The Statistic that Nobody Believed

by Bob Swenson, President and Co-Founder, Freedom 58 Project

I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Over the dinner table, my wife, Libby, explained to me what seemed incomprehensible: More than 40 million people were 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.

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 "Nepalese for Love" by Ed White

That day was the first step on a journey that radically changed my perspective. To help me grasp the dark realities of human trafficking, Libby encouraged me to read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and Good News About Injustice by Gary Haugen. These books cut me to my core and spurred me to learn more through reading, watching documentaries, and examining ancient Scripture through the lens of impoverished people.

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. Within the realm of the NFL, accolades and honors often stem from factors such as popularity, influence, and celebrity status. And in that era, locker room conversations about the experiences of racism, exploitation, and oppression seldom took place. We were unaware of the extent of violent oppression faced by those experiencing poverty and the myriad ways it manifests. Years later, as I confronted these harsh realities, I had to decide how to use the influence I had been given to serve the vulnerable.

As I learned more, I became like a sponge, ready to absorb stories of injustice, exploitation, and manipulation. One that powerfully impacted me was my wife’s experience working in an orphanage in a developing country during a college summer. She remembered her time vividly, as it marked the first time in her life when she came face-to-face with the stark brutality of poverty's oppression. Libby observed firsthand how unjust systems stripped individuals of their sense of dignity and vitality.
Libby's perspective underwent a profound transformation through the experiences of a girl named Hazel.* Someone found Hazel abandoned at a train station and brought her to the orphanage. Sadly, the orphanage workers, driven by fear and superstition, shunned Hazel due to her cerebral palsy, believing her condition to be contagious or indicative of negative karma. Consequently, they isolated her in a cold, damp room, where she sat alone on a small pot for bathroom use. Hazel, unable to communicate verbally and physically frail, was fed only a spoonful of rice by an older woman each day. At 15 years old, her emaciated body, weighing just 35 pounds, reflected the severe neglect and pain she endured.

For over three months, Libby daily visited Hazel covertly to feed her, bathe her, and help her try to walk. While Libby was bathing Hazel one day, she tried to open Hazel’s clenched fist. When she finally opened Hazel’s hand, it was swarming with maggots. At that moment, Libby cried, “How can Hazel suffer like this?” 

In that moment, Libby remembered a fundamental principle often associated with the teachings of Matthew 25. The essence of this teaching? That acts of kindness and compassion towards those in need are, in essence, human solidarity. As she observed Hazel's fragile state, witnessing the distressing sight of maggots in her hand, Libby realized the profound impact of her actions. She understood that offering assistance to someone in their time of vulnerability wasn't merely a charitable gesture—it was a fundamental expression of empathy and humanity. 

That day, Libby underwent a profound shift in her perception of the experience of those living in poverty. Reflecting on her experience, she expressed, "I realized how self-centered my approach to working at the orphanage had been. I used to think, 'Aren’t these children fortunate to receive my help? I'm sacrificing my summer to do something good. It served as a wake-up call for me as I realized how much I had yet to learn about the true essence of life. I had entered the situation assuming I had wisdom to impart, especially to children like Hazel. However, I soon discovered that I had much to learn, and they, the suffering children, were my greatest teachers.’”

Upon Libby's return to college, the orphanage director locked Hazel's door. Determined to help, some friends discovered a hole in her window and discreetly provided her with food. However, when they contacted the local community for support, they responded indifferently. Many viewed Hazel as merely "another hungry mouth to feed," dismissing her plight as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

Tragically, in a few months, Hazel succumbed to starvation. The news of her passing plunged Libby into a state of despair, prompting her to grapple with profound questions about the pervasive injustice faced by people living in poverty. ‘Why does such injustice persist, and why do the most vulnerable bear the brunt of it? Why do people seem so indifferent? Why did Hazel have to suffer such a cruel fate?’

But one day, Libby came across a proverb that states, “The fallow ground of the poor would yield much food, but injustice sweeps it away.”

Libby realized that Hazel lived in a country where food was abundant. Yet, those in positions of power denied her access—individuals who failed to recognize her inherent worth or care about her well-being.

On that day, Libby understood that if some have the power to withhold justice, then others have the power to advocate for it—and that's how meaningful change can occur. With this newfound understanding of justice, Libby embarked on a collaboration journey with non-profits working in relief and development, and anti-human trafficking organizations. She initiated internship programs, led teams overseas for hands-on learning experiences, and spoke to audiences of all sizes, rallying support and raising funds to combat trafficking.

Libby's story struck a chord with me, especially when she revealed that 40 million people are living in slavery. It weighed on my mind every day, and I felt compelled to find practical ways to address this huge issue. Despite feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the problem and having limited resources, I was determined to do whatever I could to help.

I came across the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament, and chapter 58 stood out in particular: 

“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?”

This passage was a game changer. I was ready to loose the chains of injustice for the oppressed.

Shortly after, Libby and I took a summer stroll through a local art show in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Amidst the myriad exhibits, we came across an artist working on a portrait of a Rwandan woman. Intrigued, we introduced ourselves to the artist, Judee Dickenson, and learned about her and her husband Gary's remarkable mission to assist widows in Rwanda. Gary provided compassionate care by listening to the life stories of widows, while Judee visually captured these stories through her paintings of the women.

An idea sparked in my mind, and I asked, “What if we created paintings of individuals who have been intercepted and rescued from human trafficking to dignify their stories?” Without hesitation, Judee offered to create the first painting. Thus, the vision for the Freedom 58 Project was born.

We shared our concept with various anti-trafficking organizations and soon received photos of individuals rescued from human trafficking. We began creating, with consent, a painting of each individual. First, Judee painted a beautiful portrait of a young girl rescued from a brothel. I shared her painting with artists around the country, asking if they would like to participate in this project. The project quickly gained momentum as artists worldwide expressed interest in participating. Within no time, we daily received portraits from artists as far-reaching as Canada, Ireland, Mexico, and Thailand. Today, we collaborate with three anti-trafficking organizations and have amassed over 230 paintings, forming our Faces of Freedom art exhibit—a traveling showcase to raise awareness of human trafficking.

These artists transform injustice into dignity, beauty, and honor through their art. They shed light on the harsh realities of slavery and oppression, inviting viewers to journey alongside survivors from darkness to freedom. The exhibit, which does not involve the sale of paintings, offers visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the experiences of victims, reflect on stories of injustice, and feel inspired to take action against human trafficking.

One of the most striking pieces of art tells Claire's story. Several years ago, she was deceived into thinking she was traveling to China for a legitimate job. Instead, her traffickers tricked her into unknowingly smuggling drugs into Iran. When authorities found the contraband at the border, Claire was immediately arrested. What immediately followed was a harrowing five-year ordeal in an Iranian prison, where she lived under the constant threat of execution.
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Entitled "The Saint" and created by Johanna Spinx, this painting encapsulates Claire's resilience and faith amidst her darkest hours. Claire found solace in her faith despite her dire circumstances, relying on God's strength. Initially sentenced to death by hanging, Claire's eventual release came about through a series of remarkable interventions. Today, she dedicates her life to preventing others from falling victim to the same horrors she experienced, working with Love Justice Uganda to combat trafficking and injustice.

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 and dignity and creating a saintly image representing Claire’s courage and faith.

Each piece of artwork offers a unique form of solace to those who have endured immense suffering. As visitors walk through the exhibit, experiencing both the beauty and tragedy in stories like Claire's, they are encouraged to reflect on a series of thought-provoking questions. They are also encouraged to explore how they can actively contribute to the ongoing struggle against the violent oppression faced by those living in poverty.

Since becoming aware of the stark reality of modern-day slavery, my journey of learning has been continuous. Through this process, one clear lesson has emerged: there is a genuine appetite for understanding and a willingness to engage. My goal is to catalyze change, empowering individuals to discover their role in this crucial fight against injustice.