*By Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr.
More than 1.1 million people descended upon the San Francisco Bay Area for Super Bowl 50 and its festivities. The Super Bowl's golden anniversary game was played in Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium. One circuit partnered with an agency to free victims of human trafficking, and bring justice to sex buyers, and traffickers, who use the festivities surrounding the Super Bowl for this practice of modern-day slavery.
The City Circuit, a group of six United Methodists congregations in San Jose (Calvary, First, Korean of Santa Clara Valley, La Trinidad, St. Paul's, and Wesley UMCs) partnered with "In Our Backyard," an organization that fights against human trafficking and works to rescue persons being trafficked. For the last seven years, In Our Backyard has visited Super Bowl sites around the country.
Nita Belles, managing director for In Our Backyard, says, "There has been a myth that says the Super Bowl is the largest human trafficking event in the United States, and a second myth that says there is no significant increase in human trafficking during the Super Bowl and other large events." Belles says, "The truth lies somewhere in between those two myths and it also must be noted that human trafficking happens 365 days a year in every nook and cranny in this country."
In Our Backyard has worked in Super Bowl venues to raise awareness, implement changes, bring justice to sex buyers, and traffickers, and provide services to victims and survivors. Of the 38 endangered and missing children for whom the group distributed pictures and information prior to this year's Super Bowl, 10 were recovered. The group also trained 21 people in online surveillance for human trafficking.
At the end of January, volunteers were trained and dispatched in groups to convenience stores throughout the Bay Area to raise awareness. Convenience stores were targeted because often time traffickers stop there to get gasoline, alcohol, cigarettes, condoms, and food. "When contacting the convenience stores, volunteers distributed books which feature endangered missing children who may be brought into the area to be sex trafficked during the celebrations that take place prior to the Super Bowl," says Belles. "Additionally, with the store's permission, they placed Freedom Stickers inside restroom stalls in the area."
Freedom Stickers are designed with the help of survivors of human trafficking and are intended to catch the eye of a victim and provide them both a phone number, and a text number, to ask for help. "Within a couple of minutes of texting inside a restroom stall, the victim can have help on the way, erase the text from their phone so their trafficker doesn't know they have requested help, and have a plan for law enforcement to rescue them at a pre-arranged location later in the day," says Belles.
The Rev. Shinya Goto, pastor of First UMC San Jose, says, "When I first heard about this program, I was sincerely touched that there were people who were willing to pay their own way, pay other costs, and spend a week away from home, so they could help save human trafficking victims." For the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl 50, the City Circuit hosted more than 150 volunteers from In Our Backyard at First UMC San Jose.
According to Goto, the circuit not only provided the UMC space, and gave financially to the program, but provided three daily meals, led daily worship, and participated in the training provided. "We had two basic goals as we participated in the program, to learn more about human trafficking, and assist the group to make things easier for the volunteers to do their work," said Goto.
He added, "We learned quite a bit about the issue of human trafficking, such as how many young boys and girls that are lured into human trafficking are people of all races." He added, "We learned how easy it is for runaway kids to be lured in, and how hard it is for those trafficked to get out."
Prior to Super Bowl 50, the California-Nevada Conference United Methodist Women (UMW) also hosted an event to "End Human Trafficking" in San Francisco at Mary Elizabeth Inn, and Gum Moon Women's Residence, as part of one of their national advocacy focuses.
*Hygh is director of communications for the denomination's California-Nevada Annual Conference serving 360 churches and 78,000 United Methodists in Northern California and Northern Nevada.