Stop the Traffick!

A woman attached to strings like a puppetHomily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

The Seven Word Sermon: Trafficking happens in Cardiff today. Be vigilant!

“I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!”

With these words, the African American Solomon Northup resolved not to give up hope. This was no small task, because Solomon, born a free man in New York State, had been kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. The recent movie, 12 Years a Slave, told the story of the beatings and abuse which he endured before he was finally able to mail a letter home, enabling the local sheriff to free him and return him to New York.

Today’s readings also speak of despair, slavery, and hope.

Despair, because Job’s life has collapsed around him. His flocks are destroyed, his camels stolen, his children killed and his own body plagued with boils. His friends said to him, “Curse God and die!” Job had enough faith to refuse to insult God, but – as you could hear in our First Reading – he was all gloom and doom, not seeing any prospect of hope.

Slavery, because St Paul is so driven to tell the world the message of Jesus, he declares himself willing to endure the conditions of a slave if that is what it takes.

Hope, because the Gospel shows us how Jesus is the one who can defeat fevers and evil spirits. We, the members of his body, are called to continue his work by defeating evil in all its forms. And some of that evil is closer at hand than you might think.

Slavery is alive and well in Cardiff today.

Last year, the police discovered 50 cases in Wales of people being treated as slaves. 28 children in Cardiff alone were found to be at risk. Some children were being forced to do domestic work, others to help to grow cannabis. Last January, a judge in Newport jailed a Czech man and a Romanian woman, who had tricked two Czech women into coming to Britain, then forced them to be prostitutes in Cardiff Bay. A similar thing happened to a Lithuanian woman who ended up in Blackwood, Gwent, two years earlier.

This is sad, but what’s it got to do with us?

First, we can all be vigilant. Any one of us might stumble across a situation in our local community. Some years ago, when I was still a seminarian, I made a home visit which aroused my suspicions. An Asian woman answered the door; she had very poor English but seemed to be living as wife to a British man who was out at the time. Judging by the red-top newspapers left lying around the house, the husband was a fan of Page 3. I didn’t take it any further, because nothing was clear, the woman’s English was so poor and I didn’t know what else I could do; but if I found myself in a similar situation today I would ring the national human trafficking hotline for some advice. Perhaps it was all OK, but my inner alarm bell was ringing loudly.

Second, we can raise our own awareness. For some months now, there have been green magazines in the porch about the work of the Medaille Trust. Some religious sisters from Llantarnam Abbey work with women who have been rescued from these kind of situations. But if the rescued women don’t have the legal right to be in Britain, they are only allowed 45 days’ grace before they are deported – that is not a lot of time for the mental healing required. If you are looking for something special to do for Lent this year, you might take one of those magazines, read it, and perhaps write to a politician or send a donation for their work. The Medaille Trust suggests that we might lobby MPs so that seized assets of the traffickers will be used to directly help victims. There is also information worth reading on our Bishops’ website, at the national charity Stop the Traffik, and a more local organisation, “Stop Human Trafficking Wales“.

Third, we can pray. I’ve chosen this theme today because February 8th is the feast of St Josephine Bakhita, another African who knew what it meant to be released from slavery. Our bishops ask us to keep this date as a day of special prayer for victims of human trafficking. We’ll offer some prayers in a few moments.

St Josephine was a Sudanese slave who had been kidnapped so young that she did not even know what name her parents had given her. She was bought by an Italian diplomat; she travelled with him back to Italy where she was freed, chose to be baptised as a Catholic, and sensed a call to the religious life. She was 50 years a religious sister, and was canonized for her evident holiness. Josephine is the name she took at her baptism; Bakhita, which means “fortunate”, was the name given to her by her kidnappers.

After 50 years as a happy religious sister, Josephine Bakhita suffered flashbacks during her final days. She re-lived the terrible days of her slavery and more then once she begged the nurse who assisted her: “Please, loosen the chains… they are heavy!” But at the last the Mother of God came to her aid: Her last words were “Our Lady! Our Lady!”, and she died with a smile on her lips.

At the age of 140, the Bible tells us, God blessed Job with gifts beyond those destroyed when he was tested. He came to own fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand she-donkeys; he was blessed with seven sons and three daughters, and saw his children and his children’s children up to the fourth generation.

After 12 years as a slave, Solomon Northup returned to freedom in New York, but only because a white man who hated slavery had the courage to post a letter for him. His rescue came not directly from God or our Blessed Mother, but from a human being willing to take a risk to help him. Somewhere in Cardiff, right now, there is a Solomon gritting his or her teeth and repeating constantly: “I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune!”

I will always wonder if I missed the opportunity to be someone’s route to freedom, and I no longer know the address concerned. Don’t make that mistake. Solomon of Cardiff is counting on you!