Lessons Learned: Traffickers Use of Religion to Manipulate and Control

Mar 1, 2019 | by Elyse

Throughout the United States, volunteers, employees and clergy in The Salvation Army are required to complete Safe from Harm training – a comprehensive safety and abuse prevention program. It’s a tragically necessary step to ensure participants in all of our programming are kept safe. One of the elements of this training is a conversation on spiritual abuse. The reality is that places that are viewed as safe, as a refuge from danger, are the perfect places to find individuals in moments of vulnerability. But people looking to capitalize on those moments of vulnerability do not need always attempt to sneak into already established organizations; sometimes they use common language and messages to create their own place of false refuge.

Two weeks ago “a federal jury in Chicago convicted the founder of a Pennsylvania ministry of forcing church members to work multiple jobs while pocketing their wages and directing them to defraud hotels as part of a lucrative scheme that lasted almost a decade.” 

While this is one of the first convictions in federal court for labor trafficking of US citizens in this area, the reality is, this is not an isolated incident. The tactics involved in this case are strategies that are used in many sex and labor trafficking cases. Discussions of God having plans for people’s lives…the reading of Bible passages to coerce people into compliance…and the making of threats of God’s wrath if people disobey their leaders… Because we know these are common tactics, common methods of coercion used to induce commercial sex and/or labor, it is imperative that we learn some vital lessons, especially in faith communities.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Abusers, including traffickers, can use religious language to manipulate and control.

Faith is a powerful motivator. But we are not the only people who recognize the influential power of faith in believers’ lives. Traffickers recognize this too, and are willing to use it to their advantage. It’s a powerful method, using fraud and coercion, to cause compliance while ensuring those they are exploiting do not recognize their situation as exploitation. Rather, the situation feels like sincere faith and following their spiritual leaders. It feels like obedience to their faith.

But there’s another tragic impact of this use of religious language to exploit others, and it comes into play when organizations try to help people exit their situations. There are many faith-based programs working to combat human trafficking – The Salvation Army is just one such organization. Imagine how it would feel to finally decide to leave, to figure out a plan, to get connected to someone who could help, only to have that person use the same language that your abuser used to control and manipulate you. At minimum, it would cause a distrust, a need to distance from someone, potentially a trigger from the trauma experienced during the exploitation. But for some it goes much deeper than that. For some, the trafficker has convinced them that no one can be trusted, that the trafficker has so much power that anywhere they go, the people with whom they engage are connected to their traffickers. And that is confirmed when the same faith language, Bible passages, etc. are used by those looking to serve and help.

  1. We must meet people where they are, having spiritual conversations when they are ready.

It is impossible to know what experiences people have had. We have no way of knowing what people’s trauma history is; no way of knowing what coercive tactics were used; no way of knowing where someone’s personal belief system stands. When we push conversations of faith with people who are not interested or who are not ready, we do not actually get our messages of hope and love across. Rather, we cause people to shut down and not hear anything we have to say or offer, even services unrelated to faith.

For those of us working from a faith framework, we are called to love and serve…not to judge and force others to see everything through our lens. Depending on people’s lived experiences, faith conversations can feel manipulative and coercive when imposed on people. The spiritual conversations are important, but on participants’ terms, not on our own.

  1. Part of what allows traffickers to be successful is through warping things that are considered “normal” so that suspicions are lowered.

If human trafficking was blatantly flaunted, many people would be angered and outraged to a level that requires action. We would have solid statistics around prevalence and a full understanding of the breadth of trafficking in our communities. Law enforcement would easily identify traffickers and could build cases in a quicker time.

The reality is, trafficking continues to thrive because it is just hidden enough that society can claim ignorance to its existence in our communities. We can deny that it happens in our area or even in the Midwest, but we know the opposite to be true. We can also say that our neighbors, and more so our family members, would NEVER perpetuate human trafficking, but complicity is far more complicated than that.

Part of the reason human trafficking thrives is because it so closely resembles legitimate forms of labor. Take the case referenced above – people were used for forced labor in hotels, not in a behind-the-scenes role, but at the front desk where they interacted with many hotel guests. The forced labor was not by the hotel, or an employment agency, but by the self-appointed bishop of their church.

In a moment of self-reflection…I’ve been working in the anti-trafficking field for over ten years. I have lost track of the awareness trainings and events in which I’ve participated. I like to think that I have a pretty firm grasp on indicators of human trafficking and effective intervention techniques. But this case has shaken me. It has reminded me about why I still have a job. I would not have suspected trafficking. I wouldn’t have even suspected anything was off. I would have missed it. Because it took on the appearance of being completely “normal” work.

So given these lessons, what does it look like to work with trauma-informed, faith-based programs? Within the STOP-IT program, staff meet participants where they are, providing emotional support to participants and assistance in navigating resources and systems. Participants are asked if they would have any interest in meeting with a pastoral care representative, but most participants, at least at the beginning of their case management, are not interested in meeting with anyone. And so staff focuses on the goals the participants identify, not on the services in which participants are not interested. If/when a participant brings up any matters of faith, staff absolutely begin to explore those conversations. And at this point, we as a program offer to connect people with a faith community. As with any other resource, staff will offer, it has no bearing on participation in the program if they choose to access the services/support.

In the broader Salvation Army, there are more faith conversations, particularly since many of the social services are offered out of local Salvation Army churches. However, The Salvation Army, as explicitly stated in its international mission statement, is dedicated to meeting human need without discrimination. Our social services, holiday food box distribution, housing programs, etc. are all available to all people, regardless of interest in engaging with the faith component of The Salvation Army.

This is the true role of faith-based organizations in anti-trafficking work – meeting people where they are and providing services and support without discrimination. The Dickey case and others like it highlight the importance of self-determination and choice in the programming we provide, including when and how survivors access spiritual support on their terms, if they ever choose to do so.  


Photo Credit - Wendy Van Zyl

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