“Freedom is possible – if only we would try …”
Spiritual reflection for day against human trafficking
By Fr James McTavish, Verbum Dei missionaries, Manila
There is a well-known film called “Braveheart.” It is set in Scotland and the main character, a warrior named William Wallace, has a famous battle cry “Freedom!” This is a desire in all human hearts, to be free. However, the reality today is that many are not free. We have more people now in slavery than ever before in human history. This is the reality of human trafficking, which is a form of “modern slavery.” Are you aware of the number of persons estimated to be trafficked each year? It is estimated that 36 million people were trafficked in 2016. Human trafficking is now a 32 billion dollar industry, running third behind arms and drug trafficking. Fifty-one percent of the victims are women, 21 percent are men, 20 percent girls and 8 percent boys.” (Source: see Archbishop Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Address to “The Holy See and the Fight Against Human Trafficking,” Inaugural Lecture of the Casamarca Foundation Chair in Migration and Globalization at Fordham University, Flom Auditorium, Walsh Library, Fordham University, Bronx, February 23., 2017).
For women victims of trafficking, seventy-two percent of them are trafficked for sexual exploitation. This would mean that globally approximately 13 million women are sex trafficked annually. So many are not free! But perhaps we can think this reality has nothing to do with us, or that it is such a big problem that we cannot do anything. How wrong this thinking would be as Pope Francis reminds us:
I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labour. Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity. (Source: Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium, no. 211)
I remember an experience of outreach on the streets of Manila with an NGO working against sex trafficking and prostitution. We met some young women who were selling their body to make ends meet. We approached them, talked to them and listened to them. We handed them a small card with various passages from the Word of God on them. One woman read the words of Isaiah 54:10 on her card and started to cry: “Though the mountains may crumble and the hills be shaken, my love for you will never fail.” I saw that they were so hungry for the Word of God that they were happy to eat “the crumbs falling from the table” (see Mark 7:28). One teenage girl, who I found out was only 14years old, had her young baby lying on a sheet of cardboard on the ground. It was Christmas time, and the streets were full of gleeful shoppers, with the latest bargains stuffed under their arms. I was struck listening to the Yuletide songs blaring out over the loudspeakers with the lyrics “Christ our Savior is born, Christ our Savior is born.” As I gazed upon the little baby on the ground, I realized that this year baby Jesus was not going to be born in the mall or in a comfortable manger in a house; instead, he was lying there on the street, sleeping soundly in his cardboard manger and worthy of all my love and attention.
We should not forget the customers, usually men (many of whom may frequent our Churches and worship services), who buy the body of another for sexual purposes. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, referring to those who buy the body of another, declares “the one who pays sins gravely against himself: he violates the chastity to which his Baptism pledged him and defiles his body, the temple of the Holy Spirit” (Source: Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2355). These men are also enslaved as the Word of God explains: “they themselves are slaves of corruption, for a person is a slave of whatever overcomes him” (2 Peter 2:19).
Once I asked an NGO worker who is in the front lines against sex trafficking if the problem of the demand for sexual services was growing. She replied “Certainly, the demand side is growing and many more men are buying sex.” I asked her why. She explained with an incisive statement that still rings in my ears today: “Pornography is the theory, and prostitution is the practice.” Engaging in the viewing of pornography is already a form of collaboration with the wrong of sex trafficking and prostitution. Often it leads to overpowering desires that are acted out.
So we should not be afraid to announce the beauty of chastity! It seems like a dirty word today, out of fashion, and apparently not trending! We can understand chastity as pure love. Jesus boldly announced, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). The Catechism defines chastity as “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being … The virtue of chastity therefore involves the integrity of the person and the integrality of the gift (Source: Catechism of the Catholic church, no. 2337). Wow sounds awesome. Give me some more of that. A chaste heart is a free one! Christ desires to give us that freedom - “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1)
So come one let’s do something! As we hear in the prophet Isaiah: “Learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17). There is a lot we can be doing - praying, advocating and volunteering for a start. We know that Jesus himself was not ashamed to associate with women in difficult circumstances. He frequently stepped in to defend and save them (see Luke 7:36-50 & John 8:1-11). Jesus even provoked the chief priests and the elders of the people by announcing "Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you” (Matthew 21:31). He will say the same to us if we continue to sit by idly doing nothing! So let’s take a stand for the millions of people still trapped in slavery! St James said it only takes a spark to set a forest on fire! (See James 3:5).
A Jesuit priest called Fr Reuter was asked to write the foreword of a book that deals with prostitution and human trafficking in the Philippines. He wrote the following: A foreigner came to our country. Then, as so many foreigners cheerfully do, he published his first deep impressions. The last sentence of his article was sad. He said: “The tragedy of the Philippines is this: in one of the world’s loveliest countries, some of the world’s most beautiful girls are being sold for money to some of the world’s ugliest men.” (Source: Fr James B. Reuter, “Foreword,” in Mary Soledad L. Perpiñan, From Darkness to Light—Success Stories of Survivors of Incest, Rape and the Sex Trade (TW-MAE-W, Quezon City: 2008). He lamented that ““when our beautiful girls are sold for money, the great rank and file of our people do not move.” The appeal once made by Fr. Reuter still rings powerfully in my ears - “Each of us has an obligation, in conscience, to reach out to our people, to those who are in need. The poor girl trapped in prostitution is [at] the bottom of the barrel—the one most desperately in need. Each of us can do something! If only we would try!” (Source: Reuter, “Foreword,” xiv.) If only we would try.
We need to try a bit harder to end this modern day slavery, and bring freedom to many trapped lives. Let’s work for freedom on their behalf and do something! It can be challenging but our good Lord rouses us to action: “You will have trouble in the world but be brave, I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). Our friendship with the Lord truly gives us a brave heart. Then hopefully we can not only just shout “freedom” but with God’s grace to actually work for it, especially on behalf of millions of our trafficked sisters and brothers who are still trapped in modern day slavery. Amen
James is a Scottish missionary priest with the Fraternidad Misionera Verbum Dei.
Now assigned in Manila, he has been in the Philippines for 14 years.
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