Editor’s note: This article is reprinted with permission from Ministry Watch, an independent donor advocate that profiles public charities, church and parachurch ministries.
By Warren Smith
Angel Studios’ “Sound of Freedom” pulled off a slick marketing coup at the beginning of this month. Capitalizing on the fact that none of the major studios would be debuting a movie during the July 4 week, it dropped “Sound of Freedom” (SOF) when most moviegoers were at the lake or the beach. That allowed it to slide into the number one spot for 24 hours, giving it bragging rights that will likely show up in marketing materials during its entire theatrical run.
This sleight-of-hand is a fitting tribute to the subject of the film, Tim Ballard, whose talent for self-promotion has earned him headlines and head-scratching from those who fact-check his claims.
MinistryWatch began reporting on Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), the organization Ballard founded and on which the movie is based, back in 2021. OUR says on its website it has rescued and supported “thousands of survivors in 28 countries and 26 U.S. states,” including 3,000 around the world in 2019 alone. The charity’s annual report said it took in more than $21 million in donations for that year, which was then the last year for which we had data.
Turns out it was just getting started. In 2021 the organization took in more than $42 million. But here’s where it gets interesting. In that same year, 2021, the organization spent only about $31 million on its work of allegedly rescuing sex trafficking victims. The year before, 2020, the numbers are even more strange. OUR took in $45 million but spent only $13.5 million. It had a whopping $33.9 million in profit.
And if you can stand a little more math, the bottom line is this: Operation Underground Railroad has a massive total of more than $80 million in assets, most of that accumulated in the past two years alone.
That’s enough money to fund operations for OUR for nearly three years even if it doesn’t raise another dime. But don’t count on that. OUR spent $3.5 million on fundraising in 2021, and $1.8 million in 2020.
Money controversies aren’t the only ones that have dogged Ballard and OUR.
Since it was founded in 2013 by Ballard, a former Department of Homeland Security undercover operative, OUR has been known for its “jump” raids to extract sex trafficking victims around the world, allegedly led by highly trained personnel. But Vice News uncovered situations in which training for the missions was lax or nonexistent and where it said the charity seemed to be more focused on gaining promotional footage than rescuing victims.
An article in Christianity Today said, “Some of the trafficking fighting methods depicted in the film—creating an island where Ballard and his team ask traffickers to bring children, or one character buying children out of sex trafficking to free them—could inadvertently create more demand for trafficking children and worsen the problem.”
In one case, the search for a Haitian-American boy near the Haiti/Dominican Republic border was revealed to be guided by a psychic medium from Utah who claimed that children were being held nearby. The mission to find the boy, Vice said, was unsuccessful.
In another investigation, Vice World News found that OUR had exaggerated its domestic rescue work and its role in freeing a survivor named “Liliana,” whom officials said actually escaped on her own. OUR faced an investigation by the Davis County, Utah, attorney general’s office regarding whether OUR made misleading statements in its fundraising appeals.
However, sources told Vice World News that not only was there little semblance of military-type training or planning involved in the jump raids, there was “no meaningful surveillance or identification of targets; no development of assets; no validating that people they sought to rescue had in fact been trafficked, or that people they were targeting were indeed traffickers; and no meaningful follow-up with people who had been rescued on the missions in which they took part.”
The charity’s methodology seemed to actually encourage trafficking behavior in some instances, sources said.
They told of operations that involved flashing money at clubs and bars to encourage pimps to show up with sex workers. When they did, operatives would insist on being shown younger girls, whom the sources felt had been immediately trafficked to meet the operatives’ demands.
OUR representatives would then call the local police to make arrests, they said.
“In my opinion that’s what he was doing: He was creating demand,” an operative who worked with OUR overseas told Vice.
The field of human trafficking has received increased scrutiny in recent years as the methods and claims of success of human trafficking organizations have been called into question. In February, Ministry Watch reported on a situation in which U.S.-based non-profit Christian Solidarity International traded cattle vaccines for slaves in the Sudan. A spokesperson for World Vision International to point out that doing so might become an incentive for slavers to capture more victims.
In a statement to Vice, OUR said the charity “does all we can to avoid creating demand and informs suspected traffickers that we are not interested in them making efforts to find other victims. We are clear: they either have what we are looking for, or they do not. Additionally, we use a variety of undercover and operational tactics to elicit the information we need from suspects without entrapping or enticing them to commit a crime.”
All that said, “Sound of Freedom” is getting good reviews. And the $45 million it has made at the box office (so far) is not bad for a “religious” movie.
So if you’re looking for a good yarn, “Sound of Freedom” may be your cup of tea. But if you’re looking for the truth about Operation Underground Railroad, you should probably look elsewhere.
Editor’s Note: Anne Stych contributed to this article.