When the Akosombo Dam was built in Ghana, the Volta River began to rise. Before long, farms, homes, cemeteries, and places of worship were flooded, displacing tens of thousands of people. In their place now sits Lake Volta, the world’s largest manmade lake, swallowing up more than 3,000 square miles. If you were to visit the lake today, the only hints of the previous world are the gnarled, bare tops of trees shooting up through the surface of the water.
In 2014, International Justice Mission (IJM) learned about children trapped in slavery on Lake Volta, and we were invited to help with investigations to see if this really was the case. We found children—thousands of them—working on boats in the fishing industry. Their small, muscular frames were just tiny dots against the overwhelming backdrop of the lake.
We saw 4-year-old kids untangling knots in enormous fishing nets. We saw little boys and girls jumping into the water to retrieve nets caught on tree branches in an underwater forest. And we saw scars on tiny hands, bellies, and faces. Scars from beatings and scars from hidden branches.
As we were wrapping up our evaluation of the lake, one investigator saw a teenager sitting in a boat with his boatmaster. As the boats drifted closer together, the investigator locked eyes with the child. The boy continued to stare at our investigator for a few moments, and just as our boat began to pull away, he suddenly cried out: “Don’t leave me with this man! He is wicked! Don’t leave us!”
The boy’s name was Gideon. Every day he was forced to wake up at 4 a.m. to fish on the lake. After hours of fishing, he would work on a farm until sundown. Gideon received one meal a day, and his master would beat him with a canoe oar whenever he made a mistake.
Why Slavery Persists
Slavery is an ancient and brutal practice. And it is still rampant, with more than 40 million people living as slaves today.
How is this possible? The answer lies in one word: power.
Victims of slavery are often people living in poverty: men, women, and children caught in the crosshairs of powerful, violent people. In the world’s poorest and most vulnerable places, the waters of violence and slavery have swallowed up and hidden entire communities, pushing them into the dark.
Like Gideon, their urgent cry demands attention—especially the attention of the church.
In the days and years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the small band of Jesus followers began to grow. Tertullian, an early church father, explained how Christians used their time, money, and power to help the poor:
These gifts are . . . not spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck.
The result of their work is clear. Tertullian goes on:
It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred. See, they say about us, how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves would sooner kill.
Power of Christ’s Church
One of the greatest markers of Christianity in Tertullian’s time was intense dedication to the poor, the lonely, the abandoned, and the condemned. And the closer Christians aligned with the needs of the destitute, the more people took notice. As Christ’s followers were being put to death by the Roman Empire, the church was exploding. The powerful waters of Christian love and compassion began to rise.
Fast forward a couple thousand years, and people are questioning the relevance of the church in our world. Membership woes, low baptism rates, cultural battles, or a lack of finances have punctured the confidence of many churches—maybe even yours.
It may even appear to you that the church has lost its power. But that’s simply not true.
Slave owners know their power; they use it to steal the life of the powerless. They’re confident in their power, and they have no problem using it. Brothers and sisters, it’s time to once again recognize and boldly apply our Spirit-given power to the cause of the poor. It’s time to lead the fight to eradicate slavery.
Align with the Poor and Powerless
Last July, IJM convened a group of pastors from all around the Lake Volta region in Ghana. Many of these pastors lead congregations that include slave owners. After the IJM team preached about biblical justice and child trafficking, a local bishop stood up to speak. On the shores of Lake Volta, where children are literally drowning in slavery, this bishop harnessed his power and proclaimed to these pastors:
You all now know that you should rebuke the traffickers in your congregation, but you are afraid because they are the most influential members of your congregation. Well, you have a choice. Do you want to be a faithful pastor or a popular pastor?
Shortly thereafter, 400 churches in Ghana preached against the horrors of slavery.
A year after Gideon cried out to the IJM investigator, IJM was able to work with Ghanaian authorities to find Gideon and take him to safety, far from his wicked boatmaster. Without the help of churches and supporters, Gideon would likely still be on that boat. Today, by God’s grace, he is free.
When the church aligns itself with the needs of the poor and powerless, God’s power is revealed. The day his people unite to end slavery will be the day slavery is overtaken and swallowed up by the flood of love and compassion. And on that day, millions of men, women, and children—just like Gideon—will be free.