Nigerian women, rescued from human traffickers, gather in a shelter near Moscow. (CNS photo/Maxim Shemetov, Reuters)

Trafficking support lacking in churches

  • March 4, 2023

When it comes to caring, for people experiencing cancer, death in the family or other trauma, their church is often where they can turn for support. But when it comes to sexual abuse and trafficking, many feel that’s the last place they can seek comfort.

That was the case for Dr. Gregory Williams, who suffered horrible abuse at the hands of his father and his father’s friends during his childhood. The pastor of the FaithSprings Baptist Church in Pearland, Texas, shared his experience with sexual abuse as a child during an ecumenical, multi-country event called Becoming a Trauma Informed Church.

“I was abused from my earliest childhood memory all the way until I was 17 years old every day of my life,” said the author of Shattered by the Darkness: Putting the Pieces Back Together After Child Abuse. “And between the ages of 12 to 14 years old, my father sold me to his friends, one right after another every Monday night for about four to five hours. That caused all kinds of damage to me emotionally, relationally, spiritually and mentally.”

Williams affirms that “there is a huge population” of men, women and children who “never experience any sort of healing, especially in a church environment,” because he said a high volume of abuse and trauma survivors don’t feel they can turn to their religious community.

Pete Singer, the executive director of the non-profit Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), agreed with Williams. In his keynote speech, Singer said there are countless examples of church congregations rising to support a community member suffering from a severe illness like cancer, but less so for someone who experiences the horror of trafficking. 

“Churches get how to care when it comes to cancer, but our calling is exactly the same for somebody who has experienced trauma, somebody who has been abused and somebody who has been trafficked,” said Singer. “We’re the church. We know how to do this, and we are called upon to do it.”

GRACE, headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia, works with over 500 parishes annually. When a traumatic event occurs in a faith community, its staff contacts GRACE to receive response advice. A rep from the organization then inquires what pre-established safety policies the church has in place to respond to crises. Singer said it is often the case that the church has no protocols whatsoever related to the occurrence. 

Singer said having procedures in place ahead of time creates an environment where someone can feel secure and heard when they tell their story. These processes also help the official manage the crisis with some guidance to help discern claims and resolve issues. 

Over the past three decades as a therapist, school social worker, youth group leader and workshop consultant, Singer has worked with families, teens and children who experienced various forms of trauma. He imparted six principles that could help make a parish a safe and healing community for those who’ve faced abuse or trauma: safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; and historical, gender and cultural dynamics

Regarding the element of trustworthiness and transparency, Singer focused on the former during his presentation. He said one key for leaders is to avoid viewing trustworthiness as a transactional exchange. 

“Your goal is not to make people trust you. Your job, your calling, is to act in a way worthy of trust,” he said. “If the person decides to trust you, great. But you’re not being trustworthy so that they will. You are being trustworthy simply because God says you should be trustworthy and because it is the right thing to do.”

Pamela Bryant is the executive director of Restoration Diversion Services, an agency in Compton, California, aiding people who experienced human trafficking to exit the streets, find employment and begin rebuilding their lives. She said that earning the trust of a survivor requires “you dealing with them where they are.”

“We take for granted that people should know the things that we know because we’re taught by our mothers and fathers,” said Bryant. “It’s different for them. If you are 14 years old and someone has had you entrapped in trafficking for all that time as a youth, that’s where you get your foundation.”

Bryant shared her experience with a particular survivor to illuminate her point. She said to this lady, “I want to speak with you about something.” This innocuous request “caused her trauma” because when she heard those same words from her trafficker, “it means something is wrong.”

“I may have only wanted to ask her a question, but it caused her fright” said Bryant. “We had to sit down and talk. (I told her) ‘everything I say to you is not a threat. It may just be a question.’ ”

Singer said for a parish to offer strong peer support for trauma and abuse survivors it must help the survivor meet the right people and equip those people with helpful words and actions. 

A key value of instilling collaboration and mutuality is remembering that the survivor you are helping “is a whole person” with many facets outside the parish, said Singer. The parish can’t be afraid to network and cooperate with other community entities meaningful to those needing support. 

Abuse, at its core, strips someone of their power. Singer said, and the church must walk alongside those seeking to regain their strength. A couple of ways to help are “establishing a culture where self-advocacy” is respected” and listening to the survivor. 

Singer said it is vital to approach the cultural, historical and gender factors of a case with humility. 

“I will never know what it is like to be a black man. I will never know what it is like to be a woman. I will never know many of these factors, but they are there and are inextricable from trauma.”

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