Commentary

Theater, witness, and the voice of the vulnerable

Emelie Bouvier

Emelie Bouvier

There’s a voice I can’t get out of my head. It is a voice that croons with wise, quiet strength yet cracks at the edges, rough and raw. It is a voice telling me a story about need and longing, attention and abuse, vulnerability and manipulation, agency and entrapment. It is a voice speaking about human sex trafficking in Minnesota.

This particular voice was embodied in a character named “Amber Craig,” a sex trafficking survivor who was deeply entangled in the broken reality of a prostitution ring. I encountered this compelling character in a play entitled “bottom.” This profound short theater piece was written in response to the tragic fact that human trafficking is rampant in Minneapolis — the 13th worst city nationwide — a reality often overlooked and misunderstood.

The Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC) and its branch of the Interfaith Children’s Advocacy Network (iCAN) partnered with blank slate theater to produce an original play on the issue, opening another door to raise public awareness on sex trafficking in this state.

The play itself peels back the layers of this complex and difficult issue of human trafficking in an honest and compelling way, opening space for connection and conversation. Yet even further, each performance of the play organized by iCAN is followed by a panel discussion that continues to unpack and speak to the various angles of the issue: local efforts, political advocacy, and faith-based response.

As Lutherans we hold a theology of the cross that calls us not to avert our eyes from the suffering of the world, even if it is uncomfortable.

Throughout the month of November there have been showings in the Twin Cities, Duluth, and St. Cloud. More shows will be popping up as churches pull together to host the compelling piece; there will be a showing in Alexandria in January and potentially in South Minneapolis and the Capitol in spring. (Contact the Rev. Alison Killeen at alison@jrlc.org for more information or if you are interested in organizing a showing.)

Looking up

As a student at Luther Seminary, I worked to bring “bottom” to campus in November and was excited by the confluence of people, places, communities, and perspectives the event invited. Hearing the voices of human trafficking speaking out from the front of the chapel in an institution that brings together faith, community leadership, and theological study made an important statement. If we, as people of faith, are working to equip ourselves to be public Christian leaders, how are we to publically engage in social issues that are affecting our communities? How can we be bold and faithful leaders in both cultivating theologically rooted understanding of the issue of human trafficking and taking faith-filled action? What tools do we need to unpack the complexities of the issue that cause much confusion and discomfort? These are the very questions that were lifted up in the panel discussion.

I was struck by the thoughtful and honest responses of the panel members — Adam Arnold of blank slate theatre, the cast of “bottom,” Alison Killeen and Brian Rusche of JRLC, and Professor Amy Marga of Luther Seminary — in addressing these critical questions. Attendees talked about the issues of prostitution, trafficking, and coercion. We unpacked the culturally embedded ideas of gender and sexuality that are destructive and fuel the sex trade. We talked about the God-given dignity of each person. We talked about the fact that Jesus wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, name the evil of injustice, and minister among the marginalized. We talked about harmful assumptions and the need for compassion.

But we also recognized that these complexities involve the very things about which we are not good at having open and productive conversation in church: sex, women, politics, and systems of exploitation. Yet, as Lutherans, we hold a theology of the cross that calls us not to avert our eyes from the suffering of the world, even if it is uncomfortable. Opening faith-filled conversation gives space to unpack the many issues entangled in the problem of human trafficking. We rise to this challenge for the sake of understanding and caring for the neighbor who is suffering.

The play “bottom” provides a particularly moving opportunity in this endeavor; listening to and journeying with the characters met in the stories of the marginalized and vulnerable in our communities. Indeed, such a walk of solidarity is a very Christian calling. As we journey with and respond to these voices as people and communities of faith, we have valuable partners in ministry — JRLC, iCAN, Luther Seminary, local churches, peers, and colleagues — to work in hope for understanding, healing, and change.

In taking the hand of those who are suffering and addressing the very systems of injustice to which they are bound, we can bear witness to our faith in powerful life-giving ways.

 

Emilie Bouvier is a Master of Arts Student and Resident Artist at Luther Seminary, St. Paul.

 

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