Religious communities, local vigils aim to raise awareness of human trafficking here, worldwide
A diverse group gathers each month at downtown Seattle's Westlake Park to raise awareness about the human trafficking problem. Photo: Courtesy Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center
By Jean Parietti
Every month, small groups gather on the downtown streets of Seattle and Vancouver to raise awareness about a big issue: human trafficking, a modern-day form of slavery that isn’t just a world away.
The Vancouver vigil started about three years ago, after members of the JustFaith group at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Vancouver attended an anti-human trafficking conference in Portland. “That really tuned us in to how much of a local problem it is,” said Margaret Johnson, an Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner who helps organize the vigil.
“We wanted to raise awareness of human trafficking, so we thought we would copy what they were doing in Seattle,” Johnson said.
In Seattle, a group of up to 40 people hold anti-trafficking signs and stand in silent prayer at Westlake Park on the first Sunday of each month. The 30-minute vigils are organized by the Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center in Seattle, a ministry sponsored by 17 religious communities. It is just a small part of the work IPJC has been doing for more than 15 years to combat human trafficking.
Human trafficking “ranks up there with drugs and arms dealing,” said Holy Names Sister Linda Haydock, IPJC’s executive director. “When we first began to talk about it, [people] just glazed over like they never heard about this.”
Today, local cases of teenage girls coerced into prostitution through people they met on the Internet or at the mall have raised more awareness about sex trafficking. But that’s just one aspect of the trafficking problem. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking involves “compelling or coercing a person’s labor, services, or commercial sex acts,” and it doesn’t have to involve smuggling workers into the country.
“The challenge is having people to be aware of situations that might relate to trafficking,” Sister Linda said. Trafficking can involve farmworkers, household workers and prostitutes, among others. Workers may be undocumented, or someone has taken their documents, and then they’re threatened — with deportation or harm to themselves or their families, she explained.
In the realm of sex trafficking, IPJC has been working with law enforcement agencies for nearly 15 years “to get them to see the issue of prostitution differently and see the women as victims,” she said. Progress is being made and the Seattle Police Department is “one of the strongest” in changing that perception among its officers, she said.
Signs with anti-human trafficking messages were on display at Seattle's Westlake Park April 6 during the monthly vigil to raise awareness of the issue. Photo: Courtesy Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center
IPJC focuses on educating people about trafficking and providing resources for learning more, dispelling misconceptions and taking action. It joined a coalition of women religious to place “Stop the demand” signs on Seattle-area buses five years ago. More recently, it has presented more than 80 parish workshops and does webinars and presentations for junior high students in Catholic schools. In the past two years, IPJC has logged nearly 25,000 downloads of anti-trafficking materials from its website.
For those wanting to take action against trafficking, “one of the simplest, most concrete things we can do is pay attention to our purchasing,” Sister Linda said. Consumers can check to see if they’re buying items made with child or slave labor. They can write to companies asking them to make sure their supply chains are slavery-free.
Getting out on the street once a month to hold signs and pray is another concrete way to raise awareness about the trafficking problem.
Theresa Edwards, a senior at Holy Names Academy, has participated in the Seattle vigils in the bustling Westlake Park area since she was a freshman. “Even when people are just walking by and they seem to be in a hurry, suddenly they stop and read the signs or take a brochure,” Edwards said. “You know that they’ve learned something that day.”
During the Vancouver vigils, some passers-by are surprised to learn trafficking is a problem locally. “They think it’s in the big cities, like Portland or Seattle,” Johnson said. The vigil participants, usually numbering eight or fewer, keep returning from “a sense that we need to do something, even if it’s a small thing,” Johnson said. “We just feel moved to do it.”
Join a vigil
Vigils to raise awareness of human trafficking are held from 1:30-2 p.m. on the first Sunday of each month at these locations:
Seattle: Westlake Park, Fourth Avenue and Pine Street.
Vancouver: Esther Short Park, West Eighth and Esther Streets (moves to the public library in winter).
West Seattle: St. Joseph Residence, where the retired sisters participate.
The Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center suggests these ways to help combat human trafficking:
- See how many slaves are working for you: www.slaveryfootprint.org.
- Find out what and where products are made with slavery: www.productsofslavery.org.
- Think you know of a case of human trafficking? Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888.
Carol Loya, a member of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland, has started Escape to Peace, a nonprofit organization to combat sex trafficking. Read about the spiritual journey that led her on this path in the April issue of NORTHWEST CATHOLIC magazine and online.
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