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Freedom Sunday: Q&A with David Batstone

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the President of Not For Sale, David Batstone, about the global sex trade, smart activism and Freedom Sunday–their initiative to mobilize church leaders to help re-abolish slavery today. I caught up with David by Skype. He had just landed in Cambodia where Not For Sale recently bought a garment factory to help give jobs to men and women coming out of the sex trade. 

CL:  David, what are some of the common myths about human trafficking we need to dispel?

DAVID:  I think one of the biggest myths is that it’s something that happens over in Africa or Asia or somewhere else outside the United States—when truth be told, it reaches to our own backyard. I discovered human trafficking in a local restaurant in the Bay area where I lived—hundreds of kids trafficked through a local restaurant that my wife and I used to attend—that was my wake-up call. So it was with that shock that I started investigating and I found that human trafficking reaches every community in the United States.

The majority of people who are trafficked are actually enslaved within ten miles of their home. So it’s not only moving people from say Romania to Italy or from Korea to the United States, but it’s also millions within China are enslaved right within their community.

And I suppose the other important part of trafficking is that half of those that are trafficked are children under eighteen and so it’s something that—when I read Psalm 10, it reminds me that the widow and the orphan are still the most vulnerable ones. The women and children, particularly women who don’t have access to justice, are the most vulnerable, and they’re exploited by traffickers.

CL:  How has globalization impacted human trafficking? 

DAVID:  I think it’s the ease of making networks—the same networks that make it so easy to make friends on Facebook across the world allow traffickers to build networks that they can move people. And I’ve found that the majority of trafficking is not mafia. It’s not crime syndicates that are formalized. It’s much more about small ma and pa organizations, and they’re able to build easy links across borders, financial transactions are much easier, movement of people. It’s much easier to move people around today.

You know, I’d like to say on the other end, it makes it much easier for us to fight it, too. In the last four years since we started Not for Sale, we found that networking and building global networks within churches and other natural networks has enabled us to really quickly scale what we do in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise, so I’m not one of those anti-globalization people. I just say, “Well, globalization is what it is,” and you’ve got to look at how it can be exploited and how it brings benefits.

CL:  You talk a lot about smart activism and open activism. Could you describe what you mean by those terms?

DAVID:  Our goal is to equip individuals who feel the call to be an agent of redemption, an agent of change, and so when you come to a Not for Sale event or when you come to our Web site, it’s not about, “Hey, let us tell you what we’re doing.” The message is, “Let us tell you what you could do.” And so open source activism means that we want to create platforms that make it easy for people to write their own code, write their own story. So, open source activism is really about trying to create an environment where it’s calling forth a broad body of people to act with their gifts and passions.

We joke that the world is full of dumb activists, and unfortunately, it’s too true—asking someone to wear a rubber wristband may make you feel cool, you know, like you’re part of something, but after about three days, you go, “Now what exactly is that wristband doing again?” That kind of activity may makes us feel good but doesn’t lead to results. We’re trying to build actions that say, “If you do this, it will lead to this result, and consequently, it will lead to the next result…” A great example of this is the Free2Work phone app (right now, it’s just iTunes, it will soon be coming to your Droid and your Blackberry) The app grades products based on a report card on whether they’re enhancing the lives of people who made that product or whether they have limited or destroyed their lives. So you have a pair of Levi jeans on—you should feel good about that, you get a B, but if you have a Hanes undershirt on—that’s a D-. So what I like to say is if the Christian church began to shop with their values, they’d have a tremendous impact on the way that products are made.

I went and visited Levi’s actually in New York and visited the president of Levi’s, and I told him, “Hey, you know? You’re one of our higher rated apparel companies.” He said, “Oh, my gosh, that’s fantastic. I’m going to start promoting that idea to our demographic.” And I said, “That’s what we call a ‘buycott.’ It’s not a boycott. It’s rewarding the companies and creating brands that you feel are good about buying because they’re enhancing the lives of the people that make it.” So if I go to a church youth group and say, “Look, I want you all to download the app. I want you to start using it, and then I’ll tell you how companies are changing their behavior because of the way that you’re shifting demand,” then that’s empowering, and that’s what we call smart activism.

CL:  Let’s make the shift and talk about Freedom Sunday. Can you share a little about it with our leaders?

DAVID:  It’s the one day a year when the Christian church says, “You know, maybe we can’t fight slavery in another continent, but we will not stand by silently while people live in slavery in our own community. So we’re going to teach, preach, pray, sing redemption songs, that where we live—those who live in silence will feel there is a community standing beside them.” Last year, we had many churches involved The underground church in China had well over a hundred churches participating in Freedom Sunday. An incredible church in Pakistan in an area that is rife with brick kilns and rice mills where there’s slavery, a pastor put signs up all over the community saying, “No Child for Sale,” and then invited three cabinet ministers from the Pakistani national government, and they came, and he preached that Sunday morning about setting the captive free. So really great places where, you know, I can do that in San Francisco, but it’s also about me and America standing alongside my brothers and sisters who do that in places where it’s even more precarious to do so. So we’re going to have an incredible influx of churches from South Korea this year. The sixty-thousand-member church is on board.

I really do believe this is a crisis the church should and will lead on. I think with HIV/AIDS, because of the ambiguity around the social issue for many people, the moral dilemma, we were slow to get behind it, and I think with other big social issues in the twentieth century, the church didn’t lead, and I think maybe that puts a question mark sometimes on the authenticity of the full Gospel that we practice.

CL:  What would be the first step a church leader could take to be involved with Freedom Sunday?

DAVID:  Well, the first thing would be to go to FreedomSunday.org and register. And then, we’ll send you materials. We’ve got Bible studies, sermons, Scripture readings, songs, and resources for putting on Freedom Sunday. And then, at Freedom Sunday, we also have short video clips you could play during the services.

It’s a huge opportunity for the church to say, “You know what? As followers of Jesus, we will not stand by while any captive is in prison because that’s the Gospel. It’s to be a redemption Gospel. I just think it’s a real step of authenticity for the church.

There are times to read history and times to make history. We’re now living in a time where we need to make history.