Human trafficking: a saint’s story and its connections to modern-day crisis

Barb Arland-Fye
David Goodner of Iowa City Catholic Worker talks about St. Josephine Bakhita (statue in left photo) during a presentation at St. Patrick Church in Iowa City Feb. 8.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — A life-size statue of St. Josephine Bakhita displayed inside St. Patrick Catholic Church inspired a presentation on human trafficking, of which St. Josephine was a survivor. St. Josephine is the patron saint of Sudan, her home country, and of human trafficking survivors.
Presenters David Goodner and Emily Sinnwell of the Iowa City Catholic Worker told the saint’s story on her feast day, Feb. 8, at the church. They made connections to human trafficking happening today, including through a live, video interview with a pastor ministering to migrants in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from Hidalgo, Texas.

Pastor Liliana Guadalupe Carlos of Monte Horeb del Principe de Paz in Reynosa said her church serves migrants in a refugee camp that holds around 2,500 people, many of them from Central America.

“Immigrants are seeking to leave their lands because there is a lot of poverty, insecurity and violation of their rights. Most of the young women have been exposed to human trafficking and 80% have been raped, (affected by) extortion, robbery, kidnapping and sexual harassment. Now cartels have entered the camp and taken young women and make them prostitutes,” Pastor Carlos told The Catholic Messenger in a text message after the presentation.


“In my experience working with migrants and becoming their friend, I have discovered frightening things such as cartels using them for sexual favors (they give them food if they have sex with them), they promise to help them, which never happens. We had a young lady who was pregnant by one of these men.” Another case involved a man who endured abuse in place of his young child.

“These people need help and we can’t provide psychological help. It breaks the heart not being able to do more. I just hug them and try to help them as much as I can by giving them food, clothes or any other kind of help we receive. It will be of great help if more organizations come to help with food, clothing, psychologists and financial aid to be able to continue with the shelters,” Pastor Carlos said.

Goodner and Sinnwell, co-founders of the Iowa City Catholic Worker, became acquainted with Pastor Carlos a year ago, through her sister, who lives in Columbus Junction, Iowa. Col­laborating with Pastor Carlos and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Iowa City Catholic Worker assisted 65 refugees crossing the border in 2021, Goodner said. Government policies prevented that collaboration from continuing.

Father Joseph Sia, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, asked Goodner and Sinnwell to speak because of their well-known work in the Iowa City Catholic Worker. “They work with people who are affected by slavery and human trafficking, which is what St. Josephine Bakhita is the patroness of,” Father Sia said.

St. Josephine, who lived from 1869 to 1947, is the first of the saints to be featured in a speaker series that St. Patrick Parish has organized to help celebrate the 150th anniversary of the parish. A statue of each saint is displayed in the church.

Slave traders kidnapped St. Josephine multiple times when she was a young child. “Her given name wasn’t Josephine. She couldn’t even remember her name or how old she was. That’s what trauma does,” Goodner said.

St. Josephine eventually moved into the home of an Italian diplomat who placed her in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice. “She was introduced to the Catholic Church and learned about God in convent school and recognized in him what she had been experiencing in her heart without knowing who (Jesus) was,” Goodner said.

The Sisters taught her the faith and she eventually chose to convert to Catholicism. She gained her freedom through the Italian courts but chose to stay with the Sisters and professed vows with the community. “For the next 50 years she served as a cook, a doorkeeper and cared for the poor,” Goodner said. “She was known for being very holy, kind, quiet and joyful.”

“Human trafficking is not an issue that only happened across the world over 100 years ago. It happens in Iowa, every day,” Goodner continued. It “involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act,” according to the Blue Campaign of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “It can happen in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.”

Iowa Public Radio reported in 2018 that about 75% of trafficking occurs in hotels/motels, based on an estimate from Stephen O’Meara, a retired human trafficking coordinator with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.

Sinnwell recalled receiving a phone call a couple of years ago from the Des Moines Police Department looking for a safe shelter for a young woman from Central America who had been trafficked. “Human trafficking throughout Central America is a huge problem,” she said. “If we had immigration policies and immigration reform it would help these situations a lot.”

At the Iowa City Catholic Worker, “We’re providing housing and a community they can belong to and feel supported by. Many people living in the Catholic Worker have been abused in their homeland,” Sinnwell said. “The Catholic Worker provides a safe environment where they can finally take a breath and focus on what they need to focus on — working to support themselves and their families.”

St. Patrick Parish speaker series

The Feb. 8 presentation on St. Josephine Bakhita was the first in a speaker series that St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City is hosting to celebrate its 150th jubilee year. Each presentation will focus on one of the saint statues in the church. “We tried to schedule (the presentations) as close as possible to the saints’ feast days,” said the pastor, Father Joseph Sia. Each speaker has a personal or professional connection to one of the saints, he said.

All presentations will take place at the parish. The schedule:

June 13: St. Anthony by Father Guillermo Trevino.
June 21: Sacred Heart of Jesus by Father Rudolph Juarez.
Aug. 9: St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross by Dr. Michelle Petersen.
Sept. 6: St. Teresa of Kolkata by Father Scott Foley.
Oct. 4: St. Francis of Assisi by Kent Ferris.
Oct. 18: Pope St. John Paul II by Father Thom Hennen.
Read upcoming issues of The Catholic Messenger for more details.

Human trafficking information

For more information on human trafficking, visit the Iowa Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign website:

National Trafficking Hotline: Call 1-888-373-7888 or text BEFREE.

In the Davenport Diocese, you may also visit


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