Revd Gemma Sampson at the conference. (Picture Supplied)

On the sunny day of Wednesday 24th October, a group of abolitionists descended on Bishopthorpe Palace in York, not to talk about the legacy of Wilberforce and his colleagues, but instead to ask how the church can act today to prevent and expose modern slavery.

The Clewer Initiative, the Church of England response to modern slavery, are helping churches to respond to modern slavery in their communities, and raise awareness of how this crime has taken root on our high streets. This was their first Northern Province networking event, bringing together representatives from 10 of the 12 northern dioceses.

In her welcome, Bishop Alison White, the Bishop of Hull, thanked the group for giving up their time to be there and spoke about how momentous the occasion could be for all involved. Speaking of the church’s role in ending modern slavery, she said: “our presence has the potential to make a difference”.

The unique position of the church to shed light on this issue was brought up again and again by speakers at the event. Bishop Alastair Redfern, the founder of The Clewer Initiative, spoke about the potential of Christians to “go the extra mile”, and work with the police to find modern slavery by spotting evidence that “only we can notice”. Professor Gary Craig from the University of Newcastle, reflecting on his 20 years of researching and action in the modern slavery sector, said that “the church is uniquely placed to reach people in the smallest and most remote communities”.

The theme of what the church can do was then explored in several break out sessions, one on the vulnerability of homeless people (www.theclewerinitiative.org/homeless) to modern slavery, one on the training packages available to equip churchgoers, and a further session for attendees who were not from the church, designed to give them a roadmap for working in partnership with faith groups.

After a networking lunch, the group was joined by DI John Freer, Modern Slavery Lead for North Yorkshire Police, who shared some of the challenges that his team face when dealing with apparent victims of modern slavery who don’t want to see themselves as ‘victims’. Some may be earning £30 for a 12 hour day in a car wash, and others might be exploited in sex work, being controlled by a pimp, but when visited by police, their mantra will nevertheless be ‘I’m fine’. Bishop Alastair later encouraged people to see the role of the church in giving isolated victims an opportunity to ”participate in the experience of community”.

The final session of the day grouped neighbouring dioceses together, asking how they could be working in partnership with local communities and law enforcement to combat modern slavery in their area. When feeding back, groups highlighted that they wanted their responses to be simple and achievable locally and to centre on storytelling to draw people in, helping people to understand a complex and difficult issue on a human level.

Speaking about the day Revd Gemma Sampson said “when the task is so huge – like trying to end modern day Slavery – it is really easy to feel totally overwhelmed and not know quite what to do. Coming together with fellow ‘freedom fighters’ is inspiring and energizing and leads to a simple, but deeply held, belief that together we might be able to work to end this dreadful crime against humanity. Partnerships and networks are developing and people across statutory, voluntary and faith sectors are uniting to make a significant difference. May this lead to the end of oppression and make a pathway to freedom for some of Gods most vulnerable, precious, children.”

For more information about The Clewer Initiative go to www.theclewerinitiative.org