Cyber-Sex Trafficking, Justice, and the Church
In the West, Christians are more prone to attending a conference on justice, rather than actually doing justice in their cities. Why is that? This week on indoubt we chat with Mark Wollenberg, director of church mobilization for the International Justice Mission in Canada. He first shares with us about what exactly IJM is and does, followed by a discussion on justice and church. We then get into the “new” problem of cyber-sex trafficking – what it is and what we can do to help end it.
Who’s Our Guest?
Mark Wollenberg is the National Director of Church Mobilization for the International Justice Mission in Canada. Having been a church-planter and pastor, Mark now enjoys his work for IJM Canada as well as spending time with his wife and adult children. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markwollenberg.
Mark Wollenberg works for IJM Canada. Be sure to check out their site!
Here’s a link to the #notonmyscreen campaign Mark was talking about.
Also, here’s the video Mark and I were referring to regarding cyber-sex trafficking. Content may be unsuitable for children.
Mark was kind to give us some recent stats on human trafficking in the world.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today in studio is Mark Wollenberg who is IJM Canada’s National Director of Church Mobilization. IJM, if you didn’t know, is International Justice Mission. It’s been around for quite some time now. But thanks for being with us here today Mark!
Great to be with you Isaac.
So, work aside for a second. We’re going to come back to IJM, but, who are you? Who is Mark?
I was, like a lot of people, born in the prairies. Grew up in the heartland of the country and moved to BC as a teenager.
Right choice, right choice.
You want to move that way! I grew up in Kelowna actually, so I love doing outdoor stuff. Being on the lake in the summer time, skiing in the winter. I played lots of sports – football, basketball, soccer, so very, very much enjoy the outdoors. I don’t play competitive sports right now, I’m just not quite able to get down the floor as fast as I used to. But I enjoy swimming, working at the gym.
My wife and I have five children, and they’re all adults now. So we have time now to go hiking, walking, and just enjoy what living in the lower mainland is offering us.
Yeah, that’s awesome. And grandchildren as well?
One grandchild, yes. Yeah, so we’re kind of in that place of just enjoying what we’ve poured into our children – the things that we’re seeing them do. Celebrating with them in the accomplishments in their lives. How do we support them? is what we’re looking at in the next season of our lives.
That’s good, that’s really good.
Alright, so, IJM. Again, International Justice Mission. I feel like a lot of people, including myself, we just have this vague idea – like we’ve heard of IJM a little bit, in fact, I think it was- the first time I heard about IJM was back in, I was a little bit late hearing about it, it was 2012, and one of my co-workers who I was serving with at Old Spaghetti Factory said that she was in school doing her law so that she could go and work for IJM. So I asked, “What’s IJM?” and she told me about it and explained a little bit.
But anyways, we have this vague idea of what IJM is, “Okay so it’s to do with justice, it’s all around the world, it has Christian roots,” but what exactly is IJM? And what exactly does it do?
Well, International Justice Mission primarily addresses the problem of violence against the poor. When we look at issues of global poverty, we see that the poor suffer because they have the lack of the basic necessities of life – clean drinking water, access to medical care, education – those are realities that exist in the world today and people are aware of that.
What most people aren’t aware of is the fact that the poor also experience this every day violent assault because the poor have no power. They are vulnerable to those who have power to exploit them because either they don’t have education or they’re just seen as easy targets to be exploited. Whether it’s to be forced into slavery, working in a brick kiln in India, or sex trafficked into a brothel in another place that exploits the most vulnerable – the children, really. In Cambodia we had a project there and the Philippines as well. So, those are the kinds of things we address.
So it’s the everyday violence that the poor experience.
Right, so I mean, a lot of times in the West you really want to make it known to a lot of people, “This is what’s going on in the world.” But when you’re in those different countries, what exactly are you doing to stop this violence and stuff like that?
Yeah, so we do want people in Canada and around the Western world to understand that this reality exists for the poor in the developing world. The UN estimate that 4 billion people in the world live outside the protection of the rule of law – and that’s in the developing world. So there’s no one there to protect them from those who abuse their power to take advantage of them.
So what IJM does in our case work is we investigate. We have people who will go and find those who are being exploited, so they’ll pose in the settings to find those who are being exploited. We do this in cooperation with local authorities. We don’t have any standing to go and rescue anybody out of a brothel or a place where they’re being exploited for their labour by ourselves, we work with local police. We have to actually train, often times, local authorities to understand the need to engage with us in getting people out of these places.
But then we have a great after care group of professionals who help people heal and restore from the trauma they’ve experienced because it’s- when I talk about the violence, it’s every day. So, that just wears the human spirit down – you’re seen as a commodity, you’re not treated as a human being, but simply as a product that produces wealth for somebody else.
We then have a group of lawyers who work to take these cases into the public justice system, working with prosecutors in these countries to see that those who do these things are held accountable to the rule of law. It’s not that the laws don’t exist, it’s that they’re not enforced on behalf of the most vulnerable people. Because in many places, the poor can’t afford a lawyer to actually take their case forward. So, we provide that for them at no cost so that they’re actually able to see that justice actually can work in their favour.
And then we also work with community organizations and churches in these countries to help raise in these countries the voice of the most vulnerable, to let people know that these people that are created in the image of God that have value and dignity and worth our time to actually stand with and align ourselves with. So we do a lot of advocacy within these countries.
That’s awesome. Do you find that most countries or villages; if you come and approach them with a project where you want to help with some human trafficking, do you find that most of the times the authorities there accept you? Do they say, “Yes, we want to work with you as an outsider organization?”
When we first started it actually was not that. It was actually, you know, very hard-going because, first of all, you have to acknowledge the problem exists. And that’s even true here in Canada.
We think Canada is this great “justice loving” country, but the reality is that injustice occurs here as well.
And so even to acknowledge that human trafficking exists in Canada as it does in the developing world is sometimes hard for people to do. But then you also deal with some cultural issues in which, you have a system in India that places people in different levels of value within the country. And now, the chaste system is outlawed. So it was said that this system isn’t what we want to have as a functional thing, and yet, it still exists as people have grown up with that kind of thinking.
Part of what IJM’s approach is, is to come and say “How can we help you?” So we do a lot of training of police officers to help them understand the value they have to keep people safe in their communities. Sadly, in some of these countries, police officers are paid a half-time salary and they’re not seen as the professionals that we treat police officers with here. So having to build capacity in understanding is one thing that we do.
And also train judges, prosecutors, social workers to let them know, “We’re here to help you in this fight.” Because there are good people in these countries that want to do something, but often times they just don’t have the resources and the time to invest to actually transform the public justice systems like we’re trying to do.
That’s amazing. And you briefly mentioned that you connected with the churches, but what does the spiritual component of IJM look like?
Yeah, it really comes from understanding this God of justice who, in Scripture, aligns Himself and pays particular attention to the widow, to the orphan and to the marginalized.
You have passages like Isaiah 1:18, we’re old, “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless and the widow,” and we say, “Oh, great! Who wouldn’t say Yes! to that?” But then you go, “Well, what does an oppressed person actually find encouraging? If that’s what we’re supposed to do?”
And so one of my favourite talking points is basically: someone who is in a brick kiln or a steel factory working as a slave, or trafficked into a brothel, if they knew that people in North America were praying for their release, were actually speaking up and saying, “This is a situation that shouldn’t be happening in our world today,” I think they’d be encouraged – just knowing that people are aware and beginning to say, “How do we change this?”
Because, if you’re hopeless and no one knows about you or no one even thinks that your situation is worthy of your time and energy, well that’s very discouraging. But if we can say to people, “No, there are people who are supporting IJM in other parts of the world to say that we know you’re here and we’re coming for you, we want to rescue you,” that’s super encouraging.
Well, yeah, and you can relate this to Acts when Peter was in prison and you had the church earnestly praying for him and the angel came an rescued him. So, not only is it encouraging for them to know people are praying, but I mean, God works through our prayers as well at the same time, right?
We believe that prayer is such an active part in seeking justice. It’s not a passive thing where you just kind of think, “Well we’re just going to pray for justice,” but it actually becomes an active part in what is the fuel, in a sense, to keep us motivated. Because this is hard work – following Him into these places.
Yeah, that’s really, really cool. Now, to move a little more into how we as Christians think about justice. I find that in the North American church right now, I feel like we’re somewhat more focused on right doctrine, right theology, right programs, right churches, right home groups, right music, all these different things, more than the actual practice of the doctrines sometimes. We’ve heard it said that, right orthodoxy (right beliefs) should lead to right orthopraxy (the right practice of those things).
I had mentioned to you that I feel like more Christians in the West would be more prone to go to a conference on justice, than actually go out and do justice, practically, in the dirty world.
So the question is: why does the church seem to hesitate with this, especially in the West when it comes to this actual justice?
I think there’s a couple of things. One is, I think, we really need to read the gospels again with the eyes of a God of justice, who calls us to justice and then also through the words of Jesus and the things that He did when He was here on earth.
You know, His very first sermon in a synagogue in Nazareth, He pulls out the scrolls form Isaiah and then preaches this sermon. Luke 4:18-19 basically is the words that He spoke, that good news is being proclaimed to the poor and then we read on that those who are blind will have sight, those who are in captivity will be freed, and those who are oppressed will be released – it’s these words and the actions together that Jesus came to announce and to say, “If you’re marginalized, if you’re seen as less than valuable as a human being in this world, there’s something wonderful that God has to say to You.”
This kingdom that Jesus came to announce is actually good news because it turns that upside down, and God aligns Himself with the poor.
And so part of the challenge I think for the church is that we’ve missed going to the poor. If we’re not engaged in an active way with the poor, we’re not probably going to see injustice up and close and personal, like actually know someone, meet someone who’s experienced that. But when we actually engage with the poor, that’s when we begin to actually come face to face with the reality of, “This is what it looks like, this is how people suffer.”
So, one of the churches that we planted in Edmonton was in a fringe, inner city area, and you begin to realize that people live in poverty not because they make bad choices, but because there are actually few options and people take advantage of that. So slum landlords will not have great living conditions, and have places in disrepair and don’t care about it because, it’s just the poor. And they’ll say that if you don’t like it, then find a different place.
And all of a sudden you start aligning yourself with them and becoming friends with those people and it’s like, “No, this is somebody I want to fight for. They deserve to be treated with dignity and with respect, just like I would if I were in that situation.”
Using some of our power to come alongside some of those who are powerless is a great way to begin balancing and bringing equality into the world.
And so, that’s one part. And I think that the other part is, sometimes in our nice, comfortable lives, to look at the horrific reality of this kind of injustice and violence, it’s just upsetting to us. And so we would rather numb ourselves in other ways to this reality. And so there’s something of a spiritual awakening that needs to take place, that we would actually see the world with the same eyes as this God of justice sees the world.
And for me one of the things that is quite profound is that this God who sees everything, looks at all the good and evil in the world, He has not just said “Enough,” and blown everything up. There’s a restraint that He’s shown, and I think that’s because He’s waiting for us to get this, so that we begin to join Him to actually bring about the kind of transformation that Jesus came to declare. “There’s good news!”
Folks, the world’s kingdom is not the kingdom of God – and we get to work towards bringing that kingdom here to earth.
You had mentioned the scary passage that we don’t like to look at: Matthew 25. For those who are unfamiliar, could you paraphrase what Jesus said there?
Yeah, so Jesus is having this conversation with His disciples and He’s talking about the sheep and the goats. This is an end time, judgment type of conversation – saying, who’s in and who’s out. And basically Jesus makes this scandalous statement that those who treated the poor, which ultimately Jesus reveals as Him, who feed the hungry, who give water to those who are thirsty, who visit those in prison, who clothe the naked, that they’re doing this to Jesus. And ultimately at the end of the passage in Matthew 25, it’s like, well you get to go in to eternity.
And so, you know, I think that there’s something in that passage that we need to grab a hold of. And I’m not at all saying that we do not pay attention to what Christ did on the cross and all of those things, but, this is pretty radical for us to look at Jesus’ words here saying that there’s something that you can equate to what you do to the poor and marginalized that also is an indicator of your standing with me. So that kind of makes me go, “Oh, so how many churches evaluate their standing with Jesus, or individual believers evaluate their standing with Jesus, by how many people they’ve fed, how many people they’ve visited, etc.”
Yeah, acquainting yourself with the poor. And you had mentioned also about Galatians when Paul and Barnabas are sent out and are said to remember the poor.
The only instruction given in the New Testament about how to plant a church, given to Paul and Barnabas from the leaders in the church in Jerusalem, was to remember the poor. The very thing, Paul said, they were glad to do. So obviously there was something that Jesus taught that His disciples caught that the only thing that they would say to the question, “If you’re going to actually plant churches, what are you doing to put into the DNA of the community that you start?”
Remember the poor.
As a church planter myself, it wasn’t until I actually planted two churches already that I heard someone speak on this passage and I went, “Oh I never thought about that.” And so the third church we planted was actually intentionally planted to be amongst and among the poor. And they became our friends! Not just, “Hey we’re going to come in here and do these things for you,” but we actually got to meet people and build friendships and relationships.
That’s so good. You know, our conversations are quick – we just want to give a scraping of different things. Let’s hone in on one thing.
Again, when I was first talking to you earlier on, you had mentioned that you went to the Philippines and that your eyes were opened to this new cyber-sex trafficking. So I was wondering if you could share a little bit about that.
Yeah, so IJM has worked in the Philippines with sort of street level exploitation of children through brothels and nightclubs, and we’ve really seen a significant decrease in the number of children. In fact, in the city of Cebu, a 79% decrease in the number of children being sexually exploited through storefront exploitations like that.
But a new reality has come up, and that is cyber-sex trafficking. Basically it is the livestreaming of sexual exploitation of children – sexual abuse of children. And this is sadly taking place in homes, so it’s actually under the awareness and cooperation of parents who will exploit their own children, or relatives’ children – cousins, nephews – and will livestream them to audiences around the world.
The Philippines has a growing infrastructure to handle the internet and wireless activity, and the sad part about this is that it’s being used by people to exploit children.
The reality is that the purchases, the demand side is coming from the West. So that’s the challenge that we also have to realize, and Canada actually is in the top three countries of nations that post and resource and provide images of children being sexually exploited in the world. So the US, Russia, and Canada are in the top three in the world.
Again, this stuff affects us here. But IJM works with rescuing these children out. And just last week we were able to rescue four children from one family and four from another in on operation. And we take them into an aftercare facility where they’re cared for, given the right kind of therapy and treatment. And then we work to actually help them restore their lives.
In March I was in Washington at our global prayer gathering, and we met our first survivor of cyber-sex trafficking that we rescued. She’s now nineteen, so she’s an adult, and the transformation in her life was amazing. She joined us in prayer to ask God to continue to rescue more children like her who were being exploited in this way. And so that hope is really something that we hold onto as well. These incredibly brutal experiences that children experience are not the end of their lives, they actually can be restored to a place of wholeness and dignity and life.
Yeah, that’s so good. There was a video about cyber-sex trafficking that IJM Canada put out, and there was this one really profound scene where it showed some of the children being exploited and then it showed this aerial view of a whole bunch of suburban houses in the West, and it says, “These are who the consumers are.” And it just opens your eyes to think, this is my neighbourhood.
And that’s why we’ve started this campaign called #notonmyscreen. So if you go to notonmyscreen.ca you’ll find out more about it, but basically it’s saying that here in Canada we want people to stand up and say, first off they’re not going to view it, so we got a sticker you can purchase and put on your phone or tablet, and just say “I’m not going to engage in watching this.”
And the other is that you can take a pledge that basically says that if you see anything or know of anyone engaged in this, that you’ll actually not just be passive but you’ll actually report it. There’s actually a place called cybertip.ca that you can go to where those kinds of things can be reported.
We just want Canada to become a nation that is not known for our demand for this kind of stuff, but actually for us to start standing up and saying, “This isn’t right, this isn’t what should be taking place.” So that’s what we’re hoping Canadians will join us in.
Yeah, I love it. If you had one thing to say to encourage Christians across this nation when it comes to remembering the poor, you know? To be exact. Thinking of justice more. You used to be a pastor, what would you say to encourage this?
I would say to ask God, the God of justice, to open your eyes to the things just around you that sometimes we just overlook or we neglect, or we don’t think about.
Like, this could happen here, that we actually ask God to help us to see. And then once we see, then it’s, “How do we respond?” And sometimes it’s just to start off with praying, and we do that. Or if you see someone who is being bullied. Step in and say, “This isn’t okay.” And the best way to do that is to actually come and speak to the person being bullied, and to show them that you’re a friend. You don’t have to confront the bully; you align yourself with the bullied.
Another thing is to stop people from telling sexist or racist jokes. It’s just another way that we begin to hit at those small things that sometimes happen in our culture that we accept, but really what they are at their base is injustice. Because they’re demeaning. And so those are things in simple ways you can begin.
You can find out more about IJM at our website, ijm.ca. That will tell you about more of what we do as we look for people to partner with us in the developing world. But, keep your eyes open and your mouth willing to engage in this stuff here.
Great. Well that’s our time obviously, but thank you so much Mark for coming to our studios and talking to us about this. Thank you very much.
Great, thank you.