#CourageCrush: John Nehme, Community Connector, President of Allies Against Slavery
by Sarah on April 19, 2017
I first found out about human trafficking – modern slavery – as a senior in college. While I didn’t know what direction my life would take, I did already have a deep conviction that my life’s vocation was to stand with the vulnerable and oppressed. So as I watched a documentary about human trafficking overseas, I was immediately impacted by the profound injustice it represented.
I remember being filled with disbelief, followed by feeling sick to my stomach and finally walking out of the theatre with a righteous anger. I was determined to do something, but then I stopped dead in my tracks. The realization that I had no idea what to do hit me like a ton of bricks. Feeling disempowered, I tried to push what I had learned out of sight and out of mind in an effort of self-preservation.
William Wilberforce said of slavery to his fellow members of parliament,
“You can choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you do not know.”
I have a friend who says that human trafficking is the kind of issue that gets in your bones, if you allow your humanity to be impacted by the dehumanization of others.
I found that was true for me. I couldn’t seem to avoid the issue of human trafficking. And it hit especially close to home since my own family has experienced sexual violence. My deep conviction that human trafficking was an injustice that must be stopped and my personal window into the pain of sexual violence and exploitation formed a latent conviction that formed the foundation for my current work.
So when my older sister, Michelle, invited me to join her team to produce a documentary about human trafficking in Austin, and what was being done to stop it, I jumped at the opportunity. My wife and I were newly married, so moving to a new city with no salary and no place to live to pursue a brand new vocation felt like a grand adventure. We told God we’d give him a year and see what this whole thing would become, and six years later we’re still here.
The film began to follow a small group of volunteers who came together in 2010 to form Allies Against Slavery. Allies continued to be a big part of the documentary, and by 2012 I had one foot in the role of outside storyteller and one foot inside the movement co-leading Allies in volunteer capacity.
Along the way, the vision of making Austin a “Slave-Free City” had developed as a unifying call to action. To me, the Slave-Free City vision is a reflection of the driving desire to see true shalom take root in our communities and city. What if Austin could be the kind of city where traffickers can’t do business, where people aren’t vulnerable to exploitation, and where anyone who has experienced exploitation can fully heal? I want to live in that kind of city, and I feel the “already but not yet” tension of knowing God is working to build that city that will one day by fully realized.
It’s that tension that both motivates and fatigues me. Some days I see truth and justice and love break through. I see it whenever a trafficking victim leaves the grip of her trafficker. I see it whenever a victim takes the step to become a survivor and leader, regaining a sense of her own inherent dignity and value. I see it when partners come together to work side by side. I see it when new policies are passed and tools developed.
But I also experience the deep darkness and brokenness of modern slavery that threatens to overcome.
I experience it when a victim runs away from services to return to her trafficker; when collaboration breaks down because of turf wars or ego; when resources feel scarce and getting up every day to face the mundane, difficult decisions of running an organization begin to wear me thin; when the problem seems so big we’ll never be able to build that “city on a hill.”
The last decade of my life has taught me that my call is to be faithful in showing up. While there is plenty in my control, there is a lot I have no control over. On my best days, that truth becomes an exercise in surrender and trust. And when I have that posture of surrender and trust, I’m able to approach the work in a more sustainable way. That posture doesn’t just have personal implications, but it also cultivates heathier relationships with my colleagues, my family and my friends. I’m more approachable, more patient and quicker to encourage and pour into others instead of demanding and drawing energy out of those around me.
I’d tell me 20 year old self to pace himself. I’d remind him to never lose his idealism, but to ground it from a place of sustainability instead of in some false truth that he can change the world if he just tries hard enough. I’d also remind him that it counts more to finish the race well, and that there aren’t trophies handed out for who finishes the first lap first.
Ultimately the work of justice, and the work of building Slave-Free Cities, is a life long endeavor that is best pursued out of a deep well of personal transformation. What I didn’t realize a decade ago is that I’m personally being changed for good, if I’m willing to allow it, as much as I’m changing anything around me for good. And if more of us experienced that kind of personal change, the world would be a much more just place. Our communities and cities would become places of refuge and human flourishing, leaving no room for exploitation.