RIVERSIDE — Denise Matthews, the women’s minister at Magnolia Church in Riverside, has led members to join forces with those working to end the blight of human trafficking.
Millions of people are oppressed and abused annually through human trafficking, which is estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.
This form of modern-day slavery is not only occurring in places such as Thailand or Cambodia. Thousands of individuals in the United States are exploited in the commercial sex trade or as forced laborers. Many of those victims are minors.
“We have high schools around where, within the last year, students have been arrested for trafficking other students through the school,” Matthews said. “Seeing that it is happening here really put a fire under me that we need to do more about this.”
She initially became involved in the fight against human trafficking in January when she received a phone call from a public relations representative for Operation SafeHouse, an organization that offers emergency aid to victims of human trafficking.
“She left a message on my phone asking if I would contact her,” Matthews recounted. “They were getting ready to launch something called the ‘Big Day of Action’ and she wanted to know if our ladies would be willing to join the effort.”
Matthews, along with 15 other women from Magnolia Church, attended a training session before heading out into the community.
“We passed out flyers to local businesses that created awareness about Senate Bill 1193, which mandates that certain businesses in the area display a poster with an 800 number for victims of human trafficking,” Matthews explained. “That weekend alone we were able to target more than 900 businesses in the area. It was amazing.”
Matthews said she was deeply impacted by the experience.
“You don’t realize how prevalent (human trafficking) is until you’re actually out doing something about it and seeing it first-hand.
“There were places, particularly massage parlors, that we would go into and the women at the front would suddenly forget their own names,” Matthews said. “They would suddenly forget their bosses’ names.”
In the months that followed, Matthews and other women from Magnolia Church have become increasingly involved with Operation SafeHouse and victims of human trafficking.
One church member, Eileen Mobley, meets with a group of kids from Operation SafeHouse once a month to teach them basic life skills, such as sewing. Every Saturday Mobley and her husband cook breakfast for the youth at the SafeHouse.
“They’re not really allowed to go in and study the Bible. But if the kids ask questions they are allowed to talk about it,” Matthews explained. “The kids really like having them in there.”
As more women from the church become involved in the fight against trafficking, Matthews said she is looking to raise greater awareness about the social injustices taking place in her community.
In October, Matthews is planning to host an event at Magnolia Church to teach young girls and women about the danger of human trafficking. A “survivor” is scheduled to tell her story.
“She will share, not so much what she went through during her time in that business, but what lured her in,” Matthews noted. “A lot of times people think victims are picked up off the street or that they’re picked up off the corner. But they’re not. They’ve often been groomed for years. (The traffickers) build that relationship and that trust, and that’s how (the victims) are taken in.
“It’s not just that they disappear,” Matthews added. “Though that can happen, that’s not how it is typically happening.”
She plans to make resources available at the event for those who have been victimized or who might know someone who is being victimized.
The event will be the first of its kind at Magnolia Church, but Matthews said she believes her congregation’s involvement in diminishing human trafficking will continue long after it is over.
“Right now we’re just putting our feelers out and seeing how we can be the hands and feet of Jesus in this. God is opening the doors,” Matthews said. “If we can get even one girl into a better place, why not?”
(To report incidents of trafficking, visit www.traffickingresourcecenter.org or call 888-373-7888. To break free from being a victim of trafficking, text HELP to BeFree (233733)