Hundreds of people streamed into the Rabobank Convention Center before dawn Thursday morning for the 33rd annual Bakersfield Prayer Breakfast. And they were rewarded with a compelling story from Laurie and Bill Bolthouse, missionaries whose work in Cambodia led them to produce a movie on human trafficking and the sex trade.
The audience sat rapt and silent as Laurie recounted how she and her three daughters met a group of young women in Cambodia who had been kidnapped from neighboring Vietnam and forced to work as prostitutes.
"It was such a stark contrast to know that your life has been blessed with comfort and security," she said. "We were also feeling very, very helpless. I think we were angry because the problem seemed so huge and so unfair."
After the family returned home to Denver, a friend who was doing undercover work in Cambodia for a Canadian TV station asked if they wanted to partner on a movie highlighting the crime of human trafficking. That led to "Trade of Innocents."
"What I love about God is that when we ask for help, he does come, though it's usually not how we expect him to," Laurie said.
"The issue of human trafficking is far more horrible than the majority of us will ever, ever experience," she said. "It's (also) far more hopeful, because we are meeting and seeing young children, men and women who are being rescued from this horrible, horrible injustice, redeemed and healed."
"This isn't about us ... (but) people before us who have been praying for the rescue of the oppressed," she said.
Laurie's husband, Bill, a retired doctor and the son of the founder of Bolthouse Farms, followed with a tongue-in-cheek speech on how "God needs ... a few more quitters, a few more doubters and a few more failures."
"You're going to have to admit some of your best decisions, the ones that have really set the compass of your life, started when you quit something," he said, recalling how quitting his medical practice allowed him and his family to travel to Cambodia.
"Are you willing to quit some things ... and press into the unknown for God's single purpose in your life?" he asked.
The Bolthouses' speeches were preceded by individual prayers for government leaders, public safety employees, healthcare workers, business people, clergy and young people.
This year's event was sponsored by dozens of local businesses, schools, public safety groups, churches and individuals. In the days leading up to it, there was a hearty debate in The Californian opinion pages about whether it had become too Christian-centric and excluded people of other faiths.
Each Bakersfield Prayer Breakfast has a theme, and this year's was taken from the Bible verse Ephesians 4:1, which talks about leading a life "worthy of the calling you have received."
That theme seemed to resonate with Mike Franey, a chaplain for Lerdo Jail who said he's gone to the Bakersfield prayer breakfasts since they began more than 30 years ago.
"That was amazing," he said after the Bolthouses' speeches. "It brings to mind to always be mindful of our fellow mankind and the generosity of those that are willing to go out on a limb and reach out to do what they can to try to make life better, not only here in the United States, but around the world. Reaching out to helpless children that have nobody to defend them, represent them. We're all called to do what we can to assist in making life better for everyone."
Organizers of the breakfast also invited a contingent from Taft Union High School, which is still feeling the effects of a shooting at the school three weeks ago. Taft senior Kayla Schuyler led the prayer for youth and education.
"It was such an honor for us to be invited," said Taft Principal Marilyn Brown. "The community of support for all of us at Taft High has been unbelievable. The community of Taft, the community of Bakersfield, the help that has come our way, the healing, it has been amazing."
"When you sit up here at the head table, look out there and see the faces, and the people leaving with smiles on their faces, it's uplifting," Mayor Harvey Hall said before the speeches began. "I think it helps focus folks, (after hearing) the speakers, on how to give back further into their community."
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said he's attended at least 10 Bakersfield prayer breakfasts.
"I think it's a great opportunity for people throughout the community with faith to come together. It's one of the largest in the nation," he said of the event. "It creates fellowship and when you get up and you leave, you feel very good that you came."