What’s in a name?
What is the difference between a “faith-based” anti-trafficking organization and a “faith motivated” one?
Not much I thought. At least on paper. I nearly missed the one worded change on Traffick Free’s website a week after attending their Sips, Snacks, and Sex Ed Fundraiser at an Irish pub in Chicago. Even though, Laura Ng, Executive Director of Traffick Free, had mentioned wanting the change, was the difference so great it warranted an official switch?
According to Traffick Free, it was. For them it means meeting the victims of trafficking where they’re at.
For the world, it highlights a new era of Progressive Christianity, a movement marked by controversial popes and a rising new millennial generation.
And for crimes of human trafficking in Chicago and beyond, it could mean the end of life as it knows it.
Progressive Christianity is a somewhat new term coined by the late rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Capitol Hill, Jim Adams. Adams was the founder of what is today known as ProgressiveChristianity.org. In 1994 Adams had a vision of a non-profit that would electrify the declining churches, pushing them to seek out those for whom Christianity had proven “ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive.”
Today, while Progressive Christianity maintains a clear stance on what is clearly prohibited in the Bible, the movement embraces, a strong emphasis on social and environmental justice and seeks a diverse, all-inclusive community of varying sexual orientation, convention, skepticism, agnosticism, gender, class, and abilities.
The controversy of Progressive Christianity, which is very similar to what is known as the ‘Social Gospel,’ falls into the larger Christian ‘left wing.’ As a result, both find much of its opposition from conservative Christian ‘right.’ In the past, supporters of this left wing Christianity have been influential figures like Martin Luther King Jr. The Christian right might have maintained a monopoly on Christian community for a while but it seems conservative traditions are giving more segue to Progressive Christianity in recent years. And while it’s still relatively new, it’s changing the face of Christianity and its involvement in social justice issues dramatically.
In the past, conventional Christian social justice involved a heavy emphasis on proselytizing while serving whatever cause at hand. Pamphlets slipped in with a loaf of bread. Preaching at a public community gathering. But that isn’t the case for Traffick Free. Over a sparkling glass of Malbec during their last fundraiser, Laura Ng shared, “Our role is not to free someone and it’s not to evangelize to someone.” If these aren’t the words you would expect to come from a faith-motivated anti-trafficking non-profit, you certainly will not believe that Traffick Free also started as a church ministry.
In 2008, Park Community Church began a ministry that sought the help of law enforcement and other experts in anti-human trafficking, to address the issue specifically within the city of Chicago. Through social media, the ministry made it their mission to gain the attention of the public and host educational talks with these experts to raise awareness within the community. They had no idea that just two years down the road, the ministry would file to become a volunteer based non-profit. In doing so, Traffick Free emerged from the group of learners to corporately recognized ‘experts’ on the issue of anti-human trafficking.
Despite the corporate evolution of what is now Traffick Free, the organization has maintained its strong religious origins. All of Traffic Free’s leaders and board of directors are Christians, but this does not restrict their scope of partners to other religious organizations. Traffick Free has an impressive network of organizations they collaborate with: other NGOs, legislation clinics, homelessness organizations, and recently, even the LGBTQ community.
One of Traffick Free’s newest partnerships involves the Marlin Foundation, an organization that seeks to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ community and the conservative faith community. Michael Kimpan, executive director of the Marin Foundation, first met Laura through a mutual friend who was also on the board for the foundation. According to Kimpan, his friend thought they would get along “splendidly” and, sure enough, they did.
“We began a friendship, but as we talked about the goals and missions and values of both of our organizations, it became clear that there was some overlap in the work that we both do,” Kimpan shared. “There are so many folks who identify as Trans, as well as others the LGB population, that are kicked out of their homes-most often conservative Christian homes-and find themselves on the street. They then find their way into sex work as a way to find to stay alive and to survive. So reducing the stigmatization of LGBTQ people, specifically minors, plays right into reducing human trafficking.”
Kimpan also mentioned that in addition to speaking engagements between the two organizations, Traffick Free is planning to join the Marin Foundation’s “I’m Sorry” campaign during Chicago’s annual Gay Pride Parade. This campaign works to visibly apologize for the hateful homophobic protests that erupt during the parade every year.
Traffick Free is aware of the controversy their partnership choice stirs but they are convinced it’s the right choice missionally and spiritually. “Since we plan on serving transgender individuals; we’re learning how to speak that same language without technically taking a side,” Laura Ng explained. “We plan on serving this community, and as a faith based organization I don’t care where you stand as a supporter or volunteer, as long as you know this is a population that needs to be served. That’s all I care about. We are a faith based organization that knows it takes everyone to affect positive change.”
Other members of the volunteer-based non-profit agree. Marketing Director of Traffick Free, Virginia Dickman shared, “I love that we can kind of sit in the tension, and to me that’s where Jesus calls us to be. It’s all about serving the survivors and the victims. I love the open spirit with this organization. I haven’t seen that in a lot of other non-profits. They’re [other non-profits] so targeted and so focused, which is great but at the end of the day we’re serving all kinds of people.”
So far, Traffick Free has not had any protest from anyone within the organization or from the public. But for the Marin Foundation, push-back and criticism is something they have always faced during its 15 years of existence.
According to Kimpan, there have been instances where both conservative and progressive parties will refuse to collaborate with them because the Marin Foundation maintains a strong stance on “strategic and intentional neutrality“ on issues like, whether homosexuality is a sin, or whether they support same-sex marriage. The reason for this organizational choice is “to maintain correspondence with both sides of the conversation.” But Kimpan also acknowledged that “sometimes people aren’t ready or willing to engage folks with whom they may disagree in peaceful and productive ways, and that’s fine. Andrew Marin, the president and founder of the Marin Foundation is fond of saying ‘When you’re a bridge, be prepared to be walked on by both sides.’” While the Marin Foundation has sought to be this bridge for 15 years, Traffick Free affiliation is comparatively newer, so there is no saying what will happen in the future.
Birds of a feather may not fly together
If Traffick Free had a younger sister who lived in the suburbs of Illinois, it would be the West-Chicago Anti Trafficking Coalition (WCATC). Founded on January 2012 in Wheaton, IL, the WCATC is nearly identical to Traffick Free in terms of their structure, mission and vision. As a faith-based organization comprised of volunteers, they also emphasize awareness, education and collaboration between various non-profit organizations, communities, and individuals. Like Traffick Free, the WCATC is not a direct contact organization, focusing more on networking and facilitating training and service events.
The coalition formed when co-founder Terri Kraus, said she saw a need to bridge the gaps between local communities of individual churches. In Wheaton, also known as the “city of churches” she saw so many churches involved in their own personal anti-trafficking ministries but very little collaboration, limiting their ability to make a greater impact on the issue.
When WCATC formed, she decided it “didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” so they made it their mission to connect congregations with organizations already on the ground with established networks as well as among each other. Recently, WCATC has helped a new anti-trafficking organization called Refuge for Women buy houses as shelters for individuals escaping sex-trafficking. It’s need that Traffick Free recognizes as well and has responded to by planning the opening of 24 hour emergency drop in center.
With all of these almost genetic similarities, there is one key difference between the two organizations. It isn’t necessarily that WCATC isn’t interested in seeking out collaboration with the niche groups like LGBT groups as Traffick Free is doing. Although the reasons behind that choice have less to do with judgment than it does their particular analysis of the issue, it reveals their conservative identity. Kraus explained her personal stance on anti-human trafficking as more of a spiritual problem that needs God’s input in the recovery of victims long-term.
“I really feel like the answer for all of these things is ultimately the Gospel. There might be people doing great work without it, but as a Christian who believes in the power of the gospel, it’s where I need to personally put my resources and my time.” For Kraus, this stance does not mean there cannot be collaboration. In the past WCATC and Traffic Free have engaged in events together. Kraus also acknowledges that endeavors with the LGBT community would be a great opportunity particularly for evangelism, but in the long term she firmly believes “the Gospel is the ultimate answer” in ending human trafficking.
WCATC’s reluctance echoes many other conservative organizations and parties. But Kraus’ comments do bring up a valid point. When an organization chooses their identity, they are clarifying what they are not, as well as accepting the responsibilities and standards associated with what they are. If, as a Christian, you believe that the Gospel is the solution to human trafficking, it is more reassuring to a supporter or donor of an organization to have that in writing. This mutual agreement that exists in the mission statements of each organization, and its constituents serves as a contract of trust. If the mission statement is less ambiguous, it is easier for supporters to be unified. Easier to mobilize and be efficient in tasks. But if the difference is a splice of the hair, like “faith-based” and “faith-motivated” in Traffick Free’s mission statement, or “strategically neutral” like the Marin Foundation, what should millennials choose? Which will be more effective in combating human trafficking?
What kind of bird should millennials be?
Right now, religious conservatives outnumber religious progressives by 9% according to the Public Religion Research Institute. But a poll of 2000 adults by the PRRI shows that demographically, millennials are more inclined to religious progressivism. So, according to PRRI’s CEO, Robert Jones, “If you’re using a generational snapshot today as a proxy for the future, it is safe to say that religious progressives hold a stronger appeal among Millennials.”
Awesome. Millennials are winning. But time is ticking. This research shows that millennials have until they overwhelm the 9% majority to decide whether they will continue to support religious progressivism or not. Once that time runs out, it is millennials who will be accountable for the majority of the success, or decline of anti-trafficking-not the generations of our past. That is a heavy burden to bear.
Should we choose the unity and efficiency of conservatism? Or should we choose the all-inclusiveness of progressivism? We can’t just flippantly choose what we as a generation feel inclined to do. We need to make our choice based on what will result in positive change in the future, particularly in regards to anti-trafficking.
On Feb. 15 this year, Pope Francis led Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on the scandalous story of how Jesus touched the leper to heal his hideous disease. “Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal,” according to the Pope, who followed to give the choices millennials face now. “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.”
While WCATC seem afraid of losing the saved, those who might condemn the ambiguities of progressive collaboration, Traffick Free and the Marin Foundation are willing to risk them to save the lost. If we’re looking to Jesus’ example, he reached out to touch the leper in love. So as the next generation, let us millennials have the courage to choose scandal-not for scandal’s sake-but out of love.