The Catholic Register
September 17, 2023
Human Trafficking

Building trust helps victims regain their humanity

Building trust helps victims regain their humanity

Sr. Nancy Brown with one of the clients of Covenant House Vancouver.

(Photo courtesy Sr. Nancy Brown)

  • avatar
    Quinton Amundson
    The Catholic Register

“Listening, listening, listening. Listening until it hurts — and then you even listen more.”

Sr. Nancy Brown, a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, heard Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny utter this quote in a speech a few months ago about how to create a synodal Church.

Reflecting upon these words, the 2012 Order of British Columbia recipient thought this nugget of wisdom captured the approach she took at Covenant House Vancouver to accompany young human trafficking survivors in their journey of healing for over 14 years from 1998 to 2012.

The former pastoral counsellor and ombudsperson at the haven for vulnerable youth and young adults observed that compassionately and patiently allowing a victim of trafficking or prostitution to share their story in their own time and manner is a step to help them reclaim some lost personal agency.

“The trick of working with trafficked young girls is to give back to them their sense of self and power to choose,” said Brown. “It is not going to be good for any of us to tell them what to do because the trafficker has been telling them what to do and taking power away from them. We want to empower them and support them. I don’t mean just let them do anything. You dialogue with them. You listen to them. You offer suggestions, but you don’t judge.”

Adopting this approach, which anti-trafficking experts almost universally affirm offers the best prognosis in helping a survivor attain hope and restoration, requires counsellors to resist any impulse to lecture or moralize.

While Christians are indeed called to evangelize the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ, Brown said that asking trafficking survivors to discover or deepen their faith in God “is not my starting point,” and she is aware “some may feel scandalized perhaps” by this admission. Step one is developing a trusting relationship.

Preaching the doctrine of being born again through a relationship with Jesus may seem to an outside observer like a beautiful, innocent message for a woman or man seeking to rebuild his or her life after enduring unimaginable evil. However, many trafficking victims have been subject to cunning psychological manipulation tactics for years. Traffickers know how to weaponize love, affection and positive encouragement to get victims to dehumanize and debase themselves. Efforts to convince a survivor to embrace a viewpoint can trigger painful memories of the treatment they experienced at the hands of their trafficker.

Eventually, in some cases, Brown has been given the gift of sharing her faith with some of the young people she supported.

“I had one youth that would come in and preach to me Scripture passages. One day she came in and quoted the Beatitudes. She told me, ‘I’m going to have a higher place in Heaven than you are because it says blessed are the poor for they shall get their inheritance.’ So yes, there were times when I could talk faith and Christianity with young people, but I would not bring that up until there was that strong, trusting relationship. Otherwise, I would have lost them,” she said.

For Brown, it all comes back to the mission “to love and not to judge.”

'Listening until it hurts — and then you even listen more'

“It is about solidarity. I hope that when I left Covenant House, all the youth there knew that I loved them. Isn’t that what Jesus did? He went to the poorest of the poor and simply loved them. He didn’t try to fix, although He did heal. But He wasn’t about fixing. I think a lot of our Christian people want to fix. They want to walk the streets of the downtown and try to save our young people. I never had that attitude. I wanted to care for them and journey with them. I wanted them to be comfortable with me so that they can share their life.”

Brown remains a steadfast advocate against exploitation 11 years since her departure from Covenant House Vancouver. She works with fellow activists on various anti-trafficking committees, including the Vancouver Collective Against Sexual Exploitation, the Canadian Council of Churches Sexual Exploitation in Canada Working Group and a new ally committee for Canadians concerned about the future of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

In a 2018 guest column for The B.C. Catholic, Brown endorsed the Exploited Persons Act as it stands because it has enabled Canada to take “a very positive, progressive step forward for demand reduction, gender equality and the elimination of violence against women.”

It was — and is  — dismaying for her to see proposals made at Liberal Party conventions for the decriminalization of consensual sex work and the purchase of sex workers over the age of majority.

On behalf of her committees, Brown attempts to work with governments at different levels.

“It is not easy work,” she said with a chuckle. “It is hard because you feel like governments and corporations are a big block out there, and it is hard to make any inroads.”

Despite the adversities and frustration, Brown remains resolute because she is energized to serve with collaborators eager to combat this societal scourge.

A driving force for Brown to this day is the powerful memories of the young people she and her fellow workers at Covenant House helped. She fondly recalls two young girls who were trafficked to work at a mall in Vancouver. Her organization managed to reunite them with their family in Mexico.

There was another young woman who was pimped and trafficked for a year-and-a-half before she came to Covenant House in a very confused and used state. She experienced horrors like a pimp throwing her friend down the stairs and her dog being held in brutal captivity. During her fifth visit to Covenant House, she resolved to leave this lifestyle.

“She stayed a good year with us, and we managed to get her into housing and back to school,” said Brown. “I did hear from her after that, and she was doing very well. She said Covenant House was her escape ticket. She said there were staff members who told her that she was worth more than that.

“That is what we did, and they continue to do, at Covenant House. We try to give people their sense of self back.”

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