Monday, May 13, 2013

Annoyed by Paul's Annoyance with a Slave Girl

I don’t believe the framers of the Lectionary – the assigned scripture readings for each Sunday – took into account that today would be Mother’s Day when they choose these lessons. The reading from the Book of Acts could not be more ‘unMother’s day’ if it tried, and yet it speaks to an important global problem that surely is every mother’s concern.

Paul, Silas, and his travelling companions arrive in the city of Philippi and make their way to a “place of prayer.” On the way they meet “a slave girl who has a spirit divination” and the text tells us that her ability “brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling.” The girl follows Paul and cries out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” Every time the girl saw Paul and his companions she launched into “crying out.” After several days of this, Paul became “annoyed” and ordered the spirit to leave the girl, which it did immediately. You heard how the story unfolds from there: the slave owners are angered that their revenue stream is gone, they make legal charges against Paul and the others, the group is put in prison, the earthquake, the jailer, the baptism.

The text casts the slave girl as a minor character, but she puts a human face on what is an age-old, world-wide problem. Today she would be classified as a victim of human trafficking. It is a term which conjures up images of something that happens in foreign countries, but in fact is a tremendous problem here in America and often occurs closer to home than we might imagine. Maggie Tinsman, an Iowan Episcopalian with a deep concern for this issue, writes “Put simply, human trafficking is slavery. Force, fraud or coercion is used to compel a person to perform labor or commercial sex, and all profits belong to the trafficker.”

A 2007 report estimated that as many as 27 million people worldwide may be victims of human trafficking; most of whom are young woman and girls. Because of the underground nature of this crime it is hard to get an accurate estimate, but it is possible that as many as a million victims are right here in the United States. In our country, the overwhelming majority of runaway girls end up in human trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home.

Tinsman writes “women are forced to work in strip clubs, massage parlors, in street prostitution, and are required to advertise their services on classified websites. They are abused mentally, physically and sexually as a means of keeping them under traffickers’ control.” She goes on to say that victims of labor trafficking “may work in restaurants, as hotel housekeepers, in factories or on farms, and as nannies. These individuals are not paid, and frequently work and live under deplorable conditions. Often, these victims face language barriers, and any escape is impeded by the traffickers who maintain their victims’ documents, isolate them from the outside world and threaten to turn them over to U.S. authorities.”

Recent headlines have highlighted just how prevalent this problem is both at home and abroad. Media outlets resported on May 2 that two girls were rescued from a Saudi Arabian compound in McLean, VA. Then came the shocking news out of Cleveland where three kidnapped girls have been held in a house for ten years. On Friday, the death toll at the Bangladesh clothing factory stood at over 1,000 people – most of them women and all of them working in a horrific enviroment.

Something about the very fabric of today’s text bothers me, something beyond the way this poor girl was used and exploited. I am bothered by the way the text focuses only on the men in the story and how unfolding events affect them. Paul is annoyed. The slave owners lose their income. The crowd in the marketplace – most likely all men – riots against Paul and his companions. The men are beaten and thrown into jail. The male jailer is distraught when he thinks his prisoners have escaped. The jailer and “all his household” are baptized. Whatever women where a part of these events – starting with the slave girl – don’t seem to matter much. Who was this girl? What was her name? What happened to her after she could no longer turn a profit for her owners? Who were the women in the jailer’s household? How did they feel about getting baptized? Feminine biblical scholars point out these kinds of deficiencies in the text, but also note we are asking questions that the text’s author – a product of a male dominated society – was not equipped to discuss. They are issues that simply where not on the writer’s radar screen.

But they are on ours, or should be. We care about this slave girl. We want to know what happened to her. Her life matters. It matters every bit as much as the life of the jailer. He is saved because Paul, Silas, and the others notice him. He is brought into the Christian faith and life. He and his household are given the opportunity to be a foundational part of the first church in Philippi. They will experience the same blessing, comfort, and companionship that we experience by being a member of St. Paul’s. She is never heard from again. No one even seems to think to go looking for her to see if she can be saved and brought into the faith community. Surely she needed to know God’s love every bit as much as any of the jailer’s daughters (assuming he had some). It is tragic really.

But we live in a different time when women, young women, and girls matter and people of faith across our country are finding ways to express God’s love to victims of trafficking. The Rev. Brian McVey, rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davenport, Iowa, has led that congregation to a unique ministry. Their parish is located just four miles from the world’s largest truck stop. Over 8,000 people pass through it every day and it is an active location for human sex trafficking. Some estimate that trafficking generates as much as $30 million dollars a year there. St. Alban’s, a parish with just 150 members and an annual budget of only $105,000, began what they call “a ministry of presence” at the truck stop. It involves being at the site and identifying themselves as members of a church who care about the people there. While it is hard to measure their impact, to date several young women have approached them for help and countless others have been educated as to the problem.

In 1997, the Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal chaplain at Vanderbilt University, founded Magdalene as a residential community for women who have survived life on the streets, prostitution, trafficking, and drug addiction. They now have six homes that provide women with shelter, work, and support for up to two years. The women who come there range in age from 20-50, many were first abused sexually between the ages of 7-11, began using alcohol or drugs by 13, have been arrested on average a hundred times, and have spent about 12 years on the street prostituting. 72% who join the program are clean and sober within two-and-a-half years of joining. At the center of the community life are twenty-four spiritual principles and Magdalene stands as a powerful witness “to the truth that in the end, love is more powerful than all the forces that drive women to the streets.”

There is much that you and I can do to about human trafficking. The first thing is to educate ourselves. You can find plenty of information on the internet. Do a Google search on “Virginia human trafficking” or “Episcopal Church and human trafficking” and you will be well on your way. Talk with others here at St. Paul’s and with friends who belong to other area churches and find out if who else shares your passion for this problem. You can ‘like’ the facebook page of the Virginia Coalition against Human Trafficking and receive posts about news and events in our commonwealth. You can support ministries that are engaged in rescuing and rehabilitating victims of human trafficking. A good place to start is Thistle Farms, which is Magdalene’s job-training enterprise. It employs 40 women who create natural body and bath products that are available for sale online and at over 200 stores. They have perfect late gifts for Mother’s Day.

I have to tell you that until this week I have not paid much attention to the crime of human trafficking. I can hardly call myself a seasoned crusader. But there was something in today’s reading the kept gnawing at me. I was annoyed by Paul’s annoyance with the slave girl. The more I thought about it, and prayed about it, and mediated on it, the more I wanted to know about her and about how victimization like her’s continues in our own time. I don’t know where this sermon will take me, but I am interested in beginning a conversation with anyone who is interested in exploring the possibilities.

As I said at the beginning, this hardly strikes me as a happy topic for Mother’s Day and yet I can not imagine one any more important. As both a cheap way to marry the subject to the day, but also as a way of putting more of a human face on the reading, the slave girl had a mother. We know even less of her story that we do of her daughter’s. Did she die at an early age, forcing her child to the streets and life of slavery? Did her daughter run away and was her heart broken? Was her daughter taken from her and was she powerless to do anything about it? Was she herself a victim when she was younger? Perhaps she too was enslaved with no way out. Stories like hers, whatever the actual details may have been, are happening every day in our world, in our country, and in our commonwealth. Anything we can do that might free even one person is well worth the effort. Anything we can do that demonstrates God’s love is greater than the forces that exploit human beings is nothing less than an imperative we carry when the Good News of Jesus Christ is in our hearts.