The Sex Slave Next Door

Including Priscilla’s Journey and other materials

Priscilla’s journey.

Please note this is a ‘revisioned’ telling of a true story, for the children’s story at church.  It bears as much resemblance to “TRUTH” as the film Young Victoria does…. many horrible things were left out, but that’s because I had to be mindful of both the children and their parents.  For those of you who could feel anger, irritation or bitterness by my ‘co-opting’ a black woman’s story for my own purposes, I can only say that fight against racism isn’t won and I make no claims to anything but my own clumsy goodwill.

This is a sad story.  It does get better at the ending.  Once upon a time, about two hundred and fifty years ago, a girl was stolen from her village in what is now a country called Sierra Leone in Africa. She was forced to walk to the coast, by bad men and women who beat her and didn’t give her enough to eat and drink.  When they got to the coast she was put in a terrible prison and everyone around her was angry and sad and scared and mean, so she sat very quietly and hoped nobody would notice her.  When she was so scared and tired from being so hungry that she could hardly move, she was shoved onto the biggest boat she had ever seen and chained to a post so she couldn’t move at all even if she wanted to.  She had no mommy and no daddy with her and she was scared all the time.  Some of the people in the big boat spoke her language but most of them didn’t so she had hardly anybody to talk to.

After a very long time the boat stopped moving and she was taken off the boat and given a bath and a change of clothes and taken to a place called Charleston where she learned she was going to be sold like a sack of yams.  She recognized a boy from her village and he told her she was going to be sold.  She hoped she would get a kind master.

She was bought and put in a cart and taken many miles away from the slave market.  She was still very scared, but at least she got fed whenever she wanted to eat for the whole trip and she didn’t have to walk.  It was the first time she had had enough to eat and drink in so long she couldn’t remember.  The driver of the cart kept pointing to her and saying “Priscilla, Priscilla”.  After a while she realized that was her new name.  She was being called Priscilla.  She pointed to herself and said “Priscilla” but inside she still called herself by the name her parents gave her.

She was given another set of clothes and then she had to do work so hard that every day she cried and wished it was her mommy and her daddy asking her to do chores.  She thought she had had too much to do back home when she was carrying water and gathering firewood for her mother to cook on.  Now she had to plant rice, backbreaking work in the hot sun with mean men hitting you if you weren’t working hard enough.

She worked very hard and tried to do what she was told, which was hard at first because she didn’t know what her master was saying to her.  But she did know her new name.

One day she was asked to come inside to work in the kitchen.  Priscilla liked it a lot better than working in the sun, although it was still hard work. Priscilla worked every day and became a strong young woman.  When she got to be old enough her master allowed her to marry a man, another slave.  She had ten babies and four of them lived to be grownups.  And that is almost everything we know about Priscilla.

This is a very sad story and we should be sad that anybody has ever had to be a slave…. Priscilla, whose African name is forgotten, has 25,000 descendents, and none of them are slaves.  A descendent is like your great great great grandson or granddaughter.  Priscilla, who had no freedom in her life after she was ten years old, still was a real live human being and she had a family and we know about her because the people who bought her kept good records and they survive to this day.  We are lucky to know about Priscilla’s journey, because we don’t usually know what happens to slaves.   And the happy ending is that Priscilla’s great great great granddaughter flew to Sierra Leone and was able to meet a whole bunch of African relatives she didn’t know she had. Sometimes we have hard lives, but we try to work hard for our children, and that’s what Priscilla did.

Slavery is illegal everywhere in the world.  No one is supposed to keep anybody as a slave, it’s not allowed.  The problem is that not everybody obeys the laws, and there are still slaves.  Because Unitarians believe that justice and freedom are for everyone, we need to learn about slavery and not close our eyes when people are suffering.  That’s why we sell slavery free coffee and chocolate in our church, because we do care.  Everybody in the world has a right to be free, and that is one of the things we can and do work on together.  We want a world where even if there are still slaves in this generation, all future generations will be free, just like Priscilla’s descendents.

The Sex Slave Next Door

Each year in October Unitarian congregations are encouraged by the UU-UNO to celebrate their links to the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with a service on a particular theme.  This year’s theme is the Empowerment of Women for a better world.

I’m going to talk about the Sex Slave next door, the scale of the human trafficking and modern slavery problem and I am going to try to connect it to what Unitarians cherish as values.  I’m also very aware that this is a grueling and unpleasant topic, so it will be shorter than usual.

I could have written a service which talks about the Gogos,  the grandmother’s organization for African women raising their grandchildren after family deaths due to AIDS — but our much missed Marcy Green gave that talk a few years back.  I could have talked about how three African women won Nobel Peace Prizes this past week regarding their work for women’s rights, or about various kinds of progress made, for example Saudi Arabian women being granted to right to vote, also a recent development.

But I couldn’t do it.  I find the topic of the Empowerment of Women for a Better World one of dust and ashes.  I cannot feel happy or congratulatory or sweet tempered about the Empowerment of Women when aboriginal women are disappearing from the Highway of Tears and human traffickers move thousands of women around the planet every year.  And at the same time, to beat people over the head with a heavy topic isn’t a very friendly thing to do, even if it does feel necessary as part of our mission as a prophetic church.  I decided when I was choosing hymns to pick spirited and light hearted ones, some from the African American traditions, and after my talk I want you to shake it all out and sing that song with all the heart and spirit you can.

My Quaker forebears sought to end slavery, back in England.  I want to believe that we’ll eradicate slavery in my lifetime, but I am a pragmatic individual.  Perhaps our descendents will still be fighting.

When I chose this topic, it was because I knew that there are women enslaved in the sex trade in Vancouver.  God help such a sojourner in our city, deprived of money, passport, liberty and hope, fearing every man who comes near her as a potential abuser or murderer.  And yet such women sojourn in this, our city.  What does common decency, what does spirit, what does heart demand of us in such a circumstance?

We are supposed to extend the hand of friendship to those who stay among us.  It’s part of the covenant of all religions, and even if you have no use for religion, some tenderness and fellow feeling for others should be part of normal life and not a special exception.  I know that if I want to be treated with tenderness and fellow feeling I have to hold up my end of the social contract. That means that I know I have an obligation to other people.  That obligation is independent of the laws and customs of the culture you live in…. that’s what having a moral sensibility means.

Right now, if a foreign woman is arrested in Vancouver as a worker in a brothel where she is forced to work, she goes to jail until the immigration system deports her.  She’ll get medical treatment, true, and she’s not forced to work any more, but those constitute the only two advantages I can see that she has over her previous state.  If she’s lucky, she’ll get a bed at Deborah’s Gate, the Salvation Army transition house for trafficked women (which opened in 2009) who came to Canada on a promise of a job and became domestic slaves or sex workers instead.  Although it hasn’t been documented in Canada, there are known cases in the US where a Mexican woman has been deported three times from the US, only to be re-enslaved and smuggled back in.  The profit margins are so high and the chances and consequences of getting caught so trivial, that for every venal and brutish human who gets caught buying and selling slaves, more spring up hoping to get wealthy.   What good is the empowerment of women when a male dominated justice system, indifferent or openly corrupt policing and a greedy collaboration between smugglers, prostitution customers and pimps continually enslaves and brutalizes women and children?

Human trafficking for sexual enslavement for the most part targets women.  According to the statistics, which are hard to gather for a hidden population, 70% of the persons trafficked for whatever purpose are female and half of the persons trafficked are under 18.  Most persons trafficked never cross a border.

I believe that as long as the global economy is tanking, slavery will be hard to stop.  I believe that while labour unions are fighting for survival in the face of global crony capitalism, slavery will be hard to stop.  And I believe that if we don’t start challenging our assumptions about our own personal contributions to human trafficking, slavery will be impossible to stop.  Without education and a justice framework, it will be impossible to stop.  That is not the world I want to live in.

Now wait a minute, most of you are thinking.  I didn’t come to church to be lectured and bugged about something we all know is terrible.  And after all, we all have our favoured charities and none of us have time or energy to take on yet another cause, however worthy.  And it’s not a nice clean, safe, topic, like empowering women with the Heifer Project or by purchasing jewellery made by women so they can send their children to school and break the cycle of poverty.

But it is a Unitarian topic, and somebody needs to say something about human trafficking. Turn to the front of the hymnal and look at those words, really look at them.  Human trafficking directly challenges three of our seven core principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.

Sometimes we are faced with challenges to our world view.  What good is a religion which never challenges you?  You cannot work a muscle by watching an exercise video nor expand your consciousness without changing your thinking.  The never failing well springs of UUism include the:

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

What can you personally do about human trafficking?  Rather than read a list of steps to take, I’ve provided a short printout, which you can pick up at the back of the church after the service.  For the rest of my talk, I am going to take a somewhat different approach than merely providing statistics.

Let’s talk about c h o c o l a t e.

Most of the people in this room are aware that the overwhelming majority of cocoa picked each year is picked by children in Africa, many of whom are not doing the work voluntarily.  I’ll help you visualize the problem.  Roughly the same number of people pick cocoa in Africa as live in New Westminster and Burnaby.  Imagine that every one of the people you are driving by after you leave church today picks cocoa in the hot sun with no protection from the pesticides that get sprayed on the plants  – so you can have a chocolate bar.  It feels different when it’s your neighbour, doesn’t it?  But our religion calls us to think of every human alive as our neighbour.

The solution is simple, and nigh on impossible.  Don’t eat chocolate that isn’t fair trade.  Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, don’t hand it out at Halloween, and don’t bring it in to work on top of a doughnut.  Chocolate, as wonderful as it is, is a global commodity, and as such subject to crushing amounts of speculation and manipulation on the commodities market. Much of the slavery in the cocoa trade in 2011 is as a consequence of the collapse of the commodity price in 2005.  Producers started looking for cheaper ways to grow cocoa to preserve market share, and slavery resulted.  (John Hagen pointed out to me after the service that there were slaves picking cocoa before 2005, which the preceding sentence does not make clear).

There’s a reason why we can buy fair trade chocolate and cocoa and coffee at church.  It’s because as a movement we are slowly making the connection between global crony capitalism and ourselves as individuals — how the choices we make in our daily lives directly affect agricultural workers in third world countries, not to mention the interdependent web of which we are all a part.

You may not have the ability to drag your friends to church (I know I don’t, especially on Thanksgiving Sunday), but you do have the ability to ask your MP to tighten the rules about what kind of cocoa products are sold in Canada.  You certainly have the ability to change your consumption patterns, and encourage your children, parents, friends, family and coworkers to do the same.

Some of you don’t eat chocolate or drink coffee.  But that doesn’t mean your brand choices and eating habits are not supporting the exploitation and slavery of others.

Pick the top ten things you buy on a regular basis and educate yourself as to where the goods come from, and do what you can to ensure that it’s a slavery free food or product.  Remember, as you are making your purchase choices, that justice is what love looks like in public (Note, this awesome quote was originally said by Cornel West, but I got it from

I am not asking you to save the world, for such is not in our power.  I am asking you to educate yourself and think about what you buy before you buy it, that a slave might be set free.

Further Resources


Further resources regarding Human Trafficking


Human trafficking is defined in the U.N. Trafficking Protocol as “the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, or fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.”


The definition on trafficking consists of three core elements:

1) The action of trafficking, which means the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons

2) The means of trafficking, which includes threat of or use of force, deception, coercion, abuse of power or position of vulnerability

3) The purpose of trafficking, which is always exploitation. In the words of the Trafficking Protocol, article 3 “exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.




There are 27 million people in slavery today. They are forced to work without pay, under threat of violence, and they’re unable to walk away. You can find them in brothels, factories, mines, farm fields, restaurants, construction sites and private homes. Many slaves have been tricked by traffickers who lure vulnerable people with false promises of good jobs or education. Some slaves are marched to work at gunpoint. Others are trapped by phony debts from unscrupulous moneylenders. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it happens nearly everywhere.

We can end slavery in our lifetime. Here’s what needs to happen: businesses must clean up their supply chains and consumers must demand slavery-free products, governments and international institutions must toughen enforcement and fund anti-slavery work worldwide, activists and advocates must educate the vulnerable about their rights and empower those in slavery to take a stand for freedom. And you must take a stand, too. Get educated, get activated. Donate. Participate. And spread the word that you don’t want to live in a world with slavery in it.

Above two paragraphs taken in their entirety from


Further reading — Canadian re chocolate

Further reading — Global Human Trafficking

What are the numbers and what do they mean?

Shelter for female trafficking victims in the GVRD


In the GVRD the number to report suspected human trafficking to is:



Supplement to October 9 2011 Beacon Unitarian Church service




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