By Kimberly Williams and Hilary Chala
Modern-day slavery, or human trafficking, is a crime against humanity that involves force, fraud, or coercion. The wounds of slavery run deep and cause damage often unseen at a glance. Caregivers are unique people who look beneath the surface and hear unheard pleas for help and identify unseen hurts for healing. This article is from our experiences of that journey as hospital chaplains.
A person is manipulated into trafficking for the sole benefit of the trafficker. The victim is left hopeless and without recourse or support. In many cases, victims are in reality held captive and are not permitted to visit with family, friends, or healthcare providers. In other cases — in fact, 25-30% of our caseload — the patients were first trafficked by their biological family. Being without supportive families complicates the healing process.
Chaplains can offer a spiritually safe space for human trafficking victims and survivors to heal, hope, and reconnect; to give and receive forgiveness; to know for the first time the conscious sense of self. For the wounds that are deeper than the body, the chaplain assists in healing. This unique opportunity to walk alongside a trafficking survivor is a privilege and an honor.
Resources for this level of trauma only begin with a bed in a safe house. Trauma-specific counseling, skill development, sobriety, medical care, and a safety network are a basic part of the needed safety plan to help a victim become a survivor. Of course, some of our patients’ trafficking history is much more complicated, and the safety plan must be equally intricate.
Awareness of this public health crisis is scarce, and resources are scarcer. Sometimes the team cannot find a safe location, and the survivor is discharged under precarious conditions. In those cases, we can expect strong feelings of helplessness, guilt, frustration, anger, or failure. Monies exist for aid and grants, yet working to get those dollars has become an additional full-time job for more than one team member.
As chaplains, we care not just for the patients, but for the treatment team. It hurts to see a faculty physician walk in, exhausted after pulling an all-nighter, like a college kid, trying to meet a grant deadline and then swilling coffee all day to try to fake being present to the rest of his or her patients. The majority of psychiatrists identify as non-religious, but over time the person of the chaplain becomes this altar where the burdens of hearing the stories of atrocious sufferings and fear of despair are laid down and removed.
This is why our self-care is critical. As chaplains we must go to God and remove these sufferings from ourselves. No soul can tolerate carrying that much suffering and survive. The process of how we absorb the hurt is by prayerfully listening to those who come to us, without the other person feeling our faith being forced upon him or her. I personally remove the burden from me by participating in the Sacraments of Holy Communion, Holy Confession, and Sacrament of the Sick as often as possible. We see the daily sacrifices made by the team to care for these invisible traumas. But the hurts are real. The work we do is real, and when our funding applications are rejected, it is tempting to fall into a defeatist attitude.
Chaplains must have hope. Everything we do will fall apart if we despair. Our team, whether or not they are religious, looks to us for hope. Our spiritual resiliency helps them have the strength, courage, and fortitude to do that all-nighter, or not be daunted by rejection, as hard as it is, and miraculously, try again. When I get a text message or an email that we’ve submitted another grant and the writer wants me to pray for our submission, that helps keep me connected. I stop and I pray, and then I will email back simply: “Done!”
And prayer is part of our contribution to the team. If we look at what chaplains bring to the team — prayer, hope, resiliency, and presence — on one side they don’t look like a lot. In fact, as none of them is tangible, they look like nothing. Yet for those who have experienced prayer, we know how powerful our offerings are. It is my responsibility, therefore, to keep myself spiritually well to competently be able to offer the requested spiritual sustenance, however big or small, to my team.
When a chaplain walks into a group of individuals, we represent God. All the pain, hope, hurt, love, and anger that the others have toward God is suddenly directed at us. It is miraculous to me that over time, just being around the steady consistent presence of the chaplain can heal some of that hurt. Not out of respect for me, but out of respect for God — even from people who call themselves unbelievers. I have had the experience of just sitting with care providers while they completed a task. I don’t feel as if I do anything necessarily, but the team member will thank me, sometimes profusely, because in their heart God went with them on the journey.
The greatest support we have received in the Texas Medical Center has been through Catholic Health Initiative, which has funded our monthly Houston Area Human Trafficking Health Care Consortium. This oasis lets us support each other and learn from one another. Being able to meet with other clinicians with the same experiences is imperative for our self-care as we learn more about human trafficking, share case studies following HIPPA guidelines and collaborate with other providers to discuss trends and look for funding sources.
Many members feel alone at their institutions as part of a small team working on this huge issue. The Consortium was meant to offer additional opportunities for collaboration and education, but it has evolved to include caring for each other. What a gift to each participant! It offers a wonderful example for the caregiver receiving care.
We must be determined in our self-care if we are going to sustain others. Creating our own time for prayer, to really invest in our own spiritual resiliency, is even more important. Having a spiritual director, someone outside of this, is one link of the chain of the anchor. So is praying in solitude, reflecting in the presence of God what we encountered, and theologically studying what we encountered are other links.
Every survivor can reconnect with God; everyone can heal, even us. It takes more than motivation to work with victims for long periods of time. After the physical, emotional and mental reserves are depleted, our only reserve left is God.
Kimberly Williams is project coordinator of the Human Trafficking Initiative at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston. Hilary Marie Chala is a chaplain at Harris Health System in Houston and chaplain for Baylor College of Medicine’s Anti-Human Trafficking Program.