“Rise up, early” to #endslavery

I’m in the midst of planning a screening of the documentary, Call + Response, at my church. National Human Trafficking Prevention Month will be over by the time we show the film on February 15. But, at risk of being cliché, any time is a good time to fight slavery.

While exact figures are exceedingly difficult to determine, our best guess is that there are between 27-30 million slaves in the world today. Human trafficking exists because there is money to be made at it. Lots and lots of money. Human trafficking makes more money than Nike, Google and Starbucks combined. By all accounts, it is the second most lucrative criminal enterprise (equal to or ahead of gun trafficking and behind only drug trafficking).

Given all that we’re up against in the pursuit of justice for today’s slaves, it is easy to get discouraged. And that’s where Call + Response comes in. I found it an absolutely inspiring film. Watching it re-energized my desire to be an abolitionist. That’s why I want to show it to as many people as possible on Feb. 15.

Go check out all the trailers, see if you aren’t intrigued. Also, take a listen to this haunting song which appears in the film. (In the movie, the band was under the working name The Scrolls. They’ve since changed it to Works Progress Administration.)

Does any of this move you? What will your response be? Will you become an abolitionist?

Fighting traffick

Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. – Isaiah 1:17

It’s been a little while since I’ve written about human trafficking, so I think it’s time to correct that. You won’t often find them on the front page, but mainstream media stories about human trafficking (which is the legal term for modern-day slavery) are around.

Did you see this story this week?

“Chicago police investigated pimps alleged to have forced dozens of underage girls into prostitution. Nine people were charged last week with ‘involuntary sexual servitude of a minor.’”

Do you remember the Illinois Safe Children Act, about which I wrote just over a year ago? Provisions from it aided the investigation.

“The case marked the first time Chicago police could use wiretaps in a prostitution investigation.” Those wiretaps enabled police to “listen in as the pimps arranged ‘dates’ for the victims, beat a girl and made death threats against their prostitutes.”

That’s ugly and hard to read, I know. But I firmly believe that if we are to fulfill our calling as justice advocates – a calling epitomized by the above words* for the people of God from Isaiah – we must be willing to face the harsh reality of evil in the world and name it as such.

But facing and naming, as important as they are, only go so far, right? How might we extend our advocacy…what can we, you know, do?

  • Pray. Regularly include trafficking victims in your prayers. Pray for their rescue and for those attempting rescues. Pray for justice: relief and recovery for victims and successful capture and prosecution of the slave holders. Pray for all of us – you, me, our church and the church universal – to have the courage to end slavery in our time.
    (I know, I know. That’s quite the unoriginal response. None of these are new ideas. Doesn’t make them any less necessary though.)
  • Be aware. For instance, CNN is in the midst of a yearlong, multifaceted investigation into modern-day slavery, which they call The Freedom Project. You could explore their site and then subscribe to their blog.
  • Raise your voice. Local news outlets such as Patch and Trib Local always seem to include a police blotter (see here or here) With some frequency, that blotter includes stories of women arrested for prostitution. But you know what I have yet to read? Accounts of pimps arrested. While Chicago police and Cook County Sheriffs and State Attorneys are making use of the Illinois Safe Child Act and going after pimp/traffickers, it seems our local officials are still focusing on arresting those who are trafficked.
    Granted, our local officials may be in the midst of investigations into the pimp/traffickers that just haven’t resulted in arrests yet (I really hope that is the case). In the meantime, let’s keep the pressure on by braving the comment sections of those news sources (watch out for trolls) and asking them to investigate the trafficking angle of the story.
  • Recognize labor trafficking. Sex slavery gets most of the recourses, news and outrage. But labor trafficking happens as well. Change.org has excellent human trafficking writers who do a good job of reporting on both sex and labor slavery. Read, sign petitions that move you, and recruit others to do the same.

Obviously, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list of actions we can take. But it’s a place to start. (Or continue, as the case may be.)

Next we’ll look at upcoming events as well as how we can help get the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) passed through Congress.

What else? What tools, resources and actions are you or your organization using to fight modern-day slavery?

*This verse from Isaiah is just one example. There are literally thousands of verses all throughout the bible about social justice.

“…Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan…”

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:17

“During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we rededicate ourselves to preventing and ending human trafficking, and we recognize all who continue to fight this serious human rights violation,” declared President Obama as he proclaimed January as, well, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

You can read the whole thing here (it’s not that long):

But the money quote is:

We stand with those throughout the world who are working every day to end modern slavery, bring traffickers to justice, and empower survivors to reclaim their rightful freedom.  This month, I urge all Americans to educate themselves about all forms of modern slavery and the signs and consequences of human trafficking.  Together, we can combat this crime within our borders and join with our partners around the world to end this injustice.

Additionally, January 11 was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. I was glad to see the Northern IL Conference includes it in it’s “January Days of Note.” However, the link provided frustratingly has only last year’s information on it. And one of the links there is broken.


Now, look, I’m glad our Conference is paying attention and I’m glad Board of Church & Society (the UMC’s advocacy arm) is concerned…but I wish it were concerned enough to keep their info up to date. Seriously, old info and broken links? That’s just embarrassing (kinda like going two months between posts).

January 11 also happens to be the day most committees at my church meet this month. For a couple years now, all committees that meet on the second Tuesday of the month begin by gathering all together for devotion and announcements. We do that to remind ourselves that no one group or committee exists alone, to be reminded that we’re part of a greater whole. We do that to engender inter-committee cooperation, share ideas and tasks. I think it’s a great tradition.

Since these two events (that is, committee night and Trafficking Awareness Day) collide on the same day, Pastor Jim asked me to prepare a short presentation on trafficking for the gathering time.

One good thing from the aforementioned Board of Church & Society statement (Guess that link isn’t totally useless!): “Local congregations can play a role in reversing the numbers of people being trafficked through education and action.”

My church, Woodridge United Methodist has already engaged in both education and action. But what’s next for us? That’s what I tried to offer on Jan. 11.

It is my attempt to briefly inform about the issue, review all the bold actions our church has taken together so far, and inspire our next steps in the fight against modern-day slavery.

Granted, viewing it like this loses a lot of the affect of being in a room full of attentive people. And it loses all of the additional comments, questions and responses. Most especially it loses all the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking stories that put flesh on the bones of those statistics.

So for what it’s worth, you can view my presentation here:


Want to learn more? I offer these for your perusal and edification:

Watch this video from Polaris Project. They maintain the National Human Trafficking Hotline. I couldn’t help but notice and be moved by how young their staff is.

-Read what UMCOR is doing to fight trafficking

-Adopt 1, 2 or even 11 of these ideas

Anti-Trafficking Heroes for 2010

Trafficking in nearby Indiana

-A glimpse at how slavery grows out of poverty

-The ugly underbelly of the country’s most-watched sporting event

-What some churches are doing to raise awareness

-Prepare to be angry. Alabama Sen. Sessions blocked an important bill, thereby supporting child sex trafficking.

Anne’s House and shocking proximity

According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus began his public ministry with a reading from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” Then Jesus declared that He fulfilled those words!

According to our membership vows, all United Methodists promise to “do all in our power to fight evil, injustice and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.”

These are just two reasons I continue to push for my congregation (and all Christians) to be advocates with and for oppressed and marginalized people. Maybe your vision of oppressed people starts in some far away land. While you may not be wrong, that is not the whole truth.

Some oppressed people are living right in our midst. Even some enslaved people.

Hopefully by now you have read or heard that Anne’s House opened this month in Chicago. Why should you care about that? Anne’s House is the long-term, residential, therapeutic care home for girls rescued from commercial sexual exploitation. This house provides the emotional, educational and vocational support the girls need as they recover from the horrific nightmare of sex slavery. And the people of Woodridge United Methodist Church helped make this house possible!

Way back last Christmas we took an offering in support of a dream. The Salvation Army wanted to open this home. They had a location, what they lacked was funding. So we helped provide them with some. And eleven months later, that dream became a reality. The faithfulness and generosity of our people helped make that happen. In a small way, sure. But we did help.

I’m reminded of something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And of something Dr. Cornel West says, “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Now you might be wondering, where will the girls who live in Anne’s House come from? From Cambodia or India or Mexico?

Try a little closer to home.

Oh, you mean like Seattle or Cleveland or Chicago.

Well, yes, in a nationally coordinated FBI operation conducted earlier this month, more girls were rescued from sex slavery in Seattle than anywhere else in the country. And Cleveland had a few too, as did Chicago. But you need to think even closer to us. By the way, the use of “girls” here is not a euphemism. We’re talking about children aged 12-17.

I think I might have heard something about South Holland, IL. (But I don’t know where that is.)

You’re right; girls are forced into sex slavery in South Holland too. (It’s about 40 miles southeast of Woodridge. I had to look it up.) But that’s still too far away.

Just tell us already! You’re obviously trying to shock us with the revelation of a spot near to us, a spot we’d rather not think child prostitutes could exist…where is it?!?

Downers Grove.

The heart-breaking, impossible-sounding, makes-me-want-to-retch truth is that of the 69 underage girls nationwide who were found in this operation, 1 of them was in Downers Grove.

Call it what you will – human trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, sex slavery, child prostitutes, modern-day slavery – but we can never again call it a problem over there somewhere. It is very literally right here in our midst.

The operation was a success nationally: 884 arrests including 99 pimps from 40 cities across 30 states and the District of Columbia. Locally, 39 arrests included 3 pimps. Kudos to the FBI and local police and sheriff’s departments.

And thanks to the new Illinois law, minors found in the sex trade here are treated as the victims they are and not as criminals. So the good news is that the 3 underage girls in the Chicago area are now receiving treatment. Maybe they’ll eventually end up in Anne’s House.

Maybe even the girl from Downers Grove.


May God give us the courage to unflinchingly look evil in the eye, the wisdom to respond with actions of faith, hope and love, and the strength to never give up even if we grow weary.

Continuing the anti-bullying conversation

A friend of mine watched the video of my Oct. 10 sermon online and declared, “the best part was when you said ‘Amen’ and the clapping commenced – you were shocked and awed with love!”

I’d say that was exactly right: both that I was awed by the loving response and that was the best part. I cannot thank my congregation and many others enough for the incredibly supportive response, both that day and since.

But the question before us now is, what’s next? As great as it felt (and still feels!) to be united in our opposition to bullying of all kinds to all people (which really, given the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus the Liberating King, is not at all a radical position), we cannot let that be the end of this conversation. Because kids are still being bullied. And not just “out there” somewhere, but right here in our communities, right here in Naperville and Downers Grove and Woodridge.

One critique that I’ve heard is that it appears to some readers that I think the only bullying that is happening (or the only kind that matters to me) is anti-gay bullying. So let me put that to rest. All bullying of any kind to any one is wrong and needs to stop.

Here is the first ‘next step’ from my church’s Youth Ministry leaders: Led by Christine Byczynski, our Youth Ministry adult leaders created a card for our young people to carry. A card to remind them of who they are and that they are not alone. Take a look:

The back reads: We are here for you. We love you. You can call or text any of us at anytime.

Then it lists several leaders’ names and cell phone numbers.  Every one of our young people who have attended Wednesday Night Live in the last two weeks has gone home with one of these cards. And more are available. We’re going to keep giving them out. We want all our kids and all the kids we can reach to know they are a beloved child of God and that they are not alone.

How about some next ‘next steps’?

-Woodridge UMC ‘s Wednesday night sessions have included some very honest conversations with our teenagers and will continue to.

-Woodridge UMC’s next session for parents will focus on bullying.

Now, how about you? What are you or organizations you’re connected with doing to stop bullying? Let’s share best practices so that together we can do all we can to keep our young people whole and healthy.

Related Links

A three-part series on bullying on the UMC website: http://ow.ly/31i7B

UMC Board of Church & Society article on cyberbullying: http://ow.ly/31if5

Clergy Against Bullying petition, which I signed and you can too: http://ow.ly/31i9a

I wrote about signing that petition here: http://ow.ly/31ib9

Collection of Christian responses to bullying from all over the USA (including one from yours truly): http://ow.ly/31icq

And, of course, you can watch my Oct. 10 sermon right here


Speaking Out: Clergy Against Bullying and Anti-Gay Violence

Thanks to a link on Twitter from Kimberly Knight, I became aware of this Clergy Against Bullying petition. In tone and message, the petition is a companion to my Oct. 10 sermon. I encourage you to go read the whole thing (it’s not that long, especially as joint statement press releases go). Here’s the opening ‘graph:

As leaders of Christian communions and national networks, we speak with heavy hearts because of the bullying, suicides and hate crimes that have shocked this country and called all faith communities into accountability for our words or our silence. We speak with hopeful hearts, believing that change and healing are possible, and call on our colleagues in the Church Universal to join us in working to end the violence and hatred against our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters.

Of course I signed right away. I hope you will too. Don’t let the “leaders of national network” thing scare you. We need all people of faith to add their voice, to break the silence, to “work to end violence and hatred against our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers.”

Sisters and brothers who, “each in their own way faced bullying and harassment or struggled with messages of religion and culture that made them fear the consequences of being who they were.”

I have been guilty of remaining silent. I have been guilty of being too worried about possible negative responses to say unequivocally that the God I know and love in Jesus the Liberating King is love. That the God I know and love and follow loves all human beings like a parent loves her child – including all our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers.

In my sermon last week and in signing this petition and writing about it here, I am attempting to end that silence or ambiguity forever. I will strive to no longer abide in privileged silence. I am out as an ally for the LGBTQ community. I hope that doesn’t sound condescending. I don’t want it to be.

That is why, to me, this is the best piece of the statement:

We, as leaders of faith, write today to say we must hold ourselves accountable, and we must hold our colleagues in the ministry, accountable for the times, whether by our silence or our proclamations, our inaction or our action, we have fueled the kinds of beliefs that make it possible for people to justify violence in the name of faith. Condemning and judging people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity can have deadly consequences, both for the victims of hate crimes and those who commit them.

There is no excuse for inspiring or condoning violence against any of our human family. We may not all agree on what the Bible says or doesn’t say about sexuality, including homosexuality, but this we do agree on: The Bible says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” Abiding in love – together – is the rule we must all preach, teach, and seek to live by.

People of faith must realize that if teens feel they will be judged by their church, rejected by their families and bullied by their peers, they may have nowhere to turn.

Too many things go unspoken in our communities. It’s time to talk openly and honestly about the diversity of God’s creation and the gift of various sexual orientations and gender identities – and to do that in a way that makes it safe for people to disagree and still abide in love.

Finally, a couple of thoughts on who else has signed this. And who has not.

I’m thrilled to see The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator, 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), signed. I don’t know Bruce personally, but I follow him on Twitter and find him to be an excellent voice for peace and justice.

As one who has called a United Methodist congregation both “office” and “home” for 15 years, I’m proud to see these names:

The Rev. Neal Christie, Assistant General Secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church & Society

The Rev. Cynthia Abrams , Program Director, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church

Linda Bales Todd, Director, General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist ChurchRelated Articles

I met Neal Christie last year so I know he is a good and vocal advocate for justice, a man with a real heart for God. The Board of Church & Society is the advocacy arm of the United Methodist Church, so it is no surprise to find other names from that Board on here.

But I must say I’m disappoint that no one from my church home, the American Baptist Church (ABC-USA), has signed. I know that justice and advocacy is important to the denomination. Their complete absence from this document is noticeable and shameful.  ABC friends, we can and must do better!

Let us join together and make this our pledge and our prayer:

We want our children and the children of the communities we serve to grow up knowing that God loves all of us and that without exception, bullying and harassment, making fun of someone for perceived differences, and taunting and harming others is wrong. The Golden Rule is still the rule we want to live by.


My sermon from Oct. 10, 2010: Settling In & Coming Out

As I wrote previously, the sermon I gave at my church (Woodridge UMC) garnered quite the reaction. I’ve never been more scared about the possible reaction to a sermon. I’ve never been more gratified by a response.

6 dead kids is 6 too many. Anti-gay bullying must stop. All bullying must stop. Every human being is a beloved child of God. You are not alone. I’m coming out as a LGBTQ ally!

Here’s part one, the set up and the disclaimer:

Now part two, the good stuff: