NEW ORLEANS (BP)–A few years ago the film “Amazing Grace” captivated the attention of evangelical believers in North America. The courage of William Wilberforce, John Newton and several others in the fight to end the slave trade in Great Britain reminded us of what it means to give our lives for a worthy, timely concern. Time and again, when passion subsided it was the reality of human suffering and ultimately the call of God to remain in the struggle that stayed them through many ups and downs.
What if I told you that the evil of human slavery today is worse than the time of William Wilberforce?
What if you knew that a United Nations report on violence says that up to 4 million women and children will be trafficked this year across geopolitical borders worldwide?
What if you knew that “cases of human trafficking have been reported in all 50 states, including Washington D.C. and some U.S. territories?”
What if understanding and ending slavery was not an issue addressed and put to an end more than 100 years ago, but a relevant and pressing reality for Christians today? What would be required of us?
First, clarity in definitions. There is a distinction between human slavery, human trafficking, sex trafficking and the slave trade. They are all related, and often have an interrelated role with one another. But there are a few nuances to be understood when trying to grasp the issues at hand. They are broadly referred to as various “forms of trafficking in persons” or the “human slave trade” for several reasons. The industry includes anyone who is coerced through force, fraud or manipulation for the purposes of sexual exploitation or forced labor. Sex trafficking pertains to transporting and detaining of “victims for the purpose of exploitation and profit through acts of sexual violence,” according to International Justice Mission. Labor trafficking, often related to or combined with sex trafficking, includes the “recruitment, harboring, transporting, provision, or obtaining a person for labor or services through fraud, force, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, or debt bondage,” according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
The bottom line in understanding the driving international force of human slavery is financial profit. Human trafficking is the world’s third largest criminal industry. The United Nations reports that human trafficking supports more than $30 billion of industry worldwide. The U.S. State Department says that “the global economic crisis is also boosting the demand side of human trafficking.” Therefore, the issue is complex and complicated in causes, practices and in ways to end it. Ending it is not impossible, but definitely challenging.
In theological terms, sin and human depravity is at its darkest in creating and perpetuating the need and the supply of the human slave trade. So, what does this mean for Christians today? The prophet Micah reminds us, “What is good, and what does the Lord require of me? But to live justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). James echoes this admonition. In his words, “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: that you should visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
But how do we do this? How do we visit orphans and widows and rescue women and children in the face of such evil? Do I become a part of one of the many agencies and projects to address this concern? What is the responsibility of my church? How do we begin to acknowledge the existence of human slavery?
I suggest we do exactly as William Wilberforce did. He prayed. He wept. He struggled. He was honest. He talked to his friends. When it was difficult and different than he expected, He prayed and wept again. Most of all, he did not turn away. I suggest educating yourself on the issues relevant to the subject. There are both Christian, faith-based and governmental, non-faith-based resources available online and in book form that help concerned individuals educate themselves. It is also primarily important for Christians becoming aware of social ills and human suffering to dig deeper and reflect more on the great doctrines of our faith relevant to human suffering: Who is God? What is the image of God? How do human beings reflect His image? What is sin? What is salvation? Who is Jesus? These are all relevant and extremely important aspects of Christianity that need to be strengthened as we engage in ministry today.
I also recommend willingness to risk in ministry. The more I learned about human trafficking and its related industries the more I realized that I needed to do something about it. It was not enough to learn and be aware of forms of trafficking or organizations that I could give money to who try to bring an end to human slavery. I needed to be active. So, I started praying. I also began talking to close friends who prayed with me, and held me accountable to the concerns and needs God placed in my heart. Eventually, I realized I needed to do something. I live in New Orleans. So, the sex trade as it exists on Bourbon Street was the beginning point I could not ignore. I began by routing my morning runs down Bourbon Street. I am sure you have heard of prayer walking. I turned it into prayer running, being both physically and spiritually active. As I passed by various clubs or locations obviously involved in the sex trade I prayed, a lot of times I also wept (while running).
The time came for me to do something else, but I couldn’t figure out what that was. I kept praying, reading and asking for guidance from friends. Eventually I figured out what it was: gift baskets. I would make gift baskets to give to women who worked in places on Bourbon, and would leave a card or a tract, and see what happened. I asked for prayer and support, and one day with a friend we went to several places. In each place, the women we talked to could not believe that we were giving them something for free. They could not believe that someone would want to offer them something with nothing in return. We could, of course, and we shared the Gospel with them.
Since then, every time I have the extra money and opportunity I put together a basket and make my way to Bourbon Street to bring a gift that will help women understand the greatest gift of all, salvation through Christ alone. The last time I went a woman named Katie remarked when I introduced myself, “Oh, I know who you are, I’ve heard of you.”
What If the millions of women and children trapped in lives of slavery today knew who we were? More importantly, what if they knew who Jesus is? How will they know if we don’t go to them? How will they hear if we don’t tell them?
William Wilberforce and John Newton often struggled greatly with the challenges of bringing the slave trade to an end in their day. Currently, human slavery is a horrific reality for millions of vulnerable people, both inside and outside the United States. The question of the Christian response today is still largely unknown. How will we respond? I think the words of John Newton exhort us, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come. ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Where is grace leading us today in confronting and ending the trafficking of persons and human slavery? Grace will lead us home.
Trish Hawley teaches women’s studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. She can be reached at [email protected]