An Interpretive Account of the Conversations among Global Ministries’ Partners engaged in Anti-human trafficking work in Asia
Kupang, Indonesia, April 5-9, 2018
Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that thrives by enslaving nearly 40.3 million people in virtually every country around the world. About 75% of victims are women and children, trafficked mostly for forced labor, sexual exploitation, begging and organs. A number of governmental and non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, people’s movements and religious organizations, including churches in many parts of the world, are responding to this challenge in many significant ways.
The reality and challenge of human trafficking has been one of Global Ministries’ priorities in its efforts to live out its core values. As part of this pursuit, the Southern Asia Desk of Global Ministries invited 53 anti-human trafficking activists, church leaders, pastors and theologians from 11 countries to Kupang, Indonesia from April 5 to 9, 2018. The purpose was to create a space to learn about their engagement in anti-human trafficking as well as to reflect theologically on partnership as they work to seek justice for the victims and survivors of human trafficking in Asia and elsewhere.
GMIT (Gereja Masehi Injili di Timor-The Evangelical Protestant Church of Timor), a Global Ministries’ partner in Indonesia, was the host of this event. Hundreds of people, some of them from GMIT, leave West Timor and surrounding islands every day to faraway places in Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia and Gulf countries in search of livelihood. Many of them end up being trafficked or exploited. GMIT has been deeply engaged in confronting human trafficking as well as seeking alternative forms of livelihood for those wanting to migrate.
The event: A celebration of partnerships
The event began with an inspiring opening worship led by young people from GMIT with stones brought to a simulated grave representing those who were either trafficked or forced to migrate, but returned as dead bodies. The stones also evoked the biblical imagery of the rolled away stone (Lk.24:2) marking the triumph of life over death, and of the living stones (1 Peter 2:5) reminding us of the mandate to strive for God’s reign of justice, peace and life for all. The ensuing conversations featured stories of encounter, experiences of engagement and hope, contextual analysis, biblical and theological reflections, prayers and collective reflections.
With many opportunities for individual input and sharing around small tables and in plenaries, participants were able to enrich and challenge one another. The good mix of activists, church workers and leaders, and theologians ensured that their theological reflections remained down-to-earth and action-oriented. Some came with long years of engagement with anti-human trafficking work, and the rest came with a determination to learn more and get involved. Nearly one third of the participants were young people whose presence ensured creative deviation from familiar paths. The presence of two Buddhist young people from Cambodia expanded the circle and kept reminding the participants that human trafficking is both a moral challenge for all, and that our approaches and actions need to be open and inclusive. New alliances were possible with the presence of leadership and representatives of Uniting World of the Uniting Church in Australia, the PCUSA in the Philippines, NCC-Philippines, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and the United Church of Christ in the US. Their active participation affirmed that God’s mission brings us all together and that organizational protocols must sync with the movement of the Spirit. Thus the gathering not only reflected on partnership but also celebrated and inspired new partnerships.
One of the five days was set aside exclusively to have an experience of learning and interaction within the context of this conversation – Kupang, West Timor, and Indonesia – the people, cultures and churches, and their challenges as well as theological resources and missional engagement for transformation. This also included a time for celebration of Timorese culture, dress, music, dance and food.
The participants also visited some projects and community initiatives run by GMIT and its partner organizations in Kupang. These were: J-Ruk, Rumah Harapan (House of Hope), Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia Timur (Eastern Indonesia Women’s Network), and the Institute of Resource Governance and Social Change. These church and civil society organizations involve survivors of human trafficking and young people as healers and enablers, who constantly labor to expand partnership networks for wider impact. This immersion experience also included Sunday worship with GMIT congregations in the rural areas of Noesinas, Tilong, Bokong, Sulamu, and Iungboken. Besides enjoying their warm hospitality, the participants visited agricultural initiatives. These are launched and run by local congregations with their own resources to help those among them to reconsider their decision to migrate on account of their economic vulnerabilities.
On one day, some participants took advantage of a spontaneous opportunity to join local anti-human trafficking activists at the airport cargo terminal as they received the body of a trafficked victim from Malaysia. We were told that every day, an average of six bodies of migrant workers or trafficked people arrive at different Indonesian airports.
Experiences, perspectives and analysis
There were presentations on the reality of human trafficking and of concrete responses from churches and organizations by participants from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Australia and the USA. These revealed some common trends and experiences as well as specific and complex challenges.
Some common features of the experience of trafficking victims were: no contracts, no clue as to location, long working hours, wages less than promised or unpaid wages, inhuman living conditions, rape, torture, detention, deportation and death. Most victims are poor from rural areas with little or no access to education and employment. Some of them also have distinct social identities as indigenous peoples (tribals), Dalits (India’s oppressed outcastes), and religious and ethnic minorities. In most cases, the majority of victims are women and children. Acknowledging this fact in their own context, an Indonesian participant asserted: “The Body of Christ in Indonesia is a trafficked body – raped, bruised and broken everyday”.
Although ironically referred to as an industry, human trafficking actually involves, as the presenter from Malaysia described, “forgery, corruption, slavery, servitude, debt bondage, forced marriage, forced abortion, forced pregnancy, torture, cruelty, degrading treatment of human beings, rape, sexual assault, murder, bodily injury, maiming, unlawful confinement, kidnapping, exploitation, etc.”
The collective analysis additionally reflected on the following commonalities that contribute to human trafficking: These were:
- Industries and the corresponding ideologies of economic growth are depriving people of their sources of livelihood, and driving them away from their homes and communities without alternatives;
- Domestic violence and the break-up of families that leave women and children in vulnerable conditions;
- Droughts, hurricanes, floods, crop failure, grinding poverty, lack of educational opportunities and absence of basic healthcare;
- Apathy of the state and the connivance of politicians, police, community leaders, and even pastors in some cases;
- Labor export policies that are tilted more in favor of foreign exchange remittances than the dignity and welfare of the migrant workers;
- Rise of right-wing politics that make religious minorities flee from violence and marginalization;
- Cultural foundations of human trafficking, such as the caste system, the Devadasi system (temple prostitution), and the religio-cultural doctrines that legitimize human suffering; and the
- Culture of consumerism and urban attraction.
Moral and spiritual challenges
The ensuing reflection asserted that in a context of these manifold assaults on human dignity, churches and faith communities not only have the responsibility to protect the victims, but also have a distinct role as conscience keepers and moral voice of the society, because human trafficking exposes:
- a shameful aspect of our collective psyche that allows and legitimizes the devaluation of some human beings for profit and pleasure;
- the impact of the institutionalization of greed that numbs our capacities to view and affirm the sanctity of life and the worth and dignity of all human beings;
- the structurally-embedded and culturally-legitimized patriarchy, caste system and similar social hierarchies, and the associated concepts of power that glorify domination, intimidation, subjugation, exploitation and violation of the disempowered;
- the superficial concepts of nation, community and human solidarity that we profess;
- the skewed concepts of development that overwhelm our moral sensibilities; and
- the continued connivance of religious institutions and faith traditions with the greedy and the powerful.
Partnership: Some theological insights
The reflection on the dynamics of human trafficking reiterated the fact that many in our world are destroyed and dehumanized by various combinations of hegemonic powers. In response we must assert that creating, nurturing and participating in partnerships for life is a moral and spiritual necessity. Such partnerships are already present among many civil society organizations, social activists, academics, and service organizations that often work without the involvement of faith communities or deriving inspiration from faith resources.
The questions, then, are: What do these collectives say about the purpose and meaning of partnership? What new directions do these offer to church’s cherished understandings of partnership - within and among churches, resource agencies, and diaconal organizations even as each pursues its own vision and mandate? What would be the distinct contribution of faith communities to these partnerships for justice? How can church partners work more creatively among themselves and with civil society organizations?
Theologically speaking, partnership is formative to Christian self-understanding as it defines one’s sense of being in relation with people and all of God’s creation. No one can claim a relationship with God without living it out in other relationships. Partnership is a conscious spiritual choice, an attitude that celebrates and asserts God’s intention for the sanctity and integrity of life both at personal and social levels. The biblical story is about God’s partnership with creation, about God’s constant intrusion in human affairs to hold us accountable for our failings as well as to encourage us to be partners to sustain and celebrate life.
God’s incarnation in Christ is also a concrete expression of God’s partnership with the world. Jesus’ life, message and ministry testify to his struggle against life-denying and destructive relationships between the religious and political powers of his time. In contrast, he partnered with the marginalized and the outcasts – those who were denied dignity, justice and life by structures of power and culture that privilege some over the rest. Through this option, Jesus announces the distinctness of God’s justice that restores both the victim and the aggressor.
Furthermore, the affirmation that all are made in the image of God also asserts the essential relational nature of God and the interdependent nature of all that God created. It asserts not only the equality of all, but also the ethic of justice that affirms life for all. In other words, mere assertion of equality without ensuring justice exposes the shallowness of the claims about the oneness of humanity. Apathy towards suffering, caused by human greed, and indifference towards injustice do not validate our affirmations of being made in the image of God. Injustice happens when God’s sovereignty is rejected for human self-interests, and when some think of themselves better and more entitled than others.
This prompts us to make a distinction between retributive justice and God’s justice. God’s justice is the basis for God’s covenant with humanity and all forms of life. When there is justice, there is peace and life for all (Isa. 65:17-25). It is inclusive and transformative. It seeks transformation of relationships at all levels – inter-personal and structural.
Justice is not an option for Christians, but a necessary expression of authentic Christian witness. Either we partner with those unjustly treated or with the forces of injustice. As an Indonesian pastor asserted in narrating her anguish over the stand of some in her congregation: “We cannot perpetuate injustice, allow people to be in bondage, and then say, ‘We are partners with God’.”
If we hold that loving one another is a core tenet of Christian faith, and a commandment of our Lord, then love must be made real in action. Love is not token expressions of care and concern, but rather attitudes and actions that affirm and safeguard the dignity, rights, and freedom of the other. Being just and seeking justice are, therefore, the indicators that testify to the authenticity of Christian expressions of love.
Partnership for justice, therefore, is not only the means towards an end but also the end result - the eschatological fulfillment of God’s grand plan of salvation through reconciliation (Eph.1:10). “God is the one who is moving us towards fulfillment, towards the telos; but partnership in mission for God’s justice is what we are called to do now,” asserted a participant from the Philippines.
Church as a network of partners and a facilitator of partnerships
Participants at this gathering called for an expanded practice of partnership that includes not only bi-lateral but also ecumenical and regional relationships and work with civil society organizations. This is necessary in order to address the increasingly complex challenges in a rapidly changing world. Goal or value-driven partnerships, such as those around human trafficking, prompt partnerships to be spontaneous, multi-lateral and inclusive. These partnerships express themselves in a variety of ways - in actions of collective advocacy, worship, acts of mercy and public witness. The Kupang event portrayed this pattern by using the image of a “spider’s web” in which there are multiple points of intersection among various bodies.
Exchanges at this event also interrogated some existing tendencies that reinforce partnerships that are neither respectful nor mutual. The stark economic inequalities among partners, alongside cultural presuppositions and the persistence of colonial attitudes challenge us to consider the superficial nature of such partnerships. Recognizing partnership solely in terms of sharing resources undermines people’s resources of experience, yearnings and strategies for life, justice and dignity. Acknowledging partnerships that already exist among many communities of the marginalized and those in solidarity with them, the participants asserted that churches must participate in their struggles rather than to patronize them with financial solutions.
Partnership, in sum, is a relationship built on trust, respect and mutuality. It is also not always about results and successes but also about fidelity to God’s call. It is a process of striving for and experiencing the reign of God in relationships of sharing, solidarity and accompaniment. It is grounded in shared values and visions. It is about learning from, enriching and encouraging one another. An Indonesian participant summarized this discussion succinctly: “It is where everyone can ‘sit down’ and ‘stand up’ at the same level; and when everyone can give and receive.”
This exploration of partnership also prompted reflection on the church’s self-understanding. Church is primarily a community called to be partners with God rather than a mere community of believers. Its life and witness find expression in partnerships. These partnerships are not exclusive, but are open and inclusive of all those who strive for the reign of God.
If intra- and inter-church partnerships are not for the realization of God’s reign, then these are at best mere religious projects. To elaborate further, Christian unity without wider engagement is for its own growth, survival, and positions of privilege and power. The church’s primary calling, however, is to be a transformed and transforming community (Mt.5.13, 14). It is an alternative that has the mandate to propose alternatives to the fallen structures of human relationships. Such an understanding calls the church to create, nurture, and align with partnerships that strive for justice and peace.
Churches and diaconal organizations must reconsider relevant expressions of witness and creative engagement in the world today. This includes creating and facilitating partnerships for justice that are non-hierarchical, people-centered, and that strengthen bonds of solidarity with and among all those committed to the values of God’s reign of justice, peace and life for all.
One of the ways in which this sense of partnership and community in mission can be nurtured at the local level is through intra and inter church exchanges, pulpit sharing and pursuing common diaconal actions. Facilitating companion congregations within denominations and regions rather than seeking partnerships only with overseas church communities also needs to be seen as an important step away from the resource-based partnership paradigm.
From affirmations to action
The participants left Kupang after assuring one another that they would:
- exchange ideas, information and news of their activities;
- attempt to create and sustain spaces for partnership;
- conduct baseline studies, fact-finding investigations, surveys in hotspot areas, and share the results with others;
- campaigns and training of trainers rather than consultations and conferences; and
- review the existing data / information on human trafficking.
The participants wanted partner agencies to work with them in advocacy efforts around labor export policies, rights of migrant workers, against religious violence / extremism, climate change, displacement of people, and denial of land rights – all of which exacerbate forced migration and human trafficking. They also wanted more such interactions among activists and church workers. Promoting agriculture as a counter culture to the current consumerist and industrial cultures, and economic emancipation through coordinating resources among the marginalized and vulnerable communities were identified as important priorities as well as expressions of mission from the margins.
Kupang was a high energy event. The participants did not pretend they were returning home with grand plans, but with many new friendships that have the potential to transform into creative partnerships. For Global Ministries, the gathering was not just a reflective activity but also an attempt to play the role of a facilitator of partnerships for justice. The Southern Asia Area Desk will continue to sustain the spirit through coordination and communication as an expression of its participation in these emerging partnerships for justice. This may include creating a communication network, intra-regional exchanges, and training of trainers for those who want to learn about and get involved in specific areas of anti human trafficking work.
The time in Kupang ended on a powerful note through the exchange of symbols that the participants had brought from their contexts and placed on the center table of their gathering on the first day as witnesses to the conversations. On the last day, they exchanged these tokens with one another as symbols of their determination to own each other’s experiences, and to pursue partnerships for justice in solidarity with the victims and survivors of human trafficking.
Global Ministries expresses its deep appreciation and thanks to the following for their partnership in this new beginning:
Rev. Dr. Mery Kolimon, moderator and the leadership of GMIT for hosting this event;
Rev. Emmy Sahertian and her team of volunteers who organized the event;
Rev. Dr. David Selvaraj, a Global Ministries’ ecumenical accompanier from India, for his facilitation of the conversations,
Dr. Karen and Rev.Dr. John Campbell-Nelson and Rev Elia Maggang for their accompaniment through interpretation;
The leadership and communities of J-Ruk, Rumah Harapan (House of Hope), Jaringan Perempuan Indonesia (Eastern Indonesia Women’s Network), and Institute of Resource Governance and Social Change, who received and shared with us their learnings; and
The pastors and congregations of Noesinas, Tilong, Bokong, Sulamu, and Iungboken for receiving us into their fellowship and for their hospitality.
Area Executive, Southern Asia
 Global Ministries, a common witness of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) in the US, facilitated this conversation. Global Ministries collaborates with over 300 partners – churches, organizations, institutions, and grassroots’ movements in about 80 countries. Through these partnerships, Global Ministries strives to live out its core values of creative and critical presence in contexts of struggle for justice, peace and human dignity, facilitating mutuality and partnership in mission, and nurturing alternative communities of resistance and hope.