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  • Ross Moughtin

When children are enslaved


We don’t know her name, we don’t know what happened to her but we do know she had been seized from her home and trafficked to become a domestic slave. But remarkably this young child played a pivotal part in God blessing an entire nation. This week, three times on the one day in fact, I encountered the plight of girls forced into servitude - through a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, through a prayer diary and through my daily Bible reading. And when such coincidences happen, we sit up! Some years back I stood with Jacqui looking across the Ohio river, from Chester in West Virginia, to her father’s home town, East Liverpool in Ohio. However, this was no ordinary stretch of water. For about 85 years it had huge significance for enslaved African Americans on the run, for this river was the border between the free and slave states. To cross it meant freedom. It is hard to overstate its significance as part of what is called the “underground railroad,” a network of secret routes and safe houses established during the early to mid-19th century to help slaves escape a life of terrible suffering. I hadn’t truly comprehended the extent and depth of their suffering until reading

Colson Whitehead’s remarkable 2016 book, The Underground Railway. Not only did this novel win several major literary awards but is ranked by the Guardian as #30 in the 100 best books of the 21stcentury. The book begins on a particularly vicious Georgia plantation, where all anyone wants to do is escape. “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” We follow the fortunes of one young girl who decides to risk all for freedom. As one reviewer reflects: “The first 70 pages of The Underground Railroad are beautifully written and painful to read.” I too found it very hard to read. The suffering of these enslaved human beings was intense, without hope and without succour. Their owners showed no humanity whatsoever, none. I think Whitehead wears his research lightly but there is no hiding from the brutality of such a system, in which Liverpool, as the author reminds us, played a major part. It happened and we have to face up to it in all its terrors, especially in its equivalents today. And the first way we challenge such injustice is in prayer. As theologian Karl Barth contends “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” To help with my prayer discipline (and it needs a lot of help) I use the CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) prayer diary. This week we are praying for Pakistan, where Christians and others of minority faiths are frequently threatened. They face occasional violence and continual discrimination. Monday’s entry proved difficult reading: “CSW advocates for Hindu and Christian girls who have been kidnapped, forced to change their names, convert to Islam, and marry men who are strangers to them. Many never see their families again.” We are urged to “pray that the government and police would take decisive action to stop these abductions, and that these girls would be able to return to their families.”


This brings me onto my Bible reading this Monday: Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” (2 Kings 5:2f) Previously I had passed over this character without much thought but the commentator drew my attention to the fact that the whole dynamic of the passage, the healing of Aram’s great general from leprosy through the prophetic word of Elisha, hinges on these words of this trafficked child. God chose to intervene through her care and attentiveness, for despite all that has befallen her, she engaged in her owner’s plight – and pointed to a way out, an escape even from his terrible disease. That’s how God works – through the weak and vulnerable. Esther Menn, of Lutheran School Of Theology at Chicago, points “to the vulnerability of children of all ages, who are caught up in the violence and upset of communal or national conflicts.” Certainly as Christians we follow Jesus in giving children a special status, not least in their vulnerability. And as his disciples we should be actively concerned with the plight of those who are plundered from home and family. But this is saying the obvious, or should be. Maybe God is making me particularly sensitive to this injustice at this point of time, setting me up for some encounter. My mother had this thing about things happening in threes but when God touches me three times in the same spot, who knows? Meanwhile I have discovered the Children-at-Risk Network, part of the Lausanne movement, set up by Billy Graham “to connect influencers and ideas for global mission.” Their aim is to mobilise the global church to respond to the need of children in danger Their statement of intent concludes: “We call ourselves to action to address children’s life-threatening injustices and abuses, empowering them as vulnerable agents of God.” You can discover more of this key ministry by following this link https://lausanne.org/networks/issues/children-at-risk


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