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Seeking Jesus by Seeking Justice

The faces of human trafficking span every age, race, gender, and nationality, and few are trained to recognize them. From cultural unawareness to consumer choices, most of us are complicit in the proliferation of trafficking across the globe—but if we have the power to fuel injustice, we also have the power to end it. Here's how the Bethel community is using the truth to fight for freedom.

By Jenny Hudalla '15, senior content specialist

August 13, 2019 | 10 a.m.

In the face of an injustice as monumental as human trafficking—and our own complicity in its growth—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. While our consumer choices and collective unawareness have the power to fuel modern-day slavery, we also have the power to end it. Here’s how the Bethel community is exposing the truth and using its power to fight for freedom.

A man washes dishes in the back of a diner. A teenage girl waits in a car parked at a rest stop. And a woman leans against the gleaming wall of a hotel lobby. None of these scenes appear out of the ordinary—but the dishwasher isn’t getting paid, the teenager isn’t waiting for a parent to finish pumping gas, and the woman isn’t entering a room by choice. They’re all among the 40 million victims of human trafficking, one of the fastest growing and most lucrative criminal enterprises worldwide.[1]

Often referred to as modern-day slavery, human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex from a person against their will.[2] With a $150 billion annual profit, its reach extends to every country, every state, and even Bethel’s own backyard. In 2015, Minnesota had the third-highest number of human trafficking cases in the United States, with a particularly high rate of child prostitution in the Twin Cities.[3]

“Human trafficking is one of the most prevalent issues of injustice in our day,” says Laurel Bunker, Bethel’s campus pastor and associate vice president of Christian formation and church relations. “We cannot, therefore, look upon the suffering of human beings and remain silent. Bethel students are being equipped to go into the world as agents of change. By using our educational skills and gifts, coupled with our robust faith and passion for biblical justice, we can make an impact in tremendous ways.”

Human trafficking is one of the most prevalent issues of injustice in our day. We cannot, therefore, look upon the suffering of human beings and remain silent.

Human trafficking is one of the most prevalent issues of injustice in our day. We cannot, therefore, look upon the suffering of human beings and remain silent.

Laurel Bunker
campus pastor and associate vice president of Christian formation and church relations

Educating advocates and empowering survivors

When Rebecca Bender S’19 imagined human trafficking, images of kidnapped children overseas appeared in her mind’s eye. Like many people, she believed it was far from her own reality—so, when she unknowingly began to date a sex trafficker, she didn’t notice the subtle warning signs. After months of manipulation and deceit, Bender’s trafficker moved her to Las Vegas and forced her into prostitution.

During the next six years, Bender was traded and sold between three traffickers. She was branded twice, hospitalized for dehydration and exhaustion, and suffered beatings that left her face broken in five places. Throughout her years of captivity and abuse, she was arrested seven times and convicted of five prostitution-related charges. It wasn’t until 2006, when federal investigators raided her trafficker’s home, that Bender was able to escape.

“I remember coming home and thinking, ‘Now what?’” says Bender, who then had a criminal record and no source of income. Slowly, she began to rebuild her life and work out the answer. In 2014, she founded the Rebecca Bender Initiative, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is twofold: to elevate and empower survivors, and to equip community professionals to identify and respond to trafficking in their own neighborhoods.

The organization has trained more than 100,000 undercover police officers, FBI agents, and medical professionals and graduated more than 500 survivors from its online academy, Elevate. Bender’s staff—half of whom are survivors themselves—speak and consult across the nation and have freed 47 women and children from a life of trafficking. As a member of the National Advisory Committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bender has also testified as an expert witness to the force, fraud, and coercive tactics used by traffickers. “It’s really humbling that God could use someone like me,” Bender says. “I’m truly grateful and also recognize that we all have a story to tell. God wants to use each and every one of us.” 

Now an internationally recognized speaker, author, and minister enrolled in Bethel’s M.A. in Christian Thought program, Bender says her faith played an integral role in her own healing process. She hopes to someday write Bible studies for women who have faced hardship while continuing to educate people about the reality of human trafficking. “Faith really brings a closure to your soul that only God can give,” Bender says. “It turns your bitterness into gratefulness.”

We all have a story to tell. God wants to use each and every one of us.

We all have a story to tell. God wants to use each and every one of us.

Rebecca Bender S'19
CEO and Founder of the Rebecca Bender Initiative

Creating agents of change

One evening, Associate Professor of Psychology Andy Johnson was shopping at a local grocery store with his daughter. They had just made it to the frozen foods section when his cell phone rang. It was a victim of domestic violence who was looking for help. Johnson paused next to the ice cream, steadied himself, and helped her come up with a plan. “It follows you everywhere,” he says. “It is everywhere. I wish it wasn’t, but it is.”

While Johnson’s primary research focuses on domestic violence and sexual assault, both issues intersect with human trafficking. His research team, which often includes Bethel students, prepares materials that empower mental health practitioners to provide culturally sensitive treatment to survivors of interpersonal violence. “We take the time to not only learn about people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, but also provide nuanced educational resources that help professionals provide better treatment,” Johnson says. “It’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s also incredibly tiring.”

Having witnessed trafficking in his own community, Johnson makes it a point to weave the topic into his course curriculum. Among the many drivers of human trafficking are sexual objectification and social exclusion, and Johnson believes students have the power to address both. He educates students about the consequences of suggestive advertisements, sexist jokes, and the consumption of pornography while familiarizing them with socioeconomic factors that make people especially vulnerable to trafficking—all in the hopes that they, in turn, will educate others.  

It’s evident through Johnson’s research that people on the margins of society face a greater risk of being trafficked. Johnson says traffickers often hire high school students to point out peers who have a disability, have suffered an emotional loss, or have been kicked out of the house. Up to 20% of Minnesota’s homeless youth have exchanged sex for basic necessities like food and shelter, and 44% of LGBTQ+ youth living on the streets of Minneapolis have been approached by traffickers.[4] “When someone is socially excluded, they make easier prey,” Johnson says. "That's where we come in. Part of our job as Christians is to show the love of Christ to others."

Beyond acquainting students with the issue, Johnson frequently finds opportunities for them to make a real-world impact. His students have developed educational materials for the Minnesota-based anti-trafficking organization Breaking Free, helped survivors tell their stories, and even attended graduation ceremonies for women who have completed Breaking Free’s recovery programs. “Instead of a standard test or paper, I want to let students contribute to the cause,” Johnson says. “We’re taking knowledge and finding out how it applies to real problems, because these things matter. All of this injustice is counter to the gospel, and it has to change.”

We’re taking knowledge and finding out how it applies to real problems, because these things matter. All of this injustice is counter to the gospel, and it has to change.

We’re taking knowledge and finding out how it applies to real problems, because these things matter. All of this injustice is counter to the gospel, and it has to change.

Andy Johnson
associate professor of psychology

Advocating for victims

Lauren Peffley ’09 has been accused of having a one-track mind, and she doesn’t disagree. She has dedicated her entire professional life to fighting human trafficking after studying the issue as a history major at Bethel, where she says a theology of poverty course emboldened her to “seek Jesus by seeking justice.”

As an anti-trafficking social worker at the International Institute of St. Louis, Peffley provides comprehensive case management to survivors, which includes help finding housing, educational support, medical advocacy, short-term financial assistance, and more. Peffley’s work is survivor-centered, which means her clients identify their own needs and goals. “We are not interested in speaking over people who have been silenced for far too long,” she says. “We allow people to use their own voices and actively listen to what they have to say.”

Peffley is also a teaching assistant for a graduate-level sex trafficking course at Washington University and part of a research team working to create a trauma and trafficking survivor resource manual for the state of Missouri. She keeps a close eye on state and federal legislation that may impact her practice and says legislation like Minnesota's Safe Harbor Law—which serves as a national model for anti-trafficking policy—is a significant step forward for survivors and service providers.

Besides increasing penalties for traffickers, the law protects minors involved in the sex industry by treating them as victims rather than criminals and directing them to specialized services instead of juvenile detention. It also secures funding for restorative housing specifically for survivors of sex trafficking, filling what Peffley called “a massive housing and services gap that has existed for far too long.” Since the enactment of the Safe Harbor Law, the number of sex trafficking convictions in Minnesota has doubled.[5]

 

Together—here and now—we're creating a future with less exploitation.

Together—here and now—we're creating a future with less exploitation.

Lauren Peffley '09
anti-trafficking social worker

Still, most states have yet to pass similar legislation, and further protections for adults trapped in the sex industry are sorely needed. Many victims are convicted of or imprisoned for drug offenses, prostitution, traffic violations, loitering, and other criminal activity they had little control over.[6] “Having barriers around safe housing, stable employment, or benefits can push people back into the life of exploitation," says Peffley, who hopes to someday effect change at the legislative level. "Any policy that eliminates those barriers is incredibly important."

Known to be a low-risk, high-reward industry with minimal prosecution, human trafficking is hard to detect and even harder to prosecute. In 2017, law enforcement officials identified more than 100,000 victims worldwide, but only 7,045 traffickers were convicted.[7] Although the trafficking industry and the subsequent pressure Peffley feels continue to grow, she is encouraged by the progress she sees every day. “The thing that has sustained me thus far and keeps me looking forward to the work ahead is being surrounded by a host of bold, brave survivor-leaders and amazing advocates dedicating their lives to combating human trafficking,” she says. “Together—here and now—we are creating a future with less exploitation.”

 

Envisioning a solution

For more than a decade, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies Stina Busman Jost has asked her students to grapple with a crucial and often convicting question: In the face of an injustice as monumental as human trafficking, what is the role and responsibility of the church? “It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” says Busman Jost, whose research focuses on how Christians can impact counter-trafficking efforts. “But, because our faith teaches us that every person is made in the image of God, we are especially encouraged and equipped to recognize how important this work is.”

Having taken Bethel students to study trafficking in Cambodia four times in the last seven years, Busman Jost has seen firsthand how the industry has adapted and evolved to survive. Woven into the very fabric of global society, the problem has proven difficult to unravel—but those involved in anti-trafficking efforts have increasingly considered faith-based, purpose-driven institutions like Bethel important contributors to the cause. With extensive networks, established community connections, and impassioned experts, faith communities are uniquely equipped to help build a world where freedom triumphs over fear.[8]

Our faith teaches us that every person is made in the image of God, so we are especially encouraged and equipped to recognize how important this work is.

Our faith teaches us that every person is made in the image of God, so we are especially encouraged and equipped to recognize how important this work is.

Stina Busman
professor of biblical and theological studies

“The problem of human trafficking is multidimensional in nature, so it will take minds and hearts from a variety of disciplines to fully address it,” says Busman Jost. As faculty adviser to Bethel’s chapter of International Justice Mission (IJM)—an international human rights organization working to eradicate slavery worldwide—she has seen hundreds of students commit to understanding and raising awareness of human trafficking.

Members of the club have written letters to congresspeople, volunteered with local nonprofits, shown educational documentaries on campus, and raised significant funds to support IJM’s efforts on the ground. With majors from history to business to nursing, the club is a microcosm of the type of solution Busman Jost is talking about. It will take a legion of psychologists, social workers, storytellers, healthcare providers, educators, and survivor-leaders to topple an industry that has taken root in every corner of the world. And, perhaps more than anything, it will take an abundance of hope.

“I know the God we serve and I know the tenacity of our students,” says Bunker, who has served as Bethel’s campus pastor for 11 years. “There will always be battles, frustrations, opponents, and statistics that stand in our midst and say, ‘Just stop. Go home.’ But if we seek the wisdom of the Lord and look to those who have gone before us and made remarkable strides, we will, even with casualties, win the battle.” 


 

Do your consumer choices fuel the demand for forced labor?

If you own a smartphone, wear makeup, or enjoy eating shrimp, the answer is probably yes.

While the problem of human trafficking encompasses both sex and labor trafficking, the former often obscures the latter. That’s a problem, says Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies Stina Busman Jost, because the average American is either unaware of or reluctant to address his or her contribution to the labor trade. “Because of globalization, we have lost ourselves in the chain of goods,” she says. “But our consumerism, our desire for cheap goods, has a real impact on a real person who works on an assembly line in India or China.”

She acknowledges that coming to terms with our own culpability in the labor trade can be overwhelming, but even taking small steps to address the problem can trigger a big change. Research companies that have fair labor practices woven into their social mission. Consider buying used clothing. Buy produce from local farmers markets. “Making lifestyle changes in the context of community is really helpful,” she says. “Research shows that trying to go it alone gives our resolutions less staying power, and that’s where the church comes into play. From small groups to social movements, we have to help create a different culture—one that isn’t fueled by an insatiable desire for the next new thing.” 

What now?

Coming to terms with the reality of human trafficking can feel overwhelming, but each one of us has the power to effect change. Here are a few things you can do to get started:

  • Know the facts. Human trafficking takes many forms, including forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude, forced marriage, sex trafficking, and the recruitment of child soldiers, among others. Many victims are manipulated, threatened, or otherwise coerced into trafficking, often at the hands of their partner, spouse, or parents. Learn more at polarisproject.org.
  • Educate others. Invite your family and friends to watch documentaries like Nefarious, encourage your church to host an expert speaker from the field, and learn how to identify trafficking through free resources at rebeccabender.org.
  • Donate your time and resources. Familiarize yourself with local faith communities or nonprofits working to further the cause and get involved. Many organizations are understaffed and underfunded, so even modest financial or time commitments can make a big difference. 
  • Report trafficking in your community. If you believe you have information about a possible trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888.373.7888. It’s open 24/7 and calls are kept confidential.

From the writer

Through the process of writing this story, I stumbled across a website designed to show consumers how their personal choices can fuel the trafficking industry. As a 26-year-old woman who resides in a northern Twin Cities suburb, I have about 38 slaves working to sustain my standard of living. Learn how many slaves work for you—and what you can do to change it—at slaveryfootprint.org.


[1] Global Estimates of Modern Slavery, International Labor Organization (ILO), ilo.org, 2017. Editor's note: Estimates of the prevalence of human trafficking vary widely because of differing definitions and methodology, among other reasons. Most fall between 20 million and 50 million.

[2] “What Is Human Trafficking?” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, dhs.gov.

[3] “Human Trafficking Awareness,” Minnesota Department of Transportation, dot.state.mn.us.

[4] Statistics About Sex Trafficking in Minnesota and the United States, Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force, mnhttf.com, 2014.

[5] “Let’s Put a Red Light on Sex Trafficking,” Office of the Minnesota Attorney General, ag.state.mn.us.

[6] “Expand Minnesota’s Safe Harbor for Sex Trafficking Victims,” Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2019.

[7] 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report. U.S. Department of State, state.gov, June 2018.

[8] “Faith-Based Partnerships to Combat Human Trafficking,” National Human Trafficking Resource Center, traffickingresourcecenter.org.

 

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