Schoolteacher Sherry Searles remembers stopping by her local library in June 2009, looking for some summer reading. She left with a book called “Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade – and How We Can Fight It.”
To this day, she doesn’t know why. “Modern-day slavery wasn’t even on my radar,” she says. “Now, I think God had a plan.”
Reading the book changed Searles’ life. A member of First Brethren Church in North Manchester where she lives, Searles became an active advocate for victims of what international agencies call the world’s fastest-growing crime – a $32 billion-a-year industry exploiting compelled labor by children and adults.
As founder of Accessories for Hope, she hosts “freedom parties” where she sells products, including jewelry, handbags and chocolate, made by people rescued from, or at risk for, trafficking.
She donates the proceeds to agencies that help them and educates attendees about the many aspects of the problem.
Lately, Searles says, her audiences have mainly been at religious conferences or in churches, such as a July 27 event at Northpoint Community Church in Fort Wayne.
“I see a shift happening in the church in the United States,” she says. “I think people are tired of the status quo and are wanting to be part of something important, wanting to be part of what God is doing and what Jesus has asked us to do.”
David Grant, marketing director for Destiny Rescue, an international Christian nonprofit organization against trafficking with a U.S. office in North Webster, says interest in the issue among church folk is growing.
“I’m every other week in a church, and I have not had a single instance of the church not wanting to at least talk, and, many times, take action,” he says – even with the issue’s connection to the sex trade and tales of horrific child abuse.
“I think it tends to be something that people might initially not want to think about,” Grant says. “But once you know, how can you not take action?”
Indeed, many denominations have taken action against trafficking.
When the Super Bowl came to Indianapolis last year, Roman Catholic sisters from 11 orders wrote hotel managers within a 50-mile radius about the potential for trafficking related to the event and encouraged them to train staff to respond. Episcopalians report engaging in church-wide conversations this year and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has developed a human trafficking curriculum.
The presidential Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships also made ending trafficking a priority this year.
Destiny Rescue – whose CEO, Barbara Everett, is a native of Fort Wayne – has been garnering local support.
Based in Thailand, Destiny Rescue works primarily there and in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), India and Mozambique, where the group recently opened a “safe home” for boys.
The home is one of 22 with educational and vocational opportunities for about 1,500 trafficked and at-risk children and teens, Everett says. The group has rescued 262 young people this year.
Everett recently returned to northeast Indiana to head one of Destiny Rescue’s two U.S. offices after living in Australia for several years with her Australian husband, Peter. He now serves as the chief operating officer for Destiny Rescue, started by another Australian, Tony Kirwan.
She says the couple learned firsthand about trafficking while on a 2007 vacation in Thailand.
“We were in Bangkok shopping, and my husband had our two boys with him, and he was literally offered a girl for sale in a shoe store,” Everett says.
“They said, ‘For whatever you want – you take, you buy her for yourself or your boys, as a girlfriend.’ He didn’t know what to do. He literally was speechless.
“From our perspective, a Christian perspective, it would be hard to find a person who is more oppressed than a child in sex slavery,” she adds. “We can say, ‘Why don’t they leave?’ But we forget they’re children.”
Steve Heilshorn, youth pastor of Trinity Evangelical Friends Church in Van Wert, Ohio, organized “A Night of Hope” on Aug. 2 that featured about a dozen organizations fighting trafficking, including the Columbus, Ohio-based She Has a Name, which concentrates on domestic trafficking.
The congregation’s eyes were opened listening to that group’s leaders, he says.
“We’ve heard that, in our area in northwest Ohio, there are, through (U.S.) 30 and (Interstate) 75, big thoroughfares to move women from city to city,” he says.
“They’re dropping off women at rest stops and taking teenage girls to malls for prostitution. There are things people aren’t aware of, and we’re trying to bring that awareness.”
Christi Ziebarth of Warsaw, a preschool art teacher, says she turned her skills to the cause after hearing about trafficked children in Ghana from a friend, Jenny Flowers of Warsaw, who had visited there. Ziebarth has since developed an exhibit, “Abolition Art: A Celebration of Freedom,” with her mother, Dianna Williams, and Flowers.
Flowers “showed me hundreds of pictures and told stories, and it drew tears,” Ziebarth says. “Many of the children had been trafficked in the fishing industry in Lake Volta – thousands are sold by parents in poverty-stricken ultimatums, and they work 17 hours a day.”
A mother of four, Ziebarth says parents generally receive little in return for the children – $10 to $50, or enough to feed their family for a few weeks.
“I don’t know if I were in that society I would make any other choice,” she says. “But I’ve never been able to recover from that – that there are mothers who feel they have to sell their older children to feed their younger ones.”
The exhibit includes larger-than-life charcoal portraits of trafficked children by Flowers, the children’s own art, Ziebarth’s paper collages and Williams’ fiber arts.
It has been displayed at area colleges and churches, including Fellowship Missionary Church in Fort Wayne.
Ziebarth says the exhibit has no admission fee or suggested donation, and the artists don’t sell their work. But attendees can get information about aiding groups working in the field, including the Touch a Life Foundation in Ghana.
In 2011, Ziebarth and her daughter Heidi started Africrans by Amerikids, which recycles used crayons into new ones and sells them to benefit orphaned and trafficked children.
Ziebarth says she no longer feels depressed by the size of the problem.
“I know I’m doing something about it,” she says, “and I want to offer that to other people, for other moms like me to know they can do something, too.”
Dan Walker of Fort Wayne, a freelance producer and member of Life Bridge Church in Fort Wayne, says that’s why he got involved in organizing Liberation Market from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in the parking lot of Planet Fitness near Stellhorn and Maplecrest roads.The event will feature music, food and a flea market/garage sale and other items to benefit groups working to end trafficking.
“We’re seeing it as a celebratory thing … where people just aren’t stuck in the darkness of it, but know they can do something about it,” Walker says.
Ending trafficking seems to resonate with young people, who come to want to be affiliated with a church that cares about it.
“There are groups out there in Christianity that wouldn’t touch this issue because of the depravity of it,” Walker says.
“But I think God’s heart breaks at the injustices of the world, and this is one kind of injustice and oppression that we in Western culture just can’t wrap our minds around.
“It’s something that’s transcending religion. It’s something that no one, of any affiliation, cannot stand up against.”