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Christians combat human trafficking in Canada

Gaining international attention through awareness movements like Not For Sale and the Polaris Project, human trafficking is “the act of recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons . . . by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion . . . for the purpose of exploitation,” according the U.N., which recently estimated that there are 29.8 million people in slavery globally.

Christians combat human trafficking in Canada

Sign at a Defend Dignity event challenges participants with this question: "What are you going to do about it?"

There are some issues that just seem too big.

Human trafficking is one.

Gaining international attention through awareness movements like Not For Sale and the Polaris Project, human trafficking is “the act of recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of persons . . . by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion . . . for the purpose of exploitation,” according the U.N., which recently estimated that there are 29.8 million people in slavery globally.

And perhaps the worst part? “Globally” includes Canada, where human trafficking’s most common form is sexual exploitation and its most frequent victims Canadian-born women and girls (publicsafety.gc.ca). Although Canada “does not currently have a standard system for tracking incidents of sex trafficking,” according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, “the incidence is significantly greater than current government numbers imply, and is . . . increasing in prevalence.”

With both heartbreaking stories of trafficking and politically-charged opinions of prostitution simultaneously pouring into our newsfeeds, it’s hard to know what a Christian can – or should – do. But here is one organization and one movement that, despite the issue’s complexity and pain, refused to just stand by.

‘Defend Dignity’ together
Today, January 11, is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Could 2016 be the year that Christians across Canada mobilize to fight the trafficking of persons in our neighbourhoods? “It is possible,” Defend Dignity’s motto boldly states, “to end sexual exploitation in Canada.”

Five years ago, when it began, the organization’s goal was not so sweeping, explains its director, Glendyne Gerrard. The then-National Woman’s Director for the Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA) church in Canada, Gerrard, and her team were given a task.

“We were challenged to take a look at a Canadian justice issue. We had been quite involved with stuff overseas, but had never chosen an issue here in Canada. God led us to the issue [of sex trafficking],” Gerrard remembers.

As they began to work, Gerrard and her team quickly realized sex trafficking was not just a woman’s issue: it was the church’s issue, and one that warranted a long-term, broad, bold focus. Gerrard resigned from her position, with the CMA’s blessing, in order to function as director of the brand-new Defend Dignity, an organization that seeks to act as a catalyst for individuals and churches through raising awareness, advocating on Parliament Hill and providing aid and education to organizations working on the front lines to rescue and provide long-term care.

It was a survivor of sex trafficking who emboldened Gerrard to take this issue head-on. “She came up to me,” Gerrard recalls, “and said, ‘Glendyne, you’ve got way more influence than I do, because you have this national role. Why don’t you try something?’”

Gerrard did.

Five years later, survivors continue to play a key role in Defend Dignity’s awareness events, which they regularly host all over Canada. At a typical awareness event, Gerrard explains, “we bring in a survivor to tell their story.” They also invite a local police officer to describe the community’s particular situation. “We do a lot of talking ahead of time to find an officer who ‘gets’ it,” Gerrard says. “For the most part, police are getting to be more knowledgeable” although in some communities, she says, the police are less aware or less willing to share with citizens what the exact situation is – sometimes contradicting what social workers report from the same communities.

Gerrard, however, finds her own way. “My practice is, wherever I travel, go online and see if there really are women being sold in the city where I’m at. Most prostitution now happens online. I was in a small town, farming community, last weekend, and lo and behold, they’re being brought into the community and sold in hotels – never mind the kids who are selling themselves for a place to sleep or drugs or whatever . . . in high schools all over the place.”

That reality of desperation hits home for Gerrard’s audiences at these awareness events, as they absorb the connections between prostitution and exploitation. “I think there’s [a] myth that women choose this,” Gerrard says. “Although that’s certainly true of a percentage, it’s a small percentage. Prostitution is [in most cases] not a choice; it comes from a lack of privilege. If the average age a woman starts this is 13, what kind of choice is that? She usually comes out of a place of oppression and poverty. In our country, certainly, if you’re indigenous, you’re way more at risk.”

After a local social worker speaks to the audience at a typical awareness event, Gerrard, with a help of a male colleague, closes the event with a few words to men. “If there wasn’t demand, there wouldn’t be supply,” is their stark message. “And if you’re buying, or if you’re watching porn, stop it.”

Porn is Defend Dignity’s next battlefront. In 2016, as part of their advocacy work, Defend Dignity plans on launching an anti-porn campaign, in the well-researched belief that porn is a root cause of sexual exploitation. “We’re going to ask elected officials to treat pornography as a public health issue,” Gerrard says. As the political climate shifts, Defend Dignity is also meeting with lawmakers to be aware of possible changes in legislation with the new government.

They also encourage individuals and churches to be active in policy reform. After one awareness event, the listeners took action and spoke up in their community’s forum on whether or not to allow a strip club to open in their town. Their efforts convinced the town to vote “no.”

Gerrard has hope that as more are aware, more men, women and children will be saved from sexual exploitation. “I still get asked: this really happens in Canada? The misperception is that it [only] happens overseas, in places like Southeast Asia; it doesn’t really happen here. But that’s changing.”

Strategically ‘standing in the gap’
Jodi Hall knows that change firsthand.

Currently, Jodi Hall is the head of a talented group of women called Standing in the Gap who use their singing skills to raise money for victims of human trafficking. But back in 2011, Jodi Hall pretty much just knew that human trafficking existed – and not much more.

That shifted when Stella’s Voice came to Hall’s church. Stella’s Voice is a faith-based relief organization focused in Moldova to rescue orphans who, after age 16, are no longer supported by Moldova’s government. They’re set on the curb with a bus ticket and a few dollars – and are at a huge risk of being exploited.

Hall had a feeling that she wasn’t supposed to just let this slide to the bottom of her prayer list. “I felt very compelled to do something about [it], but I didn’t think there was anything to do except give financial support and go on our merry way.”

Most of us do just go on our merry way. But Hall came up with an idea born out of the unique strengths of her church. “We’re really blessed with so many gifted singers, so I thought [producing a CD] is something we can do together.”

When she began to second guess the idea, two things convinced her to take the plunge and make a CD. First, everyone she approached about singing immediately said that they felt compelled, too. They weren’t just willing – they felt obligated.

And second, the Lord provided the funds to produce the CD. Hall, who is the Director of Operations for the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes, is quite familiar with crafting proposals to ask for funds, “but this was the first time I was [the one] asking money for my project.” Nervously, she ended up having coffee with a gentleman who had expressed interest in funding. “I told him what we needed and he picked up the proposal I wrote, took 10 seconds to read it, set it back down, and said, ‘I already knew that I was going to do this, the Lord already told me. I was just waiting for the right project.’”

That’s how 11 women from Sunset Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick, found themselves singing out words to women across the world they didn’t know, but whom they deeply loved. “Whenever we had a need, it was filled,” Hall says. Sales from the CD – higher than anyone anticipated – have gone toward Stella’s Voice. But the goal became bigger than financial assistance.

“For me, the most rewarding part of all this was not to generate a lot of money, because we know that realistically a local CD isn’t going to be able to do that. It was really a tool . . . the true goal was to raise awareness on the subject,” Hall says.

Hall’s sister, Shannon Ackerson, who helped with the graphics for the organization and maintains its social media, agrees. “When you start looking, actually looking, online, you find stuff that is hard to read. Most people don’t want to know about it. So once you do know about it, you can’t not do something.”

“It felt gigantic, and I was just a little person, so what could I do?” asks Heather Godfrey, one of the 11 singers. “It’s wonderful to know that I could help even in a small way.”

And despite their small size and the gigantic nature of the issue, the group continues to fight human trafficking. They sang at the East to West Festival in 2014, sharing the festival stage with Newsboys and Jerry Camp. Then, in March of 2015, they ambitiously hosted the Stand as One prayer event webcast, where international Christians prayed simultaneously for an end to sex trafficking.

“These organizations that are perpetrators of human trafficking, they’re very strategic,” Hall explains. “They’re very organized, they work across borders. So I thought, you know what, as Christians we need to be equally ready to be strategic, to be organized, to have a plan, to speak with a unified voice. So the real idea with the webcast was to have Christians around the world, at the same time, lifting up our voices in prayer, asking not only for those who are victims but also for those who are perpetrators.”

“I realize that’s a different approach,” Hall gently admits, “but we really pray that they would turn from being a perpetrator to a defender.” After that webcast, Hall testifies, the group saw repeated news stories of trafficking networks coming down.

As Sean Wilkinson, the marketing support of the team, puts it, “The biggest tool we have right now is not the mind, or the CD, but it’s prayer. That’s the biggest.”

Going forward, Standing in the Gap plans to partner with a local radio station to spread awareness. Oh, and they’ll continue to pray.

What in the world you and I can do
As both Glendyne Gerrard and Jodi Hall demonstrate, fighting is always an option, despite lack of influence, experience or funds. Awareness, advocacy and aid can be offered to and for the sexually exploited by individuals, families, schools, churches, communities and cities.

And meanwhile, during and after: never stop praying.

 

Canadian faith-based organizations fighting human trafficking
defenddignity.ca (national)
Salvation Army salvationist.ca (national)
inthegap.ca (Fredericton, New Brunswick)
bridgenorth.org (Greater Toronto Area)
risingangels.net (Greater Toronto Area)
Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity,
embracedignity.org (Vancouver, B.C.)
Freedom Catalyst fcr.yadavconsulting.com
(Regina, Saskatchewan)
Next Step Ministries Calgary, nsmcalgary.com
(Calgary, Alberta)
Other Canadian organizations
educatingvoices.com (based in Vancouver, B.C.)
joysmithfoundation.com (Winnipeg, Manitoba)
Tracia’s Trust gov.mb.ca/fs/traciastrust
(Winnipeg, Manitoba)
The Action Coalition on Human Trafficking Alberta
 actalberta.com (Edmonton, Alberta)

About the Author
Christians combat human trafficking in Canada

Judith Dinsmore

Judith Dinsmore is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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