January 11 is International Human Trafficking Awareness day. January 11 is also the day that Christians all over the world celebrate St. Vitalis of Gaza, a saint who reportedly visited a brothel every day.
Many of the problems of today’s world are not new. Millions of people currently face some form of slavery or human trafficking. Sex work is among the many types of forced labor facing the most vulnerable today. Many refugees, children, women, displaced persons, and those in poverty may find themselves in some form of bondage. This pattern of exploitation is as old as civilization itself.
St. Vitalis was a Christian monk from Gaza, who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. At age 60, St. Vitalis left his monastic home in Gaza for Alexandria, becoming a monastic in the city. There he took up a new form of ministry. In Alexandria, as in many cities, young girls from poor families and no prospects would often be sold into bondage, or would be captured. The majority of infants that were abandoned or orphaned would be sold into the sex trade. The girls would then be taken to poor areas of the city where they would live in terrible conditions while being forced to sell themselves. The girls themselves received no pay, but instead only received clothes to wear, and a meager food ration. To buy a sex slave at this time cost less than to buy a donkey. To hire a girl only cost the price of a loaf of bread. As such, the society evidently valued its women very little. St. Justinian, the emperor, outlawed the prostitution of young girls in 529. Despite this, the practice continued, often with girls less than 10 years old.
In the hagiography of St. John the merciful, who was patriarch of Alexandria during this time, it is recorded that once during a visit to one of the most destitute areas of the city, a woman cried out from a window “Save me! Save me Father, like Christ saved the harlot!”
St. Vitalis was horrified by this practice, and dedicated his life to fighting it. First he set out to collect the names and addresses of every person trapped in the sex trade. Then the saint began working as a day laborer, a profession which itself was only a step above slavery. At the end of each day, St. Vitalis would take his wages and visit a brothel. He pretended to be a paying customer, which allowed him to enter without notice. Once he was alone with the woman, he would tell her about her dignity and value as a woman and that it was wrong for her to be abused and objectified by men. He would give her his money, which she would use to escape. He would then stand guard praying while the woman rested before leaving; and St. Vitalis would then repeat the process the next day.
The saint’s reputation suffered from his activities, as word spread that a monk was frequenting brothels. The Patriarch of Alexandria had to intervene to silence his accusers. Over the course of his ministry, St. Vitalis rescued countless women. Eventually, he gave his life for the work. One day upon leaving a brothel, St. Vitalis was mortally wounded. Ironically, it was not the souteneur who attacked the monk for freeing the girls. Rather, it was a fellow Christian, who was visiting the brothel to hire a prostitute. When the man saw Vitalis, whom he recognized as a monk, he was overcome with judgment and anger. Despite the man’s own infidelity, he attacked Vitalis, not thinking it proper for a monk to be in such a place. The man struck Vitalis, who died shortly thereafter. The saint’s body was reportedly found next to a scroll that read "Do not judge your neighbor as a sinner."
At his funeral, many women that he had rescued appeared carrying candles and told the story of the saint who had saved them.
Nine centuries after St. Vitalis lived, a young girl from Athens named Revoula Benizelos was married off at the age of 14 to an abusive man. Fortunately, he died three years later and she was freed from this bondage. Her family attempted to remarry her, but she was able to convince them to allow her freedom. She immediately devoted herself to charitable work, understanding what it means to be vulnerable and oppressed. Her family was wealthy, and she used this advantage to aid others. Upon her parents’ deaths she became a monastic, taking the name Philothei. She used her family’s estate to found a monastery and expand her charitable efforts.
Many women came to her and joined her charitable work. At that time, convents provided a way for women to support themselves and work without being forced to marry. In addition to the convents, St. Philothei founded homes for the elderly, houses of hospitality, and schools for children. Perhaps informed by her own experience in a forced marriage, St. Philothei also began rescuing women who had been sold into slavery, especially women in harems. St. Philothei would shelter the women, and then help them secretly escape to different Greek islands, where they would be safe.
St. Philothei exhausted her wealth rescuing women, and between the ransom, bribes, and duties ended up in debt to the Ottoman authorities. Her fame among women spread, as did her infamy with the authorities. At one point, several women managed to escape on their own and made their way to the convent for shelter. These women were pursued; and when the authorities arrived, they beat St. Philothei and imprisoned her. She was so popular that it was not long before friends paid for her release. Despite this, she had a price on her, and in 1588 a group of hired thugs broke into her monastery and beat her. She died from her injuries a few months later. She is remembered on February 19 as a martyr. The hymn written to her contrasts the light of her witness with the darkness of bondage and slavery:
Rejoice, Light of Athens who lived a burning and public life
Faithful in your benefactions and in your life of purity
You taught those who came to you, and you fed them
You were a protectress and bulwark,
You were a safe haven for those who were pursued
And saved the young and imprisoned.
You were truly a luminary giving light,
Lighting up the night and the darkness of slavery,
O Philothei, for your people we praise you
And we ask you to intercede for us before the Lord.
The witness of saints is important in the life of the Church. While we do not need the example of saints to know that we should fight slavery and bondage in all its forms, the fact that the Church has lifted up the example of those who have done so before means that we must all the more be aware of our duty as Christians to fight these evils.
Inspired by the example of the saints, we at In Communion began St. Nicholas’s Purse. This fund is inspired by the witness of Sts. Vitalis and Philothei, as well as St. Nicholas.
The association between Santa Claus and gift giving is an old one. Many gifts are given each year either on St. Nicholas Day (December 6), or on Christmas in the name of the jolly saint. What some may not know are the liberatory roots of this tradition.
According to the hagiographies of St. Nicholas (who lived in the 3rdmetimes recorded as bags of coins) that would become the girl’s dowries. In this way, St. Nicholas saved the girls from being trafficked. The association between St. Nicholas and gift-giving traditionally traces to this act of compassion. Santa Claus’s original present was freedom from slavery and human trafficking. In the spirit of the saint, St. Nicholas’s Purse was founded as a holiday fundraiser to support victims of trafficking. Sadly, modern slavery and trafficking is a $150 billion global criminal industry. In America alone, consumers spend nearly $700 billion a year on Chrismas gifts. Imagine if in the spirit of Santa we were able to change the economic calculus leading to modern slavery and trafficking!
St. Nicholas’s purse is just one small contemporary initiative inspired to continue the important witness and work of past saints. The proceeds of St. Nicholas’s Purse are donated to contemporary missions in the Orthodox Church working to rescue victims of the sex trade.
One of the most remarkable living saints of the Church is Sr. Nektaria of Kolkata. For over two decades, Sr. Nektaria has been working in and near Kolkata, caring for children and orphans.
In 1999 Fr. Ignatius and Sister Nektaria founded the Girls’ Orphanage under the auspices of the Orthodox Metropolis of Hong Kong and SE Asia. The orphanage can house up to 200 residents and provides a number of services to them, from toddlers to college age. Since then, they have also founded a school, begun several development projects, founded a boys’ orphanage, and currently operate several clinics and a food program.
Women in India face a precarious situation. There are 63 million “missing women” in India. If one compares the expected sex ratio to the actual ratio in India, there are millions of women who should be alive but are not. A number of these women are victims of sex-based abortions or female infanticide. When parents find out that they are having a girl, they may seek to abort or abandon the child after birth. Of those girls who do survive, it is common for them to receive substandard care. Boys are more likely to receive medical care, while women receive poorer quality food and schooling. As such, women have a higher mortality rate, and often face forced marriage, prostitution, or other forms of trafficking.
According to Sr. Nektaria, the women of Kolkata face many troubles. “They are being forced to marry older men… Their families want to get rid of them. They consider them as a burden. The best education is only given to boys.” There is a school in the orphanage, and education is a key part of the mission. As Sr. Nektaria states, “Education can change someone’s life.” According to her, “kids, especially girls, get very good education, and they start having dreams about their lives.” She also notes that “here in India if young girls are not educated, they have no future. Their weapon is education: otherwise, they cannot stand on their feet.”
Commenting on what inspired her first to pursue this ministry, Sr. Nektaria notes, “There was much poverty: starving children and teenage mothers with babies in the arms. Τhese images were an everyday phenomenon that I could not overlook. They were not all Christian, but that did not matter. We do not ask whether someone is an Orthodox, Muslim, or Hindu. He is a human being who suffers. Jesus Christ was crucified for all, regardless of religion… I wanted to help those homeless girls who were often raped by drunken men in the area. I cannot not save all of India, but I wanted to help somehow.” Sr. Nektaria sometimes quotes Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Kolkata) saying, “Everybody cannot do great works, but everybody can do little things with great love.”
Many children have taken to Sr. Nektaria, for whom she is their only mother. Some even consider her Greek family theirs, and her mother their grandmother. Sr. Nektaria is devoted to her many children, waking up at 2:30 each morning to begin her work. “There are times when I even forget to eat. But the smiles of the orphans are my strength.” Sr. Nektaria is a shining light in the Church today. The witnesses of St. Vitalis, St. Philothei, and St. Nicholas are not out of reach for Christians. Rather, it is the call of each of us to work for the liberation of those in bondage. Christ began his public ministry by proclaiming,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
This call is our call, as well. In the words of the saintly nun of Kolkata, “Faith without action is dead faith. We have to witness to our faith through actions of love.”
You can support the work of Sr. Nektaria and the Theotokos Girls’ Orphanage at thepsoc.org. To support the nuns of All Saints, please visit www.whitefieldfarm.org/hope-project/. For more on St. Nicholas’s Purse, visit incommunion.org/st-nicholas-purse-2018/
In Communion Summer / 2019