by Shirley Paulson
“Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
How did a bunch of modest Lutheran women grow into bold advocates helping to end human trafficking in Wisconsin? It was a journey of faith and calling. We started from a place where many did not believe that sex trafficking was a problem in our state. And hardly any of us felt comfortable talking about anything that had to do with sex (shhhh!).
Now, a few short years later, we have grown to be some of the loudest voices in support of three bills we hope our legislature will pass this session.
The more we learned about this horrible crime, the bolder we got. We followed a pattern championed by Cherish All Children, a Lutheran organization that works to prevent child sexual exploitation and trafficking. Their model suggests we Pray, Educate, Connect, and Act.
The first two were easy. We’re Lutheran women, after all. Praying and educating are as natural as breathing for us. But connecting and acting were a different story.
After learning about the problem of human trafficking, we prayed for the victims and listened to hear what God was calling us to do. We encouraged others to engage the power of prayer by proposing a resolution—A Time of Prayer to End Human Trafficking—at our synod assembly in 2016, the churchwide assembly in New Orleans in 2016, and Women of the ELCA’s triennial convention in Minneapolis in 2017. We compiled prayer petitions for each day from January 11 through Super Bowl weekend and shared the prayers via church and synod newsletters.
We felt God calling us to organize an event to educate ourselves and others about human trafficking. More than 300 people attended, and they were so generous in their offerings. We were able to use the money we budgeted for our event to offer seed grants to Women of the ELCA groups to hold trafficking awareness events.
We continued to raise awareness through articles in our newsletter. We recommended books such as In Our Backyard: Human Trafficking in America and What We Can Do to Stop It by Nita Belles. We also recommended the video Chosen (Shared Hope International) and resources like the ELCA’s Justice for Women’s six-part learning series on Human Trafficking, and Cherish All Children’s My Neighbor is Not for Sale.
Connecting with others helped us grow as advocates. We were venturing out of our comfort zones but soon connected with two Catholic nuns. They helped us plan our first awareness event, and they became our friends. They taught us about other groups such as Eye Heart World, Damascus Road, and 5-stones, all begun by bold people passionate about helping victims and addressing the root causes of human trafficking.
At a fundraiser for Eye Heart World’s facility to help trafficking victims heal, we met a state representative interested in legislation to end human trafficking. He asked us to testify before a hearing on a bill to increase the penalties on those convicted of buying sex. Testimony like this was a first for us, and definitely on the scary side. But since, we have testified at several other hearings.
One of the best connections we made is with our Lutheran Office of Public Policy in Madison, Wis. Director and pastor Cindy Crane has become our mentor and point person for advocacy at the state capitol. She provides us with updates on bills and notifies us when it is time to contact legislators. When we get the word, we email our newsletter lists and other groups we have connected with including Women of the ELCA from other synods.
We became bolder in our advocacy, acting to end human trafficking in more ways. We serve on a workgroup of Wisconsin’s Anti Human Trafficking Task Force. We make recommendations for resources to educate young people about the dangers of trafficking. We sponsored an advocacy training event with a state representative talking about civic engagement and workshops on how to help with specific issues.
We featured speakers on human trafficking at our convention and conference events. We joined with women from other synods and sent hundreds of postcards identifying ourselves as Women of the ELCA and asking our legislators to support anti-trafficking bills. We arranged carpools to get women to the capitol to attend a committee hearing on the Safe Harbor for Trafficked Youth bill and filled the hearing room.
One of the most satisfying things we did was attend a Human Trafficking Advocacy Day at the capitol. There, we visited our state senators and representatives to convince them to co-sponsor the Safe Harbor bill. One woman was persistent. When she didn’t get to talk with her representative in his office, she stopped him in the hall. She made such a convincing argument about why he should co-sponsor the legislation, that he did it. He told the bill’s author he was co-sponsoring because he had heard from his constituents.
So how did women in our synod grow from concerned but shy Christians into strong advocates to end human trafficking? We did what we felt God was calling us to do, one step at a time, one act leading to another, using what we had learned and the connections we had made.
We will continue to grow in being bold and doing justice. And you can too!
Shirley Paulson is the former president of the East-Central Synod of Wisconsin women’s organization.
Feature photo: Women from the East-Central Synod of Wisconsin who attended Human Trafficking Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., are (l-r) Nancy Becker-Nagan, Gloria Jaeger, Shirley Paulson, Phyllis Christie, Wanda Fischer, Pam Schuelke
This blog post was first published May 2019.
The Rev. Cindy Crane, director of the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin, offers this January 26, 2022, update.
The Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin advocates for anti-human trafficking bills and ones that address trauma that could lead to sex trafficking. We have regularly advocated for State Budget funding to prevent sex trafficking and to help victims. A few examples of bills we have supported and that others can be alert to in their states include the following: Redefining the meaning of consent so that various forms of coercion in prostitution arrests are more readily recognized and expulsion of charges easier for victims of trafficking to prove; expanding the definition of sex trafficking to hold accountable a broader range of people who make money off of the victim; requiring students of commercial driving to be educated on identifying signs of sex trafficking; facilitating law enforcement to investigate suspicions of non-caregiver child abuse; and stopping youth under 18 from being charged for prostitution.
Some of the bills we’ve supported bring states in alignment with federal laws. All the bills except the last one, Safe Harbor, have been passed into law. We continue to support Safe Harbor, but unlike in many states, this bill has faced unusual challenges that may reflect some partisan politics and continued misunderstandings. Right now, we are also supporting a bill that would allow a residential tenant to terminate a lease if the tenant or tenant’s child fears imminent violence if the tenant remains on the premises.
In the last several years, we have been immensely grateful for our partnership with Women of the ELCA. They have educated people in their communities and have traveled distances to be involved in rallies and give public testimonies at the Capitol. Women of the ELCA have made a difference in advocacy and education.
God of righteous anger and holy healing, thank you for inspiring women to work to end human trafficking. You encourage them to pray and to educate others. You support them as they connect with others and grow as advocates. These women are acting boldly on their faith in Jesus and we celebrate that. Be with the trafficking victims, that they might know your peace and love, that justice be done in their names. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.