Until recently, Nate Alday of Ventura County believed abolitionists were a thing of the past.
Then he became one.
“Like a lot of Americans, I thought slavery was abolished back at the end of the Civil War,” Alday told The Episcopal News recently. But a youth pilgrimage from St. Paul’s Church, Ventura, to Ghana in 2014 changed his mind and his life forever.
The group shared the Eucharist in a centuries-old slave dungeon. “It was the farthest thing from a holy place; a dark, dirty place where thousands of people were kept while essentially on the way to their grave,” he said.
“And yet, I felt like the Holy Spirit was in that place. To see that contrast between evil and the Holy Spirit, I don’t know how to describe it other than it was like a revelation.”
There the Rev. Canon Doug Edwards, an assisting priest at St. Paul’s, offered the group a few revelations of his own; namely that he had become an abolitionist because of his work in Ghana and because:
more than 42 million people are living in slavery worldwide, the largest number in human history;
the U.S. State Department estimates that 17,000 individuals are trafficked into the U.S. every year, including a significant portion for the sex industry;
California law enforcement reports 40,000 enslaved persons statewide — a number roughly commensurate with the total of worshippers attending Episcopal churches in the six-county Diocese of Los Angeles any given Sunday.
“The numbers are startling,” Edwards told the News. “A slave in Ghana costs $13 to purchase; a goat costs $40.”
Most are children and women, he said. Sometimes, they are kidnapped; sometimes sold by a relative. Often parents are conned by promises of education and a better life for their children.
Many slaves are used as laborers; about 17 to 20 percent are involved in the sex industry, nail salons, as domestic workers and in restaurants and agriculture.
Of modern-day slaves in the United States, “a lot of are from Indochina and Central America and are kidnapped persons from the good old USA who get relocated across state lines,” Edwards said. “They are kidnapped and handed from person to person and become part of the sex industry.”
‘Now You Know; Act’
Once he learned about modern slavery, Alday said he and others “felt we had to act on what we know.”
St. Paul’s spent six months raising awareness and discerning next steps. It culminated in their becoming the first abolitionist congregation in the Los Angeles diocese and crafting the resolution, which convention delegates will consider at the 121st annual meeting of the Diocese of Los Angeles Dec. 2-3 in Ontario (the resolution text appears on page 4).
“St. Paul’s did a lot of work together as a parish looking at slavery in Africa; we discovered there is a tremendous amount of human trafficking and slavery that goes on in Ventura County,” said the Rev. Susan Bek, rector.
“We began to learn how our consumer choices might impact slavery and what we might do about it.”
That work spawned Abolish Slavery Now, a nonprofit agency Alday and others incorporated in early 2016. It aims to raise awareness about human trafficking and forced labor, and to help free people from slavery.
In January of this year, they funded efforts to free 16 young people from Ghana’s Lake Volta, working with a local partner, Challenging Heights, which was founded by a former child slave who cooperates with local law enforcement officers to rescue other slaves.
According to the agency’s website, an estimated 1.8 million children, many younger than 15, are slaves in Ghana. They are trafficked for labor and commercial sexual exploitation. More than 6.3 million children under 15 have been excluded from schools there. “We have identified poverty, lack of education, and poor law enforcement as key reasons for child trafficking and forced labor in Ghana,” according to the website.
The Ghanaian children were rescued from slavery at Lake Volta, the world’s largest manmade lake, where they had been sold into the fishing industry, Edwards said. “All of the children reported friends and fellow slaves that had died at the hands of their masters. They work seven days a week, 12 to 18 hours a day, and are malnourished. They told stories of beatings.”
It costs about $1,000 each to rescue a child from slavery; about half of that money buys fuel, “because rescuers are out on boats going from inlet to inlet in the middle of the night, to find these children on fishing boats. They take them right off the boats,” said Edwards, who visited the children in June.
“They were at a safe house. I wanted to meet with them and be able to come back and report that yes, the children are well, they are safe, the system works,” he said.
Once the children are rescued, they enter a process of reintegration to assist them with PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, and receive spiritual care, medical treatment and education, because many have been excluded from schools. “We identify their village, find their family and interview them to make sure they weren’t perpetrators, then reintegrate them,” Edwards said.
‘An economic crime against humanity’
There are many ways to stand up to slavery, Edwards said. “The first is to take the pledge to be an abolitionist; we have a pledge we invite people to take, a vow to learn more about modern slavery.”
“The vast majority of the world’s slaves are outside the United States but a large number of them are involved in products we use on a daily basis … like chocolate and coffee,” he said.
“We get cheap chocolate at the expense of children literally dying in the cocoa plantations; the story is identical for Folgers Coffee,” he said.
“As churches, we can stop buying coffee at the local store that isn’t fair trade coffee. As a community we can buy fair trade chocolate and use our power as consumers to change our own hearts and society.
“Slavery at its base is now and always has been an economic crime against humanity. It will not be stopped until large multinational corporations like Hershey and Nestlé refuse to stop underwriting it.”
Said Alday, “Ignorance is bliss; you don’t know this is going on. But, once you hear slaves are involved in your coffee and your chocolate, how can you support it with a clear conscience by purchasing those products?
“In our day-to-day lives, we no longer buy Kit Kat bars for Halloween; we get fair trade chocolate to hand out. Clothing is another thing; there are fair trade programs going on in the garment industry. That’s probably the biggest day-to-day impact for us, to make consumer choices to make sure we’re buying from companies that don’t exploit people and villages.”
Bek, St. Paul’s rector, said members of the congregation also support local organizations working to aid victims of human trafficking, such as Forever Found (www.foreverfound.org) and Soroptimist International. “They are the ones who help care for women and children when they’re released from captivity and begin to make a new life,” she said.
If Diocesan Convention approves the resolution, Los Angeles will be the first diocese in the Episcopal Church to carry the abolitionist designation, according to Edwards. He hopes to bring the resolution before the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, slated to meet July 5-13 in Austin, Texas.