Women religious in the United States have a strong reputation for advocating for all those whose human rights have been violated, ignored, or neglected. From fighting for the rights of immigrants to protesting outside abortion facilities, they have long been on the forefront of these issues. Some communities, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, were founded to minister directly to the underprivileged. Specifically, the Little Sisters care for the health needs of the elderly poor and advocate for the legal rights that have been denied them. Other communities, like the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, have missions and charisms not directly linked to any specific issue but more broadly geared toward tending lovingly to the broken members of the Body of Christ, whether that brokenness is exhibited in physical, emotional, or spiritual suffering.
The fight against human trafficking in the United States has been championed by women religious for decades. This collaborative effort, stemming from international initiatives of the International Union of Superiors General such as Talitha Kum, is demonstrated in local national efforts like US Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, the Bakhita Initiative, and the commitment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to hold their national assembly only at hotels that have committed to training their employees in anti-trafficking skills. Working together across congregational charisms and missions, women religious have brought the issue of human trafficking to the attention of Church leaders, government officials, and the media.
The Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, an international religious community founded in Viareggio, Italy, is by no means the largest of women’s congregations in the fight to end human trafficking, but may serve as an example as to how even a small group with a deep desire to help can make a significant difference. In Italy, the Sisters have founded a mission to help adult women victims of human sex trafficking one person at a time. Founded on the principles of mercy, invitation, and community, this mission allows the Sisters to accompany willing survivors along a path of wholeness and healing, reuniting mothers with their daughters, providing opportunities for education and meaningful employment. One survivor said of her experience with the Sisters, “I never knew anyone could love me the way the Sisters do. I couldn’t even love myself, but because they have seen something valuable in me, I have begun to believe it exists.”
I have been blessed to be able to take part in this mission of healing. These very young women, victimized by traffickers sometimes as early as age 4, are filled with hope, exuberance, and determination. At first, the girls were shy around me, but it didn’t take long for them to warm up. I spoke with Shanna who was preparing to receive her diploma from high school. She beamed with pride when she described how hard she had worked to be able to pave a way for herself to receive a college education. I listened to 14-year-old Dania tell me of her upcoming birthday party, complete with the pizza and games she never experienced as a child. I witnessed the staff encourage these young women to become generous toward those who did not have the kinds of opportunities for healing that they had. I prayed with them and thanked God for the gift of their lives, their love, and their resilience.
Victims of human trafficking are crying out for our loving response of care, solidarity, and mercy. May each of us recognize and respond to our baptismal call to tend to the broken Heart of Christ manifested in the brokenness of these, our brothers and sisters.