A Sister who attended CoR’s anti-trafficking meeting in Manchester in January, organised a follow up awareness raising day at a prayer centre in Formby, in northwest England. Religious, Priests and lay people from across the region attended, as well as retired Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who returned to England in the autumn to join his congregation, the Missionaries of Africa or White Fathers, on the opening of their new community in Liverpool.
The day in Formby involved two of the speakers from the Manchester meeting giving presentations again – Brother Francis Patterson of the Medaille Trust and veteran anti-trafficking campaigner, Sr Isabel Kelly; they were joined by Anthony Brown of Caritas in the Diocese of Salford.
Brother Francis, a member of the La Mennais Brothers of Christian Instruction, explained the background to how the Medaille Trust grew out of a meeting of members of religious congregations, who wanted to do something to tackle modern slavery. Since 2006 it has quickly become the largest provider of safe accommodation for trafficked victims in the UK, operating 9 safe houses around the country. Its stated aim is: “the empowerment of women, men and children, who have been freed from human-trafficking and the modern day slavery industry in the UK, enabling them to regain their dignity and self-worth. We do this by providing safe housing and offering opportunities for physical and psychological healing, rehabilitation and protection to the victims in our care.”
Seven of the properties the Medaille Trust houses people in were given by congregations. The scale of involvement by Religious in anti-trafficking was recently revealed in a report by the Arise Foundation. It showed that a total of 29 properties have been donated at a value of well over sixteen million pounds and that 172 members of Religious institutes are involved in frontline services.
Brother Francis outlined the Medaille Trust’s focus on the four ‘Ps’ : Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Partnerships. He explained how the National Referral Mechanism offers government funding for the victims of modern slavery for 45 days – but that rehabilitation of victims can take years. He recalled the words of Cardinal Turkson at the launch of the Arise report in November : that this issue is not just one of concern for Religious, but it needs to be something we all feel a responsibility to tackle.
Sr Isabel Kelly FMSJ then spoke movingly about the plight of victims. A long time and hugely dedicated campaigner against trafficking, Sr Isabel explained how she developed her knowledge of the issue after the shock of being named as her congregation’s lead on it. She never misses an opportunity to speak out and is in great demand to give talks to parishes and groups. For instance, going out on the bus that has been turned into an awareness raiser for anti trafficking (it used to be the ‘mercy’ bus during the Year of Mercy)!
She recalls: “I went to the bi-centenary of the Abolition of Slavery in Hull and as I sat at my table for lunch, I heard someone say, “I got into this because of a nun!” It was a policeman I had spoken to in 2006 – asking him if he knew anything about human trafficking and if he was doing anything about it!”
Sr Isabel conjured up a powerful image to encourage people not to feel helpless in the face of the scale of human slavery; “I imagine us as a swarm of bees: a still, dark shape, but when you look more closely, it is in fact a big moving mass of activity: let each one of us do our bit.”
Doing “our bit” could be praying, donating or helping to rehabilitate victims. Anthony Brown of Caritas in Salford outlined what he has been doing from parish level upwards. ‘Caritas Anti-Trafficking’ was inspired by an initiative in the parish of Our Lady of the Valley which works with East Lancashire Police in raising awareness on the issue and informing people what to do when they see something that doesn’t look right and probably isn’t: http://www.olotv.org.uk/parish-groups/trafficking
Caritas Anti-Trafficking models itself off this parish group, linking more widely with Greater Manchester Police, the Medaille Trust and the Santa Marta Group in Westminster. It networks widely with charities and groups interested in tackling modern day slavery and raises awareness within parishes and schools and with groups of interested or concerned adults. It also offers advice, signposting and pastoral support to victims.
Caritas Anti-Trafficking notes: “Human trafficking happens here, “hidden in plain sight” and we all have a duty to be aware and report what we see. Moreover, we are all complicit in the poverty and exploitation that fuels human trafficking as Pope Francis tells us in Laudato Si’: “In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds…”
The people who attended the Formby meeting were invited to give feedback on what they had learned; the comments included: “I learnt how widespread slavery is and how much work is going on to combat it;” “how much the problem is increasing;” “all the speakers were very informative and I found Sr Isabel particularly engaging and enlightening;” “I learnt about the reluctance of victims to speak out, because of fear and shame;” “I was struck by the lack of a joined up approach by all the groups involved in anti-trafficking; the Church – national and local – should raise the profile of this problem;” “it heightened my awareness of the reality of this evil – and that so much is being done to try to spread awareness;” “the variety of organisations involved and the importance of networking;” “it gave me an awareness that trafficking exists, even in the smallest village;” “the extent of involvement of Religious to help victims;” “it made me more aware of CoR and ARISE;” “how easily young people, particularly girls can be targeted and trapped;” “there are things I can do instead of giving in to powerlessness;” “how people can be preyed upon and the way this affects families.”
Attendees were also asked to share what they would begin to do as a result of this new understanding of the problem: “invite a speaker to our parish to raise awareness and give out posters/cards and also use social media to highlight it; ”link up with others working against trafficking;” ”use opportunities in my parish and through various groups to spread the ‘bad news’ & support the Medaille Trust and invite one of its speakers to our parish;” “approach my local MP;” “try to help victims by donating clothes and encourage a ministry of prayer;” “pray for the victims on a daily basis and also remember people on the frontline, working to alleviate the suffering of these victims;” “work at primary school level to educate children about the threat;” “write about trafficking in our parish newsletter;” “do an assembly with our sixth form & try raising awareness in our local area;” “form a group in the local area to share information, contacts and ideas;” “pray, talk about trafficking and keep my eyes open;” “praying and fundraising;” “target young people” “give a school presentation;” “all I can do is pray.”
One attendee suggested developing a northwest coastal link up, to join forces in efforts to raise awareness. The Conference of Religious greatly welcomed the initiative of organising this type of local meeting, in response to the large anti-trafficking gatherings held in January and will offer support to other congregations who would also like to host such an event.
Formby organiser Sr Nora Coughlan SMG expressed delight that so many had attended and expressed the hope that what was discussed in Formby would be like a ripple effect spreading out, touching more and more people.
Sr Siobhan O’Keeffe SHJM offered a reflection on the suffering of victims:
‘And then the beating began.’ The first words that burst forth, uninvited from ‘Freddie lips when I met him on a glorious February afternoon a few weeks ago. I had dropped into the Medaille Safe House to deliver clothes donations from my some people in my local parish. Clearly in need of a listening ear, Freddie approached me. Bearing his untouched cup of coffee in his hands, he recounted without bitterness how ‘his friends’ had said they were offering him a job and a better life in the U.K Now he was trapped in the back of a van, robbed of his passport and documents and suffering the pain and humiliation of torture all the way ‘to the promised land.’ Five years of abuse followed where he worked as a cleaner, gardener and car wash attendant. There he suffered the degradation of sleeping on the car wash floor until rescued by the police and brought to a place of safety and rehabilitation. Freddie is 33 years old.
My thoughts immediately drew a comparison to the passion of Christ. Jesus had been betrayed and sold by ‘his friends’ and tortured all the way to His innocent death. On occasion, I am one of those ‘friends’ who still betray him. There are moments when my thoughts or actions do not reflect a knowledge of or relationship with the living Lord. My indifference to the suffering of humanity transports Jesus all the way to the cross and moments of un-forgiveness pass one more sponge of vinegar to His parched lips.
Fortunately for Freddie, a rescuer appeared and Freddie had the courage and grace to enter into His rehabilitation programme. He now shares his story of recovery to offer hope to others.
I too have been blessed on the many occasions when I have known the healing, forgiving and redemptive love of the Lord. A joy to be shared with all people.