Our Modern Slavery

January 9, 2016

It’s one of the most dastardly crimes imaginable: the sexual abuse of children. Children and teenagers who are abused forever carry with them fear, pain, distrust, hopelessness, and the loss of innocence. So many lives and families are torn apart by the ripple effect of those who dare to take advantage of others in this way.

Yet there is another equally insidious form of abuse called human trafficking. Every day children, women, and men are enslaved in our world. Young women are forced into prostitution, boys are compelled to become soldiers, and the poor are exploited to work in dreadful conditions. In 2017, an estimated twenty-one to thirty million people live as slaves, unable to escape a life they did not choose.


Just as I was moving to Iowa last fall, US Senator Chuck Grassley hosted a forum on human trafficking at Des Moines University. Grassley said, “Sex trafficking of our nation’s children and adults is a growing domestic threat,” and then added that trafficking takes place “in every state in the nation, and even though we don’t like to admit it, even here in Iowa.”

Iowa has almost nine hundred sex workers in any given month, said Anna Brewer, a retired FBI agent who specialized in Iowa trafficking cases. Sioux City has the highest rate per capita, but trafficking happens everywhere, even in small Iowa towns. Stephen O’Meara, Nebraska’s human trafficking coordinator and former assistant U.S. attorney in Iowa, highlighted the case of two teenage girls who were brought from Milwaukee to Hills, Iowa, which had a population of 703 at the time. O’Meara said, “We are not even touching the tip of the iceberg (of the trafficking issue). We have to do a lot better.”

According to a November 16 Des Moines Register article, massage parlors have suddenly mushroomed in the metro area, which is raising additional concerns about human trafficking. Polaris, a national anti-human trafficking organization, identified Des Moines as one of the top hundred cities for massage-related trafficking.

Kellie Markey, founder of Dorothy’s House, a Des Moines rehabilitation house for women and girls recovering from human trafficking, said that trafficking of women who work at massage parlors is happening in every corner of the state. “It’s huge here in Des Moines,” she said. “If you live in the metro area, it’s happening within three miles of your front door.”

According to Markey, Iowa now has some of the best laws in the country to combat sex trafficking. The first human trafficking law in Iowa was passed in 2006, and in 2016 lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad approved the creation of a state office designed specifically to address trafficking.


This Wednesday, January 11, is Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the US. The Senate set aside this day in 2007 to raise awareness of human trafficking, end all forms of slavery and forced labor, and make this world a safe place for everyone. The facts are sobering.

  • Human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry (The United Nations). People are bought and sold like merchandise for sexual exploitation, manufacturing, agricultural work, domestic service, hotel/motel cleaning, and other purposes. By many estimates, human trafficking ranks third in world crime behind the drug trade and counterfeiting.
  • Sexual exploitation accounts for 79% of all human trafficking victims.
  • According to UNICEF, two million people becomes victims of the sex trade every year, 20% of whom are children.
  • The average age of a girl who is forced into sexual slavery in the US is thirteen. Sadly, many have no one looking for them when they disappear.
  • The average cost of a sex slave worldwide is $90.
  • Almost every country plays a part, either as a source of trafficked people, transit point, or destination.

The United Methodist Church has taken a strong stance against human trafficking. The Book of Discipline 2016 states that United Methodists “deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. To lose freedom and be sold by someone else for sexual purposes is a form of slavery, and we denounce such business and support the abused and their right to freedom. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation or use of children by adults and encourage efforts to hold perpetrators legally and financially responsible.”

The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society website says, “Human trafficking denies the sacred worth of God’s children and destroys the fabric of our communities. Victims endure psychological trauma, physical injury, economic hardship, and stigmatization that can create lifelong scars and barriers for full participation in one’s community.”

What can you do about human trafficking?

  1. Educate yourself.
  2. Understand the complexity of the healing process once people are freed. One victim said, “I felt like I was permanently stained, broken, dirty: different.”
  3. Support resources for healing so that victims do not have to remain captives emotionally.
  4. Ponder and pray why the buying and selling of humans is so much more profitable than buying legitimate goods.
  5. Speak out about human trafficking and contact local state and national lawmakers to enact strict laws.
  6. Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Centerat 1-888-373-7888 for help. The center takes calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in more than 200 languages.
  7. Check out The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
  8. Most of all, we are called to look into our own hearts and ask ourselves this question. Why do we humans treat others as things or commodities rather than as people of sacred worth?

Dr. Chris Momany, chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College in Michigan and an expert on human trafficking, has said, “Slavery of all kinds is rooted in a mindset that perceives some people to be little more than instruments for the benefit of those with power… We need to look in the mirror and examine our hearts. Do we see all others as fundamentally sacred persons, or do we see them as potential servants of our agenda? How we answer this question will help determine the fate of human trafficking.”

Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18) May we go and do likewise.



7 thoughts on “Our Modern Slavery

  1. I am in the middle of reading “The Boys in the Bunkhouse”, another horrifying story of exploitation that took place over several decades in the small town of Atalissa, Iowa, affecting several dozen developmentally disabled men forced to work and live in squalid conditions. It was brought to light in the late 70’s, yet nothing was done about it for 40 years! Thank you for bringing all forms of human trafficking to our attention and especially the steps to take to address it. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”

  2. Some twenty-five years ago a naive, sweet girl left Shelby, Michigan to go to attend community college in Grand Rapids, MI. Shortly thereafter a “boyfriend” pulled her into the sex trade. It was years before she could escape. Her life has been nothing but messed up ever since even though she moved to Ludington, Michigan, where she married and had a son. She has divorced and the son appears to be headed toward an unproductive life. Mother, Father and Son all lead dysfunctional lives that center around the use of drugs.

  3. Thank you, Bishop Laurie, for highlighting the devastation of human trafficking. Iowa United Methodist Women and many other Iowa advocates have worked to educate Iowans and change Iowa laws–and we will continue to be vigilant. I would recommend a short video about three Iowa teens who were trafficking survivors called “Any Kid Anywhere” as an introduction to HT. It’s available from the Iowa Religious Media Services or United Methodist Women as well as a few organizations.

  4. When we went with Margaret to Adrian last year, we met with Dr. Momany. It was quite an eye opener. I don’t know why it isn’t talked about more in this country. It should be headlines everywhere!!!

  5. Hi Laurie: So glad you are highlighting this shameful shameful conditions of human beings. The UMW is working on it alot too. In our UMW meeting in Feb. I am to talk about the subject. We have heard a woman at our WPUMC speak about women at risk too Also it is so terrible that children slaves harvest the cocoa beans . We should be careful about what kind of chocolate we buy. I have said I think God is going to hold us accountable the most about how we take care of our children. I have read several books on the subject too. Love and prayers Bunny

  6. Bishop Haller,
    This is, by far, the best article/editorial I have read on the subject! It is eye-opening and very frightening, just exactly what we all need!
    I commend you for speaking out!

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