A Christian’s listening ear and welcoming heart led to a victim of modern slavery sharing their story in a safe environment, allowing authorities to be alerted and New Zealand’s first successful prosecution against human trafficking to be achieved.
“Churches offer a place of safety,” says Chris Frazer, co-organiser of the recent Tip of the Iceberg anti-trafficking conference. “A person may present as needing (for example) food, but in spending time and listening, there may be others issues. People in exploitative situations are very wary of officials and therefore more likely to be discovered in the communities in which they are living and for many migrants a church can be where they can talk.”
In 2016, Immigration New Zealand successfully prosecuted two defendants for exploitation-related matters and for aiding and abetting persons to breach their visa conditions. One of the defendants was sentences to nine and a half years’ imprisonment and is required to pay approximately $25,000 in reparation to his victims. The two-year investigation and ensuing High Court trial was the result of a Fijian national attending a local church and engaging in conversation with a parishioner. On sensing some deeper issues, the parishioner invited the victim out for coffee and in building that relationship, the victim was able to confide in the parishioner of their experience of exploitation.
As Christians, we can sometimes feel both distressed by the magnitude and complexity of the issue, and simultaneously hopeful in the knowledge that if one victim was able to find solace by confiding in a member of a church, then we too might be able to provide such warm and welcoming sanctuary should the opportunity ever arise. But Chris warns us not to wait for such opportunities to come to us, but to move beyond our comfort zone. “The church must be engaged out in the world, caring for all and challenging injustice, alongside the vital ministry of nurturing and caring for those within its walls. Loving one’s neighbour doesn’t just mean those closest to you, those you feel most at home with, but rather it embraces all people at all times,” she says.
Chris’s passion for victims of modern slavery began thirteen years ago, at a social justice conference in Kuala Lumpur. Upon realising that this is most definitely an issue in New Zealand, she began developing a greater knowledge of the complexity of the crime. She says her Christian journey was radically transformed, yet she maintains that a cornerstone of her faith is that “authentic faith is coupled with costly action.” Over the years, she has worked alongside government, embassies, faith-based groups and many non-governmental organisations. “For me, it can never be any other way,” Chris says. “People are not goods to be ruthlessly exploited and used, yet it goes on and we are all involved, every day.” Chris says that she hopes for continued support and work to be done in this area, especially given the links between poverty, climate change, deprivation, and the demand for trafficked people.
With cross-sector collaboration being such a dominant need as expressed at the conference, it’s no surprise that Chris encourages us to work together with partners across our society. “It isn’t about us, it’s about [the victims]. We need to put aside our separateness and really embrace collaboration in every thing we do,” she says.
In her address to the conference, Bishop Eleanor further contextualised our role as a diocesan family: “Our parishes are a global network of local communities seeking to enliven the transformative grace and goodness of God in the dust and fabric of our society and our world. But that local transformation depends on the national and international collaborative networks of transformative solidarity to which this gathering is a testament.” She continued with a more hopeful interpretation of the iceberg analogy: “I extend the welcome of one such local parish community, [the Cathedral]. But behind that local community, that tip as it were, is a huge weight of divine grace, goodness, and power, the iceberg of God’s passion and compassion.”
As Ellie concluded her address, so too may it be for each of us: “may we know a divine grace over and in our conversations. May we know a divine favour in our collaborative foundation for supporting those most vulnerable…. And may we know divine power to change those realities.”