Jesus’ invitation to care for our most vulnerable neighbors

Editor’s note: At Made to Flourish we care about integrating faith, work, and economic wisdom for the good of our pastors, churches, and communities. Human trafficking affects more than 40 million people in the world today, and Christ calls us as his followers to love the least of these. Let My People Go empowers the local church to fight human trafficking by loving those most vulnerable. More information about human trafficking and how you can get involved is available at lmpgnetwork.org

I thought this would be a day like any other. As was my pattern in those days, I arrived at my local coffee shop to get my daily intake of liquid enthusiasm. Coffee seemed like life blood for a young seminarian like myself. But as I made my way inside, I heard a scream.

Within a few seconds, I watched two young men run from an alley and a young woman in hysterics following close behind, trying to retrieve her stolen purse. A couple of guys who had been casually sipping their drinks leapt from their seats and gave chase. I felt paralyzed. Honestly, I just came for coffee, and I wasn’t ready to play superhero. What could I do? After a few agonizing moments of indecision, I made a choice. I raced back to my car, determined to head the two assailants off. I didn’t actually have a concrete plan of what I would do if I found them, but I felt better doing something rather than doing nothing.

Many of us feel this tension when it comes to addressing global injustices, like human trafficking. Out of fear, we may do nothing. We reason that there are better qualified people who can address these issues and we should stay out of their way. “It’s not our job,” we assure ourselves. Then there are others who fear doing nothing, so we do the first thing that comes to mind, yet there’s often a good chance the first thing we think of is probably the wrong course of action.

When our expectations border on sensationalism, our responses will mirror them. Rather than serving people in simple, healthy ways, we often opt to do something extreme.

Before we do anything we need to accurately understand the nature of the problem and redefine our terms. Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person’s vulnerability for commercial gain. For most of us, our understanding of human trafficking has been influenced by what we watch on television or read online. In many cases, our initial thoughts about human trafficking look more like the screenplay of Liam Neeson’s blockbuster film, Taken, than real life.

Picture a group of well-meaning Christians who just heard about the impact of commercial sexual exploitation within their community. Naturally they are overwhelmed that this is not just happening “over there,” but in their own backyard. So they arm themselves with cursory research and form a plan to become a beacon of hope to their community. When they realize they have extra space in their church building, they resolve to start a safe home for survivors of sex trafficking.

In their minds, it makes sense: “We have the space, so why not?” Yet, they don’t accurately account for the trauma experienced by those with whom they will work. They don’t collaborate with local law enforcement or social services, and instead they work independently until their new reality fails to meet their idealistic expectations. Unsure of what else to do, they close their doors and reassure themselves it was a noble effort. They pat themselves on the back, but remain blind to the fact they just left people they swore to protect exposed and vulnerable.

This is a common story. How can pastors, the church, and the rest of us respond? In short, we find a healthy corrective in Jesus’ declaration found in Matthew 25. As he shares what has become known as the parable of the sheep and the goats, he says “What you did for the least of these, my brothers, you did for me.” Here we find Jesus identifying with those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, physically and emotionally ill, as well as those who are incarcerated, each group representing explicit needs.

Jesus invites his followers to join him in caring for their most vulnerable neighbors. Whether it’s the single parent working two jobs to take care of her kids, your neighbor who feels the loneliness of being stranded with no place to call home, a friend fearing deportation, or a child who doesn’t know her father because he has been incarcerated, each is susceptible to exploitation.

Imagine if your congregation actively sought to fight human trafficking by intentionally caring for the people most often targeted. When we advocate for the dignity of all people, it will affect our thinking about issues like human trafficking. The church can grow in its awareness of the vulnerable in their community, and as we pursue human flourishing this is an essential aspect of ministry to “the least of these.”

Here are five ways you can begin caring for your vulnerable neighbors:

Identify. Ask yourselves who the most vulnerable is in your church and community. Talk to the experts already working with vulnerable populations in your community and get their advice. Don’t assume you know who is most at risk in your community.

Empower. Rather than attempting to fix the poor, listen to them. What are their dreams and passions? What is God leading them to do? The vulnerable person you are reaching may be God’s answer to some of brokenness facing your church. Come alongside them and remember how throughout history, God has made a point to use the most vulnerable to change the world.

Protect. Do you have policies in place that protect vulnerable people? Do you have a plan for when accusations of exploitation and sexual offense rise up within your congregation? Do you have personal relationships with social services, local non profits, and law enforcement that you can contact when problems arise?

Include. The people that we care for should not be left in a position of dependence on us. Nor should they be segregated from the congregation. Yes, it’s okay to have individual programs for various needs, but we should make sure that each of the people that we serve feel a part of the congregation with the same opportunities as other members.

Collaborate. You cannot do this alone. The church can join what God is already doing in the community by adding its presence to the continuum of care of its neighbors. Though others may offer specific services, only the church can address the spiritual needs of their community.

Focusing on theses five ideas will lead our churches and congregations to address exploitation in the right way, in a way that actually helps our neighbors and doesn’t exacerbate their issues. Rather than leaving our communities in a poorer condition than when we found them, we are better positioned to see community transformation. The real fight against human trafficking doesn’t happen in a “moment of truth,” but over time. Your church may not have a massive budget or a multitude of programs, but you can be present and walk with your vulnerable neighbors.

Topics: Church Mission, Current Events, Mission & Outreach

About the Author

Raleigh Sadler has served in Christian ministry for the last 15 years. Currently, he is the founder and executive director of Let My People Go in New York City. His passion is to see the local church fight global injustices, like human trafficking, by loving those most vulnerable. He has worked with the Price of Life Invitational, New York City Urban Project, the MNYBA, the New York State Anti-trafficking Coalition, City Serve, as well as several other justice and mercy organizations. His forthcoming book, Vulnerable: Rethinking Human Trafficking will be available January 2019. You can follow him on Twitter.