Slavery-Our Story


Most often, this conjures up images of the Civil War, chains, slave ships, cotton plantations, and for the truly knowledgeable, the faces of William Wilberforce and John Newton.  For some, those that are aware of the realities of the modern world, sex trafficking, cocoa farms, and sweat shops in far away places might filter through their thought process. 

Yet, slavery is so much more than just these things.  Slavery is in America, with roughly 13,000 new slaves entering our country each year.

Slavery can be kidnapped American teens forced to work as house keepers and in the kitchens of restaurants.  Any time a person is held against their will and is not free to leave and forced to work without pay, that's slavery.  My city of Houston is mostly likely the third largest host of slavery in America, behind LA and DC.  According to a local organization called Redeemed Ministries, there are 5 brothels holding women against their will in my little community in Houston alone, and I have a decent feeling that many of those women are American citizens.  Um, WAKE UP WORLD!  Slavery is real, its effects are lasting, and the consequences are devastating.

My family was just a normal American family, loving God, going to church, and doing the whole 4th grader and 6th grader routine the summer of '96.  David was obsessed as always with all things basketball and baseball, and I was excited and scared to start middle school.  Late in the summer, our church asked for host homes for a choir of Zambian boys, ranging in age from 11-18.  David and I jumped all over this.  We thought this sounded like the coolest thing to happen to us in the year we had been living in Dallas, and somehow, my parents agreed.  The weekend after school began, the boys arrived, sponsored by an American ministry.  David and I excitedly went with my mom to meet our guests and take them home for the weekend.  Each family was assigned two boys, one older and one younger.  We had Jeff (18) and Yona (11).  The boys had been in the country about two weeks and were about to begin touring the country, receiving home schooling from a tutor while on the road.  Our family joined two others that night for a cook out and swimming.  What an adventure!  We learned that the boys were in the States on student visas for 22 months.  They were excited to be able to continue their education while they did what they loved most-sing!  They had been promised that their families would receive money from the donations given to them at concerts and that the rest of the money would build them a 7th-12th grade school so they could graduate.  They couldn't wait for all of this to begin. 

David and I loved having the boys for the weekend, and my parents quickly came to love the gentle spirits, spiritual maturity, and cultural exchanges Jeff and Yona brought to our home.  Oh, and the choir of 26, could they sing!  What a blessing.

We really thought we wouldn't see them again, but a few weeks later, Mom received a call saying that the boys would be back at home base (Sherman) for a few days, and would we want to host the same boys again?  The story we were told was that the boys would be happier in families than with just the ministry sponsors at the farm in Sherman.  Mom and Dad worked it out for the boys to come, and David and I were once again delighted.  We learned words in Nyanja, played basketball and soccer, watched movies, and just felt like a family.  This became a more and more frequent occurrence, and no one in our family was complaining.  Eventually Fred and Kelvin joined us when their host mama became ill.  What a treat!  David and I had no problem calling these four guys brothers, and to this day, they still refer to my parents as Mom and Dad. 

My mom became very involved in finding families to keep choir members when they weren't touring.  She met fabulous people all across the country who loved our guys as much as we did.  However, it wasn't long before Mom began hearing stories that left her feeling unsettled.  The boys were sometimes staying with us for a week...where was the tutoring?  The boys were being forced to meet up as early as 6:00 am to hit the road for regional concerts, and we would often be told we wouldn't be able to pick them back up until 11:00 at night.  My parents began asking questions about the money the boys were earning.  Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of dollars were donated to the boys at their concerts.  Even more money was being given to help build them a secondary school upon their return to Zambia when their student visas expired in June of '98.  They learned the school wasn't being constructed.  The boys were getting sick frequently, which didn't make sense.  They began seeing us less as concerns were raised with the organization overseeing the boys, their passports, and their visas.  That made many host parents angry.  Host families were able to offer shelter and solace when the boys were with us, but all control was gone when they were away singing.  They were singing 8 hours a day, sometimes more, and weren't enjoying singing anymore.  The money was pouring in, but the boys didn't have clothes that fit.  The host parents were buying needed things left and right-they were being used so that the ministry didn't have to part with the boys' hard earned donations. 

David and I knew very little of any of this at the time, and I'm grateful.  I couldn't have processed all of this at 12 and 13.  I do think I remember overhearing one conversation where I heard my parents asking what would happen if host families kept the boys/ran away with them/etc to get them out of this downward spiral of mistreatment and free labor.  The response from very polite authorities was that since the ministry, not the host families, held their passports and visas, we'd get in trouble and not the ministry.  The United States of America, the most powerful country in the world, had zero human trafficking laws in 1997.  Seriously?!  I'm flabbergasted by this, but I can only imagine the frustration felt at the time by the fabulous host parents trying to find freedom for boys they had come to love deeply while also struggling to find ways to uphold the promises made by the ministry that brought them here.

In early 1998, several months before the guys' visas expired, some of the 26 boys were sent home, mostly the older ones.  They were accused by the ministry of stirring up trouble because they had asked questions about money rightfully owed to them.  Being sent home early was an embarrassment to them and a cause for ridicule upon arrival back home.  If only their families really knew what was going on in the States.  I was heartbroken to say goodbye to my friends at the airport.  In June, when it was time for the rest of the boys to finally go home, they were flown out of Houston to try to keep host families from saying goodbye.  As God would do, we had just moved back to Houston, so guess who was at the airport to send our brave guys home with hugs and words of encouragement!  The relief that this was over was huge, but really, the troubles were just beginning.

The boys went home to broken promises and disappointment.  There was no school for them to attend.  Those that were older than 18 were staring at a future that was bleak at best.  They had become accustomed to American ways of living and now they were back home, trying to help care for family members without any real way of making a living.  Desperation and anger dug deep into many hearts.  I can't imagine the hopelessness they felt.

Meanwhile, one of the churches in the Dallas area that had helped host the boys worked hard to get a school built.  Eventually, many of the boys did graduate.  In 2001, America created something called a T-Visa which essentially allows non-American victims of human trafficking in America to live here and get an education.  It's a meager peace offering, but it's something.  Several of the guys, including 3 of the my 'brothers' are now in the States thanks to this Visa.  The ministry was disbanded, and their American leader died shortly thereafter from a brain tumor.  The boys and their families never did see a penny of the thousands of dollars that they were given in donations. 

While the guys weren't raped, beaten, or starved, they were emotionally and verbally abused by the ministry.  I understand that so, so many victims of human trafficking have much worse experiences while in captivity, yet the effects are still lasting on these boys.  The time with the host families was a balm from the emotional trauma, but it wasn't enough to completely combat the effects of broken promises.  A few of the guys have completely succumbed to alcoholism back in Zambia.  It breaks my heart, makes me so angry I want to beat the tar out of someone, and can still reduce me to tears if I dwell on it for too long.  Only one of the guys will openly talk about this experience.  They all still love my family and our friends that helped, but they do not want to talk about what happened and the effects the broken promises have had on them.  Divorce,and an inability to trust and know how to keep a promise, is another legacy of this story and it breaks my heart.  

Now, good things have resulted too.  Several of the guys still sing as Zambian Vocal Collection and have toured Finland three times and Egypt once.  They are based out of their home village of Kalingalinga in Lusaka, Zambia.  I love hearing them sing.  The school that the church in Dallas built is still open and a place where many graduate with high school certificates.  One of my brothers has an amazing marriage and the cutest little kids you've ever seen.  They are a fabulous example of living for God inspite of pain, and I love them dearly.  My two nieces and their mom are absolutely precious to Isaac and me.  I've had the opportunity to teach at the school built for my brothers, love on orphans in Lusaka, and see the guys that want to still live in Zambia.  Isaac gets to join me on another trip the summer of 2013. 

I firmly believe that my family's only purpose in being sent to Dallas was to be involved with these guys.  Because of this experience, I spend 9 weeks of each school year teaching about modern day slavery and how to combat it various ways.  My 12 year olds leave my class empowered with ways to change the world, and they are.  The reality of slavery is harsh, but it can be stopped.  More and more people are finally realizing this and jumping on the fair trade bandwagon.  Bless them.  I struggle not to get angry that it's now 'cool' to be anti-slavery when 15 years ago no one would even acknowledged such a thing still happened in America, but I really am grateful for the attention slavery now gets.  God is gracious.  He heals.  He turns beauty from ashes and works all things for His glory.  I might not see some of those results until Heaven, but I trust Him all the more.  I can't be silent.  I can't stand the thought that this happens to people who don't have a safe haven or an end in sight. 

How you can help:
~Pay attention to the retailers you use.  The grocery store and the mall are two prime places to find goods made by slave hands.  Look for fair trade symbols.  Organic items are generally fair trade too because of the strict rules governing them to be labeled organic.

~Just because a product says "Made in the USA" doesn't mean slave labor wasn't used in its production.  Research the sourcing of the materials in the product.  Something assembled in America can be labeled "Made in America" but it might have cotton sourced from slave labor in Uzbekistan, pieces made in factories in China, or embellishments from sweat shops in Bangladesh.

~Research retailers.  Many websites will have a link at the bottom of their page if they are fair trade/ethically made.  Ann Taylor and Loft, Carters, and GAP (this would include Banana Republic and Old Navy since they are part of the GAP family) are ethically made clothing brands!

~I'm not one to jump on the 'ban' bandwagon, but I'm all for letting producers know that you like a product but would like it even more if they changed their production methods to ethically made/ fair trade status. 

~Keep your eyes open.  Slaves are often hidden in plain sight.  A church friend had slaves selling hair bows in her neighborhood recently.  She said she knew something wasn't right but didn't have the guts to call police.  Oh, please call!!  Rescue these dear, dear ones.

~Pray.  God moves in mighty ways, and He cares.We are made in His image for His glory. 

Free the Slaves
End It
Mercy House Shop
Ten Thousand Villages
Trades of Hope 
Fair Trade Friday 
Fair Indigo 
Wild Dill
Fair Trade Brand Directory


Kerrie Williams said...

this was a very captivating story Laura. I'm excited to work with you in creating a space that continues to tell this story

The Granberrys said...

Wow, this is very interesting. I remember when the Zambian a capella sang at our school (once in middle school and once in high school). I am not sure if that is the same ministry, but regardless, slavery of any kind is terrible.

Lisa Loves John said...

Such an amazing story, Laura... You are leaving a wonderful legacy teaching all of your students about this. It's incredible how you can look back and see God at work.

I look forward to following your blog!

Rachel said...

Wow, this story brought tears to my eyes. I know that slavery happens in the US, and I've seen it happening in Malaysia, where I've lived. It's definitely not merely a problem of the past.

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