James' assertation that "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress"(1:27) is nothing new in the church. This verse gets pulled out on service days and when seeking funds for short-term mission trips. Its widespread usage makes it easy for us to see the orphan and widow as abstract conceptions. At best they are just another good we should do and at worst, we see them as an outdated notion that does not really apply to the modern American church.
However, the plight of these two underrepresented and often ignored groups — women and children — has modern impacts. These two tell the tale of human trafficking today. Human trafficking is an emerging human rights issue both globally and in the United States. With an estimated 14,500 - 17,500 trafficked through the U.S. each year, it is essential for the church to take notice. The orphan and widow make up the majority of human trafficking survivors.
First, the orphan. Children in the foster care system and runaways are targeted by human traffickers. These vulnerable children often have experienced abuse and lack a stable support system. Some are forcibly snatched off the street. But more often, these children are approached and groomed by traffickers. One in 3 runaways are picked up by pimps within 48 hours of running. A trafficker establishes trust by showing interest in the runaway child. This grooming can occur anywhere from weeks to months, leading the victim to believe they are in a romantic relationship with their exploiter. Finally, the trafficker flips and forces the child into slavery. Pimps make $600,000 per year in untaxed income with only four children. While shocking, this is not rare; the average age of entry into sex work in the United States is only 13 years old.
Second, widows are a vulnerable population. The majority of foreign nationals trafficked into the United States are women and children. According to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UNGIFT), women are more likely to be trafficked because their work is undervalued. It is much more difficult for women to earn a living wage so they must participate in more risky behavior to find decent work. They are also recruited through fraud. Traffickers lead women to believe they are being recruited for legitimate jobs in the service or manufacturing industries. With children to feed and the promise of a decent paying job, these women's hopes are capitalized on by traffickers.
The orphan and widow are not obsolete in our modern society. If anything, the systemic targeting of these vulnerable populations by human traffickers means the need to empower these groups is even more paramount than when it was originally penned by James. The Bible mentions care for orphans and widows more than 15 times. So the next time we read James, let this 2,000-year-old call to action be the first step towards ending human trafficking today.
Lyndsey Christoffersen , Ph.D. is an instructor at Chapman University and cofounder of the Long Beach Human Trafficking Task Force. She researchs human trafficking and wrote her dissertation, 'City of Slaves: Local Regulation of Human Trafficking,' on modern day slavery in Los Angeles County.
Image: Human trafficking illustration, Semmick Photo / Shutterstock.com