Freedom Sunday 'sets captives free'
By David Batstone
I write this column from the very north of Thailand, near the border of both Laos and Myanmar. Here Not For Sale underwrites a children's center to provide sanctuary for hundreds of kids freed from slavery and exploitation.
A Thai police officer delivered this week to our center three 15-year-old girls that had escaped their trafficker. They reported that twelve more teenage girls, with whom they had been transported from China, remained in the clutches of the trafficker. The trafficker had promised the girls safe restaurant jobs in Thailand. In truth, he aims to put them up for sale in Thailand's prolific commercial sex industry.
Deeply engrained in the American psyche is the notion that slavery ended in the 19th century. The brutal truth is that girls and boys, men and women of all ages are forced to toil in the rug loom sheds of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Bangkok, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade of any major town or city in the world, and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.
Maybe it's not so shocking for us to learn that these slaveholders press children to labor against their will in the underdeveloped world. But it would be unthinkable that a slaveholder might be an upstanding citizen living on our block.
I first encountered human trafficking in one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. As it turned out, the restaurant served as the hub of a trafficking ring that brought hundreds of teenagers from India into the United States for the purpose of forced labor.
To most slavery feels invisible inside the United States. Just as I never suspected for a moment that my favorite restaurant had become a hub for the slave trade, slavery likely crosses our path on a regular basis without our recognizing it. We may pass a construction site and never think twice whether the laborers work of their own volition. Or we might drive through the city at night, see young girls on a street corner peddling their bodies, and wonder how they ever could "choose" such a life.
My encounter with slavery in a local restaurant moved me to launch an international investigation into the slave trade in February 2006 and start the Not For Sale agency the ensuing year. Not For Sale has gone on to intervene in cases of modern slavery around the globe and offer a future for freed slaves via our operations in Cambodia, Romania, Peru, Uganda, South Africa, Honduras, Thailand, and throughout the United States and Canada.
Along the way we have reached some fundamental realizations about what it will take to undermine modern slavery. First and foremost, for a movement to succeed, it will require a deep engagement from a broad array of religious communities. That's because slavery is not simply an economic and political mechanism. It breeds on prejudice and indifference, that is, wherever it is culturally acceptable to consign a tribe or race or a powerless individual to less than human status. To buy another human and treat them like a commodity debases our incontrovertible dignity.
The religious community played a vital role in the American and British abolitionist movements in the 1800s. Churches were anchor sites along the Underground Railroad where freed slaves could find safe haven on their perilous path to freedom.
With that legacy in mind, on Sunday, March 13th, Not For Sale will celebrate Freedom Sunday in thousands of churches that span nearly 45 distinct countries. Congregations that participate make a commitment to pray/preach/sing/act for "freedom for the captives" and stand beside any child of God who is for sale in their neighborhoods. In like manner, the Jewish abolitionist movement will celebrate Freedom Shabbat on the first day of Passover (April 22). They represent an extraordinary movement for religions around the world to unite against slavery.
Of course, religious communities can represent their own challenges. The founder and force behind our child rescue center in Northern Thailand is Kru Nam an extraordinary artist and Buddhist. She acts as guardian angel to countless kids from many nations. On one occasion, we organized for a Christian church to visit the children's village in Northern Thailand and deliver material aid. Once the church learned that Kru Nam was a Buddhist, they cancelled their planned support. Deeply confused, Kru Nam asked for an explanation. I simply noted, "Not all people of faith can practice compassion without boundaries."
For us to eradicate slavery in the world today, that is exactly the high bar we must reach: Compassion without boundaries, stretching from our own backyard to a global village.
David Batstone is the author of Not For Sale (HarperOne) and president of the agency with the same title. Batstone is Batstone is also a professor of business at the University of San Francisco