How Churches Can Fight Human Trafficking and Slavery in Their Own Backyards
Three steps toward a more effective anti-trafficking ministry
A neighbor called child welfare to report a child who did not attend school with the other five children living in a $1.6 million home in their upscale gated community. Authorities discovered a 12-year-old girl sold by her parents as a child maid in Egypt to cover her sister’s debt. Shyima worked seven days a week, from early in the morning until late at night. She slept in a converted room in the garage without ventilation and washed her own clothes in a bucket because she was too dirty to include them in the family laundry she did every day. Shyima never went to school, never learned English, and never saw a doctor.
Not far away, an 11-year-old had run away from her dysfunctional home looking for someone who cared. An older man befriended her, offered her a place to stay, gained her trust, and then sold her for sex.
How could these stories happen right here in the U.S.? How can we do something about it?
How Can Churches Best Respond?
Churches have a natural platform from which to contribute to many aspects of combatting human trafficking and slavery. A church shares common values and an established infrastructure, and it already engages in serving the community and meeting needs. The passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 generated new awareness of human trafficking and the need for community education. As a result, many pastors and lay leaders rallied their congregations to respond to the crisis. However, as we study the patterns of human trafficking and slavery, it is clear that it is not simply a matter of rescuing victims. Intervention requires careful planning for aftercare. As this movement grows, it is imperative that efforts are sustainable and follow best practice models that ensure the safety and well-being of the volunteers, as well as the victims.
The TVPA-authorized global Trafficking in Persons Report offers guidance for community engagement in antitrafficking, using a four Ps model: prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. This model identifies professional and community roles for an effective response to human trafficking. A careful assessment of a church’s expertise and resources can result in a sustainable and consistent compassion response that respects the intersection of public and private roles. The concept of engaging in the community to work together across agencies and organizations is a biblical pattern of salt and light. It is also a wise use of limited resources. A church may not have the resources to set up a residential care facility, but it can provide volunteers and even pro bono professional services, such as counseling, or English instruction for international victims.
Each congregation is unique, so there are no one-size-fits all strategies. However, a successful partnership begins with the following three steps.
1. Identify your expertise and resources. Prepare to join the battle is assessing available expertise and resources. This evaluation should include existing ministries, member skills and community activities. Many plans to fight human trafficking begin with, “Let’s start …” (fill in the blank). But the church may already have a ministry that is part of a critical prevention strategy, such as an afterschool program in a high-risk neighborhood. In addition, members may have years of children’s education experience, and facilities may include classrooms furnished by age group. Local expertise and resources can bridge the critical gap in prevention.
2. Study the issue and the language. Learn more about human trafficking — what it is and why it happens. Learn the correct terminology relating to trafficking laws and victim services. Common language will improve the interface with law enforcement and victim services, and it will reduce the risk of using language that misrepresents the crime and dehumanizes victims. It is important to understand that the media uses language that sells newspapers or attracts viewers and may often sensationalize at the cost of personal dignity.
3. Assess local need. Focus particularly on issues that increase the likelihood of someone exploiting youth and adults for labor or commercial sex. As a practitioner, I often wonder at the passion and resources local congregations invest in faraway places, without demonstrating awareness of the needs in their own backyards. A community assessment will uncover risk for modern slavery in labor markets, as well as commercial sexual exploitation. I recommend that groups begin with a simple exercise. Draw a tree, and ask the group to identify problems they can see in their community as leaves. For instance, one congregation identified homeless youth as a leaf. Another added poverty and a hypersexualized culture. Then look for the roots. Why are there so many homeless youth, and how can we help? The congregation learned that the local school district had a homeless student liaison that needed volunteers. It was not as exciting as going out on a rescue at 1:00 a.m., but it became an extremely rewarding community partnership that was sustainable and made a difference. It was salt and light. Additionally, it avoided unintentionally placing victims or volunteers in harm’s way.
A small urban church assessed its expertise and resources in relationship to the need in the community. The church was located only a block from a middle school and had classrooms (resource) it used only twice a week. Two of the members were experienced teachers (expertise). The church did not have significant financial resources, but members learned about the existing NetSmartz cyber-safety prevention resources, developed and funded in a public-private partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the FBI. The church offered an after-school Internet safety class, an excellent prevention tool that told neighbors, “We care about your children.”
Many local, state and federal programs need volunteers and partners to continue serving victims of human trafficking. Professionals within a local church often volunteer to provide victims with pro bono services, including dentistry, healthcare, counseling, life skills mentoring and even haircuts. These are examples of partnership, the fourth P for building a community safety net using expertise and resources. Community partnerships reduce duplication of efforts and steward limited resources well. Plunging in without careful evaluation and then winding up unable to sustain commitments can damage a church’s reputation.
A Biblical Prevention Model
Churches are already in a biblical position for prevention. Consider the first recorded example of child slavery prevention found in 2 Kings 4:1–7. The widow went to Elisha and told him creditors were going to take her two sons as slaves.
Debt bondage still happens today. Think about what your church would do. Take an offering to purchase their freedom? They will be back in debt again soon in order to survive. But Elisha didn’t even ask the boys’ names. Instead, he asked the widow what she had. She amended her first response from nothing to a flask of olive oil. That might have seemed like nothing to her since it was what people carried for refilling a lamp if they were going to be out after dark, much like carrying a spare battery. It wasn’t enough for cooking even one meal. Elisha instructed her to borrow jars from everyone, which engaged the entire community in what was happening. Then he told her to close the door and start pouring. God showed up, and when every jar was full, Elisha told her to sell the oil, pay the debts and live off the rest. He empowered the mother instead of rescuing the boys.
Two lessons among many in this story are that Elisha did not focus on the boys — no photos, no offering. He empowered the mother. Second, God showed up. Without God, human trafficking — slavery — is hopeless. The Church must show up. God created the Church to make a difference.
Becoming a community partner in the battle against human trafficking grows a church’s community presence. The church must play by the rules, avoid taking shortcuts and promote excellence in everything. Protecting the dignity and privacy of victims is a fundamental standard across the spectrum of professionals working to end human trafficking. It is even more vital for churches that understand the sacred call to serve the widow, the orphan and “the least of these” — people God created in His image.