Forum to Address Professor's Experience with Modern-Day Slavery

Boaz Johnson

CHICAGO, IL (September 3, 2008) – As a boy growing up in the slums of New Delhi, North Park University theology professor Boaz Johnson remembers that a number of his childhood friends would suddenly vanish. He later realized that some had been forced into labor in the carpet industry, working from 4 a.m. to late at night, until their young hands were raw and disfigured. Others, especially the girls, would be abducted and taken into sexual slavery.

It is a reality that seems far removed from his present one, living in a suburb of one of the most prominent cities in the United States. And yet, as Johnson explains, many of the evils he witnessed still exist today, and not just in India.

On Monday, September 8, Johnson will draw on his firsthand experiences to raise awareness on the pressing but largely hidden problem of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in a forum hosted by the Center for Justice Ministries. The discussion will take place from 12–1:30 p.m. in Olsson Lounge on the North Park campus.

The Center for Justice Ministries, a division of North Park Theological Seminary, challenges individuals to bridge the gap of injustice by their choices, their thinking, their work, and their faith. Its resources, which include workshops, conferences, publications, and training, aim to promote a deeper understanding of social injustices, and to empower people to get involved in preventing them.

Unbeknown to many Americans, approximately 27 million people live in slavery today—which is almost three times the number of slaves brought from Africa to the Americas during the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. Kevin Bales, co-founder and president of the nongovernment organization Free the Slaves, defines modern slavery by three conditions: 1) Individuals cannot walk away, 2) they are controlled by violence, and 3) they receive no payment beyond mere subsistence.

How does this occur in the 21st century—a time when slavery is technically illegal nearly everywhere in the world?

Sometimes victims are kidnapped and sold to traffickers. Women may respond to a false employment advertisement and be coerced into the sex trade. Families living in extreme poverty may borrow money to pay a debt (sometimes an unexpected medical bill for as little as $30) and find themselves forced into bonded labor, where the debt is used to keep them in subjugation, unable to escape. For this reason, the world’s poorest countries tend to be the highest sources of slave labor— but not to the exclusion of more affluent nations.

According to Bales, Americans tend to avoid using the word “slavery” to talk about current conditions of enslavement, reserving that word for history-book references to the legalized slave trade, and preferring the term “human-trafficking.” In truth, he says, trafficking only refers to what happens at the end of the trip.

In the United States alone, between 18,000 and 20,000 people are brought into the country through human trafficking, a practice that includes the harboring of people for the purposes of slavery, debt bondage, forced labor, sexual exploitation and involuntary servitude. That range of numbers rises as high 600,000–800,000 internationally. But while statistics for these abuses are startling, even more alarming are stories behind them—stories to which Johnson himself can attach actual names and faces.

“I remember this little guy by the name of Keshav who disappeared,” Johnson recalls. “We were told that he’d gone to a nice place.” But when Johnson reconnected with him at age 14, his hands were shriveled from carpet making. “When his fingers were no longer good for the fine work that needed to be done he was discarded,” Johnson explains. He notes that the only reason he was able to escape a similar fate was because his parents sent their children to a high-caste Hindu grammar school far away from the slum.

Another girl Johnson knew was taken away when she entered adolescence and sold into prostitution in the red-light district of New Delhi. “Her parents were poor—I think they may have been given $150 or something like that,” he says. “People will do anything to get out of their poverty.”

When Johnson and his wife moved to the Chicago area, they began an international church, where he would mention his experiences in his preaching. After hearing the stories, his congregation, which was composed of immigrants from various countries, began to recognize the signs of slavery in their own community. And they resolved to help.

Many nongovernment organizations exist to stop the abduction and sale of human beings. Some try to get children off of the streets, others offer skills training for destitute families, and still others work to halt government corruption and bring traffickers to justice. The Administration for Children and Families has established a trafficking information and referral hotline (888-373-7888) for those who suspect they have encountered victims of human trafficking. Social service workers at the hotline will connect callers with local resources and agencies.

“Your neighbor’s house may be a holding place for slaves that are brought in from other countries,” Johnson says. “You have to keep your eyes open and be willing to get involved.”