Be a Wilberforce

All Things Examined

Each year Prison Fellowship bestows an award on the person who has best exemplified the work and spirit of William Wilberforce. Past recipients include U.S. congressmen, senators, a British parliamentarian, a former U.S. Treasury secretary, clergymen, and scholars.

In 2005, I had the privilege of attending the award ceremony in Washington, D.C., honoring Gary A. Haugen. Gary is the founder of International Justice Mission, a Christian human rights advocacy group. With support from a stable of lawyers, investigators, and government liaisons, Gary travels around the world to help victims of human trafficking, slavery, and sexual exploitation.

After receiving his law degree from the University of Chicago, Gary worked for a human rights group fighting government corruption and abuses in the Philippines. Later, in 1994, he headed a U.S. Department of Justice team charged with investigating the Rwandan genocide.

During one of his trips to that devastated country, Gary scanned a mass grave with thousands of machete-hacked corpses. Overwhelmed by the human tragedy, Gary wondered what one “white bread” boy from the California suburbs could do. As it turned out, more that most people could have imagined.

Gary and his team conducted field investigations and gathered evidence from among 100 graves sites in the region. They applied their legal expertise to develop strategies of securing reliable eyewitness testimony and bringing guilty parties to justice -- skills and tools that Gary realized were sorely absent in the existing overseas relief groups.

The experience convicted Gary to found IJM in 1997 and put his expertise to work for the victims of injustice worldwide. It was, and is, a formidable undertaking.

Slavery today

Today, as in the time of Wilberforce, slavery is an invisible evil in a culture easily distracted by American Idol and the latest inanities of the Kardashians. Yet 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 27 million people are enslaved around the world -- more than the sum total of victims during five centuries of European slave trade.

It is estimated that up 800,000 persons -- half of whom are children -- are trafficked across their nation’s borders each year for the commercial sex and forced labor industries. And that does not include those trafficked within their country. The story of “Maira” is typical:

Maira was 15 when two well-dressed men driving a nice car approached her and two friends in a small Honduran village. They told the girls they were businessmen and offered to take them to the United States to work in a textile factory. Maira thought it was the perfect opportunity to help her single mother, who struggled to support seven children.

But upon arriving in Houston, the girls were held captive, beaten, raped, and forced to work in cantinas that doubled as brothels. Men would come to the cantina and choose a beer and a girl, sometimes as young as 12. They would pay for the beer and sit with the girl while she drank it. If they wanted to have sex with the girl, they would take her to the back and pay cash for a mattress, paper towels, and spermicide. The captors beat the girls daily if they did not make enough money.

After six years, Maira was able to escape the cantina and return to her mother with the help of a kind American family. Her two friends remain missing.

Sadly, billions of aid dollars have done little to prevent similar tragedies for untold numbers of victims around the world.

The power of law

Thankfully, slavery is officially condemned by national laws worldwide. But the bad news, Gary Haugen learned, is that government officials and enforcement officers often turn a blind eye to those laws. In some cases, officials receive complimentary “favors” from traffickers; in others, the keepers of the law are retained on trafficking payrolls.

In response, Gary and his IJM team, in cooperation with local principled officials, have developed legal and enforcement processes to combat governmental inaction and corruption. By bringing the power of law to bear on offenders, Gary has helped put many traffickers behind bars, free families from the bonds of slavery, and restore individuals their rightful property.

Gary’s work has captured the attention of media, his story featured on shows like Oprah, 60 Minutes, and Dateline.

As you read this, you’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s great for Gary Haugen, the lawyer, but I’m a (school teacher, accountant, cafeteria worker, stay-at-home mom), what could I do?”

Just ask Zach Hunter. Zach became an abolitionist during Black History month. That was ten years ago, when Zach was 12 years old.

The power of one

Zach was like any other middle-schooler inspired by the courageous exploits of Fredrick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. If he’d been around in the nineteenth century, he was sure he would have been an abolitionist like them. But that victory was won a long time ago, or so he thought. Then he learned about the 27 million slaves existing today. Zach’s passion turned hot -- it was his time to act.

Zach launched a project called Loose Change to Loosen Chains, which raised $10,000 from his peer group for the cause of modern abolition.

Since then, Zack has written a book, Be the Change, published by Zondervan. Included are stories of inspirational figures like William Wilberforce and Harriet Tubman, together with personal accounts of modern-day children who have been trafficked and enslaved.

Later, as a high school freshman, Zack became a spokesperson for The Amazing Change -- an initiative of Bristol Bay Productions, producers of the film Amazing Grace -- to help build communities dedicated to finishing what William Wilberforce started over 200 years ago.

Zach traveled around the country as a student representative, encouraging kids to “channel their passion into something that makes a difference,” reminding them that “small groups of people have changed things all through history." (Indeed, who would have imagined that Wilberforce and his small band of friends could have changed the cultural and moral climate of a whole nation in so little time?)

All told, that’s a huge impact from a 15 year old who has described himself as a shy person who used to dread reading a book report in front of class. As I recall, Moses had a similar fear.

Within our borders

Then there’s David Batstone, a college professor in San Francisco. Batstone was moved to action when he learned that the owner of one of his favorite restaurants had trafficked hundreds of young people into the U.S. from India. To his shock, the young girls who served tables were also pressed into sexual service by the owner.

As it turns out, there are over 10,000 slaves and bonded workers in the United States, according to a 2004 report by the Human Rights Center at the University of California. These victims are forced into sexual service (46%), domestic service (27%), agriculture (10%), sweatshops (5%), and restaurant and hotel work (4%).

After conducting his own investigation, David wrote three books for The Amazing Change and started his own initiative against slavery, the Not for Sale Campaign. David challenges others to turn whatever they “love best [into] an abolitionist activity.”

Things you can do

“William Wilberforce and a vibrant movement of Christian abolitionists,” Gary Haugen writes, “didn’t miss their opportunity in 1807.” His challenge: what can we do, in 2012, to not miss ours?” Gary suggests four things:

1. Learn the facts about modern-day slavery, pray with others about what you are learning, and help your faith community become aware of the problem.

2. Petition your representatives in the U.S. government to make enforcement of anti-slavery laws a priority in relations with countries that tolerate high levels of forced labor.

3. Help pay for the investigative and legal advocates that slaves need to secure freedom and protection under the law.

4. Help pay to secure aftercare and rehabilitation services for the long-term restoration of former slaves.

To those I would add:

1. Use social media (Facebook, your own blog) to write about modern day slavery and trafficking.

2. Watch Amazing Grace, the inspiring film about William Wilberforce and his fight for abolition.

3. Organize a fundraising campaign like Zach Hunter.

4. Start a Clapham Group with some likeminded friends and mobilize your own abolition initiative.

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at centurion51@aol.com.

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