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Abby Avelino. The leadership experience of the anti-trafficking network

The Talitha Kum model

 Il modello Talitha Kum  DCM-001
07 January 2023

They have grown with the increasing awareness of their leadership, matured from experience, and caring and sharing life with those who live on the margins. Leaders against human trafficking, a role in the Church that the Talitha Kum nuns, the international network against trafficking, have consolidated over the years, supported by the superiors general and recognised by bishops. A path of awareness that they have travelled together, but which each one has started in their own small way, starting from small things.

Like the fragment of life that comes to mind of Sister Abby Avelino, who has been the network’s International Coordinator since September 1. She explains -without mincing her words- what it means to work on one’s awareness. “My parish priest kept keeping a number of people at the door who were in need. I decided to pluck up the courage and go and talk to him. ‘Father you say certain things every Sunday in the homily and then in practice... It’s not enough to do adoration, to pray... you have to welcome people’”. Sister Abby, 57, born in the Philippines and raised in the United States, before joining the Maryknoll Dominican Sisters, graduated in engineering and previously worked as a mechanical and systems engineer. From that confrontation with the pastor, she says, she learnt that “sometimes we don’t fight hard enough for what we think is right. We feel unprepared, and fragile. That is why we have to insist so much on training”. It is not by chance that Talitha Kum has been organizing leadership training courses since 2017.

Sister Avelino succeeded Sister Gabriella Bottani, a Combonian, who had led Talitha Kum since 2014 and overseen its growth. Founded 15 years ago within the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), the network is an interesting example of women’s leadership. Today, it brings together more than 6,000 Catholic sisters, co-workers and friends on five continents, and promotes collaboration between networks, led by women religious, and organized at national, regional and continental levels. Each of these entities maintain their unique identity and operates within its own country or region, while the international coordination at UISG supports the development of skills and the training of networks and members. The network’s strength lies in its grassroots engagement through a bottom-up strategy and its person- and community-centered approach, which ensures proximity to victims and the survivors of trafficking. Sister Avelino  states, “Ours is a model of participatory leadership, because there is authentic collaboration and sharing of gifts to help make our service effective. We are religious from different congregations, and in our choices we want both the sisters’ voices and also those of the people we accompany to be present”.

From this awareness last year came an appeal, “Call to action”, addressed to sisters, the Catholic Church, religious leaders of other religious or spiritual traditions, non-believers, collaborators, friends and all people of goodwill who share the vision of a world free of human trafficking and exploitation.

The commitment that the new coordinator has before her, in continuity with the path that has been traced out, will consist in looking after the growth of all the networks, as well as strengthening existing collaborative partnerships with Vatican organisations and others. “I have embraced this leadership role within Talitha Kum, embracing its unique identity as a network without traditional organisational structures. Working together, we share not only gifts and our availability, but also a common leadership. I firmly believe that we each possess our own gifts, to be managed with deep faith in God. If we believe in our leadership, we can empower and support one another, receive support and strength in turn”.

In short, the leader has a coordinating role to play, which is exercised in a different way from what traditionally happens in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. To illustrate, while the superior of an Institute has a charisma aimed at governance, the sisters of Talitha Kum act as a bridge between the traditional structure and that of the network, in dialogue and co-responsibility, not overlapping with the apex figures of the Congregations. It is important to recognise that this leadership of consecrated women matures in the most marginal and vulnerable realities and becomes an instrument for the transformation of society starting from Gospel values. “We have a shared experience, we dialogue, and that is the difference. As the Asia coordinator, in Talitha Kum I had to listen, negotiate, place proposals of the different networks on the table and then seek mediation. We decide together, in a Coordination where we also include non-apical”. In Asia, says Abby, “Talitha Kum has one meeting a month between the coordinators of the 14 networks. My leadership was exercised in discussions with my team and the coordinators. And this, which has been my strength, I also want to see happen in Africa, Latin America, the other continents. And here in Rome”.

A choice in tune with the network’s mission. “Our care for victims and survivors of trafficking in persons is founded on the belief that the dignity of the oppressed and exploited can be restored through sororal and fraternal relationships”, explains Abby. “In a relationship of equals, the sisters walk together with the victims along the path of healing”.

It is a shared method, among the sisters of the different congregations who network together on the issue of trafficking and who present themselves externally as realities with their own authority at the ecclesial level. In Japan, for example, where Abby has worked, the bishops’ conference has included the network among the bodies of the migration section, and so, while maintaining its autonomy, Talitha Kum has the opportunity to be present in lay institutional contexts and have its say on the issue of rights and trafficking on behalf of the Japanese Church.

Sister Abby recalls the beginnings of her ministry in Japan, at St Ignatius Parish in Tokyo. “I did not know the language. I understood perfectly the plight of the dozens of foreign women who came to church just to find a welcoming environment”. There are many stories, and their faces, which come to mind. “In Kawazaki, we set up an NGO, because so many Filipino women are trafficked to Japan. The NGO is called ‘Kalakasan’, which means ‘strength’ in Tagalog. We have also found cases of the trafficking of ‘Japanese Filipino Children’ (JFC)”.  These are the children of Filipino women and Japanese men. The mothers were often trafficked. When the children were only a few months old, they gave them to their families in the Philippines, because due to the high cost of living they would not survive in Japan. “It is a widespread phenomenon. These children, once they become teenagers, return to Japan, but they are often exploited, abused, and/or bullied. They do not know who they are, they do not speak the language, and they are not integrated. We have tried to help them find their own identity, with a programme that also involves their mothers”. However, young people are also at the centre of anti-trafficking projects, for interventions in schools. “Listening to their observations, seeing their passion, I learnt a lot”, says Abby.

Working with the other sisters, studying together, helps to empower each other. Moreover, to endure even in the most difficult situations. “We have a specific objective, the fight against trafficking, and as consecrated women we have something specific to say that comes from direct life experience with victims and those who have experienced the violence of trafficking. We can make a difference, together, in a network”. One of shared leadership that the Church on a synodal journey has much to say. A suggestion? Abby expresses it from her own experience: “Before thinking about how to solve a problem, when you have a person standing there before you, you have to take care of the relationship, the encounter. Listen, listen, listen”.

by Vittoria Prisciandaro
A journalist with the San Paolo Magazines “Credere” and “Jesus”