Letting Survivors Lead: Anti-Trafficking Ministry in the Philippines–Student Lauren Robinson

In January, MDiv student Lauren Robinson visited the Philipines to learn about the systems of human trafficking and how local groups are addressing this grave injustice. 

After volunteering with organizations in Chicago that strive to end human trafficking, I realized that I wanted to go to school to be equipped to holistically minister to human trafficking victims and survivors. Last school year, McCormick awarded me the Robert and Jean Boling Memorial Fund for International Travel and Study so that I could learn more about human trafficking. In particular, I was interested in learning how theater had been used as tool for advocacy and healing in anti-trafficking work; the role of survivors in anti-trafficking work; best practices for anti-trafficking organizations and anti-trafficking ministries.

Before arriving to the Philippines, I hadn’t realized that I would be visiting various organizations and churches in all three major regions of the Philippines: I spent a week in Luzon, another week in the Visayas region and 3 days in Mindanao. Each of my experiences in these three regions provided necessary insight into the issue of human trafficking.

The last place that I visited was Cagayan de Oro. In Cagayan de Oro, the United Church of Christ in the Philippines organized an “exposure” experience with Tisaka. Tisaka is an anti-human trafficking organization that partners with the UCC of Cagayan de Oro. When I arrived at Tisaka, I was greeted warmly by the leaders and advocates of Tisaka. Soon into the conversation, we started talking about my hair. As I child, I had been hurt by young, mostly white, girls asking about my hair and why it was so “different.” In contrast, many people in the Philippines liked my locs and the curiosity expressed about my hair was not condescending, but very affirming. This helped me to immediately feel comfortable with them.

After the members of Tisaka introduced themselves, I explained the purpose of my trip, and then they took turns explaining their mission and vision. They excitedly spoke over each other, filling in the gaps when they thought that someone else didn’t fully explain an aspect of Tisaka’s mission. I found out that Tisaka holistically ministers to women and children involved in commercial sexual exploitation (exotic dancing, massage parlors, prostitution). Their work includes inviting women to a shelter, providing education and training, accompanying women at “social hygiene” check-ups and doing “orientations.” Honestly, it was hard for me to fully grasp what all of this looked like until I could see it in action.

Lauren visits a massage parlor with Tisaka volunteers

After the preliminary information session, they invited me to join them for their nightly outreach to sex workers. The first place we visited was a massage parlor. I wasn’t sure what to expect but they entered the establishment very casually and full of enthusiasm. They weren’t incognito. The women of Tisaka were smiling, laughing and greeting the manager and the women as if they were old friends. I had not anticipated that because of my own assumptions about this type of work.

One of the most amazing parts of my visit in Cagayan was the fact that Tisaka volunteers did not view strip club or massage parlor managers as enemies, but sought to build bridges with these people. This tactic is critical to their efforts: volunteers disclose their intentions with club owners and managers. In doing so, they are protecting sex workers in two ways: first, they are not appearing as people trying to pull women away from these establishments but rather they want to protect women by providing condoms, sexual health information and shelter. The survivors that lead Tisaka know the pressures that women involved in that life face and never try to rescue them because they know that most victims of sexual exploitation will leave when they are ready. Secondly, Tisaka informs the managers about the legal definitions of human trafficking because they want the owners to know that if a sex worker is “trafficked” or abused by a customer, then Tisaka will intervene and protect the women. I was impressed with this mentality. Part of this is the genius of survivor-led ministries and organizations: they know best what victims need. Survivors know how to care for victims because they were in their position once.

Lauren and the women of Tisaka

Afterwards, we went to a few strip clubs. At the last club, one of the volunteers of Tisaka, Sheila, took me into the dressing room and introduced me to the women and girls working. Sheila cheerfully hugged them and explained why I was there. Afterwards, I joined other Tisaka volunteers and sat in the performance area. One woman began to dance. Sheila left where our group sat and moved very close to the edge of the stage because she was friends with the woman performing. I thought, “If I was the girl on stage, that would make me nervous. Later, as I was reflecting, I realized that this act of sitting close was intentional – very intentional. Sheila sat there smiling, beaming, to express to the young woman dancing that she should not worry about the people watching her because all that mattered was that Sheila was watching and Sheila loved her. I started to tear up: that’s what God wants the Church to do! God calls some people to be in strip clubs, to sit really close to the stage and be a beacon of love and light. I cannot emphasize how powerful this ministry experience was! It transformed my heart and vision of ministry – survivors must lead because they come up with the most creative, authentic and effective ways to address the problem of trafficking.

The next day, I joined Tisaka for an “orientation” at one of the strip clubs we attended the night before. The owner realized that there was a trafficking recruiter present and informed Tisaka. Tisaka then said they would do an information session with all of the people that worked at the strip club to talk about sexual health and the legal definitions of trafficking. Again – brilliant! If they hadn’t been there the night before, several women would’ve been trafficked. The information session was engaging and even the owner wanted to know more about how to protect the women and thereby protect his business. Profound!  Usually, in the U.S. we focus solely on the victims, which is good, but if we don’t address the other aspects of human trafficking, human trafficking will persist.

That night we went out for dinner, and I shared some insights that I gained from observing their ministry. I tried my best to communicate the revelations I had while accompanying them: society had deemed them last or least, but God says that they are first in the kingdom of God: what they are doing is holy! So holy! The Spirit of God was present in the women of Tisaka and they bathed each club and bar with the Spirit. My time in the Philippines learning from Tisaka and with other organizations helped me to conclude that anti-trafficking work must not only take into account the opinions of survivors but must allow survivors the authority to direct anti-trafficking work and to guide their own healing process. I would like to thank McCormick Theological Seminary, UCC Global Ministries, and the UCC of the Philippines for this opportunity!

picture for the cure1Lauren Robinson is a 2nd year M.Div student originally from Shaker Heights, OH, but has been in the Chicago area for 11 years. After graduating from McCormick, Lauren hopes to pursue a masters degree in social work.  You can read more about her trip to the Phillippines on her blog.