New York City. The City of Dreams. The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. New York City has embodied opportunity, freedom, and hope for the last century and a half. In the early 1900s, thousands upon thousands of Jews escaped oppression in Eastern Europe to find freedom in New York City. Italians escaped poverty to find opportunity in New York City. And Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks, and Greeks, along with non-Europeans from Syria, Turkey, and Armenia left their homes in the “Old World” to find hope and a better life in none other than New York City.
It’s no different today. Take a walk through Grand Central Station and find the sidewalks crowded with young professionals who are hungry for the next step up the corporate ladder. Saunter through Washington Square Park and listen to the songwriters or street performers who eagerly hope that today will be the day they catch their big break. Turn the radio on and listen to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys brag about the greatness of New York City. In New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of There’s nothing you can’t do, now you’re in New York These streets will make you feel brand new Big lights will inspire you, let’s hear it for New York New York, New York Those lyrics resonate with countless wanderers, A-types, and creatives who land in the city for the purpose of finding their dreams. And 41-year-old Jimmy Lee is no different. In 1995, at the age of 22, Jimmy moved to New York City to start his first job out of college at Goldman Sachs as a financial analyst. Through sleepless nights, brain-crunching work, and an uncompromisable work ethic, he moved his way up Wall Street, working as an investment banker for J.P. Morgan and the Director of Strategic Planning and Business Analysis at American Express.
Business Analysis at American Express. He even jumped into the nonprofit sector as the Director of Strategic Initiatives at World Vision and the Vice President of Strategy and Regional Affairs for GBCHealth (formerly known as Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS). On top of that, he met and married his wife, Christine, and eventually bought a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Harlem. Jimmy’s career and his life could easily qualify him as the poster child for the city of dreams.
But in April 2012, Jimmy took a vocational step that, at the surface, may have seemed like an unexpected twist in his career narrative. With a 50% pay cut, he became the executive director of Restore NYC, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end sex trafficking in New York and restore the well-being and independence of foreign national survivors. And every day since accepting the position, Jimmy has encountered challenges that sometimes seem too far beyond his ability to fix. And the temptation to feel hopeless about such a huge issue feels like it’s always around the corner. So why did he do it? Why did Jimmy take the job?
“To feel like there are these vulnerable girls and women from China, Korea, or Russia, or Mexico, or India, who can come to this city that I love and be exploited in that way, resonates with me personally,” Jimmy explains. “But then, I feel like as New Yorkers, you don’t even have to be a Christian, we take pride in this city in saying, ‘We are a city of immigrants. We are a city where people come from all over the world to pursue their dreams.’ To be able to protect that dream for people and to find those dreams crushed in this way motivates me and the team.”
When Jimmy accepted the position over two years ago, he knew he’d be joining a noble, fight-worthy cause. He trusted his leadership skills and his experience in strategy and finance would greatly help Restore NYC’s growth and vision.
experience in strategy and finance would greatly help Restore NYC’s growth and vision. And he assumed that if he worked hard, he would succeed, just as he had always done in every other job.
But God had other plans. Plans to teach Jimmy how to trust and how to surrender.
From an early age, Jimmy possessed a strong understanding of who he was and what his passions were. In eighth grade, he committed his life to Christ at a youth retreat. In high school, he grew a more mature understanding of what a life following Jesus actually looked like. And in college, as a sociology major at Cornell University, his eyes opened to the injustices of this world, awakening a deep passion in him to pursue social justice.
“I was learning about all this stuff in my classes and realizing that I never heard about this stuff preached from the pulpit,” Jimmy says. “There were great things growing up in the church tradition I was a part of, but I think one of the clear weaknesses was the separation of social and economic justice from your own personal faith. And for me, the real question was: if God didn’t care about this stuff, then why would I want to follow this God?”
But through the mentors met through InterVarsity, a Christian ministry on college campuses worldwide, Jimmy learned that God actually did care. And rather than having to choose a life of faith versus justice, Jimmy should live a life pursuing both.
“I think that’s the kind of faith I brought into my adulthood, that I brought to New York when I came to New York, and that I brought to Wall Street,” Jimmy says. “And it’s still being shaped.”
With a fresh excitement for his faith, Jimmy embarked on a road to find his strengths and gifts. He knew what his passions were, but he had yet to discover what he was good at. So, in 1995, as college graduation neared, Jimmy applied for every job he could think of. Thankfully, job offers streamed in from several notable companies. He accepted the one that had the best reputation and the biggest name: Goldman Sachs.
“I figured if I go into something like nonprofit or ministry or even academia, I could always go to Goldman and then to those other places,” Jimmy says. “But if I went into academia or ministry or whatever [first], it would be hard for me to make that change into the business world.”
And with that, he quickly learned that he was pretty good at this finance stuff. In 1997, he returned to his hometown, Chicago, Illinois, to get his MBA at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Two years later, he returned to New York City to work in investment banking on Wall Street.
As long as Jimmy continued to work hard, he seemed to succeed in every position that came his way. It became his recipe, his strategy, his formula.
“I felt like I had a formula that always worked,” Jimmy says. “If I work hard enough, maybe a little harder than most people, am smart enough, and socially adept enough, then success is inevitable.”
And while that proved true, Jimmy also began to experience “vocational angst,” as he puts it. He had yet to find a job that successfully intersected his strengths with his passions. In fact, he transitioned into a nonprofit position but quickly plateaued and got bored. He returned to finance, but he knew it wasn’t where he wanted to be forever. Cynicism quickly emerged and turned into frustration. Here I am, God, Jimmy prayed. I’m willing to go where You send me...but where?
Then, in December 2011, Faith Motter, the founder of Restore NYC, informed Jimmy that she was looking for an executive director to replace her. Faith had created the qualifications for a candidate based on Jimmy’s profile—a well-qualified individual with both business and nonprofit experience—to lead the team. Jimmy, who had been the founding chair of Restore NYC’s board from November 2008 to January 2011, couldn’t help but get a little excited about it. But he had his doubts.
Could he apply for this position? He had been working on the issue of AIDS in Africa at a different nonprofit for the last six years. Switching positions would require a drastic pay cut. And he didn’t really know that much about the sex trafficking issue. What would it even look like to lead the team? He would be the only male, leading a staff of women, helping females who were exploited by men. How effective could he really be?
As he prayed about it, though, Jimmy felt God urging him to go for it. He had held positions of leadership for as long as he could remember, and an opportunity like this just seemed too good and challenging to pass up. This, perhaps, was what he had been waiting for.
“In the end, it wasn’t that difficult [of a decision to make],” Jimmy explains. “Some of it was for selfish reasons, and some of it for reasons where I definitely felt like it was confirmation from both the Lord, in terms of my hearing from Him, as well as my community affirming that. Selfishly, I wanted to lead an organization whose mission I was passionate about. I was at that phase in my career, where I could say, ‘What would this look like?’”
Jimmy had a conversation with Faith about being the only male in the organization. He asked what that might look like and what challenges might arise from that.
arise from that. But he also believed that if sex trafficking became just a women’s-only issue in which women were the only advocates and leaders, then the movement would remain sub-optimal. Sex trafficking was a human rights issue, not a gender one.
So, in April 2012, Jimmy became the executive director of Restore NYC. Under his leadership, the staff, which includes nine full-time employees and a handful of part-timers, finds victims through partnerships with law enforcement, the court system, and community-based organizations. Once they’re identified, Restore NYC provides counseling, medical resources, and legal advice to the victims. They also restore a handful of survivors through their safehome, which was established in Queens in November 2010. Victims can live there at no cost for up to two years. The goal is to help the safehome clients live independently and gain legal status in the U.S.
As executive director, Jimmy’s role is multifaceted. He likes to separate his duties in “buckets.”
“There are different big buckets,” Jimmy explains. “In the end, I feel like God’s asking me to care for two [types of] people. One is the women we serve and try to find and restore. But since I’m not on the front lines, I need to know and support and lead the people that work here to be able to do that. That’s the first big bucket.”
This takes the form of one-on-one meetings or small group meetings with his staff. First and foremost, Jimmy makes sure they’re doing okay. Counseling victims of such gruesome crimes can result in secondary trauma—stress resulting from helping a traumatized or suffering person—if they don’t take proper care of themselves. So Jimmy checks in frequently to make sure that his staff is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. If they aren’t, then their work suffers. So he does what he can to protect them.
then their work suffers. So he does what he can to protect them.
The second bucket, Jimmy explains, is being the external representative or “face” of the organization. This usually requires speaking engagements at churches, or meetings with government officials, or advocating. He doesn’t particularly enjoy this bucket. He prefers smaller groups and individual meetings. But the idea of schmoozing with bigger groups, like at cocktail parties or fundraising events, makes him uncomfortable.
“I’m not drawn to the public sphere,” Jimmy admits. “I wouldn’t be on Facebook if it wasn’t for Restore. I don’t gravitate towards interviews like this or speaking…I don’t enjoy that platform. But I feel like a) I’m in this role so I need to put on my big boy pants and do that part of the role and b) if I have giftings in being able to do that, I need to do it for this mission.”
The third bucket requires more operational duties, with which Jimmy makes sure that the organization functions smoothly.
“You could be passionate, and you could have great ideas,” Jimmy explains. “But you’ve got to be able to execute on that. You’ve got to be sustainable so you’re not doing it for six months, but you can do it for a decade, if necessary.”
In assessing Jimmy’s experience and credentials, he seems to be the perfect candidate for the position. Working tirelessly in the financial world trained him to avoid any sort of burnout related to social justice. And his experience in strategic planning gave him the tools to not only join the fight against sex trafficking but also prove its concepts for finding victims to serve as a model for other organizations who want to do the same thing.
“I feel like that’s a little bit of what’s missing from this movement,” Jimmy says. “There are a lot of great activities, but not a ton of proof of concept. So we want to prove this stuff and be able to help others do this work.”
But beyond the surface, Jimmy readily admits that his role at Restore NYC has been challenging. Unlike past experiences where he got too bored too quickly, he sometimes wakes up and wonders what to do with a problem this big. But he also knows he’s exactly where God wants him to be.
“I think that’s probably a better position for me to be in than feeling like I know what to do and I’m bored with it,” Jimmy says. “My wife has always joked around that she wants me to fail. But I think her point was: she thinks it’s very healthy for me to be at a place where I’m utterly dependent on God and not on my own gifts. In my other jobs, I felt like I had a formula that always worked…and that formula is not going to work in Restore. There’s a big chunk of this that is beyond my control and in God’s hands. I feel like that’s a very uncomfortable place for me but also the best place for Restore and the best place for my discipleship.”
Although Jimmy has been a Christian for over 25 years, he confesses that trusting—really trusting—in God is a recent thing for him. To pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” is, simply put, easier said than done. And over the last couple of years, specifically during his time leading the team at Restore NYC, God has shown Jimmy what trusting in Him and His will really looks like.
“We’re not an organization that just wants to justify our own existence and pat ourselves on the back and feel good about a noble cause,” Jimmy explains. “We actually want to make a significant impact. And it’s hard for me not to feel like that’s what God wants also. Of course, God wants that. But there are a lot of worthy missions that don’t succeed. So, being able to trust God in that and then also work hard at it at the same time is something I’m learning.”
And that lesson in trust trickles into his personal life, too. For the first time in his adult life, Jimmy feels like he can truly trust God with his future. In retrospect, Jimmy sees just how faithful God has been in his life, even when he felt frustrated with his career. When Jimmy left the financial world at what seemed like the peak of his career, God proved faithful. When Jimmy took pay cut after pay cut to seek after the passions that God placed in his heart many years ago, God proved faithful.
“It definitely wasn’t the handwriting on the wall for him, but a sense of, ‘Okay, I see the light shining one foot in front of me, so I’m going to put my foot there and just take it step by step by step,’” Jimmy’s wife Christine explains of his journey. “It seems like, in every vocational move that he’s made, it’s always been one step right in front of him. And I know he has said that he doesn’t feel like he’s really trusting God until now, but when I look back on his journey, he was always trusting God in the process...maybe in the past, he was feeling a lot of angst, he was feeling discouragement, he was feeling like he was taking a stab in the dark. But I do think that there’s something about being in that place and still being able to say, ‘Okay, this is hard but I’m trusting that God is leading me even though I can’t really see it in a super clear way.’”
A man of influence, with a long history of faith under his belt, fighting against sex trafficking. His peers and his colleagues speak of him with the utmost respect—one friend calling him “brave” and always a “grace-giver” while a colleague expresses gratitude for being under his spiritual leadership. Yet, Jimmy humbly admits he still has a ways to go. And at 41 years old, that’s exactly where God wants him to be.
“Over the last four or five years, the verse and passage that has been the most challenging but compelling for me has been in Romans 8,” Jimmy explains.
most challenging but compelling for me has been in Romans 8,” Jimmy explains. “That whole idea of ‘we are more than conquerors through Christ.’ I always thought that being a conqueror is the best thing. And then, even in this work, saying, ‘What could be better than conquering sex-trafficking?’ So, that verse has really been challenging because God is saying, ‘We’re more than that.’ But I’m trying to figure out what being more than that means. I think that speaks a lot to my pride and my desire and my inclination to rest on myself or hard work to conquer or get things done. So to say that, ultimately, our identity is so much more than being a conqueror—or it’s much more than being a success in what you’re doing—has been challenging but reassuring, too. That’s, hopefully, where I can head and I can live into that more fully.”
Jimmy didn’t become the poster child for the city of dreams by his own devices. It had always been—and always will be—God’s faithfulness.
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