The Pope’s prayer intention for the month of October is that “human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, may be eradicated”.
Having grown up in a small town in California, I never encountered or seriously thought about human trafficking for sexual exploitation. As soon as I moved to Europe, however, that changed. Perhaps just as nudity is more “generally accepted” here (it appears on daytime shows, which kids could watch, as well as pornography on unblocked/unpaid channels at night), prostitution also seems to be a less contentious fact.
There are neighborhoods here in Portugal where you can find prostitution available on the streets at night (though I suppose that might be so in every big city..?). In front of the school my sister works at, you can regularly see white vans picking up girls in the evening to drop them off at unknown destinations. They sit in the car and text while waiting for everyone to arrive before setting out.
My mother has had a few students at her language center in the Azores, Portugal that need to learn English to go to other countries, as they are part of an international prostitution ring. Although it is a small island of 60,000 inhabitants, there are more than ten known brothels (covering as strip clubs), bustling with clients.
I have seen a lot of prostitutes on streets during the eleven years I’ve lived in Portugal, but now the situation has worsened. We recently moved to a new town, and every time I want to go to our new friends’ house in a neighboring town (which I do pretty often), I have to pass through a highway that is a little Calvary.
There are a few long highways with dirt and trees on either side in which girls sit on plastic chairs on the edge of the road waiting for clients, in broad daylight. In fact, they aren’t there at night, perhaps because then it is too dangerous.
Here is one of those roads:
There is also a motel nearby, which is in the middle of nowhere and has no touristic destination anywhere nearby. You don’t have to see a person to check in, you just pay a machine and the bar lifts up and lets you through. See here:
Every time I pass through these roads, I see the girls sitting on their plastic chairs or pacing back and forth. They are almost invariably texting or talking on the phone. I am close enough to see their faces, to wonder about their feelings and their stories. I ask myself, where is their father? Their mother? Their brothers or sisters? If one was my sister, I would park my car next to her and not leave until she came with me.
I also see many cars stop and others drive off. They are nice cars. They are middle-aged or old-looking men who I would see at an office and never suspect they would go into the trees or to that motel with these girls.
I wonder about who their wives are. Who their children are. Who their mothers are.
Of course, I also wonder about the pimps and the rings that are behind these small samples of exploitation. Perhaps due to this complexity, law enforcement does nothing?
When I see these women, my heart aches and I feel completely helpless. I don’t feel superior at all: I can only imagine the atrocities they must have suffered in their childhoods or adolescence. I feel helpless because they could be my sisters and they are my sisters in Christ.
There is much suffering in the world on many different levels, but this one screams out to me as I drive comfortably along to my daughter’s play-date. I, who have gone to quite a few Theology of the Body congresses and symposiums, have nothing to offer these women. I, who know the good news about the truth of our bodies and how our bodies were made for true love and communion, not for abuse, can only drive past.
I have also suffered from sexual temptation and sins, but I cannot imagine the depths to which they have gone. I can do one thing though, which is perhaps the most powerful and which is what Pope Francis asks us to do this month: pray for these women.
Our Sunday Visitor recently had an article about a ministry called Dawn’s Place, which helps victims of human trafficking. I wish we had something like this in Portugal, which could help not only their spiritual needs but also their physical needs: health care, dental care, psychological help, job training.
We don’t have that here, though. So I will do my best to unite my prayers to our Holy Father’s, especially when I drive on this road. I heard in a homily once that we who know God and have the gift of faith is not so we can feel superior to others. Instead, we have more responsibility to share God’s grace with others.
Will you join me in praying for these women? Perhaps a novena? I don’t know their names, but I know their faces, and I’m sure God knows their names very well.
St. Mary Magdalene, patroness of reformed prostitutes, pray for us!
St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us!
St. John Paul II, author of the theology of the body (and whose feast day is today), pray for us!