By Daniel Wallace
While Baltimore and San Francisco fought it out on the gridiron Sunday in New Orleans, law enforcement and ministries across the city were waging a battle against the modern version of the slave trade: human trafficking. Authorities and others who work to oppose the practice say the practice is alive and well in many American cities, and is usually most pronounced during major sporting events.
“The Super Bowl is one of the biggest human trafficking events in the United States,” Texas state attorney general Greg Abbott told Time Magazine in 2011. Federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have created special units to counter human trafficking. Baptist and other churches and denominations have launched ministries to rescue and prevent victims.
In New Orleans, it started before Sunday with the bust of a sex-trafficking ring in the French Quarter by federal authorities, according to WWL-TV. Five women, who were forced to come to New Orleans to “work as prostitutes for pimps,” were rescued from the ring and eight men were arrested, the station reported.
Simple economics explains why human trafficking is a booming business during major sporting events such as the Super Bowl, according to Jennifer Young of Unbound Ministries with Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas. “That just has to do with demand,” Young said. “People wouldn’t sell other people for sex if that wasn’t something they would buy.”
Young said the Super Bowl attracts a large number of men from across the nation, some of whom are looking for sex while away from wives and children. She added that Super Bowl tickets are anything but cheap, and many men who attend the game have an excess of money and are willing to spend it to indulge their desires.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking crimes as ones which “focus on the act of compelling or coercing a person’s labor, services, or commercial sex acts.” Since the Super Bowl is a special event, traffickers can earn more for the services of their victims.
Forced labor and sex trafficking are the most common types of human trafficking that exist today, in what is widely regarded as modern-day slavery. According to the A21 Campaign, which seeks to abolish injustice in the 21st century, there are an estimated 27 million men, women and children in the world who are enslaved and are “being exploited for manual and sexual labor against their will.”
Human trafficking is not just a worldwide problem, however. World Relief, an organization which equips and empowers local churches in ways to bring justice, reports the demand for trafficking is high in the United States as well. It estimates that a person is trafficked within U.S. borders every 10 minutes.
Young emphasized the problem within the United States as well, saying that anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 children are trafficked each year in the U.S. alone. “A lot of people think that it is internationals but it is our children as well,” Young said.
It is an issue that brings together people of all different denominations, with Baptists heavily invested. American Baptist International Ministries encourages and oversees the development of new programs dealing with the issues of human trafficking globally. Catholic Relief Services fight the issues of human trafficking by supporting programs related to prevention of the crime, protection and reintegration of the victims and public awareness.
United Methodist Women has been combating human trafficking for more than a decade. “As trafficking violates the human rights and dignity of those who are victimized, we feel compelled to act,” said Susie Johnson, manager of public policy for UMW.
“We believe that it is important to focus on the underlying causes of global economic and gender inequities if we are to end modern day slavery,” she said.
In preparation for Super Bowl weekend, First Baptist Church in New Orleans and other like-minded groups worked together to form Free NOLA, a faith-based coalition fighting against domestic trafficking. Free NOLA has taken the initiative of training local taxi cab drivers and medical personnel expected to encounter trafficked individuals during Super Bowl weekend.
Christi Gibson, the Connections Minister at First Baptist, said those individuals were trained on what trafficking is, what signs to look for and which proper authorities to contact if there is suspicion a person has been trafficked.
Free NOLA also sponsored an open-to-the-public prayer walk in the French Quarter on Saturday afternoon, where the public was invited to pray over the city and human trafficking victims. Gibson believes this will be a powerful tool to see slaves set free in New Orleans during Super Bowl weekend.
“We believe firmly our battle is not against flesh and blood,” Gibson said. “The secrecy and depth of this crime is not something we, as just plain old church people, can jump into. It’s a spiritual battle.”