What will you be doing to mark the occasion of ‘National Human Trafficking Awareness Day’? My answers were pretty simple. I was pretty sure that Sue would be going out to the Truck Stop to minister with Jane watching over her. We would be feeding the hungry in Davenport at the Churches United Community Meal (a ministry founded by three ladies (two of whom were from St. Alban’s) nearly five decades ago). The choir would be practicing. There would be no Eucharist, as the Community Meal just makes that a little too hard on the schedule. I would be working on my notes for Bible Study during the day and teaching a class at night. In between, my daughter has a game at Davenport West, my sons have their last basketball practice, and Robbie has his last Lego Robot practice before we head to the state competition on Friday. As my wife and friends said, “it’ll be a normal Wednesday.”
The phone calls have reminded me that it is anything but normal. Both Christian and secular press from around the country have called to ask questions and to ask if I would cooperate for their stories. All have deadlines, but some of us have to deal with life and death. I asked one gentleman to call back after receiving a call about a 45 year old father of two who passed away suddenly this morning of a massive heart attack. I am sensitive to the needs of the press, particularly in the fight against slavery, but I try to be first and foremost a pastor to those whom the Lord has given into my care. An extended family is dealing with the shock of suddenness of death; a parish family is, once again, rallying at the grave to sing their alleluias and to mourn with their brothers and sisters who have lost a loved one; and Wednesday is still going on around here.
The calls and questions have forced me to reflect a bit, however. There have been lots of lessons learned. There have been new friends made. No doubt we have made some enemies, particularly among those members of Congress who are either too lazy, too worried about the next election cycle, or simply uninterested since abolitionists cannot line their pockets with campaign dollars. And we have encountered brothers and sisters engaged in this fight all around the world. How will I mark the day?
I am not sure. I think this day will be better remembered at some point in the future. For me personally, this day is like nearly every day for the last year. People other than me will be going out. Conversations will occur, people will be seen, perhaps a meal will be shared, and maybe a life story or three will be told. But the sun will come up tomorrow (unless we get our first snow of the season like they are now predicting, or our Lord returns), and there will be a need for more conversation, more sharing, and, hopefully, more freeing. Awareness is nice. It gets people noticed. It makes people pay attention to a problem that for so many years has been hidden in plain sight. But there is still so much work to be done. Until those 27—41 million people enslaved have been freed, our work as Christians to proclaim release to the captives is not over. I think it likely, human nature being as sinful as it is, that just as there will always be hungry among us there will always be slaves and slavers around us until He returns and finishes what we have started. But something has clearly begun. From Atlanta to the Northwest, from LA to the NE metropolis, people are being drawn into this fight. Five years ago, I would have doubted the existence of slavery in our midst. Today, I am painfully aware of its presence and its cost. As my bishop and I commiserated yesterday, it is hard not to see now and to wonder: is it here, too?
There are faces and images that will likely invade my thoughts until I die. Haunting is not the right word because I am at peace that I did everything I could. But I will go to my grave wondering what happened to Karen the prostitute, to the “I’m just a piece of meat to them “truck driver,” to the Bondslaves of Christ, to the runaways (to be fair, I owe them a beer when we get to the feast!), and to any number of people with whom I spoke the previous three years. There are others who have met Sue and Robin whose faces I do not know, but whose stories we all do at St. Alban's. Until the past few months, we have wondered whether we were crazy or obedient to try and do this. Now, we’re pretty certain we are both. But reporters’ questions and other laborers’ promptings have forced me to reflect, to give thanks, and to take heart.
I say that we might look back upon this day in the future because, it seems to me, the wider world is taking more notice. Until recently, a $300 Billion industry has been built right under our very noses. We chose to be blind to its presence, choosing the benefits of their enslavement (cheaper goods) to our obligation and promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Even secular Americans supposedly believe in liberty for all. Though slavery ranks up there in organized criminal activities with illegal guns and drugs, we never really heard about it – until now. Though there are likely more slaves around the world today than have existed cumulatively in world history, we are only now becoming aware of the scope of the problem, and of God’s amazing hand raised against it. When I first approached my Vestry more than four years ago and asked for permission to start a new ministry with their backing (yes, we try to discern calls in community here at St. Alban's), neither they nor I had any idea what we were getting into. It seemed silly to us that there might be slaves being traded or used in Iowa. Now, after several successful and failed prosecutions, after listening to the slavery uncovered in Postville, and after encountering for ourselves we know better. The scales have been torn from our eyes, and we see.
We see the need. We see the lack. And we see His provision in the midst. Had I not, in a moment of frustration and pique, insisted upon this ministry or had the Vestry said no, who knows what would have been in store for us? Looking back, though, we can all see clearly the fruits of obedience. The Episcopal Church Foundation has made it possible for us to continue our ministry together at St. Alban’s. Looking back, we can all see clearly that we quit focusing upon our lacks and started paying closer to His mercy and His gifts. And now our wider church upholds those to whom I minister as among those who really try to be faithful to their baptismal vows and who are willing to grasp their inheritance in this world for the sake of others and His honor and glory.
Better still, I am now aware of many activities around the country. I am thinking, as I listen to voices in the Church and even to reporters questioning me, that I should probably begin to do a better job of highlighting and praising them for their labors. God is doing amazing things in Atlanta, in New York, in Newark, in Las Vegas, and everywhere else these activities are coming to light. Individual men and women, and brave and determined law enforcement officials, have exposed incredibly complex and profitable rings. We give thanks to God for their bravery and determination and their willingness to share stories of success and stories of failure.
But He has been no less active in Davenport. What I call “Great Commission Christians” have been raised up out of many different denominations in our fight. Some are local, such as the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics, some are from more distant lands, such as New Hope Anglican Church in this faraway land called Connecticut, some are individuals (we salute you Captain ; ) and give thanks to your provision those in the Chicagoland area). Some have the ears of the powerful, and some are so weak they are beneath the notice of those who rail against God. Some have been and are important in the church; the influence of others has been in areas outside the Church. Some, particularly those who contacted their senators and representatives last year when we were fighting to get the TVPRA passed, are as yet anonymous to me, known only to our Lord; some, I celebrate life’s joys with and mourn life’s sadness with week in and week out. Only God can take such a disperate group of people from around the country and bring them togther to fight evil in His name so effectively. Each person invloved, whether known by name or church or organization, has enriched our ministry through whatever means given them by God, and each, I hope, will one earn that “Well done, good and faithful servant” blessing that so many of us long to hear, for their work and effort to proclaim release to the captives.
How will I remember this day? I think, one day in the future, I will look back and say “that was the day when it became obvious to me that the sleeper had awakened.” People who had never before called me began asking all kinds of questions. I have no doubt that there will be great successes and horrible failures in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead as this fight continues. But now, the fight has reached the consciousness of so many Americans. I think a tipping point has been reached because so few are willing to stand by and do nothing once they learn of the problem. With political staffers, I have compared this fight to our country’s effort to eliminate child abuse and spouse abuse. None of us knew the scope of the problem when those pioneers in the fight against those societal blights began to educate us. To be sure, way more funds went to education and awareness than to rescuing those beaten kids or mostly women only a couple decades ago. And if we thought it possible that such heinous activities existed, we were equally certain and adamant that such goings on happened elsewhere, not in our own communities. Now, however, there is very little need to educate or make aware. Everyone is on the lookout. Perhaps, in the months and years ahead, this day will signify the day that the American and worldwide consciousness awoke to the presence of slaves in our midst and determined to eliminate it once and for all. Who knows? Maybe the publicity will even cause a slaver to reflect upon what he or she is doing and to repent, causing the rejoicing in heaven that only the heartfelt repentance of a sinner can bring.
What can you do to help? That is up to you and your heart. For those financially able, we can always use funds. Meals cost money, and they remain the way for us to begin conversations. Shelters and therapists also have some cost. If you are of a mind to educate and make aware those in your circle of friends, you can even buy a shirt or two, to help raise the awareness of the problem. Nothing makes a workout go faster than a conversation in a gym or on a bike trail. We always covet prayers. And, if you are more of a doer, you are welcome to look for slaves in your midst and join us shoulder to shoulder in the fight against this evil. Such work may involve educating those in your community, teaching a John’s class, developing protocols for health care or law enforcement professions, running a shelter, employing the recently freed, counseling those who have been rescued, distributing cards with information to prostitutes, and the list goes on and on. And everyone can continue to lobby Congress . . .
The William Wilberforce Trafficked Victims’ Protection Reauthorization Act lapsed in September. Activities which had been declared crimes are no longer, much to this nation’s shame; and what little federal funding that helped is gone. For four months, the bill has been like that bill from ABC’s School House Rock, waiting patiently to become a law. Neither Senator Harry Reid (D- NV) in the Senate nor Speaker John Boehner (R- OH) in the House have seen fit to bring this legislation to a vote. Such is not surprising given the level of apathy in both houses of Congress when it comes to the question of slavery. You can help the legislative process by encouraging your senators and your representatives to quit sitting idly and grandstanding in public about other issues and to pass the TVPRA! And if you happen to live in NV or OH, your voice carries that much more weight in this fight. You hold the power of the ballot box, and your elected officials always remember that, more so in election years.
How will I mark this day? Ask me in a few years’ time. For now, it’s Wednesday. Death is stalking, and we have an empty tomb to proclaim and a glorious inheritance to share!