Here are some excerpts from an article I wrote that is published in the fall edition of St. Luke’s Pathway Magazine.
When most of us hear the word slavery, we usually think of past events from the 18th-19th centuries. People like Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and William Wilberforce come to mind as they sought to abolish slavery. Places like Gettysburg are sobering reminders of our dark, bloody past. But assuming that slavery was a thing of the past presupposes that all people today enjoy freedom. It also assumes that slavery is no longer a problem facing our world. We might think it odd that slavery could still be an issue. After all, people are not publicly and cruelly traded in marketplaces anymore. Labor laws, in theory, protect workers from exploitation. We fill out forms and contracts when accepting jobs. Does this mean that slavery is irrelevant?
I remember a startling realization my wife and I experienced a few years ago. We were teaching English in Ethiopia for a couple of months in an impoverished area of Addis Ababa. Next door to our guest house there was an eerie looking building, bustling with activity at nearly all hours. We thought nothing of it at first, but we soon found out that this was a small restaurant by day and a brothel by night. Crudely made booths lined the property courtyard, each with a curtain to hide a small space with a mattress. Women would take male clients of all ages to these rooms. This realization was chilling. Were women being forced to work there? I recall hearing that most women had traveled to the city from rural areas, hoping to find work. Even though brothels were illegal and there was a police station just up the road, most people simply looked the other way. It was heartbreaking.
On the same trip we met several humanitarian workers who were investigating something called human trafficking. I had obviously heard of things like drug trafficking, but this was different. Ethiopian women, looking to provide more income for their families, would commonly travel to Middle Eastern countries to work as housekeepers for wealthy families. They were usually underpaid, abused, and exploited, all without any knowledge of the local justice system and their rights. Many simply disappeared, never to be heard from again by family members back home.
When I reflect over these experiences, it seems as though slavery is not just something we read about in history textbooks. It did not end with the Civil War. We still deal with this problem. Many people are exploited for labor and sex in our world today. According to Exodus Cry, an organization addressing modern day slavery, nearly 21 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. Of this number, about 4.5 million are subject to sexual exploitation. This is a highly profitable business, generating nearly $150 billion annually, according to a recent International Labour Organization study. Of this number, $99 billion comes from commercial sex exploitation and $51 billion from forced domestic, agricultural, and other economic work.
One of the sobering realities of our trafficking epidemic is that it is extremely difficult to see. Instead of public slave markets, the trade has gone underground. Two-hundred years ago, families were ripped apart as Africans were kidnapped and transported in the transatlantic slave trade. Families are still torn apart today because of slavery, but now the location might be in a secret brothel in an urban city or an overcrowded factory in a third world country. To use a phrase crafted by journalist Stephanie Hepburn and justice scholar Rita J. Simon, trafficking is an issue that is hidden in plain sight.
Particularly in Houston, A 2nd Cup, a non-profit anti-trafficking coffee shop, notes that Houston is a major trafficking hub because of its proximity to a major port and the Mexican border, and I-10 serves as one of the main routes for trafficking. Victims, with desperation to provide for themselves and families, will be tricked into work, no matter how abusive or harmful a job may be.
As Christians, we have the imperative of following the mission of Jesus. In Luke 4, we read Jesus’ “mission statement” of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, and to bring about the Lord’s favor. Jesus’ mission is essentially our mission as well. Through living out a relationship with Jesus, we become a people oriented around bringing restoration. Perhaps the most pressing question to ask yourself is what am I going to do? Our world is filled with captives and oppressed people. In other words, there is a lot for us to do. Jesus calls us to participate in his mission of freedom and liberation. So, how will you get involved?