“Look around and be alert!” Putting an end to human trafficking for the sake of survivors, victims and those at-risk
by Emily Ralph, associate director of communication
The friend sitting next to me was a sex trafficking survivor. We were at a screening of 8 Days, a movie about children who are kidnapped, sold, or tricked into a life of prostitution.
“How was that for you?” I asked her when the film was over.
Not as bad as she expected, she told me, until the one part at the end when the woman arrested on prostitution charges left the police station. She had almost seemed to wilt. “I can’t do this anymore,” she had said as she collapsed into the police officer who escorted her.
My friend looked at me with tears in her eyes. “That was me. I never wanted to do this, but I didn’t know how to get out.” It’s been a tenuous three months, but slowly this survivor is building a new life.
In the women’s room, it wasn’t hard to overhear the conversation happening between two stalls. “I know that was intense,” a mom said to her 14-year-old daughter, “but I wanted you to see that there are real consequences. People are watching. You can’t always have your face buried in your phone as you walk. You need to look around and be alert.”
I wanted to weep that we live in a broken society where we have to teach our children how not to be raped or kidnapped.
The film director’s sister was a trafficking survivor in South Africa. He thought, when he came to the U.S., he could leave that behind … until he discovered that five of the top ten cities where trafficking takes place around the world are in the U.S. The highest ranked U.S. city is Atlanta, Georgia.
We live there.
The corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City, with its teeming interstate system, is a hotbed for human trafficking.
We live there, too.
Only one percent of the millions of children forced into sex trafficking every year are ever rescued.
A few crusaders can’t end modern-day slavery. But a few thousand, a few million Jesus-followers with eyes, ears, mouths, flashlights shining into the dark places … together, we’ve got this.
For the survivors, the victims, the at-risk—together, by the power of the Spirit among us, we’ve got this.
We have to.
For more information about bringing a showing of 8 Days into your community, contact Emily: firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Emily Ralph, associate director of communication
“Waiting on God is expectant and hopeful,” declared Marta Castillo, Franconia Conference’s outgoing assistant moderator, at the opening of the United Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ 2014 Assembly. The theme of this year’s gathering, held November 14-15 at Penn View Christian School in Souderton, Pa., was “Esperando: Waiting & Hoping.”
“We’re not waiting for something, we’re waiting for somebody,” added Bob Stevenson during Friday evening worship. “Waiting is not just a passive sitting back. And so the word I have is that we wait ‘until’ [we receive the power of the Spirit] and then we get up and go!”
Stevenson and his wife Bonnie were called and commissioned as missionaries to Mexico at a Franconia Conference Assembly 26 years before. They were celebrated Friday night as they reached a milestone in their ministry: the transition from raising missionary support from the States to full funding through their congregation. “I thank the Lord for allowing us to be a part of this conference,” Bonnie responded after she and Bob were presented with a Spanish fraktur created by Salford congregation member Roma Ruth. “There are many times on Friday morning when we have our prayer together … that we pray for each one of your congregations by name.”
The theme of leaders raised up and called from within the Conference continued on Saturday during the joint delegate session, when the gathering recognized a number of newly credentialed leaders who were licensed out of Franconia congregations. “Where do our pastors come from?” asked Steve Kriss, Franconia Conference director of leadership cultivation. “They come because you invite them.”
This year also saw the credentialing of leaders from other conferences and denominational backgrounds, adding to Franconia’s increasing diversity. “Diversity is a catalyst for growth,” reflected Jessica Hedrick, Souderton congregation, during table feedback. Her table encouraged conference delegates to prioritize prayer and, as corporate discernment continued, to recognize “the opportunity to learn from each other instead of necessarily trying to get everyone to agree.”
The theme of listening well and together wove through many of the stories and hopes shared throughout the weekend. Danilo Sanchez, Whitehall congregation, named three areas that it seemed the majority of delegates were wrestling with: “Listening to the Spirit, how to sit with our differences, and how to love like Christ.”
The Franconia Conference Board asked delegates to consider what kind of conversations needed to be planned leading up to the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City next summer, knowing the likelihood that Convention will include decisions about denominational structure and human sexuality. Many delegates agreed that the questions of structure and sexuality only skimmed the surface; perhaps there were other questions that should be asked instead.
Josh Meyer, Franconia congregation, wondered how the upcoming dialogue could form those participating into the image of Christ. “How we have this conversation is just as important as any decisions that we make,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what we decide in Kansas City; if we don’t treat each other as sisters and brothers in Christ, then we’ve missed the point.”
Throughout the weekend, conference leadership encouraged delegates to actively wait on the Spirit, to take time for stillness and listening, and to collaborate in acts of justice and mercy. “We must not become paralyzed by the issues of the day,” encouraged Eastern District moderator Brenda Oelschlager, “but move forward in love … as God leads us along new paths.”
Several new paths highlighted included a new Lehigh Valley collaboration in hiring Sanchez as youth minister, welcoming two new Philadelphia congregations (Centro de Alabanza and Indonesian Light Church) into an exploration of membership in Franconia Conference, and the move of the Mennonite Conference Center to the campus of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale (Pa.).
Although 2014 saw the beginnings of new ministries and the licensing of many new pastors, it also brought the deaths of three influential church leaders: Paul Lederach, John Drescher, and Israel Bolaños. In reflecting on their legacies, Kriss encouraged delegates to remember them by carrying on their work of teaching, writing, and mission.
“The gospel isn’t good news until someone takes it and goes with it,” Bob Stevenson agreed. The power which sends the church is not political or force, but “a power that is a ‘preach the gospel to the poor’ power, it’s a ‘healing the broken heart’ power…. What will change this world is us, God’s people.”
As debate around human sexuality continues to leave many church leaders wondering what binds together people with diverse beliefs, at least four Franconia Conference congregations are partnering to advocate for basic human rights, declaring that human beings shouldn’t be abused, raped, and sold.
The four Pennsylvania congregations – Doylestown, Finland, Franconia, and Philadelphia Praise Center – independently of each other became aware of the issue of human trafficking, commonly defined as the illegal movement of people, often for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sexual exploitation.
These congregations are each comprised of members with diverse theological perspectives, racial makeup, and socio-economic status, making their shared interest in addressing human trafficking unique and important at a time when conversations around homosexuality have polarized many churches.
Each congregation has taken its own steps toward becoming informed about the impact of human trafficking internationally, nationally, and locally, and toward advocating for victims of human trafficking everywhere. It wasn’t until recently, however, that leaders from the four churches realized their shared conviction at a seemingly surprising location: a delegate meeting.
In February, as Franconia Conference leaders conducted business and wrestled with questions related to homosexuality, Josh Meyer, associate pastor of Franconia congregation, stood up and appealed to church leaders, “What are the more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness that we can gather around?” For example, Meyer suggested, despite differing opinions about homosexuality, doesn’t everyone agree that human beings shouldn’t be abused, raped, and sold into slavery?
“That was the appeal that sparked a quick, on-the-spot poll of pastors and leaders present to ask, ‘which congregations want to be in conversation on this, want to get together to work on this?’” said Samantha Lioi, Franconia Conference minister of peace and justice.
After the delegate meeting, leaders from the four congregations, plus Lioi, formed an informal task force “to explore what it would look like to work together and make responding to human trafficking a priority in our Conference,” Meyer said. The task force organized a resourcing breakfast focused on human trafficking, held in September, and organized an anti-trafficking workshop to be held during Conference Assembly on November 15. The task force is planning a day of public witness, where people will be invited to gather and pray outside popular trafficking spots in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“Moving forward, we’re excited about making more congregations aware of the issue, and providing practical, tangible ways for churches to respond together,” Meyer said.
The Finland congregation has been addressing human trafficking for several years, hosting local speakers including Debbie Wright, an activist who is producing a documentary about sex trafficking in southeastern Pennsylvania. Pastor Kris Wint first encountered trafficking while in Cambodia. “To do nothing is to keep people enslaved and live contrary to the One we claim to follow,” Wint said.
Franconia congregation has focused a Sunday morning service on trafficking, hosted an awareness night, heard from guest speakers, and provided resources on how to get involved in combatting trafficking. “My sense is many congregations don’t even realize the extent to which human trafficking is a reality in our world,” Meyer said. “There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history. Churches need to know about this … My other sense is that many churches are aware of the situation but don’t know what to do in response. It seems like such a big issue; it’s hard to know how to engage. If we can find ways to help churches act in practical, tangible ways, that would be a great thing.”
About three years ago, Doylestown staff members KrisAnne Swartley and Sandy Landes began prayer walking around Hilltown. As they walked, they became aware of area businesses that profit from the sex trade: adult bookstores, strip bars, massage parlors.
“It deeply troubled us, but we weren’t sure what we could do about it, other than continue to pray,” said Swartley, Doylestown’s minister for the missional journey.
Eventually, the Doylestown congregation connected with local advocates: Worthwhile Wear and The Well. With this kind of partnering, Swartley sees advocating for an end to human trafficking as missional.
“Individually, we can do very little to end modern day slavery,” she said. “As we partner together, we can accomplish so much more – each person and congregation offering different gifts as we have them, for this ministry.”
Adrian Suryajaya agrees. Some members of his congregation, Philadelphia Praise Center, have been victims of forced labor and wage theft.
“It is important that we work together on this issue because it is such a big, overwhelming issue to tackle alone,” he said. “We need a lot of resources and teamwork.”
The diversity of the Franconia Conference congregations partnering to end modern day slavery shows this teamwork is already happening. Lioi hopes more join in, and hopes the upcoming conference assembly will provide ample opportunity to do so.
“I don’t know why, but it seems this injustice, this oppression in particular, has drawn a more diverse group of leaders together than any other I have seen,” she said. “I believe we can be publicly present in standing against traffickers and standing with survivors, especially since we have information about places close to our congregations that have been centers for trafficking.”
by Tim Huber, for Mennonite World Review (reposted by permission)
Two Mennonite churches in Philadelphia have joined a sanctuary movement aiming to support people fearing deportation from the United States.
The congregations are members of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an organization participating in a nationwide act of civil disobedience responding to inaction on immigration reform. President Obama promised to act on immigration by the end of summer, but has delayed doing so until after November elections.
Philadelphia Praise Center Pastor Aldo Siahaan said his congregation hasn’t received word yet about hosting specific undocumented immigrants, but it is ready.
“At Philadelphia Praise Center most of the people are immigrants,” he said. “This is kind of an issue that we deal with every month, even weekly. We know the pain and we know how it feels, so we open our space.”
The congregation has significant numbers of Indonesian, Hispanic and Burmese ethnic groups. Membership at PPC includes many undocumented people.
The church has two Sunday school classrooms that can be used to house families, and the sanctuary could also be employed.
Siahaan said law enforcement officials have not visited the church since its involvement was announced in a September 25 New Sanctuary Movement press conference at the church. In April, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order significantly limiting collaboration between local police and federal immigration authorities.
But word has gotten around.
“Last week, one radio station called me and put me on the air,” Siahaan said. “The announcer tried to be my opposition, and he really opposed the idea of the church opening to the ‘illegal people crossing the border.’ That’s what he was trying to say.
“I gave my reasons. It was an opportunity to speak to the people who disagree with us.”
Germantown Mennonite Church became an affiliate member of New Sanctuary Movement after a congregational vote over the summer. Though not planning to host undocumented people at the moment, it is providing support for churches that are.
Russ Mast and Betsy Morgan have attended organization meetings on the congregation’s behalf, and have accompanied families to deportation meetings as both witnesses and emotional supporters.
Germantown’s facilities are also used by a Jewish community group, Tikkun Olam Chavurah, for high holiday services. Like Philadelphia Praise Center, the group has signed on to host undocumented people. However, it is unclear where the Jewish group would provide sanctuary — be it at Germantown, a member’s home or a rented location.
“That hasn’t been something that has been decided yet,” said Germantown facilities administrator Michelle Bruhn.
“Few of us know someone who has been trafficked. So to step out and care for someone who has been trafficked is a true expression of God’s love.”
Today’s resourcing breakfast featured Debbie Wright, fromlibertytocaptivity.com. Debbie is a former advocate for International Justice Mission who is currently working on a documentary about human trafficking in Pennsylvania. Debbie shared statistics about human trafficking globally and locally, pointing out that Pennsylvania is a hotbed for trafficking because of the highway system that connects so many portions of the country. But Pennsylvania, and Mennonites in Pennsylvania, also has a history of abolition … and can again.
“Make no mistake. God sees and God is angry…. He hears [the victims’] cries and he wants to bring rescue. So this heaviness you feel inside is God calling…. We are his plan of rescue… to step into the dark places.”
by Dennis Edwards, credentialed pastor serving in Minneapolis, MN
I recently spent several days in Rwanda as part of a teaching team for the Shepherd’s Leadership Conference, a weeklong conference for Rwandese pastors and other church leaders. There is much to share, especially having been there so close to the 20th anniversary of the genocide (April 6th). I hope to post several reflections on my time in Rwanda. This first is not about the genocide, but about my interactions with a pastor who attended the conference.
Pastor Vincent sought me out after one of the teaching sessions. He appeared to be young, maybe not yet 40 years old. He smiled broadly, eager to greet me. I listened as he reflected, in English, on the session entitled, “The Church and Social Justice,” where I had been the speaker. Pastor Vincent embraced the ideas of my message and wondered how he could help his many members who struggle just to survive. Pastor Vincent serves people who barely have enough food and whose daily lives are more difficult than most of us can imagine. I felt somewhat helpless at that moment. I thought about the things we often talk about in the USA regarding urban ministry, such as strategic partnerships where churches with more resources can share with those who have less.
Pastor Vincent said that his small church outside of Kigali does not have a “mother” congregation and he often feels isolated. Much of what he was saying reminded me of my first church-planting experience. Twenty-five years ago, I struggled to start a church in Brooklyn, NY. My wife and I burned out trying to meet the practical, emotional, and spiritual needs of a young congregation with limited resources. I developed some partnerships with suburban churches so that some money came in to help us, but I still had to work as a teacher to supplement my income and not be a burden to my congregation. My struggles in Brooklyn allowed me to relate—even if just a bit—to Pastor Vincent’s predicament, yet I knew his situation was much harder than mine was.
Sadly, much of my experience with churches in the USA reflects how spoiled many American Christians are. We fuss over things like musical styles, the color of walls and carpets, and whether we were duly entertained on some particular Sunday. Church has become—at least in many evangelical sectors—a contest. Church leaders struggle to be hipper, cooler, and more entertaining than other churches so they can find their niche in the marketplace formed by Christian consumers. At times I have become very cynical over such ways of doing church. Many American Christian writers and bloggers pontificate over how the contemporary church needs to be more like the early Christians seen in the Book of Acts, but honestly, we are far from that picture. We are simply too affluent and self-centered to be like that community of sharing, caring, learning and growing that we read about in the New Testament.
This is not to say that contemporary churches lack charitable enterprises. Some give a good deal of money, food, clothes, and other practical things away to those who have less. But even in the midst of our generosity, we are slow to share our lives with others—particularly with others who are different from ourselves racially, ethnically, and economically. Sometimes even our financial generosity is a way of saying “You stay over there, while I stay over here.” The power dynamics are reinforced even though we think we are helping.
Perhaps the simplest thing is for me to send Pastor Vincent some money. But I know from my experiences that money is not always the best solution. The real solution, the biblical dynamic that is often missing from our contemporary churches when compared to the early Christians, is community. It is connection. It is being sister and brother, across the lines of geography, ethnicity, nationality, gender, economics—whatever.
Pastor Vincent and I have already been in email communication. His broken English is better than my non-existent Kinyarwanda. Am I willing to see how God will let us be brothers, and not just me be a benefactor? Am I willing to learn from Pastor Vincent and not assume that I have answers to his questions?
I never got to take a photograph of Pastor Vincent, but in my mind’s eye I see his smiling face and how happy he was to have a conversation with me. I know how it feels to have someone listen when I am struggling in ministry—especially someone who has been speaking to a large group and appears to be an expert. Those sorts of people never had any time for me when I was a younger pastor. I wanted to make sure Pastor Vincent had my time and interest. Maybe that’s the place to start. I will trust God to guide Pastor Vincent and also to guide me. But at this moment, I am simply grateful that God allowed me to meet this brother in Rwanda.
In light of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, we will likely hear more news over the next few days. As you do, please take that as an opportunity to pray for Rwanda: the nation as a whole, the leaders, the churches, and for pastors like Pastor Vincent.
Ewuare Osayande, anti-oppression coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee, joined us Thursday for a pastors breakfast entitled “Proactive Pastorship: On Becoming a Church Invested in Racial Justice.”
Ewuare challenged congregational leaders to understand the concept of “race:” a social construct emerging out of colonialism and slavery. Once congregations understand race, they can begin to have a conversation about racism and the impact racism has had on all people.
Ewuare also encouraged pastors to study the way that race has impacted the development of the Mennonite church in the United States and the communities that Mennonite immigration displaced. Mennonites have their own history of suffering but somewhere along the way, they became the “Quiet in the Land.” When they came to the “New World,” the Quiet in the Land were silent in the face of injustice and benefited from it. “This is also a part of your history,” he said.
Hear Ewuare’s entire presentation, his suggestions on steps congregations can take to invest in racial justice, and an insightful question and answer time:
I tend to be fairly cautious about most Christian conferences. At the risk of sounding overly-skeptical, I’m not thoroughly convinced of the long-term benefit of such events, and wonder if they don’t play into a kind of consumerism within the Christian sub-culture of the West: lots of marketing, lots of money, lots of “celebrity Christians,” lots of glossy pamphlets and slick websites. They’re not all bad, of course, but I generally feel uncomfortable with many aspects of “the big conference machine.”
However, I must admit when I received an invitation to attend the Impact: Holy Land conference, I was intrigued. If you’re going to have a conference, I thought, there aren’t many issues other than the situation in the Middle East that are worthy of special time and attention. And so, with a bit of hesitation, I registered for and attended the event. I’m so glad I did.
It was a richly challenging and deeply hopeful three days of relationship-building and peace-building, of learning and growing. The speakers and participants were comprised of a diverse group of individuals, with varied theological and political backgrounds and beliefs, but who were united by a love for Jesus. We listened to stories, wrestled with difficult topics, asked pointed questions, studied the Bible, tried to disagree agreeably, and worshiped together throughout the entire event.
There’s not room in one short blog post to capture all of the wisdom and grace and hope that was shared during our time together, but here’s a brief sampling of some of the thoughts that struck me and continue to shape my thinking about the Way of Jesus in general and the Holy Land in particular:
“The greatest tool to fight injustice is actively seeking peace and reconciliation with those who are persecuting us.”
“The most deadly weapon in conflict is dehumanization. When we dehumanize the other and buy into an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, it’s a breakdown of the image of God in other people.”
“If your theology is not a blessing to and good news for your enemy, then it’s not a Christian theology.”
“Part of loving your enemy means listening to their story, learning their history, and getting to know their narrative.”
“You cannot have justice without reconciliation.”
“Whenever people ask if I’m for a one-state solution or a two-state solution, I always reply that I’m for an 11 million-individual solution. Every single person living in the Holy Land needs to be transformed and needs to be part of the solution.”
“As Mother Theresa teaches us, if we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
“We Christians do not have exclusive control over the Holy Spirit. Sometimes God works through those who believe differently than we do.”
“Dr. West reminds us that justice is what love looks like in public.”
“Love cannot be legislated, but as our hearts are transformed by the love of God we will necessarily change our policies.”
“Politics is about policies that impact people. If there are policies in place that are hurting people, then challenging those policies is the right and loving thing to do. So yes, there are times when love is political.”
“We must expose injustice to the point that it becomes so uncomfortable that people have no choice but to do something about it.”
“We need to exchange weapons for worship, conquest for community, and the pursuit of power for the pursuit of peace.”
I attended this conference with a desire to learn about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And while I did learn more about the situation, I also learned about much more than simply the religious and socio-political struggle in the Holy Land.
I learned about God’s deep love for all people. I learned about conflict and reconciliation and justice. I learned about the power of story, the power of forgiveness, and the power of God using ordinary people to do small things with great love. I learned about my own distorted ways of dealing with conflict and relating to those who disagree with me. I learned about social justice and the fierce urgency of now. I learned about the imperative call to express our faith not merely in belief but through concrete, tangible, loving action. And most importantly, I learned once again that the good news of Jesus is for all people: saints and sinners, skeptics and dreamers, Arabs and Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.
On September 21, Drew Hart and Ben Walter presented a conversation on race and the church at Germantown Historic Meetinghouse in Philadelphia, sponsored by the Franconia and Eastern District Conferences’ Peace & Justice Committee. This conversation connected Anabaptist and Black Theologies and identified areas in which churches participate in both institutionalized racism as well as acts of micro aggression.
In a recent book, Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman noted that the peace rhetoric of the Mennonite church has shifted focus away from nonresistance and toward justice. This significant change in language suggests that urban, suburban, and rural congregations are undergoing an attitude adjustment toward the neighborhood. Unlike nonresistance, the work of justice is naturally outward-oriented, concerned with the common good and the overall health of the local community.
One reason that congregations have altered their posture toward their local contexts is the influence of missional theology. It has birthed a generation of Christians ready to join what God is already doing in neighborhood, beyond the church walls. Finding ways to merge living the Gospel (justice) and spreading the Good News (mission), though, requires more than an attitude adjustment: it requires time.
This is the humbling lesson that I learn over coffee with Samantha Lioi, minister of peace and justice for both Franconia and Eastern District conferences. Among other things, Lioi’s role includes preaching and teaching and organizing congregational peace representatives, but the essence of her time is spent broadening our common conceptions of the complicated relationship between living out Anabaptist Christianity and seeking justice.
Lioi is passionate about helping congregations see justice in less abstract terms. For Lioi, justice is less about the business of law and politics and more about creating spaces in our busyness to share our lives with unexpected people. Following in Jesus’ footsteps, justice can be as ordinary as sharing mutual food and fellowship across socially-constructed lines of race, religious, or class divisions. A member of the Allentown intentional community known as Zume House, Lioi has seen these practices slowly begin to have a transformational impact on the community. “We’re all so busy that we sometimes lack the attentiveness that is critical to entering mutual relationships with others. It’s important to be reminded that doing justice can’t only be seen as ‘doing for others’ but ‘doing with others’ too,” says Lioi.
Transitioning from ‘doing for’ to ‘doing with’ often proves to be a challenging paradigm shift for congregations in affluent contexts. One reason is due to the reality that injustice and inequality is murkier and less dramatic in suburban, affluent settings. But the bigger reason involves a paradox, one that has to do with time. Affluent congregations are often so busy working to maintain a well-oiled church that they miss opportunities to vulnerably be with their neighbors, to sit among them with Jesus. “Being with others, learning from others, openness to being changed by real human encounters,” Lioi says, “is time consuming and outside our comfort zones.”
For Lioi, Christian faith from an Anabaptist perspective is patiently cultivated in the presence of others. Only from within diverse relationships do we begin to grasp a better sense of our own shortcomings and need for spiritual transformation. Lioi is hopeful that congregations in Eastern District and Franconia Conferences continue to seek encounters which lead us to “become more honest with ourselves, cultivate courage to face our fears, and display a greater willingness to be changed by our neighbors.”
Growing in honesty, courage, and openness is a long journey. It leads toward outbreaks and glimmers of what life in God’s kingdom looks like, what justice in all its fullest is, but it takes time. As the Mennonite church continues conversion about becoming a missional community, seeking to find ways to merge mission and justice, Lioi’s work of shepherding congregations is a true gift.