During Advent, Christians celebrate the promise that night will not last forever.
The mysteries of light and darkness, day and night, illumination and invisibility are essential to the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. The angels appeared to the shepherds at night on a hillside. The wise men/astrologers followed Jesus’ star in the nightsky. Indeed, since the third century, the Western church has commemorated the Christ-Mass near the winter solstice — when the sun’s return has been celebrated as a sign of hope in the cold and dark.
The rhythm of the skies and seasons — the rhythm of the church year — both are ancient interlocking symphonies of light that call us to watchfulness and mindfulness. A small light can illumine vast spaces and dark corners of our selves. A light can reveal new aspects to things we thought we knew about our world. And, the light of knowledge can change perceptions about things we thought we understood.
As you read these words, there are tens of thousands of homeless children (perhaps more) on the streets in the United States. Reliable numbers are hard to find, because these children for the most part are invisible. You would probably not notice them if you saw them. Nevertheless, from law enforcement and other government reports, hotline statistics, and the experience of agencies such as youth outreach ministries, we know that homeless, runaway (or “thrown away”) children are part of our communities — eating at McDonald’s, riding the subways and buses, hanging out at the mall, talking on cellphones, and sitting in the park. What we don’t often see about their lives is that, as homeless youth, they are always vulnerable to the worst kinds of danger — from inadequate shelter, to sickness, to malnutrition, to physical violence, to terrible sexual exploitation.
Unfortunately, these vulnerable children are visible to some among us who are happy to use our ignorance and darkness for their own purposes: Let men who purchase sex from children believe that it is a “victimless” crime; let communities believe that it is the children, themselves, who are to blame; let law enforcement arrest many more children than abusers; let traffickers be punished less than the children they exploit; and let corporations remain legally blameless for selling children’s bodies online. And, most horribly, let these children believe that they are shameful outcasts and criminals because of what they have suffered.
Pimps (or traffickers) prey on vulnerable youth — knowing that the risk of being caught is small and the profit to be made selling bodies is great. A common strategy used for luring a child is to convince her that he will provide what she needs and wants most: she will be loved, protected and valued. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that: “Pimps typically recruit a vulnerable child by first showing affection and attention and promising a stable relationship. After the child has gained an emotional and psychological attachment to the pimp, he introduces the idea of prostitution to her as something she can do to contribute financially to their ‘street family.’” From there, the child is sold, brutalized, and trapped in darkness.
Sometimes light reveals our own carelessness — our own assumptions — and our own responsibilities in ways we would not have expected. Sometimes it calls us to courage. Sometimes it points us toward “still waters,” and sometimes it leads us to find children in the “valley of the shadow of death.” When the light of Advent shines, we can no longer say we do not see them. Take heed, take comfort, take courage: even human trafficking cannot resist the power of light. Pray that our eyes will remain open and will discern the truth. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” (John 1:5).
Erika Howard is the founder of Docwomen, a documentary film screening series that highlights the social challenges of women and girls, and creates public dialogue to raise awareness and inspire advocacy.
Patricia Davis is vice president for research and training for the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives; she is a licensed attorney in the State of Texas and earned an M.Div. and Ph.D. in Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.