Human Trafficking Awareness Month may technically fall in January — but as far as the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is concerned, now is the perfect time to bring local attention to the complex and pervasive issue.
From Oct. 2 to Oct. 23, its Tour Against Trafficking encourages community cycling-enthusiasts to pedal 750 miles across the Valley in an outward effort to raise awareness about human trafficking, as well as financial support for local groups and organizations working to bring an end to this crime.
Human trafficking is the second largest-growing criminal industry in the world, generating billions of dollars through the exploitation of people through labor, services in the commercial sex industry or debt peonage by means of force, fraud and coercion.
There are approximately 2.4 million human trafficking victims around the globe, according to the International Labor Organization. And the Central Valley is certainly not immune to its reach.
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Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, David Rice, is taking an active stance on addressing human trafficking within the 26 parishes and missions of his diocese, personally inviting anyone and everyone to ride alongside him on the 18-leg journey from Taft to Modesto.
But the Clovis resident and avid cyclist wants to make it very clear: Tour Against Trafficking is much more than the average marathon.
After moving to the region in 2014, the New Zealand native’s first task was to learn about the Valley, engaging with leaders, communities and agencies across the spectrum to better assess our needs. Rice has a heart for social justice ministry, and that mission has followed the bishop to his new post overseeing the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.
So when Rice watched a screening of a film that highlights the realities of human trafficking, “The Trafficked Life,” nine months ago, he knew he needed to act.
“The language I’ve adopted is unawareness equals complicity, and I attach that to everything regarding the gospel,” Rice explained. “Our task is to raise awareness of difficulties people face, and in this case, the crimes that are committed and have to be addressed.”
In the following months came the process of exploring various avenues to make a difference through the church, favoring the idea of a bicycle tour that would act as “a moveable symbol of people working together to address a major problem both locally and beyond.”
Or as Rice likened it — creating the Valley’s very own “hikoi.”
The term derives from the Maori language of New Zealand, and translates to a walk or pilgrimage with a purpose. “It’s an opportunity for the Diocese of San Joaquin to move visibly with a purpose and endeavor to change lives,” he said.
Plus, Rice’s insight into the cycling culture aided in the decision — they’ll ride for just about anything.
Before the tour gets underway, however, the diocese has already begun to make strides in educating our region on the issue of human trafficking through a series of public screenings of “The Trafficked Life” and panel discussions with area professionals.
Holy Family Episcopal Church hosted “Human Trafficking Awareness to Action Summit” on May 30 at the Park Inn in Fresno, intentionally selecting a venue outside the church that would encourage people of all walks of life to feel welcome and included.
Rice noted there have been at least five of these events within the San Joaquin Valley, with 10 to 15 more planned between now and October.
Fresno EOC’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking program manager, Melissa Gomez, was on the panel for the May event, and is co-hosting a double showing and dialogue of “The Trafficked Life” with Centro La Famila on Sept. 12 at the Sanctuary Theater.
“It’s a part of our program’s efforts to raise awareness,” she said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to promote what’s going on in our region.”
And if the 18-day trip seems daunting to uneasy riders, don’t fret — Tour Against Trafficking accommodates cyclists of all levels.
Participants have the option of taking part in one to all legs of the route, as well as select which of the receiving local organizations they’d like to support.
Fresno EOC’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking is one of the six groups sponsored by the tour at this time, and views this approach as a unique way to spread awareness.
“When you look at human trafficking, it can be heavy and you need to bring life to the issue,” Gomez said. “We are very thankful to be a recipient of the sponsorship, and think it’s a great way the community can get involved and give.”
People can also contribute out of the seat by sponsoring cyclists, offering donations, fulfilling volunteer opportunities or simply rooting on riders as they travel through Fresno on Oct. 12 and 13.
“This is the most inclusive event you can imagine,” Rice said. “We need as many people as possible involved across all sectors.”
Learn more about Tour Against Trafficking and how you can endorse its efforts at www.touragainsttrafficking.org.