After volunteering with organizations in Chicago that strive to end human trafficking, I realized that I wanted to go to school to be equipped to holistically minister to human trafficking victims and survivors. In particular, I was interested in learning about the role of survivors in anti-trafficking work; best practices for anti-trafficking organizations and anti-trafficking ministries.
In Cagayan de Oro, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines organized an exposure experience with Tisaka, an anti-human trafficking organization. After the members of Tisaka introduced themselves, I explained the purpose of my trip, and then they took turns explaining their mission and vision. They excitedly spoke over each other, filling in the gaps when they thought that someone else didn’t fully explain an aspect of Tisaka’s mission. Their holistic work includes inviting women to a shelter, providing education and training, accompanying women at “social hygiene” check-ups and doing “orientations.” Honestly, it was hard for me to fully grasp what all of this looked like until I could see it in action.
Later in the evening we went to minister at a strip club. One of the volunteers, Sheila, took me into the dressing room and introduced me to the women and girls working. Sheila cheerfully hugged them and explained why I was there. After being in the dressing room, I joined other Tisaka volunteers and sat in the performance area. One woman began to dance. Sheila got up and moved very close to the edge of the stage because she was friends with the woman performing. I thought, “If I was the girl on stage that would make me nervous.” Later as I was reflecting, I realized that this act of sitting close was intentional – very intentional. I started to tear up: perhaps that’s what God wants us in the Church to do! Maybe God is calling some of us to reach out to sex workers, to sit really close to the stage and be a beacon of love and light. I cannot emphasize how powerful this ministry experience was! It transformed my heart and vision of ministry – survivors must lead because they come up with the most creative, authentic and effective ways to address the problem of trafficking.
Tisaka volunteers did not view strip club or massage parlor managers as enemies but in many ways sought to build bridges with these people. This tactic is critical to their success: volunteers disclose their intentions with club owners and managers. In doing so, they are protecting sex workers in two ways: first, they are not appearing as people trying to pull women away from these establishments but rather they want to protect women by providing condoms, sexual health information and shelter. As survivors, Tisaka understands the pressures that these women face and never try to rescue them because they know that most victims of sexual exploitation will leave when they are ready. Secondly, Tisaka informs the managers about the legal definitions of human trafficking because they want the owners to know that if a sex worker is trafficked or abused by a customer, then Tisaka will intervene and protect the women. Part of this is the genius of survivor-led ministries and organizations: Survivors know how to care for victims because they were in their position once. THEY know BEST what victims need.
The next day we returned to the club. The owner realized that there was a trafficking recruiter present and informed Tisaka. Tisaka then said they would do an information session with all of the people that worked at the strip club to talk about sexual health and the legal definitions of trafficking. If they hadn’t been there the night before, several women could have been trafficked.
The information session was engaging and even the owner wanted to know more about how to protect the women and thereby protect his business. Usually, in the U.S. we focus solely on the victims, which is good, but if we don’t address the other aspects of human trafficking, human trafficking will persist.
That night we went out for dinner, and I shared some insights from observing their ministry. I tried my best to communicate the revelations I had while accompanying them: society had deemed them last or least, but God says that they are first in the kingdom of God: what they are doing is holy! So holy! The Spirit of God was present in the women of Tisaka and they bathed each club and bar with the Spirit. My time in the Philippines learning from Tisaka and other organizations helped me to conclude that anti-trafficking work should not only take into account the opinions of survivors but should allow survivors the authority to direct anti-trafficking work and to guide their own healing process.
I would like to thank McCormick Theological Seminary, Global Ministries, and the United Church of Christ of the Philippines for this opportunity!
Lauren Robinson is a 2nd year M.Div. student originally from Shaker Heights, OH, but has been in the Chicago area for 11 years. After graduating from McCormick, Lauren hopes to pursue a masters in social work. She served as a Short-term Volunteer in the Philippines with the UCCP to learn about their work against human trafficking.