Religious sisters host retreat for women working with trafficking victims

| July 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

Working with women who’ve been trafficked can take a toll on those who hear their stories and try to help them rebuild their lives.

That’s why staff members from two Minnesota organizations that work with victims of sex trafficking and other violent crimes gathered at the Carondelet Center in St. Paul June 2-3 for a necessary break.

Ten women from Breaking Free in St. Paul and one from Terebinth Refuge in St. Cloud attended an overnight self-care retreat hosted by Congregation of St. Joseph Sisters, Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Lay individuals and organizations donated money to make the retreat possible.

The all-female staff received massages, created “truth boards” meant to help them examine their lives, journaled and prayed together, all while receiving support from parishioners of Annunciation in Minneapolis, St. Ambrose in Woodbury and St. Peter in Richfield. The latter two made prayer shawls for the women.

“In a small way, we’re trying to support them and [are] encouraging them to take care of themselves,” said Marty Roers, co-director of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s Justice Office. “Not only did they take care of themselves, but it also helps them to work better together as a team and better serve the people they’re working with.”

Throughout the retreat, Annunciation parishioners prayed for participants, and the nine retreat leaders read notes from parishioners of all three churches, letting the women know of their support for them. At the end of the retreat, each participant received at least a dozen prayer notes; one Breaking Free staff member posted them all in her office and reads them regularly.

“These were powerful. We don’t get thank-yous for what we do — ever,” said Terry Forliti, executive director of Breaking Free, whose staff members often speak in Catholic parishes and schools.

The Congregation of St. Joseph sisters hosted the retreat to coincide with its 10th anniversary. Planning began last September after each province was encouraged to coordinate a service project.

Although the timing of the retreat — the weekend of Pentecost — was coincidental, leaders wanted to maximize the presence of the Holy Spirit.

“But it was really based in cultivation of a relationship with Jesus, and Jesus the healer in particular,” said Sister Sue Torgersen of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Annunciation’s director of faith formation who helped organize the retreat. “We could bring so much of what is so true to us in our Catholic faith to this group of women, and it would ring true with their experience.” She noted that all but one of the retreatants were Christian, and some of them were or had been Catholic.

Forliti, who grew up attending St. Edward in Bloomington, said Pentecost played an important part in the retreat.

“Jesus isn’t dead,” she said, “and people need to know that.”

Although Breaking Free isn’t faith-based, Forliti said the faith component was significant to many in the group because Breaking Free is a survivor-led organization.

“Life has been tough. Life has been very tough,” said Forliti, herself a survivor after years of prostitution, drug use and abuse. “And we need to know that there is something bigger than us, and that this life is not it. There is another life, and someday we will not have to continue with these bodies that hurt each and every day when we wake up and have to go through the things we have to go through just to get out of the house.”

Forliti described the emotional and physical effects that remain after women leave “the life.” The latter includes scars from cigarette burns, bloody noses from cocaine use and other afflictions.

For her staff, the retreat acknowledged their dignity. She described the treatment as “moving and humbling.” That the retreat was free of charge was a bonus.

“To know that this many people loved us … we don’t have time to think of it for ourselves,” Forliti said, adding that the women work nights and weekends. “We’re almost afraid to enjoy something too much because we’re used to having things taken from us, and we’re used to a lot of loss. And we’re not used to kind people in our lives.”

Along with the pampering, many of her staff members said they felt God’s presence through prayer and the Holy Spirit’s intercession.

“If we want to live life to the fullest on this earth, we can ask for that help, and [staff members] need to know that,” Forliti said. “They can ask for that help on a daily basis to get through the day.”

Based on participants’ positive feedback and the support organizers received, the sisters would like to host regular retreats for people who work with victims.

“The issue of sex trafficking has been out there for a while, and there are people who have come on board who have wanted to make their contribution help with that,” Sister Sue said. “Now we’re at a different stage where we can pull back from some of that and offer support to the people who are on the front lines.”

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