Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Night For Freedom with the International Justice Mission

Last week I attended a benefit dinner for the International Justice Mission (IJM) at the Fairmont in downtown Dallas, TX. Knowing of the wonderful work IJM does to not only free people from slavery, but to also ensure justice is met against the perpetrators, I jumped at the chance to attend and learn more about IJM first-hand.

I thought it would be a cozy dinner of say 100 - 200 people in a smaller ballroom at the Fairmont. Instead, the place was jam packed with nearly 800 in attendance in the large Regency Ballroom. Wow! I was blown away by the turnout and the incredible amount of support shown in both service and monetary means for this great cause.

(Above: Guests pouring into the foyer before the benefit dinner)

In the foyer, guests shared in pre-dinner conversation as they admired touching displays of families and children freed from slavery by IJM. Within fifteen minutes of my arrival the foyer became standing room only as hundreds more guests arrived.

This is only the second year IJM has done a benefit dinner in Dallas. The first year they expected a small number, much as I did for this year's event, but instead received hundreds in response with a record-breaking turnout. This year was no different. The more I thought about this outpouring of support, the less surprised I became, given the generous hospitality and strong faith-base of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. One of the displays in the foyer highlighted this generosity as it told the story of the local 121 Community Church, and their amazing efforts to raise $133,000 for IJM through their Run 4 Justice event.

(Above: Photographs on display of families and children freed from slavery)

(Above: One local church raised $133,000 for IJM with their "Run 4 Justice" race event. You can learn more about it at

The evening dinner opened with a wonderful invocation by Van Beckwith, a local attorney and the benefit chairperson. I came to realize through conversations with other guests that Van Beckwith was a driving force behind the success of the dinner and local support for IJM. Nearly everyone I spoke with somehow knew him or knew of him.

The evening continued with uplifting stories of hope, freedom and love shared by the IJM National Director of Development, Melissa Russel, the India Field Office Director and IJM President, Gary Haugen.

I can't share these stories with you in detail as IJM asked that no electronic devices, videos or pictures be used to capture or record these stories. Doing so could jeopardize the very lives of those freed from slavery, IJM investigators and members of IJM staff in foreign field offices.

But I did jot down a few notes of things that particularly moved and inspired me from the evenings events.

The Success of Cebu & Project Lantern
IJM received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, titled Project Lantern. The goal of the project was to drop the level of child sex trafficking by 20% in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines.

Over the course of four years, between 2006 to 2010, IJM worked with local authorities to rescue more than 220 individuals from forced sex work and arrested nearly 90 suspects. IJM worked tirelessly to help ensure the police and courts provided fair treatment to victims and maintained laws in convicting sex traffickers.

As a result of their work, independent researchers found the level of sex trafficking in children had dropped 79% in metro Cebu. 79%! (read the full report) That's a significant impact on a very large metro area. With laws being upheld and traffickers being convicted, many perpetrators of child sex trafficking just quite the business.

"When public justice systems are made to protect the poor- and slave owners, traffickers and other criminals can no longer act with impunity- millions of vulnerable children, women and men will never be abused." (IJM pamphlet on Project Lantern)

Project lantern proves that the IJM model of ensuring justice and upholding laws is not only a tool for initial response, but provides prevention against future slavery.

We Just Don't Go Away
IJM President, Gary Haugen shared two stories of freedom. In one story a family and dozens of others were freed from slavery on a rice mill in India. Working 18 hour days, carrying 100 lbs. bags of rice, being fed just enough food to survive, these families were held under the false pretense of debt bondage. Through the work of IJM, the families were freed.

But that is not the end of the story. The true labor of love came in the work to convict the rice mill owner and prevent future slavery in this area. Even with an abundance of incriminating evidence and testimony, the justice system failed to convict the mill owner because of his wealth, bribes, and political influence. He was set free, only to fill his mill with more slaves.

But IJM didn't quite, and unfortunately for the mill owner "we just don't go away...ever," said Gary Haugen.

It took six years of effort, thousands of hours of just filling out paperwork and over 50 trips to a court house four hours away, but IJM's work paid off.

Earlier this year the mill owner and his chief operator were convicted of "habitual use of slaves," which carried with it a harsh sentence putting them away for a long, long time. There had not been a conviction for this crime in India since the late 1800's.

Nothing like 50 Trips to the DMV
What did it really take to get this conviction? Gary Haugen put the work of IJM into perspective when he compared it to going to the DMV on the busiest day possible.

"Now I don't know what the DMV is like in Dallas. I'm sure it's crisp and efficient and a lovely place to be. Now go ahead and picture 50 visits to the DMV. Then picture that while you live in Dallas, you have to actually make your 50 visits to the DMV in Houston."

Houston is a little over a 4 hour drive from Dallas. Now picture that about half of those visits are a complete waste of time and that you spent 6,100 hours just waiting at the DMV.

This is what happened in the case above. It was a four hour trip to the court house and over 50% off the time it yielded nothing, because the case was moved, more paperwork needed to be filled out, the opposing counsel didn't show up, the judge didn't show up and the list goes on and on. IJM colleagues spent 6,100 hours at the courthouse to get this conviction.

"That's 1,000 hours more than all the hours one of my children will spend in school during their four years of high school. That's a lot of time, just ask my kids," said Gary Haugen.

Now I don't know about you, but that type of tedious work with slow results would drive me nuts. That is a true labor of love. It's one that is long-suffering, patient and kind. In addition to securing justice and freedom, IJM also focuses on the mental and physical care of these former slaves by providing them with education and skills to help them integrate back into society. This is a critical component of the IJM model and philosophy of caring for the individual.

Is it Worth it?
The story above took a lot of time, manpower, funds and effort to help ensure justice and freedom for dozens of individuals.

Gary Haugen asked, "Was [it] worth it? Is freedom worth it? If you or I were held as a slave is there someone who would drive to Houston 50 times and spend 6,100 hours in a courthouse for us? This is the long and tedious work of justice that almost no one ever sees. This is a love of a long and faithful kind...and I love it when someone shows it to me."

I had a chance to shake hands and briefly meet with Gary Haugen after the event. Immediately I could sense his sincerity in listening to me, one of dozens waiting to shake his hand, and his dedication to freedom and justice. And for those wondering, his hair is just as awesome in person as it is in the picture.

On my drive home from the event I felt reinvigorated to continue my small efforts to help combat modern slavery. I pondered again the questions that came to my mind when I first learned about slavery in our world today.

What is the worth of a soul?

What is the worth of one individual?

What is the worth of freedom?

What can I do to help?

"Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow."
-Isaiah 1:17

You can learn more about IJM at and show your support through volunteer work and donations.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
- Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thank You,
John Burger

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