By Blake Tommey
Ana is from Nicaragua, though this story will not reveal her true name or identity; she has already encountered enough exploitation in her life.
Last year, as Ana was scraping for every last penny to support her three children as well as her husband’s drinking problem, a man approached her with the chance of a lifetime. For a hefty fee, he would smuggle her into the United States, where she would be able to find a well-paying job and send money back to her family in Nicaragua.
Ana saw no other choice. Besides, the land of opportunity awaited her in Los Angeles. But when she arrived, Ana found something altogether different.
Immediately, Ana was forced into a job cleaning houses, for which she received no pay. In addition to scrubbing scummy toilets for free, Ana also endured sexual abuse at the hands of her captors, though fortunately they had not forced her into the sex industry.
There was no consolation for a woman who had only experienced violation and despair since arriving in California until she met Aaron and Stephanie, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel who advocate and care for survivors of human trafficking in the greater Los Angeles area. Through partnerships with anti-trafficking organizations as well as local churches, Aaron and Stephanie are growing a movement to combat the system that holds nearly 21 million people worldwide in forced labor and exploitation.
“‘Human trafficking’ is really a new term to describe something that people have done to each other since the beginning of time,” Aaron said. “But we had to uncover it in our context. And once we did, we felt a pull toward the kind of ministry described in 1 John 3, where we are urged to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action when our brothers and sisters are in need.”
As the couple transitioned from working with international college students to advocating and caring for survivors of human trafficking, they discovered the staggering reality of trafficking in the Los Angeles area. According to the California Department of Justice, human trafficking constitutes “all acts involved in the recruitment, abduction, transport, harboring, transfer, sale or receipt of persons, within national or across international borders, through force, coercion, fraud or deception, to place persons in situations of slavery or slavery-like conditions, forced labor or services.”
Only slightly less profitable than the drug trade, human trafficking is a $32 billion-a-year global industry, and California is one of the nation’s top four destinations for its practice. From 2010 to 2012, California’s nine regional human trafficking task forces identified 1,277 victims, initiated 2,552 investigations and arrested 1,798 individuals. And while sex trafficking receives a host of attention from the public, labor trafficking like the kind into which Ana was forced is 3.5 times as prevalent as sex trafficking worldwide. Once their eyes were opened to this reality, Aaron and Stephanie said, they knew what God was calling them to do.
“As we began working with organizations and came to know survivors, we found a lot of missing pieces,” Stephanie said. “Yes, survivors have access to emergency housing and food after being rescued, but what happens afterward? How can survivors acclimate, truly be integrated into culture or even come to know people of faith who want to support them? What about the system that put them there in the first place?”
These are the questions that drove these CBF field personnel into a twofold ministry of big-picture advocacy and acute care for survivors. As advocates, Aaron and Stephanie developed a partnership with Oasis USA, an anti-trafficking organization with whom they hold week-long immersion experiences for trafficking awareness, network with politicians, businesses and healthcare providers and tour local churches with “Trafficking 101” presentations to inspire people to work for traffic-free communities. With these connections, they have mobilized volunteers to create “freedom bags,” filled with clothes, toiletries and other essentials for survivors, and even serve as phone operators with a human trafficking hotline.
At the same time, Aaron and Stephanie are using their Master of Social Work degrees and partnering with the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST), which provides acute intake and care for rescued survivors. Through this partnership, Aaron and Stephanie and other specialists work directly with survivors to assess their needs and assist their social uplift. As they discovered the tension and distance between expert acute care and the local church’s desire to combat trafficking, Aaron and Stephanie discovered their own vital role as connectors of the two groups.
“We like to see ourselves as facilitators, catalysts or even brokers between every day churches and local organizations offering direct services,” Aaron explained. “Too often, neither one thinks of the other as a resource, but our job is to make that connection. With that kind of community, we have an opportunity to partner with God in redeeming the world, not merely in a spiritual sense, but in a way that brings people out of bondage and makes God’s kingdom a present reality rather than only a future hope.”
Aaron and Stephanie have formed that connection and community in a ministry model called Open Table, in which volunteers from both churches and nonprofits surround a human trafficking survivor with resources and assistance for one year as he or she emerges from forced labor. Through the United Methodist Church in Arizona, the Open Table model was originally designed to assist veterans, prisoners and grown foster children as they assimilate, but when they learned about its effectiveness with these groups, they immediately began adapting it for survivors of human trafficking.
Aaron and Stephanie used their partnership with CAST and Open Table Inc., in February 2014 to implement the pilot program and are preparing to grow as they seek other churches, small groups and volunteers to partner in God’s mission among trafficking survivors.
“The Open Table model cuts right to the core of community for us,” Stephanie said. “This model allows people to gather around trafficking survivors to learn about their needs, their hopes and their goals, meeting with individuals once a week for a year. After they have truly listened, they can then open up their circles of influence to help that person get a job, learn a language, find a place to live or, perhaps most importantly, be invited into community.”
On the day that Los Angeles law enforcement discovered the trafficking operation in which Ana was stuck and freed her from forced labor, Aaron and Stephanie surrounded her as she sought resources for building a new life. Through many laborious phone conversations with Ana’s husband in Nicaragua, they eventually devised a plan to bring Ana’s three children to the United States as part of her work visa and empower them toward a new life. Ana describes her experience in coming to the U.S. as complete hell, and said that she would never have chosen it for herself or her children. But on the other side of her exploitation, she finds hope and grace in the life that her family now shares in Los Angeles, Aaron and Stephanie noted.
“We’re reminded of Henri Nouwen’s reflection on hospitality,” Stephanie added. “‘In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God,’ he said ‘we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them a space where change can take place.’”