Beliefs Culture

College activists draw on faith traditions to fight human trafficking

(RNS) For two years of her life, Louise Allison says she looked and felt like trash. She was a straggly-haired teenager sold for sex on Dallas streets. Her traffickers often drugged her and dumped her in a park to await customers.

Storm Ervin (below) places her handprint on the canvas freedom banner at the Freedom Movement booth on the University of Missouri campus Monday, April 23. The Freedom Movement is part of a nationwide effort on university campuses to end human trafficking.

Storm Ervin (below) places her handprint on the canvas freedom banner at the Freedom Movement booth on the University of Missouri campus Monday, April 23. The Freedom Movement is part of a nationwide effort on university campuses to end human trafficking.

Allison is one of millions of people who have been trafficked—or sold into slavery—for underage sex or forced labor. Now she directs Partners Against Trafficking Humans, a Little Rock, Ark.-based Christian nonprofit that is starting safe houses for human trafficking survivors.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a Little Rock audience earlier this week (April 25, 2012) that the Justice Department would have zero tolerance for forced labor and underage prostitution—problems that plague the United States as well as developing nations.

The cause of human trafficking has gained traction within the faith community, especially among college students who are working across faith lines toward a goal of eradicating the bonds that enslave an estimated 27 million people.

Across the United States, dozens of colleges and high schools planned spring or fall events to bring attention to the problem of human trafficking.

Many of these events, including a Freedom Movement Week held April 23-27, were inspired by Passion 2012 earlier this year. Passion 2012, a 42,000-student worship conference in Atlanta last January, centered on human trafficking and raised more than $3.3 million from the mostly student attendees to support nonprofits that fight human trafficking.

Claude d’Estree, who directs the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Denver, has watched a growing number of faith-based groups take up this issue since he began human trafficking work in 1998. D’Estree noted the importance of religious leaders in U.S. fights over slavery 150 years ago.

“It’s not surprising to me that religious groups got involved again,” d’Estree said.

Texas A&M junior John Amini, 21, prayed about how to spend Spring semester at Texas A&M while attending the Passion 2012 conference. After hearing speakers on human trafficking, he decided to unite college campuses in a national battle against it.

Amini and friends soon had about 30 U.S. college campus partners. In addition to the six universities participating in Freedom Movement Week this month (April 2012), other schools are creating programs for fall and raising money.

At Texas A&M, students created an anti-slavery benefit album with sales benefiting anti-trafficking nonprofits Tiny Hands International and Unlikely Heroes. Amini said the Texas A&M chapter hopes to raise $25,000.

Amini said that although Freedom Movement is driven by Christian values, non-Christians are welcome. On other campuses, Jewish and Muslim student-centered groups are joining the fight against human trafficking. 

Sophomore Jane Carter (right) paints Zane Vandnais' (left) hand green for the hand-printing event at the Freedom Movement booth in Lowry Mall on the University of Missouri campus Monday, April 23.  The Freedom Movement is an organization on campuses across the U.S. that raises awareness to prevent human trafficking.

Sophomore Jane Carter (right) paints Zane Vandnais’ (left) hand green for the hand-printing event at the Freedom Movement booth in Lowry Mall on the University of Missouri campus Monday, April 23. The Freedom Movement is an organization on campuses across the U.S. that raises awareness to prevent human trafficking.

Seattle-based Robert Beiser, who directs social justice programs at the University of Washington Hillel, said Jewish students identify with the retelling of the Biblical story of Moses leading slaves out of Egypt by groups fighting human trafficking.

“Students were really getting energized about the idea that they could use our cultural identity as Jews and Passover as a starting point to work on this issue,” Beiser said. University of Washington students helped launch the national Freedom Shabbat in collaboration with Not for Sale, a nonprofit group.

Students reached out through social media and other means to get more than 100 synagogues and other Jewish communities active in Freedom Shabbat, usually held around Passover.  The group also works to encourage grocery stores to carry fair-trade gelt—the chocolate coins given during Hanukkah—in order to guarantee that no slaves helped produce the cocoa.

Not for Sale working most closely with the Jewish community is looking for Muslim leaders to build a Freedom Salat movement for Muslim students and groups.

Kevin Austin, who manages Not for Sale’s faith outreach, said seven Muslim communities participated in a soft launch of Freedom Salat last December.

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