By Kateri Mancini
For The Visitor
“At age 14, I ran away to downtown Minneapolis, and within 36 hours I had met my trafficker,” said Jenny Gaines from the Breaking Free organization in St. Paul and a survivor of sex trafficking.
Gaines shared her journey of 28 years in forced prostitution at this year’s annual Mission Rally. The event, sponsored by the St. Cloud Mission Office, was a gathering of 135 women and men April 20 at Holy Cross Priory in Onamia. While participants primarily consisted of parish mission group members, also attending were several social ministry teams, Crosier community members and other mission-minded parishioners from throughout the Diocese of St. Cloud and region.
The event focused on the theme “Encountering those on the Margins,” stemming from the V Encuentro process that the diocese has been involved in for the past several months.
“We have been trying for a few years to expand the idea of mission and how to be involved,” said Elizabeth Neville, director of the Mission Office. “With this year’s theme of seeing those on the margins, we knew there would be lots of good ways to share new ideas and issues. This one just stood out to us.”
The issue Neville referred to is human trafficking — the exploitation of people for profit, often involving fraud, coercion or force. Several speakers throughout the day shared information about the issue and stories of those affected.
Mayuli Bales, director of multicultural ministries for the diocese, spoke about her work with people on the margins, and how she and the diocese are striving to build unity among different groups.
“We are interconnected,” Bales said, “and if we are not, we build bridges to be.”
Bales talked about one group of people to whom her work led her. Last year, upon receiving a call requesting help with translation, she became involved with a group of 19 men who had escaped labor trafficking. The men, all here on legal work permits, had undergone more than seven months of unjust and inhumane conditions on a farm in central Minnesota, where their legal paperwork had been confiscated and their basic rights — from food, to proper sanitation, to wages — were withheld.
It wasn’t until a neighbor recognized some of the signs of their mistreatment and spoke up that they were able to get help.
“Thanks to this neighbor, they started seeing a light at the end of a dark tunnel,” Bales said, stressing the importance of seeing our neighbors and being aware of the needs of others.
Bales, who previously had not worked in the area of human trafficking, began getting involved with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and participating in trainings to feel more equipped to help others suffering from this global and local problem.
“It’s not in my job description exactly,” Bales said regarding how this particular labor abuse case came to be a part of her ministry. “But it is in my job description to be open. And not just mine, it is in all ours in our baptism to be there for the other.”
Labor trafficking is only one kind of human trafficking that affects communities in central Minnesota. The other is sex trafficking.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has ranked Minneapolis as the 13th worst city in the nation for sex trafficking, with St. Cloud being the second worst in the state behind only the Twin Cities. Statistics suggest that 16 percent of men have solicited paid sex. Yet 90 percent of women in prostitution say they wanted out, but didn’t know how.
“It is not a choice; it does not respect the dignity of the human person,” speaker Marty Roers, justice co-director with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, said of sex trafficking. Roers said we are called as missionary disciples to take action.
“Mission is about supporting the work of Christ in the world, building relationships and reaching out to the most vulnerable,” Roers said.
For many, the highlight of the day was hearing the personal story of Gaines, a sex-trafficking victim from Minnesota. At age 14, she ran away from home and was quickly targeted and groomed by a trafficker, beginning nearly three decades of forced prostitution. She worked across the United States — from New York to St. Cloud and Minneapolis to Minot, North Dakota.
But Gaines was finally able to get out of the complicated abusive cycle with the help of Breaking Free, an organization in St. Paul helping women and girls escape sex trafficking. She now helps with Breaking Free’s survivor-led ministries, such as therapy, work skills classes, internships and a speakers bureau. The organization also focuses on ending the demand.
“I was arrested across the country multiple times before 18 for prostitution,” Gaines said. “And I never remember a solicitor being under 18, yet they were never arrested for sexual criminal misconduct.”
Breaking Free works with law enforcement to ensure that in addition to large fines for first time soliciting, johns must also listen to a variety of speakers, including hearing the stories of survivors, in an effort to address and change their habits.
“If there’s no one to buy sex, women won’t be selling it,” Gaines said.
When asked by the audience what could be done to help, she responded, “Pray for our women! I do 500 intakes a year and not one of those stories chose to be there. Lack of choices is not a choice.”
Prayer and advocacy
Prayer and advocacy were the top two things both Gaines and Roers suggested people get involved in when trying to make a difference. Attendees filled out 100 sets of postcards addressed to state legislators, encouraging the state to allocate $2.3 million toward broadening the scope of offenses for traffickers, ending the demand, viewing youth who engage in prostitution as victims rather than criminals, and helping to end sex trafficking in the state.
“I am hopeful that our advocacy efforts will have an impact on our representatives and their willingness to increase funding for Safe Harbors for next year’s state budget,” Roers said after seeing how many participants had taken this advocacy step.
Other participants committed to prayer. One audience member shared that her granddaughter is caught up in sex trafficking but that Gaines’ story gave her hope to keep praying. Another, after hearing the challenges faced by the St. Cloud Diocese’s partners in Maracay, Venezuela, took up the personal challenge of praying for Venezuela at her parish’s regular women’s group gatherings.
“I believe you get the power of the women behind this, and things are going to happen,” said Jan Hoelscher, a member of St. Peter Parish in St. Cloud. Like nearly 40 others, this was Hoelscher’s first Mission Rally. “It was very educational, very eye-opening.”
“I’m very proud to be Catholic,” Bales said regarding the efforts of the church on issues of human dignity.
Additional voices throughout the event reiterated the joy at also being a part of efforts that are reaching out to those in need. These included Shelby Vaske, ethical trade ambassador; Greg Darr, vocations director for Mayknoll Fathers and Brothers; Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of St. Cloud; Father Bill Vos with Catholic Relief Services; Mission Office staff as well as Bishop Donald Kettler.
“Pope Francis said that the missionary effort of the church may be the most important thing we do,” Bishop Kettler reminded participants during Mass at the gathering. “Thank you for your willingness to cooperate in that.”
Cooperating in mission is a long-standing tradition in the St. Cloud Diocese — evident in the displays of homemade mission group items, the individuals gathered and the full collection basket as participants raised hundreds of dollars to support the Office of Multicultural Ministries and Breaking Free in their anti-trafficking work.