The Statistic that Nobody Believed

United States
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How a Former NFL Player Became an Advocate for the Most Vulnerable
This story contains content that some may find disturbing
By Bob Swenson

remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Over the dinner table, my wife, Libby, explained to me what seemed incomprehensible: There were more than 40 million people living in slavery around the world, and each year millions of young girls were sold in the sex slave trade. My immediate response to the magnitude and depravity of this information was that there was no way a man would do something like that to a little girl. It just was not possible. How little I knew then of the dark world of human trafficking.

That day 15 years ago was the first step on a journey that radically changed my perspective. To help me begin to get a grasp on the dark realities of human trafficking, Libby encouraged me to read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as well as Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugen. These books cut me to my core and spurred me to learn more through reading, watching documentaries, examining Scripture through the lens of the poor, and studying the promises of God in Isaiah 58.

I’d spent ten years of my professional career playing outside linebacker for the Denver Broncos as a member of the legendary “Orange Crush” defense of the late ’70s and early ’80s. In the world of the NFL, accolades and honor are given for popularity, power, and fame. And in that era, locker room conversations about the experiences of racism, exploitation, and oppression seldom took place. We didn’t really know about the scale of violent oppression of the poor and the many forms that oppression takes. So years later, as I was confronted with these devastating realities, I had to determine what I would do with the power given to me to serve the vulnerable.

As I learned more, I became like a sponge, ready to absorb these stories. One that powerfully impacted me was my wife’s own experience of working in an orphanage in a developing country during a college summer. She recalled that, for the first time in her life, she was confronted with the brutal reality of harsh oppression of the poor. Libby witnessed how unjust systems robbed people of their dignity and life. 

Libby’s worldview completely changed through the life of one particular girl named Hazel. Hazel had been brought to the orphanage after having been abandoned at a train station. The orphanage workers were afraid of her because she had cerebral palsy. They thought her condition was contagious or that she had bad karma that might transmit to them. So they kept Hazel in a cold, damp, concrete room all by herself and made her sit on a small pot so she could go to the bathroom without having to be moved. Hazel couldn’t speak, was cross-eyed, and was bent over like an old woman. Once a day, someone would feed Hazel a single spoonful of rice. Though she was 15 years old, Hazel only weighed about 35 pounds. 

Libby began to visit Hazel covertly to feed her, bathe her, and help her try to walk. One day, while Libby was bathing Hazel, she tried to open Hazel’s clenched fist. When she was finally able to open Hazel’s hand, she found a swarm of maggots. In that moment, Libby broke down and cried out, “God, where are you? How can you let Hazel suffer like this?” 

Then Libby recalled the essence of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25: When you feed the hungry, you are feeding me. When you visit the sick, you are visiting me. When you do these things for the least of these, you are doing them for me. As the maggots fell from Hazel’s tiny hand, she looked up at Libby with her crossed eyes and frail body and, for the first time, Libby realized she was helping Jesus. 

Libby’s entire understanding of serving God was transformed that day. “I realized how arrogant I had been serving at the orphanage,” she said. “I had thought, ‘Aren’t these children so blessed to be ministered to by me? I have sacrificed my summer to do something good.’ I was shocked how truly far away I was from understanding the meaning of life in Christ.”

After Libby returned to college, the orphanage director put a lock on Hazel’s door. Some friends found a hole in her window and began sneaking food in for her. They asked the local church to help, but were told that Hazel was not “strategic for evangelism.” 

That fall, Hazel succumbed to starvation. News of Hazel’s death plunged Libby into depression, as she wrestled with difficult questions: Where is God in the suffering of the poorest in the world? Why doesn’t he show up? Why did Hazel die so brutally? 

One day, Libby came across a verse in Scripture that resounded deeply. Proverbs 13:23 says, “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, / but it is swept away through injustice” (ESV). Libby came to realize that Hazel lived in a country where there was plenty of food for her to eat—and it wasn’t God who kept it from her. It was people in positions of power—people who didn’t care about her or see her worth. Unfortunately, it was also local believers in Jesus who kept food from her, unwilling to help because they didn’t see her as an image-bearer of God who was worthy of life. 

Libby says that day she understood that “if people have the power to sweep away justice, then that means I have the power to give justice to people—and that’s how God shows up, through people. We are the hands and feet of Jesus, and that’s how he works.” 

Possessing a newfound understanding of justice, Libby join the staff of Cru, where she focused on the injustice of human trafficking and helped forge a partnership with International Justice Mission. For 12 years, the ministries collaborated to mobilize students in the fight against human trafficking—and that collaboration still grows today. Libby has since joined the staff of Love Justice International, to help develop their strategy of transit monitoring: intercepting and rescuing people as they are being trafficked before they reach their endpoint of potential exploitation.

My heart was pierced by the stories Libby told me, and the idea of 40 million modern-day slaves loomed large, permeating my daily pursuit of God. How could we do something meaningful and practical to address this great need? I felt led to respond, but our own resources seemed paltry in comparison to the scope of the need. I despaired over our inability to make a dent in this tragic reality. 

Then I came across Isaiah 58:6 and God changed my mind:

“Is not this the kind of fasting
    I have chosen: 
to loose the chains of injustice 
     and untie the cords of the yoke, 
to set the oppressed free 
     and break every yoke?”

I realized God was calling me to take action—and I needed to trust him to lead me toward the next step he desired me to take. 

Soon after Isaiah 58 changed my perspective, Libby and I were enjoying a summer stroll through a local art show in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Amid dozens of exhibits, we came across an artist who was painting a portrait of a Rwandan woman. We stopped and introduced ourselves. We learned her name was Judy Dickenson; she and her husband, Jeff, a pastor, used their gifts to serve widows in Rwanda. Jeff provided pastoral care by listening to widows’ life stories, and Judy painted portraits of the women to capture those stories visually. 

A light went on in my head. I asked, “What if we created paintings of people who’d been intercepted and rescued from human trafficking as a way to tell their stories in a dignified way?” 

Without hesitation, Judy replied, “I’ll do your first painting.” In that moment, the vision for the Freedom 58 Project was born.

We shared our idea with Love Justice International and several other Christian organizations. Soon we received photos of people who’d been rescued from human trafficking. We began the process of creating, with consent, a painting of each individual. First Judy painted a beautiful portrait of a young girl who’d been rescued from a brothel. I shared her painting with artists around the country, asking if they would like to participate in this project. The response was immediate and enormous.

We received messages from artists all around the world asking to be a part of the project. Several artists told us they’d long desired for their work to make a global impact. We eventually received portraits of rescued individuals on a daily basis from artists as far away as Canada, Ireland, Mexico, and Thailand. Today we work in partnership with three anti-trafficking organizations and have collected more than 230 paintings. These make up our Faces of Freedom art exhibit—a traveling exhibition that raises awareness of human trafficking.

The artists replace injustice with dignity, beauty, and honor. They bring light to the true stories behind the scourge of slavery and violent oppression. The exhibit invites visitors to follow survivors’ real-life journeys from oppression to rescue, restoration, and ultimately freedom. The paintings—which are not sold—give viewers a chance to enter into a victim’s experience, reflect on personal stories of injustice, and be inspired to take action.

One of the featured paintings conveys the story of Claire. Many years ago, she was given the false impression that she was traveling to China for a reputable job. In reality, her traffickers were using her to smuggle drugs into Iran. Claire didn’t make it past the border, where the drugs her traffickers had hidden in her possession were discovered. Claire was promptly arrested and subsequently spent five years in an Iranian prison where she awaited execution.  

“The Saint” by Johanna Spinx

During her darkest hours, Claire says she trusted in God for her release and “shared the love and truth of Jesus Christ with the other inmates.” Although she was originally sentenced to death by hanging, through a series of strange and miraculous interventions she was released. Her journey eventually led her to Love Justice Uganda, where she works to ensure others are protected from experiencing the horror and injustice that she endured. 

California artist Johanna Spinks created Claire’s portrait in a classic iconographic style. In the image, a halo of gold surrounds Claire’s smiling face, bestowing honor, dignity, and a saintly image to represent Claire’s courage and faith.

In its own unique way, each work of art uplifts those who are closest to God’s heart in their suffering. As visitors proceed through the paintings, confronted by the beauty and tragedy of numerous stories like Claire’s, they are encouraged to consider a series of questions and invited to learn how to join the fight against violent oppression of the poor.

I’ve learned a lot since I first became aware of the shocking and dark reality of modern-day slavery. I’m still learning. If there is one thing God’s taught me on this journey, it’s that God is listening. This is true, even if the silence seems deafening or we are faced with years of waiting. When God decides to act, he does more than we can ask for or imagine.

Cover Photograph by Ali Karimibo

"Hard Days" by Don Sahli

"Gaze Into the Future" by Kathy Morris

"Nepalese for Love" by Ed White

"Sold Too Young" by Don Sahli

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