Fight will continue until none are trafficked
"Who has participated in bringing this service to me?"
That's a question Susie Johnson encourages people to ask themselves when considering how their lives might be perpetuating the cycle of human trafficking.
"We all have a personal responsibility in human trafficking and its continued existence, whether it's because we want a $10 manicure or a meal at Red Lobster or cheap clothing," says Johnson, the United Methodist Women executive for public policy.
Johnson has been at the forefront of United Methodist Women's human trafficking initiatives since 1999 when she began serving in the agency's public policy office in Washington, D.C.
"Our mission is that we believe that everybody has a right to live as whole persons through Jesus Christ," she said. "Those who are at risk of labor and sexual exploitation are denied that opportunity."
With that truth in mind, Johnson created a human trafficking team in 2009, which received specialized training from government entities, non-government agencies, and survivors of human trafficking. "They were given tools and information with the charge that they would go back and share that information not only with United Methodist Women but also as a part of a community," Johnson said.
Yvette Richards, president of United Methodist Women, became involved with the human trafficking efforts when Johnson asked her to join the Intercept Human Trafficking Super Bowl campaign in 2009.
As "a huge NFL fan," Richards decided she needed to get involved. "Our research showed that the highest level of human trafficking happens around the Super Bowl."
Each year prior to the Super Bowl, UMW partners with church and community agencies in the host city to raise awareness and engage people with the issue, Richards said.
Churches across the nation participate in UMW's Intercept Human Trafficking campaign each by raising awareness through themed photographs or by hosting events to get the community involved.
Involving men in the campaign
"One of the biggest things we do every year is Intercept Human Trafficking," said Rita Smith, a member of the human trafficking team who first became involved in 2009 when she served as the Northern Illinois Conference social action coordinator.
"The week before Super Bowl Sunday, we go downtown at lunch hour," Smith explained. "We walk around the whole block and pass out fliers to people.
"Then we go into (First United Methodist Church at) the Chicago Temple and have a little worship service."
One main goal of the Super Bowl campaign, according to Johnson, is to involve men in the fight against trafficking.
"Men must be part of the conversation," she said. "We wanted to create an opportunity that would engage men as learners, activists, and supporters."
Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, Florida., began engaging with the issue in 2011. Since then, Marie Samec, chair of Trinity's UMW Human Trafficking Committee, and others have also been educating the community on the issues surrounding human trafficking.
Early on, Samec said they met a survivor who deeply impacted them. The young woman, who was then in college and seeking help for post traumatic stress disorder, had been sold into sex trafficking by her stepfather as an 11-year-old but was able to escape as a teenager.
"We've learned that every single case is unique and needs are unique," Samec said. "It's more complex than we imagined."
In May 2013, Samec's group and their community partners formed the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with big plans for the future, including a short-term shelter and a long-term recovery center.
"I know for a fact this has been a God-driven path," Samec said. "I never could have imagined doing this on my own."
Johnson emphasized the importance of involving survivors in the process of spreading awareness.
"Those who are victimized will tell you, ‘I'm not a victim. At all stages of trauma, I am surviving.'" Johnson said. "We believe we can work most effectively with organizations that allow survivors to speak and be the voice through which others are educated."
For women who feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of this issue, Johnson encourages them to start with the basics.
"John Wesley believed in knowledge, so the first thing we want to do is increase their knowledge," she said, pointing them to resources such as the guidebook on UMW's website, www.unitedmethodistwomen.org.
Johnson recommends that women partner with agencies in their communities who are "already engaged in this work." Every organization has different needs, she said, so it's important to ask them what would be most helpful.
"Be creative in facilitating the kinds of connections and engagements that will meet local needs," she said. "Find volunteer opportunities where they can be the hands that lead to healing."
Beyond service, Johnson reminds people that legal action is also crucial to bringing change.
"It is only through policy changes that real possibilities to end this crime exist," she said. "We deal with the root causes through policy and through action."
The church plays an important role in the many aspects of ending human trafficking. Richards encouraged churchgoers to "be willing to go out, be willing to help, be willing to speak up" and also "be willing to open our doors and not make people feel ashamed when they have been violated or when an injustice has taken place."
"A change has to come," Richards said. "God has made us all special, and this is no way for a person to be treated. We are all God's children, and we need to protect each other."
Emily Snell is a young adult freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes regularly for Interpreter and other publications.