The Problem in Our Backyard

What churches need to know about modern day slavery and what they can do to fight it.

Cheryl Csiky was sexually exploited as a young girl, but no one around her saw the signs. On the surface, nothing looked unusual. She was from a middle-class family. She was in elementary school. And the boy who was setting her up on “dates” and exploiting her was her own age. It took her more than a year to escape, but the scars remained.

How much simpler would it have been and how much less damage would have resulted had someone intervened? Or, even better, had measures been put in place to prevent the exploitation from ever happening?

As an adult, Csiky found her voice as a survivor. She went on to help pioneer the anti-trafficking ministry at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago, and then serve as a part-time associate pastor at the church with an emphasis on fostering human trafficking awareness and education. Eventually, she found a safe place to speak about her experience through the survivor advocacy program In Our Backyard, an organization that fights human trafficking across America. And late last year, she became the organization’s new executive director.

Csiky’s exploitation occurred many years ago, but the need for such an organization is unfortunately just as urgent, if not more so, than ever. That’s because human trafficking—whether for sex or labor of adults and children—hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s modern-day slavery that’s simply gone underground.

CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

According to the Polaris Project, which runs the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, more calls, texts and other forms of contact were received in 2019 than ever before. Polaris staffers worked on 11,500 situations of human trafficking that year and handled situations involving 22,326 individual survivors, nearly 4,384 traffickers and 1,912 suspicious businesses.

And that’s just in America. According to the International Labour Organization, 40.3 million people worldwide are currently enslaved. It’s a $150 billion industry, one that traffickers aren’t willing to give up easily.

But that’s why organizations like In Our Backyard exist: to empower survivors while simultaneously providing education about and preventing human trafficking. In Our Backyard’s material is taught in many public school health classes, and the organization partners with law enforcement, social workers and other entities on an annual Super Bowl campaign around anti-trafficking. In addition to speaking at churches and hospitals on what to look for in a potential victim, the group distributes Freedom Stickers, which display the National Human Trafficking Hotline number (888-373-7888). Volunteers place these stickers on the inside of bathroom stalls—one of the only places women and girls can safely escape their traffickers.

“What we need to really understand is that it’s in our own backyard,” Csiky says. “It’s so much closer to the average citizen than we know.”

Human trafficking expert Shayne Moore agrees, noting that the church sometimes misunderstands the nature and pervasiveness of human trafficking. Moore is the associate director of operations at the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College Graduate School and the institute’s expert on human trafficking. She’s the author of Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern Day Slavery (IVP) and the forthcoming The Human Trafficking Handbook: A Biblical and Best-Practice Strategy for the Church Today (IVP).

“The church doesn’t need to be raising resources to send a team to Cambodia to do rescues,” Moore says. “That’s actually interfering with law enforcement and other entities outside the church that are already working there. The church can be most effective internationally and locally by learning to collaborate with the people who are already in the space doing the work.”

Working together and partnerships are the best way to fight traffickers, she says, and the best way to prevent it from ever happening.

“We use the analogy of human trafficking being like a cliff that people fall off of,” she says. “Organizations and Christians with very well-meaning and beautiful hearts are scraping these people off the bottom of the cliff. We pour a lot of money and resources into that, and that absolutely has to happen. But the only way we’re going to end modern-day slavery is if these people don’t fall off the cliff in the first place.”

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THE PANDEMIC EFFECT

One of the most noteworthy trafficking trends to emerge in the past year is predators luring victims online, thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns, a rise in online learning and widespread job loss.

“Wherever there is internet, there is human trafficking,” Csiky says. “Online drives both sex and labor trafficking. People have lost their jobs, so they’re more willing to take opportunities they wouldn’t have years earlier. The traffickers know this, so the vulnerability has increased. We see it with ads online for modeling jobs, domestic servitude. Those are super high-risk.”

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, reports of online enticement of children by sexual predators to produce explicit material doubled from 2019 to 2020, reaching more than 30,000. Predators have openly discussed using the pandemic as an opportunity to reach unsupervised children for exploitation.

And the pandemic has perpetuated trafficking in another way: isolating victims with their traffickers.

“During the pandemic, governments and partners around the world are reporting a surge in violence against women and children, especially online sexual exploitation,” says Katelyn Curran, the national director of church mobilization for the International Justice Mission’s U.S. branch. “During lockdown, vulnerable children are confined at home, often with their traffickers. They are out of sight, which means it’s harder for community members to detect and disclose any signs of abuse.”

What can churches do to combat this trend? Offer an internet safety course to train kids, parents and caregivers on what to watch out for. Children should know it is OK to ignore or delete a conversation with a stranger online, even if that stranger is polite. Safety trumps manners on the web.

“These are not very glamorous ways to fight human trafficking,” Moore says. “They’re not the grand rescues, or opening a home for rescued women. But they’re affordable, sustainable, very tangible things that churches can do to prevent human trafficking from ever happening in the first place.”

PREVENTION FIRST

To prevent trafficking from ever starting, the church needs to be able to identify it by knowing the signs. Trafficking is most commonly thought of as sexual exploitation of girls, but it’s just as often forced labor, and it can involve women, men and boys, too.

Next, it’s important to understand the vulnerabilities that exist in local communities. House cleaning services, landscaping or gardening businesses, large agricultural operations, construction sites, hotels, nail salons, massage parlors and strip clubs are all places in average communities where human trafficking is present. And they’re all places where churches can begin to build relationships.

For example, if a single mom is at risk of being pimped by her abusive boyfriend, the church can help her find a job and assist with childcare. If there’s a nearby refugee population who might be manipulated into labor trafficking, churches can offer English classes so refugees can clearly understand any job offers they receive. Again, provide childcare so they can get a proper job.

Other ways to reach out include building relationships in the community. For example, a church member can visit the same nail salon over and over again, and get to know the people providing the services. Ask about their past, their journey to America, their family. Notice if the same people are always there, or if new women are working every time. Do they make eye contact and engage in conversation?

It might help churches to think of this work in their own communities as being salt and light—of bringing Jesus to places where people might not know him.

“Very often Christian churches are just in their own bubbles, and they’re doing their own ministries—all very well-meaning and probably with some good results,” Moore says. “But the only way we’re going to make a dent in human trafficking is to prevent it by collaborating. They are going into the public square bringing the transformative work of Jesus Christ. They’re bringing Christ into those multidisciplinary teams. We have to be the salt and light in those secular places.”

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One way to do that, she says, is to become certified as a victim advocate that hospitals, police, courts and social workers can call on when a trafficking victim comes in. Social workers maintain these certifications, but individual citizens—members of churches—can earn them, too.

“I believe churches can be the first responders in that public forum,” Moore says. “So, when the police officers say, We have a victim of human trafficking. She’s in the ER, and we need an advocate, Christians from the local church are the ones sitting next to them.”

And if a church member or pastor suspects someone is being trafficked, Moore urges safety.

“Human traffickers are very bad people,” she says. “You don’t want to put yourself, your volunteers or the victims at risk. You could really cause a problem if you interject yourself into a bad situation. The No. 1 and the easiest thing a church can do is know the national human trafficking hotline number. It absolutely goes to the federal government, and it absolutely works. They follow up on those tips.”

JOIN THE FIGHT

Though staying local is the best and most effective way for most churches to get involved in fighting human trafficking, it is still a global justice issue that demands a response from the global church. That’s where partnerships with organizations like International Justice Mission (IJM) come in. IJM is a global team of lawyers, social workers, community activists and other professionals working to protect people in poverty from trafficking and slavery. IJM partners with churches, advocates and community entities to make that possible, with an emphasis on improving local justice systems.

“We must shift perspectives that relief and rescue is enough to stop human trafficking and instead invest in holistic, systemic and sustainable transformation that can put violence out of business for good,” says IJM’s Curran. “As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained, ‘On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed.’

“We have discovered that sustainable change occurs when rescue and relief is paired with transforming justice systems,” she adds. “As justice systems serve survivors and hold criminals accountable for trafficking, potential perpetrators realize they cannot abuse and exploit people without consequence, creating a powerful deterrent effect. Violence decreases dramatically, and vulnerable people are protected in places where violence was once common.”

IJM partners with churches through a church-specific event called Freedom Sunday, where entire congregations spend a Sunday learning about modern-day slavery and justice, and how faith plays a role in stopping it. IJM also offers resources for churches to educate, engage and encourage youth groups to take action.

While there’s no shortage of ways for churches to get involved in fighting human trafficking, or of entities with whom they can partner to make change happen, turning to God in prayer is the first step. Churches should pray for God to lead the church in an effective, meaningful strategy to engage the issue. Other steps include linking arms with IJM, In Our Backyard or any number of other organizations doing good work in the arena, and becoming educated about human trafficking: what it is, where it happens, what to watch for, how to help.

Church leaders also should encourage members to put the National Human Trafficking hotline number into their phones and never hesitate to call it if they suspect something.

“Micah 6:8 says, ‘What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy,’” Csiky says. “Christians serve a God of justice. Staying silent only serves the traffickers. Staying silent is exactly what they expect us to do. And it’s why they’re able to commit this atrocity of a crime. We must stand against oppressors. Pastors and churches should not stay silent about this issue.”

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