One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
Hot on the heels of the story of the conversion of Lydia comes this curious little vignette. It is easy as we canter through the story of the earliest years of the Church to skip past this event. Contrasting sharply with opulence and power of the disciple Lydia, a dealer in rich purple cloth, we are introduced to a nameless slave-girl, with a spirit of divination.
In contrast to Lydia, a respected business-woman, here is a girl who is being mercilessly exploited through an activity about which many of us would hold deep-seated concerns. I wonder what the back story is for this slave-girl? How had her ‘gift’ been discovered? Was it all an elaborate act? Had she been taken into slavery as one of a conquered people, or had she been sold to what we would now understand as traffickers by a desperate family or an uncaring community? Was she duped and had believed that she was going to Philippi to start the life about which she had dreamed for a long time?
Who knows? But what we do know is that there are many many people today, across the world, in a similar position to that slave-girl. There are people in our country, in our towns and cities, who have been trafficked to these islands for the purpose of domestic, sexual, or other forms of modern day slavery. There are people in our country who are being abused and violated in the name of making a lot of money for someone or someones else. There are people in our country who are making a lot of money on the backs of and at huge cost to other people. This is one of greatest sins of our and every age. It is no surprise that the push back, when the activities of these people is exposed and their source of cash is stopped, that they respond as the slave-girl’s captors did. Paul and Silas were victims of violence themselves, were blamed by an unjust system, and ended up in prison
But what can we do? We can educate ourselves about this issue through information published by organisations such as Stop the Traffik We can alert ourselves to suspicious activity and alert the appropriate authorities. If you doubt the power of individuals going about their daily business, then have a look at stories like this one.
God of justice, we remember today the story of this slave-girl, and we remember too the stories of the many like her caught in similar webs over thousands of years.
We pray for trafficked people today, and for their families and communities. We pray for an end to this experience, that victims and communities will receive peace, and perpetrators, justice.
We pray for ourselves as we are unwittingly or are complicit in being caught in the web too. We ask too few questions, and can be quick to look away. Forgive us when we think or mutter ‘not my problem’, and help us to learn how to act.
The Rev’d Sarah Moore is President of the United Reformed Church in Cumbria, England’s first ecumenical county.