There are days that you cannot forget, they remain deep within you and shape your present. There are meetings, after which nothing remains the same as before; the new is unknown and unmanageable, filled with tension and stretched between giving and receiving, losing and gaining.
When leaving my mission in Osnabrück (Germany), where I had worked among victims of human trafficking and had run a shelter for them, I did not understand why God was arranging things in such a strange way. I could not grasp it and it seemed to be illogical; my feelings were telling me that I did not want to leave that mission. But in the perspective of faith, to say AMEN appeared to be the only possible thing to do. I did not understand … and yet, even then, somewhere deep inside, I sensed that this was not the end. And so it wasn’t. So it isn’t!
I worked for Solwodi, the international organization “Solidarity with Women in Distress”, where I met young women seduced, deceived, sold and forced into prostitution. Their longing for love, happiness and a better life was badly misused; they were dragged into hell on earth. Constant fear, threats, psychological and physical abuse, rape… all that was only a part of a nightmare they had to undergo. When our paths crossed, those I met had been already freed from the hands of the oppressors; they were safe in our house, but their hearts’ pain and hurt continued. At that time, their struggle was to rebuild faith and a hope that their lives could be regained. I accompanied them through those difficult moments in their feeling of being lost, towards a beginning of a new life. I journeyed with them and witnessed their tears, their joys and success, both great and small. I tried to tell them in many different ways that God, in his love, has the power to make all things new. For me, it was a challenging and yet a beautiful mission… I do not mention it only with sentiment, as now I know more… it was really thanks to the women (I wish I could name their names here) that God let me to find my mission in life. Their broken lives and their effort to look with hope to the future sank into my heart and played an important role. It was those real people and their tragedies that opened my heart to see the pain and suffering of so many modern slaves, robbed of dignity and treated as a commodity, as an object of one’s desires and fancies, as a source of profit, where the fact of what they feel and go through, is utterly disregarded. There where money and consumerism rules, some do not hesitate to go further than we can imagine.
I do not know how God, who is still surprising me, will lead me on, but I can say with St. Francis, “The Lord Himself led me among them”. Or perhaps it might be better to say, “The Lord Himself led them into me”. And He still shows me that there are many possibilities to be close to them and serve them. In God’s perspective, there are so many different ways of being and doing.
It is the memory of heart which becomes a prayer and develops the concern to find different ways to help, that have led me to something new: a prayer vigil, prepared for the European Anti-Trafficking Day, on the 18th of October this year. I had been thinking about what we could do for our suffering brothers and sisters on that occasion and one of my first inspirations was: let us replace the helplessness, which often accompanies us while facing the problem of human trafficking, with… THE POWER OF PRAYER! This is what the world needs so badly.
With the help of my sisters (something I experienced to such an extent) and in collaboration with others, we decided to have a prayer vigil. An evening of prayer for the intention of all people who are abused, forced into prostitution and slave labour, stripped of dignity and basic rights. This was organised in several cities of our Province: Lublin, Zamość and Warsaw (Poland), as well as in Budapest (Hungary) and St. Petersburg (Russia).
Doubtless, raising public awareness on human trafficking, knowledge, prevention and understanding of specific life-stories of victims is a very important part of fighting against modern slavery and helping those who have been affected. Therefore our program associated with the European Day against Human Trafficking, included activities such as articles in the press, radio, educational banners and informational forums in the media. However, most importantly for me and for us on that day, was not to remain at the level of knowledge, discussion or action. We wanted to stay close to the victims and their traumas and to embrace them with our presence and prayer. We wanted to touch their wounds with compassion and care, to look for concrete forms and methods of help, and at the same time to believe that God is able to lead them out of their profound suffering, to redeem what seems to be lost and unrecoverable.
A lot of people answered the call “Be a light in their darkness.” I am pleased and grateful to everyone who joined the common call for the intention of the victims of trafficking of human beings – those who planned to spend the night in prayer and those who spontaneously responded to the invitation of volunteers met in the city. It is the volunteers, young people full of enthusiasm and convinced of the rightness of this matter, who committed themselves in the preparation and co-creation of the evening.
Our work led us to different places… Here’s our sharing
In Lublin a few hundred people participated in the event. We started with the Eucharist at 8 pm in the Holy Spirit Church. Then until midnight there was Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament which was led by FMM sisters and a Gospel Team. The singing was really beautiful, deeply moving and helped us to pray. At the same time, in the streets of the Old Town, volunteers (organized into several groups) approached passers-by and after a short conversation about the problem of human trafficking, handed a leaflet with prayer and information on the subject. They also encouraged people to go into the church and through prayer and a lighted candle express their solidarity with all those who suffer as a result of modern slavery. Many passersby responded very positively to this invitation and joined in the prayer. People lingered at the tables with stories of individual victims and their faces were visibly moved. We finished the prayer at midnight placing all our trust in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, the One who has the power and the final word, even over the powers of evil. To Him we entrusted ourselves, the victims of trafficking, as well as those who perpetrate this evil. We firmly believe – the last word belongs to God, to Love!
In the Diocese of Zamość preparing for that day started much earlier. In August more than a thousand young people gathered at EXODUS, a diocesan meeting of the young, and for the first time heard the invitation “Be a light in their darkness.” The subject of Human Trafficking and Prevention has also appeared in three rounds of retreat for young people run by the FMM sisters and the week before the event 56 classes in three high schools received catechesis on the subject. The volunteers called through Facebook, rushed in crowds to the streets of cities with the invitation and leaflets. The event took place in Zamość, in the church of the Franciscan Fathers. Many people of different ages – young, old, as well as whole families participated in the prayer. We also had the joy of the presence of Bishops and many Priests of the local church. The celebration of the Eucharist by the Bishop was the highpoint. After Mass, many remained to share in the next part of the evening which included a presentation on modern slavery combined with the testimony of a Sister who worked directly with women forced into prostitution. The evening ended with Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Lighted candles brought before the Blessed Sacrament lit up the darkness of the church. We were praying and singing together, united in a common cry to God, who knows the way to the hearts of all who live in anguish and darkness. Words of one of the people will remain long in my mind: “I was very touched that night! Despite the distance, despite the fact that I do not know these people or their faces and names, I experienced a special communion with them. I felt in myself their pain and loneliness in the struggle for life. I have not heard of it before, but … after this evening they will be in my prayers”. Someone else said, “It’s such an important time to be together. God can see their tears as, I believe, He has seen mine today.”
On the 18th of October we were also united with Budapest. FMM Sisters, in collaboration with the Franciscan Brothers, were able to hold an evening of prayer for the victims of trafficking in the center of Budapest. Thanks to this, a lot of people could take part in the prayer of the Rosary, as well as participate in the Eucharist and Adoration. The youth were involved in animation of the prayer. It was unusual to see so many prayerful people, staying such a long time in silence… They asked us, what else they could do for our brothers and sisters who are sold and abused. After the Adoration, a woman who is a member of the Ecumenical Relief Society against Prostitution handed a sister her business card with a note: “I would like to pray with you once again.” Budapest keeps the hope that it will come true.
In Russia, where the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings has not yet been implemented, there are no social initiatives related to this topic. However, on the 18th of October, a group of young people gathered to pray for the victims of trafficking and for their persecutors. In St. Petersburg, in the church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, after the Holy Mass for the intentions of victims of trafficking, the film “Black Swan” was screened. The film, based on facts, tells the story of a missing girl, whose body was found years later. The film is dramatic, tragic- and yet it so much reflects the reality of Russia. Background information about contemporary forms of slavery and an invitation to prayer uttered by Father Cyril (Greek Catholic priest) resounded strongly. At the time of Adoration we were accompanied by a symbol of light – young people, saying their intentions, lighing candles next to the altar. A great hope for a better world was loudly expressed in our prayer, a hope that God’s mercy is greater than human evil. Finally, saying the Rosary, we turned to Mary – Comforter of the Afflicted, asking her to take into her heart all the anguished and the deprived of dignity, so that the wounds of their hearts could be healed.
In addition to the above-named cities, we know that also in other places our FMM sisters and different Congregations held a similar prayer. Other places, other people, but it’s the same experience… Experience of a special communion with those that our world tends to forget in everyday life, not hearing their cry. That day they became close to us in the spirit. The power of prayer lit up probably more than one life in darkness and gave courage and faith that life can be regained!
We ourselves have also gained much – this experience has extended our eyes and hearts.
I hope that this event will not be confined to this one day but will continue in daily prayer and remembrance of contemporary slaves and will become a stimulus to find ways of how to deal with human trafficking and how to help the victims.
Give us, O Lord, the imagination of mercy and to lead us on…
Sr. Joanna FMM, Poland
Be a Light in Their Darkness: Day of Prayer for the Victims of Human Trafficking