Bishop's Column

A saint for the scourge of human trafficking

By Bishop James Conley  

Josephine Bakhita became a slave when she was 9 years old.

She was born in Darfur, on a waterless plain south of the Sahara Desert. Her family was wealthy, comfortable, and powerful. Her early years were carefree.

In February 1877, Josephine was kidnapped by slave traders outside of her village. She was 9. She was forced to walk 600 miles to a marketplace in Sudan. She was forced to convert from her native religion to Islam. She was sold five times over the next 12 years.

She was branded, beaten frequently, forced to travel great distances, and so traumatized that she forgot her own name. She took the word bakhita for a name, which means lucky, because she felt she was lucky to be alive.

Eventually, Josephine moved to Italy with her Italian owners. There, in 1888, with the help of Canossian nuns, a court declared her to be a free woman. Two years later, she was baptized a Catholic, confirmed, and received her first Communion.

Josephine Bakhita became a religious sister, and by God’s grace, she became a saint. I was privileged to be in Saint Peter’s Square on October 1, 2000, when St. John Paul II canonized her a saint.

Josephine Bakhita’s path to holiness was unique and miraculous. Her enslavement traumatized her—wounded her physically and psychologically. She might have easily died during the beatings she received as a slave. And even at the end of her life, when she had been free for more than 40 years, she had nightmares of being chained up by slave owners. The Lord healed her, but she had to overcome extraordinary obstacles as she learned true freedom in Jesus Christ.

We might be tempted to imagine that stories like St. Josephine Bakhita’s only happened in the past. That slavery no longer exists; that human beings no longer buy and sell one another like property. But modern slavery exists today in many forms, most prominently, in the form of human trafficking. Human trafficking is the trade or brokering of human beings, for forced labor, sexual slavery, coercive and forced prostitution, or even coercive gestational surrogacy. Human trafficking is among the fast-growing criminal activities among gangs in the United States, and criminal organizations around the world.

Human trafficking is modern slavery. It occurs when a girl or boy is coerced by a boyfriend or a parent into prostitution. It occurs when a smuggler forces undocumented immigrants to work for years without pay, to pay off a debt or to avoid family punishment. It occurs when a poor woman is forced by her family into working as a pregnancy surrogate for the wealthy. 

Human trafficking reduces people—created in the image of God—into commodities.

In 2016, Pope Francis said that “the trade in human beings is a modern form of slavery, which violates the God-given dignity of so many of our brothers and sisters and constitutes a true crime against humanity.” Catholics, Pope Francis said, are called to “bring the balm of mercy” to the “open wound” of human trafficking in our world.

Last month, Grace Williams, the founder of Children of the Immaculate Heart, a California apostolate helping women and children escape sex trafficking, spoke at the Newman Center about her work. She said that human trafficking is growing in popularity among gangs because “you can sell a person over and over again. The supply doesn’t run out.”

Grace also shared that, in Christ, women and children can experience true healing, and escape the coercive power of human trafficking, just as St. Josephine Bakhita did.

Glen Parks, Nebraska’s Human Trafficking Task Force Coordinator, spoke along with Grace. He shared that 135 people in Nebraska are sex trafficked every month—1,620 each year.

The evil of human trafficking—the “open wound”—has taken root in our state.

Each one of us is called to pray for the victims of human trafficking—modern-day slaves—especially those in our own state. We are also called to work to stop the evil of modern-day slavery, and to help its victims. In the months to come, our diocese will work to find ways to help the victims of human trafficking in Nebraska. In the meantime, I ask you to join me in continued prayer for an end to human trafficking.

The Lord gives liberty to captives. His mercy sets us free. He gave freedom to St. Josephine Bakhita. In hope, we pray that he will bring freedom to the modern-day slaves among us.       

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