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Adventists in Kansas City Engaged in Ending Human Trafficking »
That day Ivona Bernard was late, but managed to hear the very tale end of the presentation at her local church by Veronica’s Voice. She wasn’t even aware of Veronica’s Voice whose Magdalene KC home is providing safety for survivors of sex trafficking to heal and thrive.
What she heard from the presenter was enough to get her thinking about the urgent care needed to support victims of human trafficking. She thought at the time, “This is really interesting.” She didn’t know it was something that actually happens and is common, but she thought, ‘Wow! I’d like to explore that,” she recalls.
Ivona is director of the Ministerial Spouses Association [MSA] of the Central States Conference in Kansas City. A couple years later, she happened to turn on the news and saw the name again--Veronica’s Voice. Unfortunately, it was a news report showing people picketing to get Magdalene KC, a safe place with a non-judgmental environment for victims of prostitution and a part of Veronica's Voice, out of their neighborhood.
Kristy Childs, founder of Veronica’s Voice, an organization she established in 2000 in Kansas City, purchased the home with the intention of starting Magdalene KC. That was in 2011. It was a large home she got at public auction. When community members found out what it was intended for, they wanted to get it out of their neighborhood. “What I heard was terrible and I knew I needed to do something,” Ivona decided.
This was the spark that led to the Hear Their Voices - End Human Trafficking event, September 9-10, organized by her office, spearheaded by MSA and supported by several church entities, including North-American Division, Mid-America Union Conference and its conferences, including Rocky Mountain Conference.
Ivona went public with an effective word of mouth sharing of what she wanted to do. She wants to encourage people to dream bigger because initially her dream was a little small, she explains. “That’s where my vision started [fulfilling small things like bins and copy paper from their wish list] but when other people heard, they decided they wanted to partner and it got bigger and bigger. We’ve been able to do some significant things for them. We have a bathroom renovation project. We’ll be building a new deck. We’ve gotten a freezer, and they desperately needed a security system. Of course, we’re going to do the bins and copy paper, too,” she shares with excitement in her voice.
From a small beginning, Ivona’s dream involved the church where her husband, Roger, is the leader. The Hear Their Voices - End Human Trafficking community event became an expression of the church getting involved. The two-day event gathered more than 200 participants which included members of the community, church members and professionals whose expertise underscored the dire situation of human trafficking. First, a Hear Their Voices symposium aimed at providing community awareness and education about health and wholeness was held, with emphasis on human sex trafficking prevention, in order to keep people from being lured into exploitative situations. The gathering was followed by a Community Expo, a Sunday afternoon of fun and learning, with stations presenting educational methods to recognize human trafficking and how to get involved in fighting the epidemic.
Addressing the audience at Kansas City’s Jack Reardon Center, Renée Battle-Brooks, Assistant State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County, Maryland, and member of Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, said that human trafficking is a “domestic issue with 100,000 children and adults being exploited every year.” Much to the surprise of many participants, Attorney Battle-Brooks stated that trafficked girls are regarded as a commodity by her pimp. “What motivates human trafficking? GREED! If a pimp has one child working for him, he can make [in one year] one million dollars cash, free of taxes,” she said.
Human trafficking is becoming the number one criminal enterprise, surpassing guns and drugs. “We need to be aware, become engaged and recognize the signs of vulnerability,” she said. more.
"It took me six years to get out of this... I looked and looked but there was nothing. This is why I created something for us, women who are going through sexual exploitation." said Kristy Childs, her comments following stories voiced by three survivors whose road into trafficking began when they were just 11, 12 and 16. Today, they are cared for in an environment of safety, learning skills that will support them in this place of healing for women seeking escape from commercial sexual exploitation.
Also presenting at the symposium was Terrel Bishop, Program Coordinator of Magdalene KC. "We provide a two-year program free for the ladies who have gone through sexual exploitation," she said, expressing appreciation for the church and its engagement and support.
Expressing appreciation for the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s involvement, Kristy Childs commented that such partnership with the church and other segments of the community “can happen in all different kinds of ways – participation in different committees that we’re engaged with, with the fundraising team, the social enterprise team, doing things with the ladies when they have something of value to share with them, sharing a skill they can teach them. We want to create a safety net around these women of community so we want to have those community partners.”
In the words of Battle-Brooks, “We definitely need to become involved. Involvement comes in many forms, but I think first of all, we have to have discussions, we have to educate ourselves; we have to become aware of the issues.”
“There are so many issues that even members from within [our church] are suffering from that we’re not addressing, that they have to pretend that they’re not suffering -- whether it’s child sexual abuse, adult abuse, whether it is people they know or loved ones that are involved in human trafficking or whether it’s our LGBTQ community, there are so many things that we are not addressing and talking about. If we are on this earth to love and to point people to Christ, we have to first be loving ourselves.”
The prosecutor displayed her Adventist conviction. “If you look at Christ’s example, He didn’t just preach. He got involved. … We have to be the gospel. Talk is cheap. We are not going to get to heaven by talking.”
Speaking at the community expo was a member of Spencerville Church, Maryland Attorney Amanda Walker-Rodriguez, a former prosecutor from Baltimore, Maryland. After several years of prosecuting the criminals of sex trafficking, she now is the chief program officer of Turn Around, an organization assisting the victims. “Almost every time I’ve interacted with a survivor that has been able to fully extricate themselves from this issue, it’s been based on their faith. … I think the church is mandated to work on these issues, and take responsibility for its lost.”
“We were told to go out and preach and that involves every individual, even those who are in the corner, even those suffering from societal ills and afflictions,” she continued. “These are the least of these. These are the individuals that absolutely need the gospel more than I do sitting in a pew. If the access to God is what’s going to save them, why would we not give them that?”
Ivona explains that “as a conference, we have adopted Veronica’s Voice/Magdalene House for our own compassion project for a couple of years. My next event, my desire, is to reach out to pastor’s wives in the other churches, and see if we can collaborate.”
She added that “we have to protect our homes, doing what we can in our homes to make sure we have communication with our children, that our children’s needs are being met because when they’re vulnerable -- low self-esteem, things going on and chaos in the home -- that makes them extremely vulnerable to trafficking.”
Before the Hear Their Voices gathering ended on Saturday night, a final prayer offered a challenge to the church. “We confess we have preferred not to get too close. We have closed our eyes and turned away at times rather than to speak up for the helpless, vulnerable, imprisoned, and oppressed. But you have brought us together tonight to challenge us to be more like You. … Show us where to start to protect and defend, to liberate and rescue. May we restore dignity as we lavishly share love, hope, and healing in the name of the one true deliverer, Jesus Christ.”
Hear their Voices -- www.heartheirvoices.org
Veronica's Voice -- www.veronicasvoice.org
[Rajmund Dabrowski; photos by Tim Floyd]