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A Spiritual Movement to Abolish Sexual Exploitation on Both Sides of La Frontera

by Samuel Bell Pullen

 “The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta
where the Third World grates against the First and bleeds.
” (1)
~Gloria Anzaldúa

     Immigrants who cross the border between the United States and Mexico, which Gloria Anzaldúa describes as an “open wound,” often suffer physical, psychological, and spiritual wounds. While some immigrants willingly cross to seek a better future, the most vulnerable are those forcibly “trafficked” as human commodities in the sex industry. Churches in border regions have a special calling to minister to survivors of sex trafficking with non-shaming theology and to advocate for change that addresses the causes of sexual exploitation. The Southern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ (SCNCUCC), with its Centro Romero border ministry in San Ysidro, has an unique opportunity to initiate ecumenical collaboration to diminish sex trafficking.

     This article will highlight the injustices and the steps toward liberation identified during a two-day Centro Romero immersion trip focusing on sexual exploitation on both sides of the border (April 26-28, 2012).

     Rev. Carlos J. Correa, the Center’s director, finds that the most haunting injustice witnessed by immersion groups is the “zone of tolerance” in the red light district of Tijuana where young girls openly sell their bodies under the armed watch of Mexican federal police. When our bus drove through la zona de tolerancia on a Friday afternoon, we could see more than 300 young girls and transgender prostitutes soliciting business. Our guide said this number would jump to more than 1000 after dark.  We were told not to talk with the girls, because “the pimp will make you pay for their time,” demanding $40 per 30 minutes.  It was shocking to see child prostitution in plain view, yet even more horrifying to hear that the most deplorable human rights abuses take place behind closed doors in the brothels where a child sex slave can be purchased for a starting price of $2000, ranging up to $15K for an “indigenous virgin.”  After seeing the “zone of tolerance” and hearing the testimonies of survivors of sex trafficking, I agree with the words of a Pentecostal preacher from Tijuana, “Sex trafficking is an injustice that hurts the heart of God.” I came away from the conference with a sense of conviction that the United Church of Christ, and all people of faith and conscience must dedicate ourselves to ending sex slavery.

     One of the central tasks of these groups will be to develop theological frameworks that condemn the sin of sexual exploitation without shaming its victims.  In response to the horrors of colonial conquest, Latino Christian spirituality has much to offer here, as it commonly views Jesus Christ as a liberator of the oppressed. Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez declares that “our encounter with [Christ] occurs in our encounter with others, especially in the encounter with those whose human features have been disfigured by oppression, despoliation, and alienation.” Gutiérrez further emphasizes “to place oneself in the perspective of the Kingdom means to participate in the struggle for the liberation of those oppressed by others.” (2) Christians who are informed by liberation theology can agree that sex trafficking is a form of exploitation that demands salvation and liberation.

     However, a major theological tension exists between people of faith that are working to end sex trafficking. Evangelical and Pentecostal groups tend to support efforts that rescue or “save the souls” of girls forced into sex slavery.  On the other hand, mainline protestant groups to seek solutions focusing on factors that generate sex trafficking, seeking to “solve the cause of the problem.” In the context of a comprehensive movement to abolish sex trafficking, these perspectives can seen as complementary.

     The primary group of Tijuana religious leaders actively working to combat sex trafficking is a network of Pentecostal Christians. The only safe house for girls seeking to escape “the life” of prostitution is run by a born-again Christian from the United States who is willing to risk his life to “rescue” girls from the zone of tolerance and “save” them by convincing them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.(3)

     Some significant limitations of this approach include the lack of female leadership and insufficient access to comprehensive social services. The United Church of Christ could offer more holistic forms of rehabilitation if progressive Christians are willing to commit resources to address the problem. Great strides toward emancipation of those enslaved by the sex industry will occur if both of the above theological perspectives inform each other. Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians will gain a keener social analysis, and progressive Christians will be prompted to roll up their sleeves and take action.

     A valuable spiritual resource for religious groups is the “Biblical and Theological Rationale” for the “Resolution to End Sex Trafficking” passed by The General Synod of the United Church of Christ in 2009:

Trafficking in persons is a crime against humanity and ultimately a sin. Human trafficking denies the values of human life, exposes victims to serious health risks, endangers the mental well-being of victims and impedes the ability of victims to reach their full God-given potential. As Christians, we believe that every human being is created in the image and likeness of the divine Creator, of God. The prophets cried out against the exploitation of the poor and of laborers who are not treated fairly and compensated justly (Job 24:1-12, for example). The violence done to the physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing of children and women who are forced into prostitution, the pornography industry, sex tourism and other forms of sexploitation are violations of the call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves. The kin-dom of God among us requires us to provide protection for those most vulnerable and to seek conditions which support wholeness and health for everyone.”

     Latina theologian Elizabeth Conde-Frazier presents a liberationist perspective on suffering that is particularly valuable in overcoming sexual exploitation. Recognizing that many Latinos identify with the image of Jesus as the “suffering servant,” Conde-Frazier emphasizes that suffering is only redemptive if it brings about justice. She continues that if suffering “is not redemptive and bears the fruit of injustice or further oppression, as in the case of domestic violence or any other kind of abuse, it cannot and should never be named as acceptable sacrifice before the eyes of the Lord.”(4)   Conde-Frazier shares an example of a lay leader named Doña Inez, who issued the following prayer of liberation for a physically abused woman:

Because the Bible says that what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven and what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, in the name of Jesus I loose you from your bonds to this man who has done this to you. You are not guilty of anything he has done. Go now to your cousin’s house and start a new life. Don’t look back or go back like Lot’s wife. In God’s name we will provide for you all you need.(5)

     This is the spiritual perspective that we must offer to survivors of sex trafficking: one that condemns the abuse and pledges to support the victims as they start a new life.

     The UCC’s office on Justice and Witness Ministries provides useful resources that can be used by congregations that wish to get involved in the movement to abolish human trafficking. The UCC’s website suggests five ways for congregations to work toward ending Human Trafficking: 1) Learn 2) Pray 3) Spread awareness 4) Engage in efforts at the local, state, national, and international levels 5) Keep trafficked persons involved in the decision-making.(6)  The final point is especially important to avoid patterns of domination by well-intentioned advocates who disregard the needs of victims/survivors of modern day slavery.

     A resource that is particularly useful to congregations is “The Polaris Project.” This provides statistics related to human trafficking on a state-by-state basis, and operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, reachable at 1-888-373-7888.

     One of the most compelling and uplifting global visions for emancipation of twenty-first century slaves is outlined in the book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, written by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. After reviewing the scope of the problem, punctuated with testimonials from women enslaved in the sex industry, Kristof and WuDunn promote micro-financing enterprises run by women as a solution that addresses the poverty at the root of sex slavery. 

     The movement to end sex trafficking is gaining momentum in both religious and secular organizations on a global scale. To be effective, this movement must take action on five fronts: 1) raising awareness about the problem through research and education; 2) creating comprehensive programs to provide refuge and rehabilitation to survivors of sex trafficking; 3) advocating for legislative and governmental action to penalize and disrupt criminal sex trafficking; 4) providing economic incentives that empower women in impoverished regions that supply children for the sex trade; 5) reducing the demand from men for commercial sex.

     Largely missing from the discussion about sex trafficking are strategies to reduce the demand from men in the United States and Mexico for commercial sex. Recognizing that the sex industry profits off men’s insecurities and vulnerability to sex addiction, solutions must encourage recovery from compulsive sexual behavior. It may be more appropriate for men who want to end sex slavery to target male “consumers” of commoditized sex than to attempt to “rescue” women and girls from the sex industry.

     A commitment to end human trafficking and sex slavery should be an imperative for communities of faith on both sides of the US/Mexican border. Working to abolish modern day sex slavery is a profound way to express the Christian hope that wounds can be healed, the brokenhearted can be transformed, and the poor and oppressed can be liberated!


(1)Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands: The New Mestiza (Aunt Lute Books, 1987), 3.
(2)Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (SCM, 2001), 116.

(3)“Bringing the Light of Christ to the Dark World of Sexual Exploitation,” BreakingChains.org, May 11, 2012, http://breakingchains.ning.com/.
(4)Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, “Hispanic Protestant Spirituality,” in Teologia En Conjunto: A Collaborative Hispanic Protestant Theology, ed. Jose David Rodriguez and Loida I. Martell-Otero, 1st ed. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 135–136.
(5) Ibid., 140.

(6)“Human Trafficking Resources”, May 10, 2012, http://globalministries.org/get-involved/justice-and-advocacy/human-trafficking/.

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