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What if we knew that more people are held in slavery today than at any time in recorded history? Some say as many as 27 million.

What if we knew that many thousands of girls and women are bought or stolen or tricked or into leaving their homes, then forced to work in brothels, servicing clients to satisfy human salaciousness and their traffickers’ greed?

What if we knew that literally millions of children – some of them born to women who have been forced into prostitution – serve as virtual slaves, deprived of freedom, of an education, of an opportunity?

If we knew it was true, would we do something about it?

Three women who are deeply informed and involved in this great crime against humanity brought a poignant note of practicality to the task of theological education for participants in the Baptist International Conference on Theological Education.

Asha Sanchu, director of the Miqlat Ministry in Dimapur, Nagaland, related one heart-breaking story after another about the sex trade and child exploitation. Nagaland, a province in northeastern India that probably has more Baptists per square mile than any country on earth, has seen a large increase in sex trafficking, she said — something that was once unheard-of.

Sanchu spoke with pain in saying that the ministry she leads is the only voice being raised among Baptists in her country, who consider the subject taboo and do not wish to speak of it. She described urgent needs for rehabilitation programs, sustainable jobs for women, and for acceptance in the Baptist family.

Even if forced into prostitution, she said, if an unwed woman becomes pregnant, she is excommunicated from her Baptist church and cut off from ministry or care.

Louise Kretzschmar, who teaches in South Africa and is involved in the support of women there, decried a system in which women have such low status and such little power that they are easily subject to exploitation, and because they are treated as children, are unable to protect their children from the same.

Kretzschmar told stories of children being raped, of HIV positive men demanding that their wives have sex without a condom, and other horror stories. Sadly, she said, echoing Sanchu’s comments, the church has been part of the problem.

She cited instances in which women have gone to the church for help and have been raped by the pastor, or simply given no help. “Women cry to be treated as Jesus treated women,” she said.

Kretzshmar suggested several strategies for change, beginning with an awareness that violence is a theological problem that calls for a response from the church. Women and women’s groups need to be empowered for action and greater respect, rather than being devalued. Church services and activities should be more gender-conscious, she said, consciously trying to bridge the gap between what women actually experience from the church and the way Jesus treated women.

Women should also be given places of leadership, Kretzschmar said, acknowledging that the issue is really about power. The question is not just one of whether women can be ordained, but whether the church will grant them other places of leadership in the church, or just perpetuate the culture by keeping women in subservient roles. Women need skills training and financial empowerment, she said, and the church needs to be proactive in making that happen.

Lauran Bethell, who works in the Netherlands as a missionary of the American Baptist Churches, USA, spoke of her experiences, spanning more than 20 years, of confronting the sex trade that dehumanizes and exploits women.

Even women who supposedly “choose” to enter the sex trade. “Beneath the thin veneer of ‘choice,’” she said, there are always precipitating factors that seem to leave them no other choice.

Bethell, who began her ministry among prostitutes in Chiang Mai, Thailand, said she spend several years being very angry, but had become more hopeful as the news about human trafficking and its massive scope becomes more widely known.

When she opened the New Life Center in Chiang Mai in 1987, she said, few people had ever heard of human trafficking, and evangelicals were doing nothing about it. Since then, she said, there has been an exponential increase in concern among evangelicals, and some embarrassed governments have begun cracking down on the trade of human trafficking.

Even so, there is a long way to go before the scourge of such exploitation begins to diminish significantly. Bethel expressed joy that a number of prominent musicians and celebrities have become concerned about the issue, and have joined efforts to produce a movie called “Call and Response,” which should be in theaters in September. A trailer for the movie can be seen here.

I close with an old, unattributed saying that Kretzshmar repeated:

“People don’t change when they see the light. They change when they feel the heat.”

May Baptists be among the leaders in putting fire to the feet of the people, governments, cultural systems and human greed that allows such atrocities to go unchecked in our world.

[For further information, a few helpful websites are the Protection Project out of Johns Hopkins University, the International Justice Mission, and a page of U.S. government statistics on human trafficking — a site that appears to track statistics for every country but the U.S. itself.]

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