By DAVID CRUMM,
Editor of ReadTheSpirit
WANT to help the most vulnerable in your community? Want to do it by energizing teens and young adults to work with you on goals that most congregations already share? Read on …
THIS WEEK, millions of Americans will buy tickets to Hunger Games: Catching Fire. If you missed it, see our extensive story last week on the huge popularity of this book-and-movie series by Suzanne Collins. That story also includes an interview with author Jane Wells, who wrote the new book Bird on Fire, an inspiring Bible study that shows you how to take the fiction-fueled excitement in your community—especially among young people—and refocus that energy on goals we share: Combatting hunger, homelessness and violence against society’s most vulnerable.
A few days ago, in southeast Michigan (where Jane Wells lives and our ReadTheSpirit home office is based), Jane demonstrated how this kind of outreach can work in any town. She was welcomed by the very active Monroe Family YMCA to host a public forum on three tragic problems facing communities nationwide: Hunger, homelessness and contemporary forms of slavery.
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I attended and am reporting, here, on what happened. (All of today’s photos were taken by ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile. If you care to share this story with people in your area, you can feel free to share these photos, as well.)
“LOOK BENEATH THE SURFACE: Human Trafficking is Modern-Day Slavery,” was the warning splashed across leaflets and posters distributed by Michigan State Police Trooper Tresa Duffin. She works statewide on campaigns to end forced labor and related forms of abuse enslaving thousands of men, women and children across the U.S. (Worldwide, our earlier story reports, there are millions of slaves.)
“Trafficking” does not refer to transportation, Duffin explained, although victims may find themselves shuttled between cities. The term refers to people bound into labor, often in the form of prostitution. Merriam-Webster defines “human trafficking” as “organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor.”
There are slaves in every major metropolitan area, Duffin said, so people in the Midwest should not assume that this isn’t a local issue. “In fact, Michigan is ranked No. 16 in the United States for human trafficking,” she said. Why? “There is a major highway hub in southeast Michigan. There are international borders with Canada. We have a lot of agriculture and that also attracts people trafficking in forced labor.”
There are many ways that individuals, congregations and community groups can get involved in stopping slavery—and in rescuing men, women and children caught in the system now, Duffin explained. In one program, for example, money is raised to buy hotel-sized bars of soap with a toll-free hotline on the wrapper that reaches a national anti-slavery help center. “We distribute these to hotels before big events come to town like a Super Bowl or other major event—times when we know that girls will be sent into hotel rooms. About the only place these girls have privacy is in the bathroom. We’ve had a number of girls call for help—and they’ve been rescued—because of the soap program.”
Wherever our readers may live across the United States, Duffin urges you to learn more at the nationwide anti-trafficking website, based in Washington D.C.
What else can congregations do to combat slavery? Lots! Read our earlier interview with David Batstone, a pioneer in the Not For Sale campaign that draws thousands of volunteers from college campuses and congregations, each year. Want to attract more teen-age and young-adult involvement in the life of your congregation? Get Jane Wells’ Bird on Fire now and organize a discussion group this winter.
Jeff Weaver, president of GodWorks! Family Soup Kitchen, told the audience about taking on hunger in Monroe. This is one of Michigan’s oldest small cities with significant blue-collar neighborhoods and also rural areas surrounding the town’s historic downtown. Hunger is a dire problem, even in such a well-established community.
Helping to combat hunger is easier than most people may realize, Weaver said—that is, if people organize their congregational and community-wide efforts in smart ways.
In this process, Job No. 1 is debunking the myth that soup kitchens are needed mainly for older men with chronic problems. “The face of the hungry in our area? It’s a family portrait,” Weaver said. “Now, more than 65 percent of the people who come to our soup kitchens are families. One of our biggest challenges is—we continue to run out of high chairs at some of the places we serve meals. That image right there tells you why you should get involved.”
IS A FAMILY ISSUE
Brad Schreiber, who works with programs to help the homeless, stressed the same point. He held up a photo of one homeless man in southeast Michigan—an elderly man with a shaggy gray beard and a baseball cap. “If you think that this is the picture of homelessness, you’re wrong. The picture you should have of homelessness is a 7-year-old girl,” Schreiber said.
He listed alarming statistics about the growing wealth gap in America and the rise in poverty to such an extent that many families find themselves homeless, sometimes quite unexpectedly and even if someone in the family has a job. America’s growing wealth gap and the plight of our “working- poor” families is a topic often covered in the OurValues project, a department within ReadTheSpirit magazine headed by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker.
Schreiber is now a successful graphic artist, but he shared his own story of finding himself homeless earlier in his life. Through no fault of his own, his income ended and, like millions of Americans, he was living paycheck to paycheck. He suddenly found himself without a place to stay. “This can happen so easily these days,” he said. “People who never expected to be homeless can find themselves in this situation.”
He described four pillar institutions in the Monroe area that shelter various populations of homeless people, each night. Relying on data mainly from those organizations, local leaders in this effort now have calculated that “35,191 nights of shelter were provided in the last two years in this area. Now, that’s a staggering number!”
The evening ended with Jane Wells reminding the audience of ancient calls to help the vulnerable—coming from Isaiah and other passages in the Hebrew scriptures as well as coming from Jesus in the New Testament.
“I hope you will find a way to take action,” she said.
GET INVOLVED THROUGH BIRD ON FIRE
GET STARTED! Get Jane Wells’ Bird on Fire now and organize a discussion group this winter. Her book connects the extremely popular novels and movies with biblical stories. Jane Wells makes it clear to her readers—young and old—that some of the terrible conditions they learn about in the dark, fictional world of the Hunger Games echo real-life experiences, today, for millions. Drawing directly on faith traditions, men and women can tackle these injustices, right now.
If you do use this book to spark renewed energy in your congregation, please email us about it at [email protected] and tell us what you’re doing. We want to share these stories with our readers to inspire others to take action.
This week, as millions enjoy Hunger Games: Catching Fire in movie theaters, remember Jane Wells’ slogan:
“Hunger isn’t science fiction!”