NEW YORK (BP) - In an age of partisan conflict, few causes unite people of faith and secularism like the human trafficking crisis that enslaves approximately 45.8 million people around the world.
But if you ask someone how they feel about those who are prostituted, homeless and undocumented in their communities, their responses may be different -- even hostile. That's because, says modern-day abolitionist Raleigh Sadler, our presuppositions often blind us to the reality that many of these are victims trapped in forms of slavery, whether it be for sex or domestic servitude.
"When we say, 'Look at that bum!' or 'Oh she's just having sex for money!' we're inferring upon them a narrative we've chosen," Sadler says. "We take someone who could be victimized and we label them a perpetrator."
In January 2017, Sadler launched Let My People Go, a nonprofit ministry headquartered in New York City to empower local churches to fight human trafficking.
The launch event at Calvary St. George's (the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous) received a certificate of recognition from NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and featured leading voices in the justice movement like evangelist Kevin Palau and Richard Lee of International Justice Mission.
It took losing everything for Raleigh Sadler to find his calling. In April 2012, one of his best friends and seminary roommate Davin Hendrickson died of beta cell lymphoma. Concurrently, his job at the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists was eliminated due to budget cuts. So Sadler sold everything he owned and on Oct. 7, 2012, moved to New York City as a Missions Service Corps missionary with the North American Mission Board.
"I think it's something God probably calls every believer to, ultimately, giving up and just dying to yourself, and I had that opportunity," said Sadler, a 2007 master of divinity graduate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "It's been the most challenging but most rewarding time of my ministry. I've never seen God do so much in spite of me."
Sadler attended a Passion Conference in 2012 where he first experienced his calling to minister to vulnerable people.
He had served as collegiate evangelism director for the West Virginia convention since 2010 but began to feel he placed too much emphasis on earning God's favor by his success in ministry. Now his eyes were opened to the growing crisis of human trafficking and his ability to make a difference. And as his friend was dying of cancer, Sadler relied on God's guidance on his own future.
"As I work with vulnerable people and mobilize churches to care for vulnerable people I'm reminded of my own vulnerabilities, my own brokenness, my own need for grace, which ultimately motivates me to go even deeper with it," Sadler said.
At the time, West Virginia was one of four states that had not adopted legislation to aid victims of human trafficking. Compelled to action, Sadler lobbied a friend in the governor's office, and when HB 4053 was drafted, he organized local churches to rally at the capitol. The bill passed the legislature in March 2012 and was signed into law the following month.
"That is where God gave me a passion for mobilization," Sadler says.
Six months later, Sadler began raising support to serve with NAMB in Manhattan. Within a week of his arrival, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship recruited Sadler to mobilize churches to its Price of Life Invitational, a year-long anti-trafficking program that educated NYC college students on the crisis and raised money to support victims. Let My People Go began as a panel discussion during this time informing churches on how to identify and respond to trafficking. Following the Price of Life finale, Sadler became director of justice ministries at Metropolitan New York Baptist Association.
The connections he established with churches in the New York area allowed Sadler to form the nonprofit Let My People Go. For the last four years, LMPG has grown from panel discussions to a pilot project with 25 churches of different ethnic and evangelical groups, and now a national network.
"Love should identify those most vulnerable; love should empower those most vulnerable. We should protect those most vulnerable and actually include them in our congregations," Sadler said at the Jan. 24 launch event, outlining key components of his church strategy. "Our vision is to see a network of churches rise up and serve their community. Not the neighbor of their choosing, but the neighbor God chose for them by placing them in that community."
Put simply, Sadler says, "Human trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerabilities for commercial gain," a definition that can manifest as commercial sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or forced labor that can prompt ministry opportunities with both victims and perpetrators.
The beauty of the Gospel, Sadler said, is that Christ died not only for the victim but the victimizer," and we should seek to love both appropriately, and ultimately know that God has put them in our path."
Sadler said Let My People Go aims to equip local churches with specific, contextualized strategies for identifying people in their congregations and communities whom traffickers target and then assist in building relationships with law enforcement and community leaders working together to help free and restore victims. Churches who join the LMPG network receive practical justice resources and one-on-one training.
Seth Polk, lead pastor of Cross Lanes Baptist Church in Cross Lanes, West Virginia, serves as the chairman of LMPG's board of directors. He's known Sadler for seven years and believes LMPG is unique among social justice ministries, because it's "biblically focused and theologically grounded" and "mobilizes the local church, which is the greatest resource."
"The local church is the closest to those who are most vulnerable," Polk said in an interview, "so they have the greatest opportunity to see the needs within their own communities and the vulnerable people that are right around them and minister to them."
Polk said his "hope and prayer would be that local churches would gain a clearer perspective of the possibility of what they can do in their community, and that the ground force of the work would be from believers in those churches carrying out the work."
Sadler says churches who commit to social justice ministry will find it aligns with core Gospel values, especially among congregations who strive to be multi-ethnic. Vulnerable people, he says, are multi-ethnic, so welcoming them into a congregation can accomplish that Kingdom vision.
Christians should share Moses' concern for the spiritual freedom of the enslaved when caring for those trapped in physical bondage, Sadler says.
"The name Let My People Go is definitely not original," he says. "We generally stop at those four words, but Moses goes on to say, 'Let my people go that they may serve Him' -- the physical and spiritual tied together. … God cares about our physical well-being as well as our spiritual well-being."
There is a "greater exodus," Sadler says. "We have this redemption being bought back from spiritual slavery."
More information on LMPG is at the network's website, lmpgnetwork.org.