Listening In: Raleigh Sadler


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with author and human trafficking fighter Raleigh Sadler.

Raleigh Sadler says his passion is to see people fight human trafficking by loving those most vulnerable as a speaker. His work has taken him to universities and churches across the country to talk about how the Christian faith frees us to explore justice and mercy in our communities, and that’s why he believes the church should be leading the way in the fight against human trafficking. The local church, he says, is in the best position to fight human trafficking because the best way to fight it is neighbor to neighbor.

Raleigh Sadler spent 15 years in local church ministry before founding Let My People Go, a New York based organization that helps churches become equipped to fight human trafficking in their local communities. His new book is Vulnerable: Rethinking Human Trafficking. And I had this conversation with Raleigh Sadler at his office in New York City.

Raleigh Sadler, welcome to the program. It’s great to chat with you about the issue of human trafficking. I mean, I’m sad that we have to talk about human trafficking. Right?

RALEIGH SADLER, GUEST: Right.

SMITH: But it’s great to be able to talk to you about it today and also about your new book, Vulnerable. First of all, let’s start with some facts and myths about human trafficking, if we could. What are the facts? I mean, is human trafficking, really a big — I know become sort of a cause celeb in the evangelical world in the last few years. Is it really a big problem?

SADLER: Absolutely. Because human trafficking ultimately impacts as many as 40.3 million people around the world, and this happens in every country. It’s happening in every state. Anywhere where there are people who are vulnerable, you’re going to have people who can exploit them. Like I tell people, human trafficking can happen everywhere because you can find vulnerable people anywhere.

SMITH: Well, and that’s why you call your book Vulnerable, right? Because the real issue, the real core issue, the common denominator between sex trafficking and trafficking for other kinds of exploitation is this issue of vulnerability.

SADLER: Yeah. I think simply put, we can define human trafficking as the exploitation of vulnerability for commercial gain. So whether someone’s being trafficked for sex, for labor, or for domestic servitude or even for the trafficking of their organs, they are being exploited by someone who has more power and someone who’s using them for their own personal gain. And so yeah, absolutely.

SMITH: You started your book with a really interesting story that I’m wondering if you would tell our listeners today. It’s a story about speaking on Super Bowl Sunday, which some people say —

SADLER: Some people.

SMITH: Yeah, we’re going to get to that myth in just a minute. But some people say is the top day on the planet for human trafficking. And you get a lot of calls to speak, you know, kind of around that because of that myth. And you were on the subway and you see a young lady. Tell me about that.

SADLER: So yeah, I finished speaking at this church and it was one of those days where everything seemed to work in my favor and I felt really good about what I had to say. It was like I’m sitting there and everything I wanted to say came off exactly how I wanted to say it. And people were coming up to me and they were really engaged and I was just really excited and I walked out with my head held high and until I see a young lady who can’t even keep her head up. And she is on the bench in the subway and she’s just kind of, she’s just kind of out of it, you know? She’s struggling to just keep yourself from falling off the bench.

SMITH: So, drunk or stoned or both or…?

SADLER: Something’s happening. I don’t know what, you know? And the train comes, the doors open. And a young man who I would assume was her boyfriend or someone who knew her, he grabs her, pulls her as hard as he can. She lurches forward and he kind of pushes or in the train. Now before I go any farther, some people will hear this story and they’ll be like that’s it. That’s what human trafficking looks like. People are kidnapped. I don’t know that it was human trafficking. I have no idea. Because oftentimes, yes, kidnapping can happen, but —

SMITH: It’s normally not a Liam Neeson movie, right?

SADLER: Right. It’s not. But this situation, like, here’s a vulnerable girl, she’s made more vulnerable because she’s intoxicated in some form or facet and I don’t know if that was by her doing or someone else’s, but now she’s being pushed and pulled to get on this train. The doors shut and I didn’t do anything because I didn’t know what to do.

Now you gotta understand, I was just there speaking on Super Bowl Sunday, telling everyone I’m the authority that I know what to do. And in this moment I didn’t know what to do. And I’m sitting there wringing my hands. I’m getting angry. I call a friend in federal law enforcement and I’m like, “Man, you gotta teach me how to fight.” And he’s like, I mean, we got a guy, you know, I feel like in New York, everyone’s got a guy. So he was like, we got a guy and we can. But was that the best thing you could do? And the reason I chose that story is because I want people to know that our job in addressing human trafficking is not to be a superhero because oftentimes our desire to be heroes or superheroes, it has more to do with us then the people we’re helping. It does more about our own insecurities and our own desire for acceptance than it does caring for our community and seeing reconciliation and justice come to have a place in our community. And so for us, we have to think through how can we better serve those who are being underserved? How can we better serve those who are being exploited?

SMITH: Well, before we get to the solution, let’s talk. Since we introduced this idea of Super Bowl Sunday and this myth that’s out there that it’s the top day of the year for human trafficking. There are some other myths that you talk about in the beginning of your book. And that’s one of them that Super Bowl Sunday is the most prolific sex trafficking day. What are some of the other myths? And what’s wrong with those myths?

SADLER: Well, one myth is that all human trafficking is sex trafficking. Sometimes I’ll be invited to speak and I’ll talk about human trafficking. And people always say, oh wow. I mean, sex trafficking is the worst. And I’m like, well it is. It’s terrible, absolutely terrible. But people aren’t just trafficked for sex. See, if we’re just looking for sex trafficking, we’re going to miss the person who’s been trafficked to work in the back of the house at the local restaurant that we go to. We’re going to miss the person who’s “day laborer” in our community. But maybe they were trafficked. We’re gonna miss the person who is cleaning our bedsheets after we leave the hotel we were staying in it for the conference that we were at. You know, we’re going to miss people who are doing the jobs that are just kinda hidden right below the surface.

We see them, but we don’t pay attention because though they are our neighbors and they are impacting our daily lives, we don’t know them. And so that’s one of the myths that it’s just sex trafficking.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, since we talked about the Super Bowl myth, what’s the reality of that?

SADLER: Well, here’s the deal: There’ve been many reports that say there was a slight uptick in human trafficking during the time of the Super Bowl. Now people are divided on this. Some people say, yes, human trafficking is happening during the Super Bowl. It’s possible. I think from what we find in the data, everything goes little higher, you know, drug trafficking, arms trafficking, maybe even sex trafficking during big events because there are more people at these events. So I can get their case, but ultimately the data also points that it’s nowhere near as big as people think.

SMITH: And also, too, it could have the effect of diverting people’s attention from the fact that there are 364 other days in the year that we need to be paying attention to human trafficking as well.

SADLER: And that’s why I feel the way I do about it. Because I look at this and I’m like, if you just focus on the Super Bowl, then you could really lose track of the fact that this is happening every day.

SMITH: Raleigh, we’ve talked about a couple of myths and I mentioned the Liam Neeson movie Taken, and you actually refer to that movie in your book because there is kind of this part of the myth, one of the myths, right? That people are kidnapped and they’re chained to radiators like, you know, and they’re waiting for Liam Neeson to show up and liberate them. But that’s kind of a myth as well. That sort of thing rarely happens.

SADLER: Yeah. So I have come across people who were kidnapped, but at the end of the day, no matter where I speak, people will say, well, human trafficking, that’s when people are kidnapped, right? And I’m like, I mean rarely. Sometimes, but oftentimes people are exploited by people they know, you know? In many cases, those who are trafficked and those who traffic come from the same communities. They know each other in some form or facet. They may be family, they may be dating, they may just know each other from school or have some connection. It’s not always the Albanian mafia who comes in—like the plot line of Taken—who comes in and steals someone from an airport.

SMITH: Well, in fact, you said somebody you know those are the people that are more likely to know where your vulnerabilities are. They’re more likely to know that there’s dysfunction in the family or that there’s financial need in a family or that there is some sort of a vulnerability that can be exploited.

SADLER: Yeah. I think when we just assume that it’s all a stranger danger situation, we forget that oftentimes those who exploit people are those who are closest to the situation and they’re the people who are trusted.

SMITH: One of the other myths that you talk about and you say that — and let’s stipulate again for the record, that human trafficking as much more than sex trafficking. But you also say that where sex trafficking is involved, it’s on the fringes of culture. It’s strange sort of antisocial people that are involved in the consumption of illicit sex or pornography or whatever and the folks that are in the fringes that are participating in that and otherwise. But one of the points that you make is that if we’re not careful, we can all be complicit in that trade, in that industry.

SADLER: Yeah. It’s very interesting that some people will say, well, you know, only social outcasts buy sex. Like only that dirty person who’s like, yeah, just that really sketchy guy. You know, whatever. That’s not true. Oftentimes sex buyers look like you. They look like me. They are normal people. They keep up appearances. They are often really eloquent. They’re fun to be around, you know? They’re not these, they don’t look like monsters, you know, and I think that’s the danger. Because all of us, whether we know it or not, we are complicit in this because all of us created demand not only for sex trafficking but also for labor trafficking. You know, our money is a vote. And so by our consumption patterns, we’re actually investing in an atmosphere of exploitation that’s saying, hey, you know what, we want more pornography, because look at how much pornography is being consumed. We want cheaper clothing. Well, who’s going to make that cheaper clothing? We just don’t want to pay that much for our food, so where are we going to get the fish at our grocer’s freezer? Where are we going to get the rice, you know? Where are we going to get our beef, you know? And we’re creating a demand and I think we will never be part of the solution until we realize we’re part of the problem.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, and related to that, is one of the other myths which is that people that are being trafficked don’t always self-identify. In other words, they’re so deeply embedded in the system that they don’t know they’re being exploited. For them it’s just their reality. It’s just their life.

SADLER: Yeah. One of the most unhelpful thing you can ever say to someone who’s been victimized in any way is why didn’t you just leave? Though that might be an honest question and you may be well meaning and you’re most likely well meaning, what you’re saying to them in that moment is that you are stupid, but you’re also revealing something about yourself. You’re revealing that you do not understand the impact of trauma. If we look past the majority of vulnerabilities that are in our communities, trauma is at play, and when trauma is at work in the mind of a vulnerable human being, they do not respond the way that they would respond if they were in a healthy relationship, if they had community, if they had the things that we may be enjoying at the moment. And so yeah, when we say, well, why didn’t you just leave? We’re assuming a lot of things that we shouldn’t. It’s true. Most victims of human trafficking do not self-identify because a lot of them, they may just think, yes, I’m in a relationship, but it’s a bad relationship. Or they may think, you know, I’m in a job, but you know, my boss is just a little mean, but this is how work is, you know? As soon as I pay off this debt, then I will be able to do whatever. But I got to work until I pay off the debt because he brought me to this country, you know, that kind of thing. And they’re not seeing themselves as people who’ve been kidnapped because, again, it’s not happening like Taken. It may look very legitimate. And traffickers are very good at manipulation. They’re masters at manipulation.

SMITH: Well, Raleigh, we live in a broken world, of course. And so bad things happen. But I think the reality is that if the church was being the church in many situations where brokenness is evident in the world, the brokenness would be less. The brokenness would be healed. In this particular area, what do you want to — and I don’t want to beat up on the church. I don’t want to say that the reason we’ve got this huge problem in the world is because the church is being bad or absent without leave or, you know, whatever it is. But on the other hand, you know, we are aware that this was a big problem, and there is a church. What do you want the church to do?

SADLER: You know, most times when we in the church hear about an issue like this, we’re gonna respond in some way whether we know it or not. We’re either going to say, oh my gosh, this is way too big for me. I’m overwhelmed and we’re going to do nothing in hopes that someone does something. But then other times for fear of doing nothing, we’re going to do the first thing that comes to our mind and sometimes that’s the worst thing. So we react and we say, oh my gosh, human trafficking is happening. This is what we need to do. We need to go into that hotel that’s on the edge of town where we know bad things are happening and we need to bust into a room and rescue a girl who’s being prostituted.

SMITH: And there are ministries, so like IJM, that have kind of made their reputation doing that kind of work.

SADLER: But what most people don’t understand about like an International Justice Mission is, one, they are basically an organization driven by lawyers who are working to change the laws in other countries to protect and empower those who are most vulnerable. And what I love about what they do is they don’t go into brothels, even in foreign countries, by themselves.

They have investigated because that is what they’re good at and they are empowering local law enforcement and they are working with local stakeholders and allowing them to do it and like freeing them to do their job. And I think some people could see an organization like that and be like, yeah, well we need to kick down the doors of brothels here as well. And I’m like, but you’re missing the beauty of what they do. They collaborate with the right people and they are also trained. For us, I think the average person in the pew, it’s not their job to be a vigilante.

SMITH: So what do you want them to do?

SADLER: I think if we really look at human trafficking as the exploitation of vulnerability for commercial gain and we say, okay, what’s my role in this? What is God calling me to do? How do I fight human trafficking? I think the best place for the church is to love their vulnerable neighbor and so through my organization Let My People Go, our goal is to empower the local church to really create an atmosphere of empowerment where the local church can fight human trafficking by loving those most vulnerable. So we help them think through what does this look like as a congregation? How do you develop a congregational approach to recognizing and responding to your most vulnerable neighbor? That may be your neighbor who’s a new immigrant. That may be your neighbor who’s been impacted by incarceration or their family who’s been impacted. That may be your homeless neighbor. That may be your neighbor who has a physical or mental disability. How are we coming across marginalized and stigmatized communities because ultimately these are the people that are in most need in our community and these are the people that are most preyed upon.

So we help them think through a congregational aspect, but also a collaborative aspect where we help them connect with their local stakeholders. We help them do a community needs assessment that sends them into the offices of those who are already doing the work. And they’re finding out from the experts, what are you seeing, what needs to happen, how can we impact this community.

But we don’t just stop there because I feel like a lot of approaches, especially in the justice world and especially in human trafficking world, they can be very, I’ll say Biblically speaking, law focused. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. This is not the gospel. This is actually the heart of the law and we know with the law there’s a whisper that says do this and you shall live.

And what we’re saying is because Jesus has fulfilled the law for us and died, because we’re law breakers, we are set free. And so yes, there’s a congregational approach as well as a collaborative approach, but we want to make sure that the churches that we are working with understand that the gospel motivates above all. Because when you realize that though guilt can motivate you for about five minutes, you can get stuff done feeling guilty and feeling shame. Yeah, you can knock stuff out, but the only enduring motivation is to know that you’re free, you’re loved, you’re cared for, and since you’re loved well you can love well.

SMITH: So what would that look like for a congregation? If you walked into a congregation, somebody might be listening to this as a pastor or church leader and they’re saying, all right, I hear you, I want my congregation to be a part of this movement. The needs assessment that you just mentioned would be a beginning piece of that?

SADLER: So we come at it from a holistic perspective and we come in and we want to make sure that the pastor is involved, but we don’t want to put this on the shoulders of the pastor. We don’t want to add to the pastor’s plate. We went actually take something off. So we work with them to help them develop a justice ministry team. This is the team that’s going to do the community needs assessment. They’re going to assess their findings, they’re going to present it to the church. They’re going to look at the pastor and they’re going to say, hey, we discovered that those most vulnerable in our community, in our zip code, those most vulnerable are our homeless neighbors. So what we’re gonna do is we’re asking you to preach regularly on God’s heart for the homeless. But also in our community needs assessment, we found two organizations right in our backyard that are already working with the homeless. So we want, when you’re preaching, to give application and say as a church, we’re going to give towards this mission in our community. In our small groups, we’re going to go volunteer every quarter with this organization. So now you’re creating this kind of grassroots network in your community because you’ve already identified those people that traffickers would most likely target. They’re your homeless neighbors.

So, in addition to that, the justice ministry team is going to propose a vulnerability response plan. So when the defecation hits the ventilation, so to speak, and you don’t know what to do, somebody who you’re serving comes to church and they are just, they’re not doing well. We don’t have to handle that on our own. We can have a plan to where we have local law enforcement’s number. We have our collaborative partners. we have signs of if you see this, then you call this person and so the team will create that plan. And the goal there is to not only protect the vulnerable person, but to also protect the people who are trying to help them and in doing so, the justice ministry team is also equipped to understand how, as they care for vulnerable people, their own vulnerabilities will be excited because a lot of people in churches love the idea of loving their neighbors until they actually get to know their neighbors. When you’ve experienced someone who’s experienced trauma, they may lash out. They may scream at you.

I remember we had a gentleman and a church that I was growing up in and we were giving them pizza. We were feeling really good about ourselves and one of the people in my group made a joke to him. And he said, if you don’t shut up, I will kill you and throw you in a dumpster out back. Chances are he wasn’t going to do that. He was reacting because he was being made fun of in front of people he didn’t know. We didn’t know that. We didn’t know that we were treating him poorly, but ultimately this gentleman, reacted out of trauma. Oftentimes when we see people express trauma differently, we want them out. They’re too messy. See, we’re all about loving our vulnerable neighbors as long as their vulnerable neighbors share our vulnerabilities, and so what we’re doing with churches is helping a team lead the charge to really make the church a safe place for vulnerable people.

SMITH: Raleigh, all of what you’ve said about justice ministry team sounds great in theory. Is it working anywhere? Did you have any examples of where it’s actually being put into practice?

SADLER: Absolutely. So, when we first started, we had a pilot project. We had about 25 pastors and church leaders involved. They were from all over New York City. They were from different denominations and ethnic backgrounds and it was a beautiful thing because they were all coming to the table saying, God has called us to love our neighbor, but what does that look like? During that process, I get a call from a young pastor in Queens. He says, hey, I don’t really know what to do. I said, what’s happening? He goes, so we were doing this event for people in the community that were new immigrants and we were giving them coats. They were working with an organization called Coats For the City and the pastor met a young lady and she was from Central Asia and she was really excited because she had just found a job in the neighborhood.

Well, they tried to communicate. There was definitely a language barrier there, but the pastor was really hoping he would see her again, but he wasn’t expecting to see her how he actually saw her. Someone a few months later said someone came on the community facebook page and there is a brothel on the community facebook page. Pastor Nathan, will you look into this? So he clicks the link and immediately he wished he hadn’t because he sees the face of the woman to whom he gave a coat in a provocative pose. She was working at what looked to be in illicit massage parlor right next to the church. So he calls me. He’s like, what do we do? I said, this is where you collaborate with local law enforcement. And he goes, I’m on it. He calls his local precinct. He tells them, this is what I’ve seen. He gives them all the information.

He gives them actionable intel and this is very important. If we do see things and there are people we can call, we can call the human trafficking hotline, which is 1-888-373-7888. We could text it by texting, “Be free,” and then saying, Hey, this is what we see. Well that’s what Nathan did. And the police wanted to work with them. So they began by parking a police car right in front of this place. They said, if this is place is on the up and up, great, nothing bad will happen. But if it’s not, sex buyers are not going to walk in here if they see a police car outside. And so that one church who made that one call that led to one police car, ultimately led to 24 illicit massage parlors being shut down in that neighborhood. So this is one church doing one thing, loving, intentionally loving their most vulnerable population.

We had another church. They realized that low wage earners and those who are homeless were the most vulnerable in their community. And so they were doing their best to meet the needs with the tangible gifts that they had for that community. And one man came in and the pastor noticed—because he had worked with Let My People Go, he’d gone through our program—he’s like, not only is this guy vulnerable, I think this guy was trafficked. And they gave me a call. We talked about it and we were able to partner with another organization in the city that gives direct services to human trafficking survivors and this person is now safe. They have a safe place to live, they have an occupation and they are out of that situation all because this pastor was looking for vulnerability and then he found exploitation.

SMITH: Raleigh, it sounds to me from what you’ve said, that this was a custom approach. That every church and every church’s community, the community in which those churches find themselves, is going to be different. And they’ve got to look at what’s going on in their local communities. But one of the things I was taken by in your book was this list that you had at the end of 100 suggestions. One hundred ways that you can fight human trafficking. Obviously we can’t go through all 100 of them, but are there two or three that maybe it would be worth highlighting?

SADLER: Yes, absolutely. So I think for anyone who wants to know how they can fight human trafficking, there are a couple of things that we can just do right off the bat. The first thing is learn more about the issue. One of the greatest places to start is PolarisProject.org. This is like the Grand Central Station, so to speak, of I would say the human trafficking movement. They are connected to everyone. They’re connected to NGOs as well as connected to law enforcement—both local, state and federal. And they are able to really serve as a conduit and help people not only become aware but help people out of this life and connect them to the right places. And so that’s PolarisProject.org. And they are the ones that power the human trafficking hotline, which I said earlier is 1-888-373-7888.

And another thing that I think most of us will overlook, but I think it’s a great thing to do, I talked earlier about how we all create demand. We should go to slaveryfootprint.org. It’s a survey and it shows us how many slaves are working for us to give us a life that we enjoy. Because we’re never going to be part of the solution until we realize we’re part of the problem. And what I love about this survey is it can kind of usher us into repentance because then when we realize that because of our purchases, we have 150 slaves working for us, then we can take a step back.

It’s interesting that if we want to lose a little weight, we’re going to look at the labels on the things we buy. But if we don’t want to create an atmosphere of exploitation when we go to the grocery store, we can do the same thing. We can look for fair trade, direct trade labels because whether we know it, we are interacting with are unseen neighbor and the question we have to live with is are we purchasing freedom or are we consuming suffering? And so I think that is a great thing to do.

And so another thing that you can do is set a Google alert. If you don’t know how to do that, just Google it, right? You can set a Google alert for human trafficking and your community and what it’ll do is every day that there’s an article on human trafficking and Omaha, you’re going to have it delivered to your email. And one of the authors of the book, The Slave Next Door, Ron Soodalter, I asked him years ago when I was first getting started in this in New York, I said, what do I need to do? And he goes, set Google alerts. He’s like, because if you’re consistently reading what is happening in your community, then you will become an expert of that topic in your community. And he’s like, and you’ll be able to help people. And I think anyone can do this. And so that is, I feel like that’s a great thing.

But another thing you can do is volunteer or work for organizations that are already doing this work. You don’t always have to start your own organization. Some people just dive into that and starting a nonprofit or even a social enterprise, that’s hard work. And especially if we don’t know much about the issue at the moment, we could really mess something up. So volunteer, get to know things. I have people who they’ll come up to me and are like, we want to start an aftercare program working with women who’ve been trafficked. That is great. My general suggestion is how about you connect with an organization already doing that? How about you talk to them for awhile, learn from them, maybe even in time, volunteer with them and allow them to help you launch rather than you act like, oh well I got to go save people. Take it a little bit slower.

And finally, the thing that any of us can do to fight human trafficking is to love our vulnerable neighbor that’s in front of us. That person that’s in our path. It’s often the person that we don’t want to love. It’s that person who may look different or smell different or act different. But really engage them, get to know them. And when we do that, when we love our vulnerable neighbor, we’re going to care for people who could be trafficked, people who are being trafficked, and people who have been trafficked.

SMITH: Well, and I think in some ways that’s the hardest thing to do because if somebody has not yet been trafficked but they’re vulnerable to trafficking, will never know this side of heaven whether that help for that vulnerable person kept them from being trafficked or not. And yet what I hear you saying is that it makes a huge difference.

SADLER: Yeah, absolutely. Because when you love a vulnerable person, you are doing prevention, but you’re also doing intervention and aftercare because you don’t know where they fall on this vulnerability continuum. Because if you’re vulnerable, you may actually be forced to work in a restaurant with little to no pay.

SMITH: Yeah, so just the very fact of getting involved in that person’s life. It could be prevention, it could be intervention. It could be both.

SADLER: Absolutely.


(Photo/Raleigh Sadler)

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