This article was originally published in the San Marino Tribune on for March 3rd, 2017.
Many are familiar with the Lenten disciplines of prayer, study, fasting and almsgiving that have for centuries characterized the forty days of preparation leading to the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. These disciplines require intention and shape the hearts of individuals and communities to more certainly reflect God’s desire for human flourishing.
This Lent, St. Edmund’s is taking on a shared discipline as we become an Abolitionist Parish. One can be excused for not understanding the breadth and pervasiveness of slavery today…many of us imagine that slavery ended with the Civil War, or at least with the dawn of the 20th Century, but this is sadly untrue. Last autumn the United Nations estimated that more than 40,000,000 people are enslaved around the world, the majority of them children working on fishing boats, on coffee and cocoa farms, in agriculture, mining, and as domestic workers.
I first became aware of contemporary iterations of enslavement through my work with Cristosal in El Salvador, where many young women and children are forced to serve as “girlfriends” to gang members, their family members threatened with murder in instances of non-compliance. Yet more than 30,000 people are enslaved in greater Los Angeles, working in nail salons, in restaurants, and in ordinary households. Slavery takes many forms, but three elements are straight forward: the inability to walk away from a working circumstance without threat of physical violence or death, the absence of any substantive remuneration for work, and the control of every aspect of life by a master / slaveholder.
Christ announced core features of his ministry in his inaugural sermon in Luke 4, and one key component was “to let the oppressed go free.” As we choose to become aware of the challenge of contemporary slavery, we begin a process of practical alignment with the teachings of Jesus which will first shape our conscience, and later impact the larger world. What if every Faith community in America were to take a stand against modern slavery? People of no particular Faith are also well-disposed to the eradication of this pernicious practice, and would welcome organized religious expressions of such striving for the common good.
Perhaps for Lent you decide to wake up each morning to Fair Trade Certified Coffee in your cup, as you learn which coffee manufacturers are using enslaved children in their coffee harvests? Some coffee industry representatives acknowledge the use of slaves, but say the issue isn’t their concern. “This industry isn’t responsible for what happens in a foreign country,” said Gary Goldstein of the National Coffee Association, which represents the companies that manufacture Folgers, Maxwell House, Nescafe and other brands. Do you concur?
Perhaps giving up chocolate for Lent, an old stand-by, takes on fresh meaning as you research your favorite chocolatier to make sure their cocoa is harvested by workers who are not subjected to forced servitude. That’s a Lenten discipline for the web-savvy and sleuths among us!
In December 2016 the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles overwhelmingly approved a resolution which my colleague at St. Edmund’s, the Reverend Canon Judith Heffron, and I had the privilege of sponsoring, making the Diocese of Los Angeles the first Abolitionist Diocese in the Episcopal Church, and encouraging each of our 150 congregations to do likewise. Such action across denominational and Faith lines would surely raise awareness and increase the prospect of liberation for enslaved people.
Perhaps you will choose to become an Abolitionist this Lent. Here is a Pledge you are encouraged to take before your God and for the benefit of the oppressed: “This day I choose to be an abolitionist. I vow to learn more about modern slavery, to constructively engage in support of those who campaign against slavery, and, should I encounter an individual fleeing from bondage, to offer safe shelter to the best of my ability.” To make such a commitment is one way to keep a holy Lent.