January 5, 2018

Trafficking People

Sad surprise: Sometimes it happens right under your nose.

Ivona Bernard

I heard the name Veronica’s Voice for the first time when I rushed into the Beacon Light church to catch what I could of an Adventist Youth (AY) program hosted by the church’s Community Services Department. Unfortunately, I heard only enough to know that there was an agency in Kansas City whose mission was to help women find a way out of prostitution. I was both touched and intrigued.

I remember thinking, I’d like to find a way to help them. Unfortunately, I tucked that thought away on a ledge in my brain and it lay there, like many of my well-intentioned thoughts often do.

The second time I heard about Veronica’s Voice, about a year and a half later, the situation was a little more dramatic. I had absentmindedly turned on the news when I heard the name Veronica’s Voice spoken in a somber tone. As I looked at the television screen I saw a group of picketers protesting the purchase of a house in their neighborhood that would be used to help women seeking to escape a life of sexual exploitation.

I heard one picketer say she was a good Christian and didn’t want that “element” in her neighborhood. I was first mortified, then defensive for the sake of the poorly represented heart of Jesus. Had she read the Gospels? Ever? Through my alternately angry and aching heart, I prayed that God would somehow soften the pain of rejection for that agency and the women they sought to serve. This time my desire to help Veronica’s Voice stayed alive.

Start Small

I wanted to help, but I wasn’t sure what I could do. I figured women trying to find refuge from the street might need a way to clean up physically, so my first thought was to put my “collection” (read: pack rat) habit to use by gathering hotel toiletries from my honey’s and my frequent road trips. Then, at the Mid-America Union Conference presidents retreat, I asked my fellow conference presidents’ wives to save their toiletries for me too.

When I got on the Veronica’s Voice Web site, in an effort to find a way to contact them, I saw a wish list that included such items as a freezer, copy paper, alarm clocks, storage bins, a security system. I thought, This is doable.

Victims often walk into trafficking understanding little of the type of life that awaits them.

I supposed I might organize a fund raiser that would raise enough money to fill those needs, and I had every confidence that my Ministerial Spouses Association (MSA, formally known as Shepherdess) sisters in the Central States Conference, a group of compassionate and capable women, would agree to get on board.

When I first met with Kristy Childs, founder and program director of Veronica’s Voice, and Terrel Bishop, program manager, I experienced a range of emotions. I was startled by the real-life stories and experiences they shared with me, shocked by the statistics of human trafficking, and saddened by their genuine surprise that someone would seek them out to help.

I was even strangely embarrassed when Kristy asked if I was an angel. Terrel confided that she had been praying to God for people who would be willing to come alongside them.

When Diane Thurber, Mid-America Union Conference MSA president, mentioned to Donna Jackson (North American Division MSA director) about my interest in helping this marginalized group of women, I was encouraged to apply for an NAD compassion grant. Subsequently, Jackson suggested that the three conferences in our area—Iowa-Missouri, Kansas-Nebraska, and Central States—might partner together to help. The Rocky Mountain Conference and the Mid-America Union Conference, along with various NAD departments, also agreed to pitch in with significant contributions.

The initiative that grew out of this series of events came to involve much more than toiletries, which, it turns out, Veronica’s Voice did not need (Lesson? Find out what people truly need before you provide them with what youthink they need!).

Fighting a Pervasive Problem

As we learned more about the scourge of human trafficking and met people who shared with us the havoc it wreaks on real lives, our mission morphed to include prevention through education and awareness, as well as fund-raising to provide for some of the needs at the Magdalene KC Transitional House, newly opened in a different state altogether. In addition to items on the original wish list, we hoped to help them move a power line that was too close to the house, arrange for a much-needed bathroom redo, and provide a deck to use as a healing place for in-season group therapy sessions. We also wanted to equip them with a new (or lightly used) van to meet their transportation needs.

Victims often walk into trafficking, not necessarily by force, but by understanding little of the life that awaits them.

To achieve our goals, we planned a weekend’s worth of activities. These included door-to-door distribution of information, a symposium/concert, and a community expo.

The door-to-door ministry was carried out by members from the various conference churches and area Pathfinders. The brochures given out included information about the tactics traffickers use to ensnare their victims. The symposium/concert featured survivors’ stories, inspirational music, and a keynote address by Renee Battle-Brooks, an assistant state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, Maryland. The weekend concluded with a community expo that focused on attracting and educating members of the community of all ages.

The collaboration between the MSA departments of three conferences, our union conference, and the NAD provided more resources than we would ever have had alone. These resources allowed us to raise greater awareness and impact more lives than any one of us could have done alone. We also learned many invaluable lessons along the journey. Here are three:

Trafficking is not only horrific, but growing; it can be found everywhere. Corollary: trafficking can happen almost anywhere to almost anyone: on the job, in schools, neighborhoods, and churches. It can happen to both well-educated and poorly educated. It has become the third-fastest-growing illegal industry in the world. Conservative estimates of $32 billion a year put trafficking just behind illegal drugs and weapons sales, and it is much more difficult to detect. Besides, though drugs may be sold and resold, trafficked humans are more likely to be resold many times over.

Trafficking doesn’t always happen the way we think. While every dramatic thing portrayed in the movies about trafficking may well have happened, the most common ways people become shackled are not by external chains, but by bondage already starting in their youth: low self-esteem, abuse (both physical and sexual), neglect, homelessness, naïveté.

Victims often walk into trafficking, not necessarily by force, but by understanding little of the type of life that awaits them. Groomers (traffickers) actively seek people who are vulnerable, and feed them what they want to hear. “I love you, baby.” “I know you’ve been hurt, but I’ll take care of you.” “I’ll help you get that job.” “You’re so beautiful.”

Traffickers look for young people who are full of angst (what teenager isn’t, at some point?), or for anyone down on their luck needing quick money. What victims get instead is a life filled with beatings and rape (and that usually happens even before they are prostituted!). They are often forced to service up to 40 people a day.

We Christians have to examine our true feelings (and corresponding actions) about redemption. Do we see redemption as a real thing? Whom do we deem “worthy”? Is God really capable of giving new hearts and new lives?

I ask because I’ve observed how people’s passion for helping victims snatched off the street dramatic
ally diminishes when they learn that a girl may have willingly given herself over to abuse. “Poor girl,” they say at first. Then: “Just getting what you deserve, stupid!” They simply do not appreciate that her boyfriend (read: pimp) betrayed her. And besides, is grace only for some of sin’s victims?

Pray and Act

So I pray. I pray that our actions will prove our profession. I pray that we will educate ourselves, our children, our churches, and our communities about human sex trafficking. Prevention is always preferable to remediation.

I pray that we stay away from commercial sexual exploitation in all its forms (pornography included). Remember, there is no reason for supply unless there is demand.

Last, I pray that we not let fear overwhelm our faith. Whatever the Lord puts on our hearts to do, let’s step out, try it, come together, and watch God move.

Ivona Bernard is director of the Central States Conference Ministerial Spouses Association.