changed the way he approached his newfound mission in Asia. “One of the most obvious differences was that the work and its focus became much less about myself. It really became more about all of those people whom I have encountered and those yet to come across my path… I really began to look at humanity as fallen, broken and lost — just like I have always viewed myself.”
His next experience in Asia would change the course of his work yet again. While walking the streets of Cambodia one day, Lyons saw a six-year old boy holding an adult’s hand. “One thing I’ve learned — by seeing the abundance of prostitution and the overwhelming number of young-looking children interacting with adults — is that if it looks odd, it’s always odd,” says Lyons. “So many young children were running around at all hours of the night asking questions and offering things I didn’t even think they knew what they were.”
Because of the little value placed on human lives in these cultures, children are often sold into trafficking by their families to help pay off debt. Sadly, there is a market in these countries for trafficked adults and children, whether it’s through panhandling, sexual tourism or even shipping them to foreign countries to do the same.
“I took that as God knocking on my door,” Lyons says. “Because of my
background, I believe it’s our responsibility to protect children. They have
every right to have opportunities and dreams. They should not have to be victimized by the people who are supposed to provide safety and shelter. By beginning to fight the battle at those young ages, we can make children’s lives and futures better.”
Since witnessing these horrific images first hand, Lyons has gone on to create a non-profit organization called Hope for the Silent Voices. “The blessing of the tsunami is that it exposed the world to tremendous needs and neglect throughout Southeast Asia,” he says.
The mission behind Hope for the Silent Voices is to have a similar impact
the tsunami had on Asia, except by bringing hope to the lives of millions instead of devastation.
“Part of what we do at Hope for the Silent Voices is facilitate trips for people who want to see the realities of the world as they truly exist, as difficult as it may be,” explains Lyons. “It will be tough to eradicate [human trafficking], but we certainly can make a difference if we wake up. The depth to which we dream is totally dependent on what we expose ourselves to.”
Through his organization, Lyons has been able to partner with local groups that remove victims from terrible situations. He has witnessed success stories of children and adults who were rescued from human trafficking and given their lives back.
“We are letting those voices that are silenced know there’s hope. If God wasn’t real, there would be no peace in this life. But the fact that rescued children dance and play and grow up into healthy people, that’s a sign there’s something bigger than us.”
“God equips and directs us in ways where we find the most joy and ways where we will best be used, and through this, he is utilizing some of the years of my life that were robbed and using them for good. Because God doesn’t make mistakes, it can only be his divine intervention in my life that threw me on that jet and got me there.”
“There’s no difference between me and anyone else. This just happens to be my story.”
Kristy Alpert recently left her stable job at D Magazine to move to Portland, Oregon, with her husband and her dog Tobias. She is pursuing life as a freelance writer and editor and can be reached at email@example.com.