By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

It’s a long way from Nashville’s red-light district to an elegant tea party at St. John’s Church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But such distances are growing shorter as Episcopal communities unite to fight human trafficking, also known as modern-day slavery.

Regina Mullins is proof. She spent 22 years in a life of drugs, abuse, and easy money that came with turning tricks for a pimp. She saw no way out until 1996 when, during a stint in prison, she heard about the Rev. Becca Stevens. Stevens was launching Magdalene, a Nashville program for human-trafficking victims in the sex trade. Mullins was ready to try.

“I was really tired of being on the streets, I was really tired of turning tricks, I was really tired of doing the dope and not really being high,” Mullins told TLC. “I was so ready that I was willing to do anything, and so I prayed.” She trusted God to lead her, and she made it.

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Now almost 20 years later, Mullins is an ambassador for Magdalene, the two-year residency program that helped reform her life, and for Thistle Farms, the social enterprise that helps trafficking victims develop skills and earn a living by making eco-friendly bath and body-care products.

That puts Mullins among the growing ranks of those helping church members lock arms, across geographic and cultural boundaries, and put a dent in 21st-century slavery. The fight against human trafficking is reaching new frontiers as Christians work together and discover what they are uniquely positioned to do as people of faith.

For Mullins and others, this is justice work that involves bridging worlds. Her ambassadorial role has put her back on Nashville’s street corners, where she helps trafficking victims imagine a better life through Magdalene. It also brings her and Stevens to places like St. John’s, where a crowd of 150 packed a hall on a hot July afternoon for tea and inspiration to fight human trafficking. They had never before addressed a New Hampshire crowd, yet it was their largest “justice tea party” ever. Locals were eager to learn and become involved.

“Twenty years ago, you saw a 16year-old on the streets and you’d say, ‘She’s choosing this,’” Stevens said before her presentation at St. John’s. “Now with the idea of trafficking, we’re not seeing her as a criminal at age 16. We’re seeing her as a victim. This is opening up the doors for people to have a lot more awareness and compassion.”

As awareness grows, efforts to combat the problem are no longer confined to those of a few activists or lobbyists. The fight is moving to new fronts as rank-and-file Episcopalians leverage the Anglican Communion’s informal networks for a cause that unites people of every theological and political stripe.

Fighting human trafficking resonates deeply with Christians, according to Claire Renzetti, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky. She has studied Christian activists committed to the cause and probed why it’s so important to them.

“They talk about every person having inherent dignity as a human being and being a brother or sister of Christ,” Renzetti said. “No one should be treated as a slave. That’s basically how they view it.”

Human trafficking refers to a shady criminal world in which people are forced to work without fair compensation or freedom to leave. Whether victims are sex workers held in brothels, servants in debt bondage, or manual laborers stuck in camps, what unites them is subjugation to coercive, fraudulent, or forceful tactics that keep them enslaved.

The problem plagues both developed and developing nations. It generates $150 billion in worldwide profits.

Equipping the faithful for this work has become a priority of the Episcopal Church. An Executive Council committee on human trafficking is developing a survey to share information about who’s doing what on local levels across the church. The group is aware of about 15 to 20 Episcopal groups that work directly with trafficking survivors. That’s up from fewer than five a decade ago, according to Laura Russell, convener of the committee and a New Jersey attorney who works on human-trafficking cases.

But local groups are not waiting for top-down coordination to match them. They’re acting, both locally and ecumenically, and forging partnerships to increase their effectiveness. For Church of the Holy Spirit in Safety Harbor, Florida, activism dates to 2007 when authorities discovered 50 Asians living in a three-bedroom house in Boca Raton. They were immigrants who had been recruited with promises of food and housing. But pay was unreliable, freedom was non-existent, and sex work increasingly expected of the women.

After the raid, authorities moved 13 Filipinos to a Salvation Army facility in Clearwater. The Rev. Ray Bonoan, a Filipino-American and rector of Holy Spirit Church, led his congregation of 125 in offering pastoral care and basic assistance.

“They were newly rescued at the time. They didn’t have anything,” Bonoan said. “So we provided clothing. The congregation collected food, and not just food. In the offering plate on Sundays, you would see gift cards and phone cards. That was kind of neat to look at on the altar.” Today these survivors are local residents, holders of green cards, and active members of Holy Spirit. They join other parishioners in raising awareness of human trafficking in South Florida, a hotspot for the crime. Representatives from the church speak regularly about how to spot the problem and what to do. They give talks at parishes around the diocese and at meetings of civic organizations, such as Kiwanis clubs.

Next year, Bonoan will go one step further in hopes of helping potential victims. In February, he will travel to Manila to address the Philippine Independent Church, which is in full communion with the Episcopal Church. For the thousands of Filipinos who go abroad each year for work, he will detail in advance where they can go for help, including a new Episcopal resource center in Elmhurst, Queens, if they should ever get caught up in an international or U.S.-based trafficking operation.

The Elmhurst program, known as the Asian-American Mission to End Modern Slavery (AMEMS), launched at St. James Church in May. Since then, it has helped five trafficking survivors obtain legal papers to bring family members to the United States. Other victims are also working with the program and its contract consultants, who manage on a budget of $10,000, including $5,000 from the Episcopal Church’s Asiamerica Ministries Office.

St. James’s missional work in human trafficking has helped renew the congregation, according to the Rev. Fred Vergara, who wears the title of part-time revivalist at the church. The congregation had declined for years as its neighborhood underwent radical demographic changes and became a destination for new immigrants. At one point, only 20 came to worship on an average Sunday. But now it has a Filipino priest and a mission that resonates with its Asian parishioners, who show concern for trafficking victims.

They can provide practical assistance, not only through donations but also by translating for people in trouble, Vergara said. The congregation now has 130 attending across three services, including many young adults.

“They see the church getting involved in the real problems of the community,” said Vergara, who also serves as the Episcopal Church’s missioner for Asiamerica ministries. “Queens is one of the hotbeds of human trafficking,” he said. “And it’s when you serve the community that renewal happens at the same time.” Identifying trafficked people can be difficult because they often hide in plain sight. No one knows of their plight until their stories of behind-the-scenes captivity start coming out. But churches are uniquely positioned to hear stories that others do not. The Boca Raton raid, for instance, came after a local church got to know the victims and reported the situation.

“We offer our pastoral care,” Bonoan said. “We tend to be trusted more by the victims than the authorities are. We tend to be ones who could connect with them. Victims will always be suspicious of authorities because they have been brainwashed that if they go to the authorities, they will be deported.”

These days, St. James uses Anglican networking to boost the power of AMEMS. Referrals have come from Bonoan’s congregation as well as faith communities in other parts of metropolitan New York plus Washington, D.C., and the state of Washington. Vergara hopes similar Episcopal resource centers will open in other human-trafficking hotspots, including Silicon Valley.

Experts say human trafficking can happen anywhere but is often concentrated in certain areas, such as megacities that attract vulnerable migrants who are willing to take enormous risks and trust strangers to guide them. Some industries are prone to it as well, especially seafaring, domestic work, and prostitution. For migrants in transition, trafficking can happen in the form of human smuggling across borders and beyond. In Central and North America, coyotes or human smugglers hang around bus stations. They offer promises of protection before leading victims into bondage.

“If you walk a block down from Port Authority in New York late at night, you will see traffickers,” said Russell. “You don’t need that much knowledge in human trafficking to know who they are. And they’re picking up these young girls, basically playing the father-figure role that [the girls] never had.”

The problem is by no means confined to the coasts or big cities. It’s growing also in the heartland. The oil boom in North Dakota has been a boon for traffickers, who enlist Native American girls and women for sex work among oil workers. It’s also visible on major truck routes, where abused minors end up when they flee their homes. At truck stops and other crossroads, adolescents are whisked away into a type of captivity that often includes sex work.

St. Francis Community Services, an Episcopal agency based in Salina, Kansas, has witnessed the growing problem of human trafficking from its work as a provider of social services for minors in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. The organization has contracts with state governments to work with foster children, youthful trauma victims, and those in need of psychiatric care. About 30 percent of the youth treated at St. Francis’s psychiatric facility have been trafficked, said the Rev. Robert Smith, president and CEO.

As St. Francis adjusts to help more victims of trafficking, church groups will likely play a major supporting role. As soon as next year, the organization plans to launch a new residential program for minors who have been trafficked. The focus will be on healing among kids who lost their childhoods at the hands of traffickers. “One of the service gaps that we’ve recognized, not just in Kansas but nationally, is in long-term restorative care for these children,” said Angela Smith, director of mission engagement at St. Francis Community Services. “As an Episcopal organization, our mission is to be an instrument of healing, and that puts us really in a good position to focus on that restorative-care piece.”

Currently in planning stages, St. Francis’s program would fill a niche by helping girls from ages 12 to 17. Angela Smith notes this population has different needs than adult women served by programs such as Magdalene and Thistle Farms.

The program would take a holistic approach for formerly trafficked girls, whether they come from Kansas or a faraway state, by meeting their needs for spiritual, educational, physical, and mental health. The plan is to house four girls initially. Costs would run around $1 million to launch, plus another $1 million annually to operate.

“We want to be a resource to others who are also passionate about changing this,” Fr. Smith said. “It’s working together to bring a light to darkness.”

In California, one program aims to help victims heal through artistic creativity. The Guadalupe Art Program, led by the Rev. Mary Moreno Richardson, brings art therapy into juvenile centers where young trafficking victims try their hand at seeing and drawing themselves amid signs of holiness, such as angelic wings. On a statewide level, the program is pushing for new state legislation that would end prosecution of minors who practice prostitution at the whim of a trafficker.

“A lot of times people think it’s happening only in another community or another country,” Richardson said. “But it’s right here in our own communities.”

Magdalene and Thistle Farms are also expanding their work. Magdalene has 22 sister organizations based on its model. It operates two-year residential programs in cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis, and Fayetteville, Arkansas. More sister programs are in the works.

Partnerships allow for increasing this work. To generate income and work experience for trafficking survivors, many of Magdalene’s sister programs in the United States are soon to team up with human-trafficking survivors in other countries. The idea is for survivors in America to become sales representatives for handmade crafts produced by trafficking survivors in Botswana, Ecuador, and other countries.

“If you’re concerned about women recovering from trafficking you have to be concerned about their economic well-being,” Stevens said. “The social enterprise is a huge piece of that.”

Relying on social enterprise and private donations rather than government funds gives Magdalene and its sister organizations essential flexibility, according to Renzetti, the University of Kentucky sociologist. The program receives donations from private sources, including Episcopal dioceses, but not from public sources or the national headquarters.

Taking no public funding means Magdalene “can set up programs that they know are most effective,” Renzetti said. “They’re not locking the women up. They’re allowing them to make decisions. … They give them meaningful work and job training.”

Church efforts to confront human trafficking are still in early days, observers say. In coming years, opportunities to become involved are expected to proliferate, including in state capitals, where many of the legislative campaigns to protect victims will play out.

In the meantime, challenges are many. Convicting a trafficker can be difficult because a victim must prove an inability to choose a different way or to leave a situation.

“A lot of victims don’t want to testify against their traffickers,” Russell said, “because some of them have developed a bond, especially if you’re 11 or 12 years old and this is the only person who’s ever shown you any kindness, even though it’s mixed with abuse.”

But activism is likely no passing fad, observers say, because trafficking is both a widespread problem and fighting it is a good cause for the church. Believers of all stripes agree modern-day slavery is morally wrong. Now they are finding the church uniquely positioned to help bring the problem to light.

“We are just really at the infancy stages of addressing the problems of trafficking,” Renzetti said. “It reminds me where we were in understanding sexual assault victimization 30 or 40 years ago. We’ve come a long way in terms of addressing sexual assault trauma. We’re just starting to understand trafficking victimization trauma.”

Image: Regina Mullins after addressing a “justice tea party” crowd at St. John’s Church, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. • G. Jeffrey MacDonald photo

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