Not long ago, heading home from a distant airport because of a cancelled flight, my husband and I found ourselves in a rest stop at 2:30 in the morning. Just over the Maine border from New Hampshire, we stopped to switch drivers and he took the opportunity to pop into the men’s room.
Wearily I crossed to the passenger seat and glanced at the small car beside us. Two young men, perhaps in their mid-20s, were seated in the front, looking straight ahead, without speaking, toward the picnic tables nestled in the trees. I found that strange. What were they doing? Where were they going? Why were they parked at a rest stop in the middle of the night?
A few moments passed and Scott returned down the path from the welcome center. I looked up to see two young girls, 15 or 16 tops, bounding down behind him. They were under-dressed for March and acting giddy, manic even, as they reacted to the freezing air. They piled into the back seat behind the young men, who showed no reaction to their arrival. As Scott adjusted his seat and mirrors, their car backed out and headed to the highway.
As we merged onto the north-bound Maine turnpike, I recalled the tired parental axiom I repeated to my twin sons during their high school years: “Nothing good happens after midnight.”
What were two girls doing out at 2:30 a.m. with men eight-to-ten years their senior? What good could come of that? Why weren’t they home with their parents?
You’re probably going to think that this is something of a leap, but what came to mind as we drove into the pre-dawn darkness was a small group of people in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine who formed a Human Trafficking Ministry Group last summer.
The very idea of the group seemed off base to many Mainers. The members constantly buck the inevitable question, “Is that really a problem in Maine?”
Well, yeah. It is.
And if sex trafficking—trading sex for something of value like drugs, money, food, or shelter—is a problem in a small, rural state like Maine, then it’s a problem everywhere.
While trafficking in many parts of the country often centers around those newly arrived in the U.S., a common trafficking profile in Maine involves a runaway girl from a small, inland town like Mattawamkeag or Rumford who gravitates to Portland, Lewiston, or Bangor. Once in the city, she becomes an easy target: someone takes an interest in her, offers her a place to stay, free drugs . . . and the next thing she knows, her high is wearing off and she’s in Boston, expected to turn a trick to pay back her new-found “friend.”
The afternoon after I observed the girls climbing into the back seat of that car, I drove to our state capital, Augusta, to represent the Maine Council of Churches at a meeting of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Human Trafficking. In addition to the Attorney General Janet Mills and members of her staff, those present included city police chiefs, representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s office and Homeland Security, leaders of domestic violence and sexual assault prevention agencies, one truly formidable assistant district attorney . . . and me, The Church Lady.
What I learned at that meeting astounded me. Professionals in law enforcement and social services are not asking, “Is human trafficking really a problem in Maine?” They know it is and are deeply committed to training police, prosecuting offenders, protecting and supporting victims, and working to stem the tide of women and minors swept up in the swirling, seemingly inescapable eddies of trafficking.
What they don’t know, I quickly realized, is that people of faith can be a source of support as well. The religion scholar José Casanova calls the kinds of ministry church people offer in the postmodern world “a new global civil religion of humanity” that bridges “the sacred” and “the profane” in the real, spiritual lives of people.
When we turn our eyes and our thoughts away from the hard things, we risk forgetting that we are called to wait, watch, and work in the night to help bring love and hope to all of God’s children.
Toward the end of the meeting, I had the chance point out some of these bridges as they are routinely crossed in Maine’s faith community:
- A group of congregations in Greater Augusta have joined together to start a robust, long-term mentoring program called “Walk with Me: A Journey,” which is designed for recently incarcerated women and modeled after the successful My Sister’s Keeper program.
- The Center for Wisdom’s Women, a program of support for vulnerable women that emerged from Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston, is developing long-term supportive housing for women.
- In November the Human Trafficking Ministry Group, in cooperation with Bates College and the Center for Wisdom’s Women, will bring the Rev. Becca Stevens and several residents of Magdalene House/Thistle Farms in Nashville to Maine to speak about that successful two-year residential and work skills program for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking and addiction.
In the elevator after the meeting a police chief said, “You remind me that I need to return a phone call about that supportive housing program in Lewiston. That’s good work.”
In the lobby the fearsome assistant DA said, “I’m glad to see someone from the churches here. We forget about you.”
“We work for free, you know.”
“Awesome!” she said, over her shoulder and on to her next thing. “That’s what I love about the church.”
Such moments remind me that the line we sometimes imagine between “religion” and “the secular world” is just that—imaginary. Our mission as a Church has always been “in the world.” Where else would it be?
That surely includes cafés, pubs, coffee shops, hiking trails, and all the other cool places where more engaged and expansive ministries are unfolding. It also includes less congenial spaces with stories of suffering and sorrow we don’t want to imagine. But we must.
Because when we turn our eyes and our thoughts away from the hard things, we risk forgetting that we are called to wait, watch, and work in the night to help bring love and hope to all of God’s children. As people of faith that’s part of our job description, even when it would be easier to look away.
That morning, before I left for the meeting in Augusta, I stopped at a family-owned hardware store near my home. The pet department always takes care of my rabbit when we go on vacation. I need to pick him up first thing, or else he holds a grudge. Walking along the major appliance aisle to the pet shop, I saw an old gentleman in coveralls wave his cane to summon Mark, the owner, over to where he was leaning against a dishwasher.
“I came down here to tell you that the girl who’s interviewin’ for the job in the pet shop is a real good girl. I’ve known her since she was a pup,” he said, “and you couldn’t do bettah.”
Of course this kind of self-appointed character reference wouldn’t fly for a hiring process at a corporate big box store. But around here, it means something to have an old neighbor take the time to come to town to vouch for you. Out back in the pet shop, I held my bunny and wondered and worried again about the girls from the rest stop the night before.
Where were they now? What shape were they in?
My dearest prayer is that they have someone who has known them since they were pups; that they have at least one person who is willing to go the extra mile to keep them safe, to love them deeply, and to cheer them on.
All it takes is a walk outside our church doors to be reminded that the people who follow Jesus are called to do this sacred worldly work all the time. And, not for nothing, we usually do it for free.