Confronting Human Trafficking
Churches can help change one story at a time
When Shyima Hall was 8 years old, her family in Egypt sold her to a stranger to pay a debt, a common scenario in some parts of the world.
The child ended up in California, where she worked as a household slave in an upscale gated community. Hall worked long hours cooking and cleaning for a family. At night, she slept in a garage room with no windows and no heating or air conditioning. She ate the scraps no one else wanted, and she was forbidden from washing her own clothes when she did the laundry.
Hall’s captors denied her an education and withheld basic medical and dental care. Instead of calling the child by her name, they referred to Hall as “stupid girl.”
Hall was a victim of human trafficking. As shocking as her story is, such injustices are more common than most Americans realize.
As director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, and a former co-chair of the national Public-Private Partnership Advisory Council to End Human Trafficking, I have spent the past decade educating leaders and students on this issue. The first step toward solving any problem is understanding.
Human trafficking involves compelling someone to engage in labor or a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion. Labor trafficking and sex trafficking are economic crimes in which perpetrators exploit victims for financial gain. By some estimates, trafficking is a $150 billion global industry involving 24.9 million victims. As the apostle Paul observed, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).
More than 100,000 human trafficking victims were identified globally during 2020 alone. In the U.S., the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 10,583 cases during 2021.
These figures represent just the tip of the iceberg, however. At any given time, most victims remain trapped, and most traffickers remain free of prosecution. For traffickers, this is a low-risk, high-profit criminal endeavor.
Human trafficking can happen anywhere, including in your community.
In my own backyard of Orange County, California, the most recent Human Trafficking Victim Report revealed that there were 357 victims discovered during 2019–20. Of those, 324 were sex trafficking victims, including 100 minors. Authorities also found 33 labor trafficking victims, despite conducting no proactive investigations.
Labor trafficking cases are especially difficult to document and litigate because these workers may look like legitimate, paid employees. People are often shocked when I tell them there are likely three times as many labor-trafficked victims as there are sex-trafficked victims.
In 1995, 72 Thai immigrants were found working as slave laborers in a Southern California textile shop, a discovery that led Congress to pass the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA).
The TVPA identified three types of trafficking: sex trafficking of minors; sex trafficking by force, fraud, or coercion; and forced labor by force, fraud, or coercion. (A minor who is sold for any commercial sex act is a human trafficking victim without the need to prove an element of force, fraud or coercion.)
As I talk about human trafficking in churches across the country, people respond with horror, concern and compassion. However, compassion without knowledge can only go so far.
Philippians 1:9–11 says, “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God” (emphases added).
Outrage over injustice is not enough. We need Spirit-inspired knowledge and insight to discern a path forward. We need love that abounds more and more as we tangibly and practically demonstrate Christlike compassion to a world in need.
Agencies that combat human trafficking often talk about four P’s: prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership. Some add “policy” to the list. For churches, I suggest a sixth P as well: prayer.
This is a useful framework for thinking about how your church can work with others in the community to help address this problem.
When the Church shows up, we are salt and light in the public sector (Matthew 5:13–14). Faith communities can and should be involved in efforts to end human trafficking, but we need to proceed with spiritual wisdom.
Prevention is about identifying, informing, and intervening in vulnerable populations to reduce or eliminate their risk of exploitation.
My favorite story of human trafficking prevention is in 2 Kings 4. A widow told Elisha that a creditor was coming to take her two sons as slaves to pay a debt.
More than 100,000 human trafficking victims were
identified globally during 2020 alone.
Elisha started right where she was, asking the widow what resources she had.
The widow replied, “Your servant has nothing there at all … except a small jar of olive oil” (verse 2).
So, Elisha told her to gather empty jars from the neighborhood. In this way, the widow’s community became part of the solution as well.
Elisha further instructed the widow to go home and begin pouring oil until every jar was full. The result was a surplus of oil she could sell, which allowed her to pay the debt and support her family.
“You and your sons can live on what is left,” Elisha told the woman (verse 7).
We never learn the names of the widow’s sons. Prevention is often anonymous. All we need to know about them is that they didn’t become slaves. Supporting the mother assured a safe home for her children.
Contrast this with some common ministry approaches that put vulnerable people on display. Imagine a church filming the boys, adding music, and showing a video on a Sunday morning before taking up an offering to rescue them from their plight. We risk robbing people of their dignity and agency by turning them into projects.
There is no one-size-fits-all model for prevention. Study your community, identifying risk factors and resources. Community assessment tools are available through CompassionLink, a ministry of Assemblies of God World Missions.
Widowhood in ancient times was a kind of vulnerability, just as issues like poverty and housing insecurity are for people today. How can the Church show up and make a difference in the lives of vulnerable people?
The God who miraculously filled every jar with oil calls us to be His representatives in the world, meeting needs and changing outcomes.
There are many ways churches can help prevent human trafficking. For example, what if more families in our congregations opened their homes to children in foster care? What if we met our vulnerable neighbors where they are and worked with them to find ways to alleviate homelessness, food insecurity, addiction and other problems? What if we empowered those we serve, giving them a voice and role in the process?
Scripture already calls us to care for the vulnerable. James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Many churches already have ministries that support families and children. They may only need to partner with, and receive training from, organizations that are working to reduce the risk of human trafficking.
Protection involves supporting and restoring dignity to survivors of human trafficking. The priority is coming alongside hurting people, walking with them in their pain and moving them toward healing. This is something churches can do well.
Aftercare for survivors includes providing therapy for trauma, health care, dental care, long-term supportive housing, and vocational training. It also includes simply being there in times of need — providing emotional and spiritual support for a victim who is testifying in court, for instance.
Staff and volunteers will need specialized training in victim-centered, trauma-informed care and confidentiality. Proper training is essential for everyone working with survivors of violence and abuse, including survivors of human trafficking.
Without such training, even the most well-meaning volunteers can unintentionally create confusion and inflict pain. For example, people often want to hug survivors as an expression of love and acceptance. However, many exploited people have had no control over who touches them. Even if a church member asks permission, trafficking survivors may feel they cannot refuse if they hope to receive food or other services.
Outrage over injustice is not enough. We
need Spirit-inspired knowledge and insight to discern a path forward.
Another critical element of protection is confidentiality. This means respecting the privacy of victims, protecting them from prying questions, and keeping them safe from traffickers who may still be at large.
Church volunteers often struggle with confidentiality. They may be tempted to share details about victims in public prayer meetings or fundraising pitches. For this reason, I recommend having all volunteers sign a document that spells out the expectation of complete confidentiality.
The best thing any church can do is welcome and protect hurting people.
During a recent Ensure Justice Conference at Vanguard University, labor trafficking survivor Bella Hounakey emphasized the value of belonging to a loving church community.
“The shame, the guilt, the regret that you carry as a survivor follows you,” Hounakey said. “It’s like being hunted by your own shadow. The more you’re around a community that reminds you of the goodness that God has in you, [the more] you start identifying with the ways that you’re being perceived by this community of people.
“I thought I had depleted my community of support,” Hounakey continued. “They were a group of people, believers, who were committed to the entire me. They took the time to build trust with me, they took the time to understand me, and they didn’t force anything.”
For Hounakey, the long-term support of her congregation was vital to her healing process.
“I knew that for the first time in my life, somebody really just wanted to help me without asking anything in return,” Hounakey said. “It took a really long time for me to conceptualize that, to understand that this group of people wanted to give me a ride after school without asking anything in return. Those were ways that they helped. They were present, consistently.”
Prosecution is a process that seeks to hold traffickers accountable for their actions through investigation and litigation.
Apprehending and prosecuting perpetrators is a job for law enforcement officers and court systems, not churches. Church members should never attempt to take on police roles or engage in undercover investigations.
This point might seem obvious, but I have seen churches and other organizations get in the way of police work in misguided attempts to expose a presumed trafficking operation. This is dangerous, unhelpful, and potentially illegal. If you suspect someone is involved in human trafficking, report it to the authorities.
What congregations can do is provide support for survivors during and after the litigation stage. Church volunteers can offer to walk with victims through the court process, while also facilitating everyday activities, such as buying groceries and managing transportation.
Never underestimate the value of faithful presence.
Partnership is about working together with members of the community.
As the movement to end human trafficking has matured, a stronger emphasis on partnership has arisen. In fact, funding grants require reports on partnership.
Police officers value victim-service partners who provide compassionate care.
Government programs with tight budgets gratefully collaborate with community organizations that bring additional resources.
Churchgoers have a variety of talents and professional skills to offer. With proper training, churches can become valuable, long-term partners in the fight against human trafficking.
Successful partnership depends on trust and respect. When we value, honor and serve others, we build trust. Trust grows when we follow through and do what we said we would do.
Think of community partnership as a safety net. The more trust connections there are between members, the stronger the safety net will become. We must work together to weave a robust net that keeps victims of human trafficking from slipping through. No individual, church or organization can do it alone.
Policy refers to formal structures that address exploitive practices.
Churches can implement specific policies that promote human rights. Labor exploitation in the supply chain is one example. Consider researching suppliers and purchasing sustainable, ethically sourced, and fair-trade products whenever possible.
Never underestimate the value of faithful presence.
One church network developed a procurement policy that even included checking the supply chain for ethically sourced paper.
Adopt policies that value people over programs and recognize the dignity of every person as created in the image of God. Policies should cover the ethical use of images, stories and media. They should also cover survivor care.
Consider the perspectives of survivors, whether by talking with them or reading their stories. Insights from the lived experiences of survivors can guide your church toward policies that help rather than hinder.
Finally, establish policies that protect children and adults from sexual abuse. Such abuse significantly increases an individual’s risk of also becoming a trafficking victim. Tragically, I have encountered cases in which a survivor’s first experience with sexual abuse occurred in a church setting.
At every step of this process, prayer communicates our dependence on God. We need God to guard our hearts and make us effective advocates for victims. We need His Spirit to help us see every victim, perpetrator, law enforcement officer, and service provider as people created in His image. We need the mind of Christ as we navigate complex and difficult issues.
A simple way to add focused prayer is to pray through the previous five P’s. Pray for resources for prevention, wisdom and grace in protection, success for those involved in prosecution, strength in partnership, and accountability through policy.
Pray for victims who are still trapped in the horrific world of human trafficking.
In the foreword of Ending Human Trafficking: A Handbook of Strategies for the Church Today, John Cotton Richmond, former U.S. ambassador-at-large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, wrote this:
A survivor of human trafficking once told me that the only thing her trafficker could not control was her ability to pray. She prayed to God for her pain to end. … She prayed that people would take smart, strategic action that would restore her freedom and allow her to thrive beyond her trauma.
As we confront this challenge, we too need to pray God would embolden and empower us to take smart, strategic action.
The problem of human trafficking seems overwhelming at times, but we can help change one story at a time.
That’s what Hall is determined to do. Today, the woman who was once called “stupid girl” is a U.S. citizen, author, and advocate for other victims of human trafficking who remain invisible.
“No one saw me,” Hall said during a recent training session I led in Orange County, California. “No one asked me if I was alright.”
Hall was 12 when she was rescued. Her book, Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave, provides a poignant reminder that this is a real issue continuing to affect real people. We must not turn away.
Every church can play a role in ending human trafficking. May God give us eyes that see — and hands that serve with wisdom, understanding, and compassion.
This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.