by Sarah Carson
Amanda was in a Detroit motel room when she found herself at a turning point.
The man she was with had begun to beat her.
“I was scared for my life, so I ran into the bathroom with my cell phone and locked the door,” she says.
On the counter she found the resource she needed to escape her situation and begin a new life.
“I saw a bar of soap with a red label and called the number on it. The police rescued me, and I got into a recovery program,” she says. “It saved my life.”
The bar of soap was one of nearly 1 million that women across the country—including members of Women of the ELCA synodical women’s organizations and congregational units—have wrapped with the number of the human trafficking hotline.
The bars of soap are just one tangible way Women of the ELCA participants are not only assisting trafficking survivors but also helping police, legislators and communities across the United States to recognize the signs of human trafficking and see those involved for what they are: victims of one of the most pervasive crimes in the world.
“I saw a bar of soap”
One way many Women of the ELCA participants have worked to end trafficking from the comfort of their own congregations is through participating in the S.O.A.P. project.
“The S.O.A.P. project takes bars of soap with the 800 phone number of the anti-human trafficking hotline to hotels and motels,” says Barbara Hazlett, chair of the human trafficking taskforce in the Great Lakes Synod of the ELCA. “[Victims] can get the phone number and carry it with them so they’ll have it when they need it. “
It was one of these bars of soap that Amanda found in that Detroit motel room.
Barbara first heard about human trafficking at the 2014 Women of the ELCA Triennial Convention, where voting members approved a resolution to bring awareness of and prevent human trafficking. Voting members approved another anti-trafficking resolution in 2017.
Since that time fighting human trafficking has become Barbara’s personal mission, she says.
“We’re in a rural area,” she says of her SWO. “People think this could never happen here…but the ladies that are involved in human trafficking are not prostitutes. They’re victims.”
She’s also led her SWO in efforts to fundraise for local organizations and organize community training events. She stays up-to-date with the latest efforts in her area through the State of Michigan, her local senator’s office and various mailing lists and newsletters.
“I would do anything I can to save just one life,” she says.
Like Barb, Women of the ELCA participants across the country have answered the call to make a difference in the lives of those affected by this crime. From holding community forums in congregations and local institutions to giving to and volunteering for organizations that support victims, Women of the ELCA participants have often gotten creative in their work.
In the Southwestern Minnesota and Southeastern Iowa synods, for example, groups have visited public spaces and left cards with the phone numbers for anti-trafficking hotlines. The Northeastern Iowa SWO hosted a workshop at a local casino to train staff and law enforcement to spot the signs of trafficking.
In both Ohio and Michigan, participants have found another strategy. Sister Sally Burke, chair of the Southern Ohio Synod Women of the ELCA anti-sex trafficking committee, was at a local meeting when another faith-based ministry mentioned a billboard they were erecting. A lightbulb went on in her mind.
“Our committee had been given a very generous grant from the Deaconess Community of the ELCA/Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada,” Sally explains.
The committee used that money to purchase three billboards that read “Human Trafficking Happens Here Too” with the number of the national human trafficking hotline.
“People need to start to know what the signs and symptoms are,” says Waynette Bridwell, who serves on the anti-sex trafficking committee with Sister Sally. “And then they need to call the anti-trafficking hotline number if they see something.”
The grant the committee procured was enough to run the billboards for one month, but once members of local congregations got wind of the project, they stepped forward to help keep the billboards going.
For women in the Southern Ohio Synod, this work is personal: “I am passionate…because I have been doing ministry with children for over 30 years,” Sister Sally says. “And it just grieves my heart to know they can very easily get trapped into this horrific life.”
“…my hands were shaking”
Shirley Paulson, president of the East Central Wisconsin Synodical Women’s Organization, was also inspired to act when she learned just how close to home human trafficking could hit.
While listening to S.O.A.P. project founder Theresa Flores, who spoke at a local event, “we learned how big the problem of sex trafficking is in Northeast Wisconsin—at truck stops just miles from our homes, at sporting events and other large festivals,” Shirley says.
Shirley helped organize an awareness-building event at her own congregation. It drew more than 300 attendees from the community. She began making connections with other local organizations and eventually found herself at a fundraiser with her state representative, Andre Jacque.
“[I] learned that he was very interested in ending human trafficking,” she says. “After our conversation, I emailed him and asked him to let me know if there was anything I could do to help him get legislation passed.”
Representative Jacque asked Shirley if she would testify at a hearing on a bill that would increase fines for those convicted of paying for sex.
“I’m sure that my hands were shaking as I gripped my notes, but I looked the legislators in the eyes and told my story,” Shirley remembers.
“I told them I represented women in 126 congregations in Northeast Wisconsin who wanted an end to human trafficking. I told them about the fifth-grade girl I knew when I was an elementary school principal—a girl for whom we gathered all our resources to help but who still remained troubled. I said that I now suspected that she may have been being trafficked. If I had known more then, if there had been stronger laws in place to protect victims and punish traffickers and buyers, maybe we could have saved her.”
Taking the next step
Are you interested in making a tangible difference in the lives of victims in your area?
Sister Sally suggests some ways to start:
“Pray for the rescue of the victims, for tougher laws to be passed to prosecute the buyers, sellers and users—and for laws to be passed to help the victims, to provide rehabilitation and caring places for them to get help and become survivors and thrivers,” she says.
Hold a S.O.A.P. event.
“I would challenge congregations to sponsor a S.O.A.P. event or erect a billboard in their area,” she adds.
Ask for better laws.
Urge lawmakers to pass legislation that supports victims of trafficking. (Find resources for contacting your legislators at ELCA Advocacy’s website: elca.org/Our-Work/Publicly-Engaged-Church/Advocacy.)
You can also add your name to petitions for policies that are already in the works. Go online to: polarisproject.org/action.
You might work with your congregation leaders to hold an anti-trafficking event where you bring form letters or blank cards to church and you invite members to sign letters or write cards that you can mail to legislators on their behalf.
Organizations like the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (humantraffickinghotline.org) and the Polaris Project (polarisproject.org) offer a wealth of resources for those who want to spread the word about this important problem. Free for you to download are: images you can share on social media, printable flyers you can hang in your congregation or community, and links to local events members of your congregation or congregational unit can attend.
Many local organizations—like the S.O.A.P. Project—offer hands-on opportunities to support victims, from labeling soap to collecting items that victims will need once they begin to get back on their feet. Ask local organizations in your area how you can best support victims of trafficking.
- Share ways to get help.
On their website (humantraffickinghotline.org), the National Human Trafficking Resource Center offers free, printable pocket cards with important phone numbers—just the right size for you to leave in public restrooms.
Learn more about these and other ways to get involved at womenoftheelca.org/humantrafficking.
This article is from the January/February 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full article or more like it, subscribe to Gather.
Sarah Carson is associate editor of Gather.