I spent two weeks this summer working with pastors and congregations on addressing human trafficking on the Texas-Mexico border.

I partnered with churches that were seeking to answer the question, “Can churches really make a difference in combating human trafficking?”

My overall resolve was, “Yes, but it takes knowing your neighbor and doing for the ‘least of these.'”

As a researcher of human trafficking, I analyze ways in which communities answer the call to end human trafficking. One “community” of interest is the church.

I truly enjoy helping churches identify the best ways they can combat human trafficking within their community. When engaging churches, I offer the following three concepts that must be realized before their work can begin:

First, human trafficking includes both sex and labor trafficking.

The federal definition for human trafficking can be located here, but in short it is the bartering or transactional engagement of a person for the purpose of sex or labor, through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

Most congregations focus on the “commercialized sex” part of human trafficking and often neglect those who are trapped in labor trafficking.

Second, human trafficking is cultural, or better yet, contextualized to specific environments.

I know the academician in me is presenting itself, but bear with me.

So many churches have asked me to describe what human trafficking looks like. My response is always to reflect on how those in poverty are surviving in that community.

In urban areas, it may look like the commercial sex industry (that is, strip clubs, online ads, local prostitution tracks or brothels) or like day laborers who are financially exploited.

It may look like childcare workers who never get days off, no breaks and little pay for labor, or it may look like a teenage runaway who needs food and barters sex for a meal or place to stay and is not allowed to leave.

In rural communities, human trafficking may look like agricultural workers that are refused breaks and payment, or those working in toxic conditions and sweatshops. It may look like a family member bartering sex with a child to pay a bill.

In either context, the church must know what’s going on in their community to best address human trafficking.

Finally, the church must remember that human trafficking is no respecter of race, gender, class or religion.

There is no “type” of person that can be lured into human trafficking.

Through my work in trafficking, I’ve heard stories from the 15-year-old competitive swimmer from the elite swimming club who fell for a guy she met on the Internet.

She knew she was in love. When he asked for a meeting at the local mall to “hang out,” she didn’t hesitate. She told her mother that she was meeting friends at the mall, left home and didn’t return.

I’ve listened to a mother describe the struggle of providing for her family in her native country and the decision she made to sacrifice everything for a chance at a better life in America.

She paid a coyote (smuggler) to help her cross into the United States, but upon crossing the coyote refused to let her go without a $10,000 ransom. She was forced to have sex with strangers until her debt was paid.

I will never forget the story of the migrant worker who “followed the crops” to provide for his family. He worked long hard hours in the fields picking a plethora of fruits and vegetables, pulling tobacco and tending to stables where he wasn’t allowed breaks and paid a dollar and a half a day.

Fortunately, all of the stories I recounted are of human trafficking survivors who were assisted by local congregations and other human trafficking organizations.

How then can your church get involved? Get to know the needs within your community.

Is there a local school that needs adopting? Research shows that third- and fourth-grade literacy rates have great predicting values on the path of a child’s life.

Is your church located in an immigrant community? Consider offering English as a Second Language courses (ESL). Research shows that immigrants that have better understanding of the English language are less likely to be exploited in the hiring process.

Is your church located within a community that experiences homelessness? Consider adopting a homeless shelter. Research states that runaways, throwaways (children whose families have put them out) and newly homeless persons are at a higher risk for human trafficking within the first 48 hours on the street.

Additionally, the church should pray, support anti-human trafficking organizations and advocate for anti-human trafficking legislation.

Most important, it should live out the commission found in Matthew 25:34-40 – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger and do for the least of these.

Elizabeth Goatley is an assistant professor of social work in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She researches community responses to human trafficking. You can follow her on Twitter at @AskDrLiz

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on how local churches and nonprofit organizations are working (and can work) to address human trafficking.

Previous articles in the series are:

A Baptist Report Card on Human Trafficking

The Thin Line Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking

One Church’s Role to Put Dent in Sex Trafficking

Stopping Human Trafficking Begins in Our Churches

4 Steps You Can Take to Thwart Human Trafficking

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