Regular readers know that I like to play the role of a superhero in social media, and sometimes write about the cultural significance of these mythical figures in our society. Yet however much I enjoy sporting the big red cape, in real life heroes often take a very different form from those of literature, film, and our imaginations. You’re about to learn about some real-life superheroines in London…who just so happen to wear a religious habit.
At a two-day conference held at the Vatican this week, Pope Francis and other attendees heard reports about an innovative effort to combat human trafficking. Since January of this year, a group of nuns from the Madrid-based religious order known as the Adoratrices – formally, “The Handmaids of the Blessed Sacrament and of Charity” – have been going out on patrol with police officers in Central London, to help rescue women forced into prostitution through human trafficking. The project has proven so successful, that it will eventually be expanded throughout London, and other cities are looking to copy it.
Previously, getting these prostitutes to trust the police had proven to be an impossible task. In many cases, because they anticipated reprisals if they reported having been sold into sex slavery, raped, or abused, they would say nothing. Others feared being sent back to their countries of origin, to families or acquaintances who had sold them into slavery in the first place.
The nuns who ride along with the police and talk to these women are able to provide a motherly level of care, which many of them respond to in a way that they could not with a police officer. With the help of the Adoratrices, the police are able to go after the criminals who put the women in these situations, while the nuns take the victims in and shelter them, so that they cannot be “got at”. Later they can be returned to their home countries, or apply for asylum. As Detective Inspector Kevin Hyland explained at the conference, “If they go to stay with religious women, they find the peace and tranquillity they need while going through the horrors of testifying in court.”
In effect, these nuns are making themselves targets for the criminals engaged in these activities. Someone who has no compunction about kidnapping, raping, and selling a 15-year old into prostitution is probably not going to find it difficult to have a nun threatened, beaten, or permanently silenced. Unlike the police, nuns are neither armed with weapons, nor can they call for backup, if they find themselves in a dangerous situation, but they go out and do this work anyway.
I think there’s a three-fold lesson to take away from this story. We should support efforts like this when we are asked to help, because most of us, frankly, would not want to be doing what these sisters are doing. We should also be inspired to take a look at our own lives, and see whether there is something, however small, that we could be doing on behalf of someone else whom we know is in a bad way or having a difficult time. And finally, we should always remember to adjust our expectations of what a hero really looks like, rather than selling people short. Because oftentimes, true heroism comes from where you might least expect it.