On Sex Slaves in Minnesota (and an accompanying rant)

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : May 23, 2007

It is a mistake to think of human trafficking as something that only happens in the developing world–or in uber-cities like Los Angeles.  Recently in Minnesota, the police cracked down on a prostitution ring that relied upon sexual slaves (though it could be argued that most prostitutes are sexual slaves).  Read the article here.  Here’s a snippet:

The women came mostly from Mexico and Central America.

When they arrived in Minnesota, the women had their passports and other identifying documents taken away and they were forced into a world of prostitution. In one night, two women serviced more than 80 men in a south Minneapolis house.

On Monday, in what might be one of the biggest such cases in Minnesota, 25 people were charged in federal court with running eight brothels. Eighteen of the suspects are illegal immigrants, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court.

Five of the brothels operated in Minneapolis and the others were in Richfield, West St. Paul and Austin, Minn., according to the indictment.

“The leaders of this prostitution ring … are responsible for the bondage and sex slavery of women, an intolerable condition in a twenty-first century America,” U.S. Attorney Rachel Paulose said at a news conference.

Most people think this stuff doesn’t happen in the US.  I have friends that are studying to become missionaries so that they can address human sex trafficking.  But few churches even have something like this on their radar.  What if churches were more tuned into these sorts of problems–and actively sought to bring freedom to those who are in bondage? 

Sure, some urban churches reach out to prostitutes.  But if you read the quote above, you’ll notice that three of these brothels weren’t urban–two were in first ring suburbs and one was in a mid-sized town. 

Forgive me for the anguished rant that is coming…

Things like this f’ing break my heart.  There is a whole world of slavery, prostitution, abuse, molestation, drug addiction, homelessness (most homeless people are women and children by the way) that the church is largely ill equipped to address.  And here’s the thing: can anyone refute the notion that, according to Jesus, these are the very sorts of issues that the church should address FIRST? Aren’t these EXACTLY the sort of people Jesus was most interested in serving (Luke 4)? 

Don’t get me wrong.  Missio Dei isn’t really on the front lines of most of this stuff.  We are feebly trying to do what we can.  But with 15 people and a budget of about $6,000 A YEAR (I can’t believe that we’re working with so little, in a neighborhood that needs so MUCH!) there is only so much you can do.  And meanwhile large churches with large budgets spend MOST of their money (or should I call it Mammon?) on staff (whose jobs are almost always preaching, worship, spiritual education, and administration), facilities (which are usually only used by the church for preaching, worship, and spiritual education), and outreach (which is usually marketing and fun events). 

We’re failing here, people.  I don’t know what else to say.  And don’t you dare say that it is the government’s job to take care of sex slaves and poor people.  We should be there–bathed in the darkness of the world as we try to bring forth light–before the cops show up.  I know that is a heavy burden to lay on the Body of Christ.  I KNOW that it makes you feel guilty.  I feel guilty too.  Not simply because I don’t do “enough”–but because I’ve wasted so much time on things that don’t matter so much. 

This isn’t to say that teaching, worship, and spiritual formation aren’t important.  Of COURSE they are.  But we’ve put it all into the wrong package.  Good teaching is easy to come by.  Spiritual formation isn’t a giant mystery.  It is the shiny package we want to put it in that takes time and money.  Most of the energy of most churches goes into accoutrements–fluffy trappings that distract us from the meat of the Gospel. 

Every church should open its books to their congregation and say: “The biggest budget items are what we care about the most…the smallest budget items are what we care about the least.” Then someone should read through a Gospel–pick any of the four–and begin to rework the budget, without too much concern for the survival of their own organization. 

Let’s BE the church.  Please, for the love of Christ, could we stop wasting our time with things that don’t matter? Yes…I know that spending all that time and money on fluff gets people saved.  But saved into WHAT?

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15 Responses to “On Sex Slaves in Minnesota (and an accompanying rant)”

  1. Anna on May 23rd, 2007 2:36 pm

    Thank you for speaking up and offering no-fluff Christianity!

    I just learned that our town has the highest gang population per capita in our state, ahead of the two major cities. Why? Drugs and trafficking of heaven-knows-what across the border from Texas and further south. Desperate people in a desperate place…Come Lord Jesus!


  2. dlw on May 23rd, 2007 3:12 pm

    This is part of why I want to see MN’s legislature’s turned into a unicameral structure with a hybrid election system between the (current) majoritarian and (European) representational systems.

    I believe this is possible if a pragmatic coalition is formed by the main three parties to pool their votes and vote quasi-strategically in the upcoming state elections.

    It shdn’t be up to just local communities like yours to crack down on scourges like slavery, but local communities ought to play a critical role in such.


  3. wilsonian on May 23rd, 2007 4:44 pm

    Couldn’t agree more.

  4. ron on May 23rd, 2007 6:09 pm

    Hey Mark, if were honest…what you’ve written is about most of our neighbourhoods. I look around I see poverty on the increase, more homeless people on the street every week, prostitution on the increase.
    And I look around the same neighbourhoods and see many church buildings closed for 6 days a week for the most part…and open for a few hours on a Sunday. We worship while the world around us falls apart at the seams.
    Jesus came to build the Kingdom…and we build so much less.

  5. Sarah Louise on May 23rd, 2007 9:24 pm

    Yes, we need to be the church. Thanks for bringing this out in the open.

  6. Tonya on May 24th, 2007 12:12 am

    “Let’s BE the church. Please, for the love of Christ, could we stop wasting our time with things that don’t matter? Yes…I know that spending all that time and money on fluff gets people saved. But saved into WHAT?”

    Couldn’t have said it better. Thanks.

    ~Tonya from Abbey Way

  7. espiritu paz on May 24th, 2007 1:00 am

    Okay (my heart is moved)… then can we pray for these situations and these folks after breakfast on Saturdays and after dinner during the week instead of talking about ourselves and praying for ourselves. After all, I’m kinda tired of talking about myself anyway.Can we pray that God would put us into the path of those involved in these operations. I know Latinos and I get around (not that it’s just the Latinos)…I’m sure it’s only a matter of time and a bit of sniffing. But can we pray for our own hearts when God puts this situation on our doorstep to do something about.

  8. markvans on May 24th, 2007 8:06 am

    Espiritu Paz…nothing would make me more excited than to see our prayers and posture as a group of people (both at Missio Dei and in the larger Christian community) shift outward like that. I think we sometimes avoid that sort of prayer because we are afraid of the consequences. We pray for ourselves because we already know what we want for ourselves. When we pray for these others…these messy people, then we are putting ourselves out there to possibly become part of the answer to the prayer. And when you stop and think about it, making that sort of change in emphasis is terrifying.

  9. Barbara on May 24th, 2007 10:36 pm

    Wow. I think I found you from Wilsonian, I am so glad I did. I agree with you completely and thank you for raising a topic that is hardly ever talked about.

    One thought I had while reading this - the men that “visit” these sex slaves are a huge part of the problem. They need to be stopped and they need some sort of “help” because there would be no need for sex slaves and prostitution if there was no “market” for it. There is something very wrong when that many men in a single community visit ONE house in one night…multiply that by all the others women/children being used as sex slaves…wow.

  10. dlw on May 25th, 2007 12:11 am

    One can police prostitution in ways that the largess of the punishment falls on the johns and those forced into such work are offered help.

    You’re falling short in dealing with the issue if you focus only on what your community can do personally. This would be one of the potential issues a house church could make critical in its house church-style political activism, and having more viable options in state legislature elections would help a good deal in this regard as well…

  11. markvans on May 25th, 2007 12:16 am

    Argh. I get your point. But don’t you think that the huge bulk of the problem is that communities AREN’T involved? Politically active folks aren’t rare. Churches that do actually stuff to directly address the evils of society ARE. I know it doesn’t have to be an either/or. I get that. But it seems like every time I make the point “hey we shouldn’t rely upon the government to get all of this stuff done…let’s BE the change we want to see instead of being inactive Christians who think voting gets the job done” you say “hey, don’t forget to vote.”

  12. Jeshua on May 25th, 2007 12:42 am

    Mark, thanks for the thoughtful post. I was chatting the other day with a good friend of mine who teaches high school in an inner city school. She shared the story of a young man who has no one to support him as he comes from a totally broken home. The young man has been touched that my teacher friend would take any time out of her routine to encourage him and guide him. I’m struck that people like that from broken homes, along with people involved in sex-trafficking, gangs, immoral relationships, etc don’t necessarily need to hear the Gospel, so much as they need to experience it. Alas, it is much easier for us as the church to talk to others about Jesus than it is to be Jesus to them. And I think we need to pray that the paths of our lives would intersect wtih these folks. If we strategically avoid coming across their path, it’s much easier to justify our inaction.

  13. so i go on May 25th, 2007 8:51 am

    well said.

  14. espiritu paz on May 26th, 2007 6:35 pm

    This is in response to BARBARA.
    The issues may be as you perceive them in many places, where the problem is largely with the personal problems of the men that visit the “houses of prostitution”. But I do know that there is another layer of “issue” involved in the problem in Minneapolis. It involves the Latino and his/her economic exploitation. What else will happen when the economy is so bad in the pueblito that you can’t raise your family off raising the same crop the previous generation did. So, the man of a young family jumps the border to make some quick money, because his cousins told him how to do it. He lives in an over-crowded dilapidated apartment off Bloomington and Lake with his cousins. After 2 years anyone’s gonna miss his wife and children especially Latinos who find primary identity in family. It might seem worth the $20 bucks for 10 minutes with a lady of the night–who the cousins found out about. Believe me there are reasons I know this scenario. Exploited people exploit people. So the question is…where does the problem begin? You can counsel Latino husbands who have left their wife and kid for 2 years till you are blue in the face and I don’t think it’s going to do any good until we deal with who’s the economic culprit.

  15. dlw on May 26th, 2007 11:11 pm

    MVS:But don’t you think that the huge bulk of the problem is that communities AREN’T involved?

    dlw: Clearly, community would be critical for good enforcement, but often its just as big of a deal that there are variations in property values and so inner cities can’t afford adequate police-support to keep crime and illegal activities down.

    Politically active folks aren’t rare.

    dlw: The sorts of “rules of thumbs” many people use for politics don’t qualify as politically active. People focusing activism on building up the institutions of poorer parts of the urban city are relatively rare.

    MVS:Churches that do actually stuff to directly address the evils of society ARE. I know it doesn’t have to be an either/or. I get that.

    dlw: Are you saying that most urban churches do not do much to help out former-prostitutes or what-not? This seems like partly a product of economic segregation. There are ways to deal with that and with rising oil prices, a significant chunk of the suburban sprawl is going to get hedged back in… But yeah Churches shd directly address these evils, but we do this in tandem with how the State selectively uses the evil means of the threat of violence to check evil. We, in the Churches, can together participate in the process of using ends-means analysis of how such threat of violence can be adjusted to be more effective at reducing particular evils.

    MVS:But it seems like every time I make the point “hey we shouldn’t rely upon the government to get all of this stuff done…let’s BE the change we want to see instead of being inactive Christians who think voting gets the job done” you say “hey, don’t forget to vote.”

    dlw: In other words, we’re going around in circles again. Or, we’re both responding to the same outrage in our own ways. I don’t know. I’m not sure how good I would be at working directly with ex-prostitutes. Our lives wd be very far apart and it wd be hard for us to have a lot of points of contact. I think toughening up enforcement of laws against prostitution and pushing for programs like the Basic Income Guarantee(It’s just like the flat tax but with an income transfer not tied to how much one earns.) wd do wonders for USAmerican society, especially those at the bottom, and the ministry of decentralized house churches.

    So I’m not contradicting you, I’m just saying that damn, it ain’t the economics of Jesus to forgo participation in the remaking of the rules that govern us as as a critical part of how we love our neighbors. Or more positively, I think too many people ministering in inner cities get burnt out in two or three years over trying too hard to change things with their community. I don’t want you to get burnt out and believe that your community approach with Missio Dei may be critical for avoiding that. But some of that tendency for people to burn out may be because the Social Gospellers were half right that the “structures” really are making sin to fester. If so then we need a double-barrel approach to do justice to the matter, so yeah my reminders to vote are needed. It’s a matter of exhortation to avoid sins of omission.


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