About 60 religious sisters from communities in North, Central and South America gathered Oct. 25-29 at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Parma for the “Borders are not Barriers” hemispheric meeting of Talitha Kum. The global organization is based in Rome and was formed by the International Union of Superiors General, also known as USIG, to develop greater collaborative efforts to support and protect victims of human trafficking. Sister Gabriella Bottani, SMC from Rome, the international coordinator, was among those in attendance.
The sisters gathered to collect and share information, ideas and resources, to pray and to hear testimony from survivors of human trafficking, as well as to learn about new ways to combat the problem and support victims. Attendees were from around the United States, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, Italy and more.
Translators were available to provide simultaneous translation for those who spoke Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. Tables with resources in several languages and items that could be purchased were located outside the meeting room.
The group invited Bishop Nelson Perez to celebrate Mass on Oct. 26.
“Thank you for picking Cleveland for your international gathering,” he said.
As he listened to the story of a trafficking survivor prior to Mass, the bishop said he was deeply moved. “I found myself going through a plethora of emotions including horror and anger. I thought, ‘If only I could get my hands on those guys.’ On the outside, I might look stoic,” he said, but inside was completely different.
“How can a human being treat another human being that way?” he asked. He said he was thinking that this was evil in its most visible form. But he said it was God’s plan to help these exploited women move on from their horror. “The journey to connect those moments – from being victim of human trafficking to now – was providence,” he added.
As he connected the situation to Scripture, he noted that Moses couldn’t understand the plight of the people until he was in their midst. He said God also sent his son, Jesus, into the midst of his people, humbling himself to redeem them. “It’s all part of God’s plan,” he said.
Despite the horrible experiences of the women, Bishop Perez said he felt hope in the midst of despair. “So how do you resolve this? One person at a time. If you can change one person, you can change the trajectory of that life and other lives touched by it.”
The bishop said that like a child growing, change may be imperceptible. “You may not see the growth because you’re too close to it; but it happens. There was a plan for you even before you were born,” he said.
Confronting the evil of human trafficking proves that there is light in the midst of darkness, Bishop Perez said. “You’re not just hearing a story, you’re hearing God’s voice reminding us that even in the darkness, his light is present.”
The Universal Prayer was read in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. One petition was offered for traffickers who are lost to their own humanity.
After Mass, the sisters marched back to the meeting room while singing.
The group learned about a new app being developed that could help rescue human trafficking victims. A huge data base is being developed with photos of hotel rooms, furniture, wall hangings, curtains, etc. that can help identify locations. When a trafficking victim’s photo is posted online or on social media, the background location can be examined and compared to photos in the data base, which law enforcement officials say can help solve cases. A second phase of the app development is under way.
A matching grant of $100,000 from the Sisters of St. Joseph helped fund the first phase of the app and a recent award from the National Institute of Justice will help further enhance the app.
Human trafficking can involve girls, boys, women and men of all ages. It’s a crime that has no socioeconomic boundaries, conference organizers said. However, many victims are young women or girls. Children with computers in their rooms – especially outgoing girls who enjoy performing such as singing or cheerleading – can be most at risk because they may be easier to lure into a trafficking trap. One of the conference speakers said that information was gleaned from a pimp.
Talitha Kum, the international network that is fighting human trafficking, is an Aramaic phrase that means arise. It was derived from Mark’s Gospel story of the young daughter of Jairus who appeared dead, but Jesus took her hand and told her: “Little girl, I say to you, stand up,” after which she got up and walked away.
The organization’s roots date to the late 1990s, when consecrated women realized the importance and value of joining forces and resources to develop an integrated network to fight human trafficking. In 1998, the initiative gained momentum when a study group was formed and training materials were developed, leading to a greater awareness of the problem by congregations of religious women.
A tool kit was produced in 2003 in collaboration with Caritas International and between 2004 -2008 a training program was developed that led to the establishment of regional networks in Italy, Nigeria, Romania, Thailand, Santo Domingo, Brazil, Portugal, Philippines and South Africa.
The following year, at the first global meeting of networks, the group decided to create Talitha Kum. For more information on Talitha Kum, visit talithakum.info.