'Nuns on the Underground Railroad' | Sojourners

'Nuns on the Underground Railroad'

The way forward railway. Photo via hxdyl / Shutterstock.com

A young woman was working a part-time job in a mall in Los Angeles when she was approached by an expensively dressed woman with a flashy business card who offered her a better paying job. She met this recruiter on her lunch break and was impressed by her brand new Mercedes Benz. What’s not to trust about this job opportunity? Since this happened in a public place and all appearances looked promising, she accepted the offer. After three harrowing weeks as a sex slave in Las Vegas, she escaped and hid in a closet for three days, terrified she would be found.

As I listened to her story I was shocked since this mall is less than a mile from our convent, and we often shop there! I made an appointment with the head of mall security to urge the officers to be on the lookout for “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” or mall predators dressed in fine attire. What’s going on in your neighborhood?

Human trafficking cases have been reported in all 50 states. Domestic trafficking is growing, and there is a market for our young people. The average age of victims recruited into sex trafficking is 11-12 years of age. The U.S. was awakened to the reality of international trafficking and passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 to help victims with legal, medical, and basic needs. Today, however, we need to wake up to the needs of domestic victims.

The scriptures remind us to take particular care of the orphans, widows, and the strangers. Seventy percent of our trafficked youth were at one time in foster homes. These “orphans” need our social services, healing environments, and legislative advocacy. Faith-based communities and organizations have rich resources in mission, personnel, and networking that can make all the difference.

While some people may have heard of the great work of Nuns on the Bus to engage people on pressing social issues, there’s also the “Nuns on the Underground Railroad” — a quiet movement of nuns working together to restore dignity and healing for victims of labor and sex trafficking across the nation and the world.

An anonymous donor aware of this underground effort of Catholic nuns funded the creation of a national group of sisters to meet annually and strengthen their collective efforts. This group was “christened” the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking (USCSAHT). Since its inception, the group has advocated for legislation for the protection of victims and created resources to educate the public on the root causes of human trafficking. USCSAHT has also provided survivors with education and employment. As is so typical of women religious, this movement is inclusive and embraces both international and domestic trafficking victims—Christians, Buddhists, Muslims—with respect for each one’s culture and faith tradition.  

For several years now, Catholic nuns have been proactive in preventing sex trafficking before, during, and after major sporting events like the Super Bowl by raising public awareness and conducting personal visits to hotels to alert them to the signs of human trafficking. Nuns have also placed full-page ads in airline magazines to educate the public about the dangers of child trafficking.

A fundamental theological and scriptural principle for Christians is that each human person is made in the image and likeness of God. This belief in the imago Dei helps us to see the face of God even when the person doubts her own beauty and worth because of oppression. “Nuns on the Underground Railroad” seeks to restore a person’s sense of dignity and beauty through two rails of freedom: healing through programs and shelters and empowerment through education and employment.

As we move toward the Lenten season, the prophet Isaiah reminds us:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58:6)

How is God moving your heart as you awaken to the stories of human trafficking victims? What action can you take for your enslaved sister and brother? What will you bring to your faith community to stir up concern? One single action to educate others and liberate the oppressed strengthens freedom throughout the world. As our mission affirms, “Ending slavery is everyone’s work.”

Sister Kathleen Bryant is a Religious Sister of Charity and a core member of the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking. Kathleen networks with local and national groups for the abolition of modern-day slavery and belongs to her community’s international antitrafficking team.