Think of that word for a second – “community”. What immediately comes to mind? A group of people with a common interest? Maybe people who come together simply to enjoy each other’s presence?
Now think specifically about your community. Maybe it’s your church. Your co-workers. An athletic team. A group of friends. What does that group look like? Is it comprised of people who all look like you, think like you, act like you? There’s nothing wrong with spending time with people who are just like us. But especially when it comes to the work of justice, our strength is in our differences.
The Set Free Movement’s philosophy is that human trafficking is the product of broken relationships and fragmented communities. If we want to end abuse and exploitation, we need to start with healing relationships and restoring community … not just “out there” in another part of the world, but in our own neighborhood. And it cannot be sought by the church or the nonprofit sector alone – we need everyone.
That’s exactly what Abby Fritzgerald has been working toward the last several years. As the leader of a Set Free Movement team in Decatur, IL (Macon County), she’s often confronted by how diversity fits within the intersection of community and justice. We recently caught up with her and asked her about her team’s community-building process. Below is our conversation with her.
SET FREE: Your team has been gathering and working for about 3 years. What does that team look like?
ABBY: We have a larger group of about 25 community members who are loosely connected but still supportive. It’s been a process of learning to accept everyone’s level of involvement. To those who have made a commitment to regularly attend meetings, I formed a smaller core group of 7 people who help me make decisions, learn about Decatur’s brokenness and needs, and figure out our team’s role. This group has been a source of encouragement for me and I love watching them grow closer together, even on their own initiative.
How did the team come together?
It is increasingly obvious to me that the individuals that plug into our local Set Free team have been called by God to be there. Some have specifically told me this and I believe that much of our work has been done through prayer. It seems too simple to be the answer, but as the leader of this local team God continues to remind me that this is His team. When a prominent community leader approached me about wanting to join our team, I was so humbled that she would want to be part of the group – “my” group. But God quickly reminded me that this woman was being obedient to Him – it had nothing to do with me.
That same humility applies to our work out in the community, too. It is encouraging and energizing to meet with a group of like-minded individuals with shared passions for justice, but it can be challenging to know how best to move forward. I try my best to accept my limitations and leave the rest to God. When we need to move forward in something, I trust that He will provide.
What kinds of ways has your team engaged your community?
Educating our community about modern slavery has been a priority. Our prevention educator, Cindy Kuro, has spoken at numerous local agencies including the health department, community health clinics, youth programs, the domestic violence shelter, and the sexual assault center. Many of our team members came out of those meetings, which is why our team is so diverse. We’ve continued to network and present at several churches, the rotary club, women’s groups, and Sunday school classes. Each of these sectors play a vital part in addressing human trafficking.
It seems important to you to not just assemble a team of people who look and think the same way, but to create space for diversity within your team. Do you find that pattern continues as you reach out into your community?
Absolutely. In all of our presentations, we have pursued any group that would listen. Case in point: our latest presentation was with the local LGBTQ group at the Unitarian church.
By reaching out to a diverse range of groups, we are seeking to create a community with zero tolerance for exploitation. We want all areas of our community to be aware of the dangers of human trafficking and know how to report it.
Why is it important to build community as you seek justice?
We need everyone on board a mission like this. When you can champion a cause instead of a program it is fascinating to see how people are much more attracted to what you are saying.
There is a lot of division in Decatur, particularly in the churches. So it’s refreshing to see God building unity among the churches within our own team. We have about 8 different churches represented within the members. We truly understand that the church needs to be example in standing against these atrocities. If the people of God do not care, who will?
Our team has also had discussions about the lack of collaboration among the social service agencies. This is a point of direction for us: to encourage connections between groups. The agencies may be doing great work within their own silo, but there is no communication between them and the other silos. How much stronger and more effective could we be if we figured out how to work in collaboration rather than competition?
In what ways has building community surprised you?
I think it surprises me how much I need community. It is easy to look around and feel self-sufficient and completely forget all the privileges that have come with that reality.
I am realizing the growth that can happen when I chose to be vulnerable in community. As a leader I have to let my agenda go sometimes and let the team just be. This can be really hard when I want to mark off tasks and feel accomplished. If I can look back on a meeting and recognize the love and healing that occurred between team members, then I need to realize that “tasks” were completed. God is more aware of the needs of the team, I need step out of the way to allow Him to meet those.
Building community doesn’t happen overnight either. Trust takes time. Some may look at our team and wonder “when are you going to do something?” Actually several individuals on the team have disclosed that frustration to me, numerous times. A year ago, I would have let those comments guilt me into thinking we weren’t doing enough. However, I realize that our team isn’t ready for the next step yet, and I truly believe it is because we do not have everyone God needs on the team. So we continue to pray and press forward with the tasks in front of us.
What is your advice to other people, Set Free teams, or churches who feel called to this work of seeking justice and building community?
Nothing of eternal value will happen without prayer, so start there. Ask others to join you and pray for God to build a team around you with people who are passionate and concerned about the community. Wait and watch God move and open doors of opportunity. If you are willing, God will use you.
I thought that I needed to know the first 5 steps to leading a team, but I realized that I just needed to know the first one. As long as I could trust God with the details, the process and plan would fall according to His timing and plan.