Sr. Kathleen Bryant is Religious Sister of Charity from Los Angeles, Calif. She has been a member of her community since 1967 and has served as a teacher in California, Ireland and Africa, as the vocation director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for 21 years, and as a trained spiritual director. Currently she serves her community in a leadership capacity and gives a variety of spiritual workshops. Her work to bring awareness to the realities of human trafficking is one of her main areas of concentration.
How did you become involved in advocating for victims of human trafficking?
Our congregation made a commitment to fight human trafficking about 12 years ago, so I have been engaged with raising awareness of parents and teens and listening to stories of survivors. Recently I received a grant from the Louisville Institute to study the resiliency in these women. I’m focusing on women and girls who have been trafficked – what kept them alive and what kept them from committing suicide.
Why, as a woman religious, are you interested in human trafficking?
What draws me to the issue of human trafficking is most of the victims are girls and women. Because of poverty, cheap labor, gender discrimination and the demand for sex that exists in the world, it draws me. I always feel the voices of women and girls are never heard.
As a sister, I’ve lived in other countries, and I’ve been to eight African countries. Where ever I’ve been I always see the plight of the girl-child and it shocks me that this isn’t lifted up to our awareness in our parish communities and around us. Why don’t we hear about that? I wish we would hear more about how we can empower our girls and our women because when they do feel valued and loved there is less vulnerability to a trafficker who makes them feel special.
I’m not a social worker, but what really got me was listening and meeting young women face to face and hearing that story. The brutality and injustice of it changed me; the women were the ones who changed me – it wasn’t the statistics and the analysis of the issue, it was the young women who have suffered incredible stress.
I think we feel entitled to cheap goods; we feel entitled to sex as a country. We glamorize sex. The huge injustice and the ignorance have really driven me. We can’t afford to be ignorant. I see as a part of my ministry raising awareness because when one person speaks then it ripples out.
What is the most important way the church can make a difference in human trafficking?
I wish our church would give as much attention to the human trafficking issue as we do to other justice issues. How do we respect women in what we propose as a church? How are we lifting women up in such a way that they are never commodities? Consider women who work full time in parishes and maybe don’t get paid anything – they give their lives because they are good at it and they are generous. How do we use women in the church?
We have asked the USCCB to dedicate one Sunday a year in this country to focusing on this issue of the new slavery in every parish. We have World Marriage Sunday, we have Respect Life Sunday, so why not a Sunday for trafficking? If on one Sunday we heard what God calls us to – to free the slave, to let go of the oppressed . . . . I think the church could do a lot that they don’t need money for; we’ve done the work – all they have to do is send a letter out.
How do we look at women and girls? How do we empower them and how do we make them feel? How we train our young men the way they view women? So when I see some parishes insisting that maybe altar girls are done away with, what is that saying to young girls? What is our church saying through our priest, through the pastors, through the catechists to the girl child?
A lot of human trafficking is driven by entitlement and the vulnerability in young girls that pimps exploit when they make them feel special. Who are the strong male figures? What are we telling our young boys about women? I never hear anything about these issues in a homily. What a network we have to promote change! I did vocation work for an archdiocese for 21 years, and I know how the church works. If someone from the top said every diocese and every parish has to do something, there is a power that we can harness. We are a network of communities. Why don’t we use our power as community in this country to free the slaves? There are people who go to church who have people at home they don’t pay – how is that? It’s a disconnect – and it’s entitlement.
If there is one thing you can tell people about being a sister that maybe they didn’t know or you would want them to know, what would it be?
To think that we have a life of routine and predictability is a misconception. I ran 10 Los Angeles marathons, I was a piano major, then I ended up in Zambia for 10 years. Life keeps evolving and unfolding. I think people think being a sister is a defined lifestyle with certain parameters. Our life, to be honest, is an unfolding adventure with God.
People expect certain things of sisters – when what we are doing 10 or 20 years from now might really be off the chart stuff. For example, our convents have been safe houses for girls. Here we are sharing hospitality to the woman who has been sold for sex. People think we are cut off and are somehow out of the loop when in reality we have our finger on the pulse in ways that people would never expect. We hear so much and we are engaged with all kinds of people. Nothing scandalizes a good nun because we have been there with hearts of compassion; we have heard it all.
We are always listening to what the next issue is that isn’t being addressed. When sisters started working on human trafficking 20 years ago, it wasn’t on the radar, and before that it was HIV/AIDS. I do think our life is an adventure that keeps unfolding and evolving. When I first entered I thought my life would be predictable. We were slow to change, but I’ve done many things I never thought I would do.
[Colleen Dunne is an NCR Bertelsen intern in editorial and marketing and a primary contributor to Global Sisters Report.]