Hope is a Way of Life
by Anne Victory, HM
With all of the recent crises—multiple hurricanes leaving millions without the basics of life, earthquakes killing thousands, devastating forest fires, senseless gun violence, reckless political maneuvering—I’ve been feeling overwhelmed, drained, exhausted. Add to that the fact that these disasters are likely to make the vulnerable more susceptible to human trafficking, and I truly feel almost paralyzed. Can I—and others who work for justice—make any difference in the face of such chaos? Is this what is meant by compassion fatigue? I suppose it could be.
As I was pondering these things, I was challenged last Saturday when I attended a Walk for Freedom event on Public Square in Cleveland where I staffed my organization’s (Collaborative to End Human Trafficking) informational display. A passerby came up and asked what the display was all about. When I told him, he responded that it’s really hopeless, that slavery has been going on for centuries, and essentially that I have no business trying to change things. “That’s just how things are. Rape is a fact of life, and forced labor is woven into the economy. While it’s probably wrong, it’s also hopeless to try to change things! You don’t really expect to make a difference, do you?”
I was a bit taken aback, since so many others who were present that day expressed gratitude for our efforts to raise awareness of the crime of human trafficking and to connect services on behalf of victims. After a moment, I responded, “Of course, we can make a difference! I believe that things CAN change. I think it’s worth the effort. I may never know how my presence, my words, or my actions help another person. That doesn’t mean that I should not try. If I –and so many of my colleagues—don’t speak out for the voiceless, that’s when we fail.” Sadly, he walked away unconvinced. Perhaps that was his way of letting himself off the hook, or maybe he is just too discouraged.
As I pondered this encounter, I also recalled the opportunity I had to speak about human trafficking with some refugee women recently at Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services. They came from Somalia, Swaziland, Congo, Iran, Nepal, and other countries. They spoke Swahili, Somali, Nepalese, Arabic and some small amount of English. They are eager to get settled in this new land and want to provide a new life for their children. They expected that they would now be safe from harm now that they are in the United States.
As I slowly presented information on human trafficking with the help of interpreters, I watched as their eager faces began to show concern and even fear. It seems that every one of these women knew well that this crime happened routinely in their countries of origin, but they never expected to find it here. In their effort to become self-sufficient, they want to gain employment, but now they hear that some employers may not be reputable. What can they do? Who can help? They expressed fear, especially for their children, who learn so much more quickly and assume, like all teenagers, that they are invincible! My short presentation offered them clues regarding the “red flags,” and local phone numbers to call for help. I left these sessions hoping that, while I had instilled a level of fear, I had also empowered them with tools and resources that will help keep them and their families safe in their new country.
I also left inspired by the courage of these strong women who have already endured so much—war, years in refugee camps, mistreatment, and unspeakable abuse. I respect their resiliency, their willingness to start over in a new land with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their immense hope for their families. So is there any reason why I should not continue trying to make a difference on this important issue in the face of other crises that may indeed cause even more people to become vulnerable? I can’t think of any legitimate excuse!
I feel compelled to continue speaking out for those with no voice, no power. Like the stories of the Old Testament prophets, I am reminded that a prophet’s role is not to be successful but to be faithful. How can I, so very blessed with freedom, faith, education, the support of a loving family and community, turn away in despair over the condition of our world? What about those who really suffer every day of their lives because they lack the basics? Who will speak for them if I don’t?
I recall that the Constitutions of my congregation, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, challenge me to demonstrate that “hope is a way of life . . .” (Art. 17). Standing on the shoulders of so many people of good will who have gone before me and now stand in solidarity with me, I pray that I and we will overcome our compassion fatigue and be ones who offer hope in these most challenging times.