I first heard of St. Josephine Bakhita during college when I saw her depicted in a stained-glass window in the main chapel on campus. Intrigued by the image, I read a bit about her life: Born in 1869 to a wealthy family in Darfur, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders, endured brutal treatment by several masters and, eventually, was given to a family in Italy, where she served as a nanny for her owner's daughter.
When her master left home to conduct business, the Canossian Daughters of Charity in Venice cared for both Bakhita's and the young girl. After several months in the catechumenate, she was baptised and continued to grow in her love of the Catholic faith.
When her owner eventually came to retrieve her, Bakhita refused to leave. Her master objected, but because slavery was outlawed in Italy and in her home country, an Italian court declared Bakhita free. She joined the Canossian Sisters, served for many years as a seamstress, cook and portess and later published a memoir and gave talks about her experiences.
Today, Portland, Ore., Catholics hope the experiences about which Bakhita wrote will help those enduring similar struggles. From CNS:
St. Josephine Bakhita is the ideal saint for people whose labor and bodies are being exploited, said Brian Willis, a Portland Catholic who has worked for years to help women who have been forced into the sex trade. Willis and Portland Archbishop John G. Vlazny have written letters to Archbishop Pietro Sambi, papal nuncio to the United States, suggesting that the cause of trafficking victims would benefit from the naming of a patron saint. The letters will then be sent on to the Vatican.
Trafficking does not require the crossing of international borders, because "you can be born and raised and live in the same house and be a trafficking victim," said Willis. "It is about exploitation." Global Health Promise, an organization Willis founded in 2007, protects women and their children from the impact of trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation. Global Health Promise is working on establishing shelters for children in Nepal, plus a drop-in center at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in downtown Portland. Willis also works with End Child Prostitution and Trafficking, a group dedicated to combating sexual exploitation and trafficking of youth, in the U.S. Also in Portland, Catholic Charities receives grants to work with foreign-born human trafficking victims, often young women sold as maids or prostitutes.
Now, when I see that stained glass window, I won't just think about Bakhita's life. I'll think about the people today who suffer as she did and pray that they, too, will find hope, faith and freedom.