Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Isaiah 58:6
It all started for me in Northern Uganda, sitting within the World Vision rehabilitation center for former child soldiers. I listened to the stories of young boys and girls, some as young as seven, being forced into a war. Hearing them recount how they were made to kill their families and endure the most horrific of traumas shattered my heart. No child should be forced to kill. It was there that I learned of the world of human trafficking even before I knew its name.
My passion for these children flourished during my undergraduate time at Point Loma. As I watched the documentary Invisible Children one night in Brown Chapel, I knew my call was to address child trafficking.
Just two weeks before Invisible Children’s return trip to Gulu, I was invited to join the team. With the overwhelming support of my professors, the dean of students, and my peers, I got on a plane bound for Uganda. I could never have imagined then, almost five years ago, the cusp of the movement on which we were riding. What began as an exploration to understand international trafficking led me right to my own backyard. Sex trafficking and labor trafficking of men, women, and children occurs across the globe, and our cities in the United States are not exempt.
In graduate school at Fuller Theological Seminary, I took a course entitled “Ministry to Sexually Exploited and Trafficked Children.” To wrap up the course, Fuller hosted their first ASHA forum, which brought together professionals working to end domestic and international human trafficking. I was shaken to hear about the injustices facing agricultural workers, domestic laborers, and those entangled in pornography and the sex industry. Learning about the sex industry within my own country necessitated action. Looking into something so dark and evil can appear hopeless. But there at Fuller more than three years ago, I felt the collective hope of a group of people who dedicated their lives to the eradication of modern-day slavery. This is the hope that we have: we are not alone. They are not alone.
Since my time at Fuller, my career path continues to be divinely orchestrated. I moved back to San Diego to intern with the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition (BSCC). This nonprofit organization provides services to victims of international and domestic human trafficking in San Diego and Tijuana. Interning provided an opportunity to be hired as The Salvation Army’s coordinator of anti-human trafficking for the San Diego, San Bernardino, and Imperial regions. Training key community members on human trafficking taught me the importance of each person in the process of rescuing and restoring those enslaved. From there, I transitioned into case manager at BSCC and put all the information I learned into practice. I concentrated on working beside victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children. An alarming number of teenage girls are entangled in the sex industry right where I live – in San Diego. Serving as an educator, advocate, and case manager allowed me to journey alongside those seeking a way out, seeking hope.
Becoming overwhelmed, horrified, shocked, or fearful is easy when you delve into the illicit trade in humans. It might even be a necessary first step. We cannot end there. We must keep learning, becoming aware and active in order to work together toward solutions. Signs of hope and glimpses of light present themselves all along the fight to end this grave violation of human rights. The local churches are vessels of awareness and activism. Students from around the globe are dedicating their academic and vocational lives to anti-human trafficking work. And though the number of survivors rehabilitated is still small in proportion to the estimated number enslaved, it grows each year, services expand, and survivors live to tell stories of restoration. If we keep our eyes open past the pain, we see that our work is not in vain and that we must grab hold of the call to keep going, keep working to set the prisoners free and bring beauty for ashes.
Mobilization of the Local Churches
The country’s churches fan the flame of enthusiasm in the fight against human trafficking. Across the nation, individuals hungering for justice have educated themselves and then shared that knowledge with their churches. Our churches have become grounds for trainings, seminars, panel discussions, movie screenings, fundraisers, outreach ministries, and prayer meetings. The energy radiating from a group of committed Christians dedicated to addressing human trafficking is powerful.
While working for The Salvation Army, I trained and shared with local churches. Continually groups kept asking, “What else can we do? How can we get more involved?” The congregants were learning more, were asking questions, and were intensely eager to act. While the network of social services for survivors continues to form, congregants utilize creativity to participate in ending human trafficking.
Within San Diego alone, almost a dozen different ministries have sprung up to specifically reach out to vulnerable populations. Churches visit areas of San Diego deemed “The Track,” where women, men, and young girls are prostituted and sexually exploited. With 12 as the average age of entry into the sex industry in the United States, many of these young girls are given the emergency hotline number for human trafficking. Churches are supporting local faith-based nonprofits, and Christians from different church backgrounds are joining together in prayer for those enslaved globally and locally, as well as for a united and effective response to end trafficking.
As a case manager, I sat at tables assembled of law enforcement, social workers, child protective services, lawyers, professors, and faith leaders. This multi-faceted crime requires a diverse and collective approach in which the church and its members must engage. While no one group holds the solution, the church can offer a radical model of restoration and care. The church stands in a unique place to address social injustices, including human trafficking. The church is needed in this fight. Churches play a critical role in creating a consciousness about the products we consume, the images and music we support, and our participation in that which enslaves others. If we seek to model Jesus, our approach in assisting others will shine within the sea of service providers.
Engagement of Student Leaders
Hope can be seen at colleges from Point Loma Nazarene University to neighboring campuses and those across the country. Almost every campus in San Diego addresses human trafficking in one way or another. Classes in varying disciplines are bringing human trafficking into the discussion. For example, PLNU political science professor Dr. Roscoe Williamson is teaching a course about the darker side of globalization, which will include a discussion of human trafficking. Awareness events such as art shows, panel discussions, mock kidnappings, trainings on how to identify victims, and numerous creative endeavors find fertile ground on college campuses. Point Loma had upwards of 250 students attend last spring’s Brewed Awakening event on human trafficking, which was sponsored by PLNU’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation and Not for Sale. PLNU students have also attended the San Diego monthly coalition meetings on human trafficking. These meetings, hosted by BSCC, allow for dialogue and participation across disciplines. Some students have attained internships with local agencies and started getting their hands dirty. As students learn more, they look for ways that their future career paths can play a part in bringing hope to those enslaved.
The resolve of students of all ages testifies that youth does indeed make a difference. Loose Change to Loosen Injustice functions as a student-led campaign providing an opportunity for youth groups to get involved in fundraising to fight trafficking. This phenomenal project of International Justice Mission equips elementary to college age students to train others. Once students gain knowledge, they can serve as powerful catalysts to affect others.
Who are the people being affected by the vast efforts of government, organizations, churches, students, and others to combat human trafficking? What does rescue, rehabilitation, and justice really look like?
Restoration of Survivors of Human Trafficking
It was only about six months that I worked as a case manager alongside survivors; however, their tears, stories, struggles, and victories will never leave me. Numerous times I asked where God was. I asked how this could be happening in the city in which I live. I was disgusted by the cruelty one human can show another. Their stories continually led me to tears. Continuing on, the days of rejoicing were present through the tears. So many people ask to hear the stories of survivors. The stories that touched me the most were those that demonstrated the strongest will to move forward.
While the journey toward healing after the trauma of human trafficking is arduous, moments of hope appear along the road. The resilience of the human spirit often propels survivors to continue on the road toward restoration.
Meet Christina. She grew up in San Diego and attended public high school where she excelled. Sadly, sexual abuse, violence, and crowded living conditions accompanied her youth. By the age of 15, she had experienced the ins and outs of group homes here in San Diego. After cycles of abuse, violence, and neglect, Christina found herself on the streets. With no one to whom she could turn, she formed relationships with others like her on the street. One day, a man approached Christina, showing interest, commenting on how beautiful she was, and offering her a place to stay. Christina agreed to accept his help to get her on her feet. What started as the “honeymoon period,” or initial time before exploitation, quickly turned into a nightmare. A whirlwind of violence, forced prostitution, and cycle of paying this man, her pimp, quickly began to control her. One day, when she was alone, she was able to contact the police and escape safely. While most trapped in a trafficking situation cannot reach out due to psychological manipulation and coercion, Christina was able to gain shelter and services through a local agency. And due to increased education of our local law enforcement and surrounding community, Christina was not identified as “prostitute” but rather recognized as a minor who had been “prostituted.”
Christina struggled throughout the rehabilitation process and faced everyday challenges. In doing so, she gained a new clarity about her situation and agreed to proceed with a legal case against her pimp. Christina’s courage inspires. Through fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, she made it to the courtroom. Upon hearing she was present, her pimp pled guilty and was sentenced to eight years in jail for domestic minor sex trafficking. While eight years seems a meager punishment for such an evil crime, the hope comes in that these cases are being prosecuted more and more. As victories are won, they set precedence for future cases. The hope is that as we are learning more, working with girls such as Christina, and dialoguing with others providing care, we are expanding that network of services and building upon the work of others.
Christina’s journey continued on past the time I met with her regularly. One day she came in the office, face beaming, to tell me how she had enrolled in college and was making positive changes in her life. She then turned to show me her back. Where there was once the name of her pimp tattooed (a common technique is to “brand” these young girls), there was now a colorful picture of a butterfly and crown. It was a beautiful image of her new life and restoration.
I take hope in the rare but beautiful stories of the courage of survivors and in the commitment service professionals, including law enforcement, district attorneys, housemothers, and social service workers, have to help them.
Zeda’s story is also one of hope. Zeda traveled from the Czech Republic to this country in hope of a career as a waitress. As is all too often the case, Zeda was brought into a network of domestic servants. Continually forced to work in fields and homes providing manual labor, she was also a victim of sexual abuse. Unable to speak the language, Zeda was isolated. Those for whom she worked were deeply connected and unwilling to speak out against the labor exploitation that took place on their property. Zeda was eventually rescued by local law enforcement who investigated the property.
Unfortunately the legal outcome of this case was less effective than in Christina’s story. Nonetheless, glimpses of hope were seen in the reconciliation efforts. While working with Zeda, locating a safe and sustainable living environment was one of the toughest issues to tackle. Housing continues to be limited for victims of human trafficking though creative solutions are emerging. In Zeda’s case, a relative was eventually found within the Southern California region. Zeda was assimilated into the relative’s immediate family. The family received education on the effects of trauma, helpful tools to deal with stress, and multiple community resources for daily life. Educating those who are reconciled with loved ones who have faced situations of trafficking is essential. With proper education and resources, families and those providing care for survivors are able to recognize signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues that might affect a survivor’s daily life.
At home, Zeda faces multiple challenges, but she faces them with a supportive group of individuals who care for her. A church community in her native language was even found to welcome her into their community (inclusion into a community can be an extremely helpful step in the process of restoration).
Note: Names and details have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.
As the media brings increasingly more attention to stories where men, women, and children are forced into labor and sex trafficking, a grassroots movement is becoming more organized. Individuals choose to say that this is unacceptable and take action. We – especially as Christians – must also collectively cry out. It doesn’t take a grand gesture, though individuals are making those. It doesn’t take a million dollars, though donations to projects are a significant means of helping. What it takes is a willing heart and open eyes.
I don’t say this in an attempt to simplify the problem; the task ahead is indeed formidable. As we move forward together, we must learn to address both the demand side of trafficking and best practices for serving survivors. However, as we move, let us also celebrate the fact that we are moving. We are learning. We are bringing solutions and working toward bringing beauty for ashes.
We are bringing solutions and working toward bringing beauty for ashes.
By Heidi Hermann