Sustaining Hope for the World’s Big Problems - Victor Boutros
Are you facing a problem in your work that feels like it's too big for you to solve? How do you find hope amidst work that feels overwhelming? Guest Victor Boutros is the CEO and co-founder of the Human Trafficking Institute. Before launching HTI, he served as a federal prosecutor in the US Department of Justice's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, and trained law enforcement from different parts of the world on how to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. Victor is co-author of The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (NRSV)
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. (NRSV)
“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (NRSV)
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. (NRSV)
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (NRSV)
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (NRSV)
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (NRSV)
Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (NRSV)
Additional Resources Referenced
Human Trafficking Institute: https://www.traffickinginstitute.org
The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence, by Victor Boutros and Gary Haugen
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Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.
Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.
LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.
MR: I’m Mark Roberts.
LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.
Are you facing a problem in your work that feels like it's too big for you to solve? How do you find hope amidst work that feels overwhelming? Our guest, Victor Boutros, is the CEO and co-founder of the Human Trafficking Institute. Before launching HTI, he served as a federal prosecutor in the US Department of Justice's Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, and trained law enforcement from different parts of the world on how to investigate and prosecute human trafficking. Victor is co-author of The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. Victor Boutros, welcome to the Making it Work podcast.
Victor Boutros: Thank you, it's great to be with you.
LA: Thank you so much for joining us. So I wanna start with maybe connecting the work that you do to the work that our listeners do, 'cause probably not all of our listeners are fighting human trafficking on a daily basis, but I'm sure all of our listeners face issues in their work which feel big and often like complex problems or problems that are too big to solve. So how do you think of this huge issue that you face, human trafficking, and maybe break it up into bite-size chunks that you can deal with on a daily basis?
VB: Yeah, that's a great question. And I remember experiencing that tension very, very acutely when I first was exposed to human trafficking. My first exposure to human trafficking came over 20 years ago when I was exposed to an individual case involving a 12-year-old girl from India who was from a very poor family. Her parents had sent her to the big city to earn some money. She gets a job at a restaurant washing dishes, and at the end of the summer is trying to head back home to her family in the village. And to do that, she's gotta catch a train from Victoria Station in Mumbai, back to her family, which is just this incredibly chaotic station, like a million people are going to that station every day, and she can't find her train. And a couple of older ladies approach her and see that she's troubled and they offer to help, and it turns out that they're all going on the same train.
So she's relieved to have these ladies looking out for her, and so they get on the train together, they start chatting, they have some tea, and it turns out the tea is drugged. And so she is knocked out cold, and when she wakes up, she finds herself on the third floor of a brothel in the red light district of Mumbai where she's been sold for the equivalent of 250 bucks. And from that time forward, she's told that she has a quota, that the trafficker paid good money for her and she now has to make money for him. And so she's got to service seven to 12 men a day, seven days a week in this city with this horrific HIV epidemic. And meanwhile here are her parents over here in the rural village at the train station, they have no idea where she is, they don't know how to find her, they don't even know how to start looking for her. And as I learned about that story, it just made my blood boil. I thought, "How do you do that to a 12-year-old?"
And there's a part of your soul when you hear a story like that and you learn that that's happening, where it moves it to action. It's like, "We have to get that girl out now. This is horrifically wrong in a world of moral gray, this is black and white. How do we get that girl out now?" And then as I started learning more about human trafficking in the world today and learning about the size and scope of the problem, I learned that this little girl's story is replicated across the globe on a massive scale, roughly 25 million people today are in some version of that story. And I have to tell you that as I learned about the scope of the problem, I found it profoundly unhelpful. It was totally demoralizing. It felt like such a massive problem, such a huge intractable problem that it felt like, "I don't even wanna hear from anybody who's working on this problem, because whatever you're going to tell me, however well motivated it might be, it feels like it's just gonna be a drop in the ocean. It's not really going to make a difference.
LA: So like one girl's story, you feel like, "Okay, I can identify with that girl."
VB: That's right.
LA: "I could maybe make my life's work, I could get her out." But you say, and that's replicated by 25 million people a year. You're like, "Maybe that's a little bit much for me to handle in my work."
VB: Yeah, it just seems so big. It feels like, I think because we're made in God's image and God is a God of compassion, I think we're actually drawn to pain for the purpose of helping someone out of it. But if we start to believe that there is nothing that we can meaningfully do to address that pain, then it's sort of like getting too close to a fire that you can't put out and you think, "I've gotta back away, I'm gonna get burned." And I think that is how I felt when I learned about the scope of the problem, like, "I can't draw near to this problem. I'm gonna get burned."
And so you have this terrible feeling of this divided soul, where one part of your soul is saying, "We gotta get her out now," and the other part of your soul is saying, "No, no, don't draw near to this. It's just gonna be a drop in the ocean, your hope is going to be dashed if you get too close, so you've gotta back away." And I think it was in that divided soul experience, that painful experience, that you kinda shut off, it's easy to shut off. For me, I experienced this very... Probably for the only time in my life, this very clear sense of calling from God that this is what I was supposed to do with my life. And so that ultimately changed the course of my life and led me ultimately eventually to law school and then on into working in this space. But I do think that a bunch of micros add up to a macro. And so that's why I love the work that we do at the Human Trafficking Institute. We focus on moving a bunch of micro cases that produce a big macro outcome.
LA: And I wanna talk to you about the work that you do at HTI, because you have a really effective model of partnering with other organizations in a way that does push the needle on human trafficking cases, but I would just wanna have a sit for a minute in that divided soul moment that you had, where you're feeling like, "God is calling me to solve a particular issue in my work, but it feels too big." What was your experience? Was it something that you read in scripture or was it something someone said to you that really pushed you in a direction that made you feel like, "I can do this for a job."
VB: You know, I think that for me, understanding that, especially now that I have children, you have the sense of like, "Hey, if this were to happen to one of my children, there is nothing in the world that would stop me from intervening. I would access every resource, every relationship, everything that I have to go and protect them." And I think that I understood that, "Gosh, I don't feel the same way about everyone in the world as I feel about my children, they're my children." And understanding that I think, God, I think doesn't begrudge our overwhelming preference for our own children. In fact, I think He shares it, He just has this much larger family that he's adopted us into. And when I began to understand that he feels the same way about this 12-year-old in India as I feel about my own 13-year-old daughter, it really opened my eyes that this is something He is so passionate about that He's not gonna stand idly by. And if I'm riding in the wake of His passion, then that's the best place in the world I could possibly be, because it's going to take me out of my comfort zone and out of my sphere of certain competence, but only because I'm riding behind Him, and He cares deeply about these victims and is ready to bring about justice on their behalf.
LA: Mark, I wanna bring you into the conversation too. I'm thinking as Victor is talking that there's so many passages in the Bible that call us the children of God, call all people the children of God, and yet it seems like that's a very difficult message for us to apply in our day-to-day life, given just how many people there are in the world and how intractable the myriad problems seem. How do you interpret those scriptures, Mark?
MR: Well, yeah, the idea that we're all children of God, absolutely, we believe and rejoice in, but it is... In the broader sense, that's not a very personal thing. I don't know that I really have heart-felt love for all the children of God. [chuckle] And so it's a real challenge, but Victor, as you were talking, two images from the Gospels came to mind, and the first is the Good Samaritan, and the Good Samaritan is awesome, he helped the guy on the road. What if there was like 1,000 guys on the road? I mean, that would be a real... I wish Jesus had told that parable. So the Good Samaritan could help one, but if all we got is one Good Samaritan, we haven't solved the whole problem, but he can still help one, and that's important.
But the other story I was remembering is in John, where Jesus in Jerusalem goes to this pool, the pool that's either called Bethzatha or Bethsaida, depending on the translation. And there are all these sick people around the pool, and Jesus heals one person. And one of the things that I've heard asked before and I've wondered about is why did he just heal one? He should have just like used his super Jesus powers and just like zapped everybody. Well, we don't get that answer, but we get a picture of somebody doing what he was supposed to do in that time. And for some folk, it's gonna be, help the one person by the side of the road, but it sounds like you got a different sense of calling, that God was calling you not just to help one girl, but to use your life and your training and your resources, and even to develop yourself so that you could do something that would actually be a larger work and that was distinctively yours in a way that you really sense God calling you to, right?
VB: Yeah, I think that is right. I did have that sense of like, "Yes, it is good to help one." And that's true, I think that's the image of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 who are safe to go after the one who is being preyed upon by hungry wolves. And that is so important. That means that there's no acceptable casualties in the kingdom of God, there's no one that's an acceptable sacrifice. And it's hard to understand that, to be honest with you, as a shepherd. I don't really understand shepherding, it doesn't feel like that makes sense to leave 99 sheep to go after one, but it definitely makes sense as a father, if I had multiple children and one of them is in danger, I'm going after the one that's in danger.
And so I think it's so powerful when you think about, especially the other gods of the day, there was no sense of that kind of fatherly, shepherdly, protective God that existed. And that's the image that God chose for Himself is God as father, God as protector. And so as we enter into that, we are sort of entering into His heart, which is a heart that cares for all people, and so definitely caring for the one I think is incredibly important, but for me, personally, I felt like, "Well, gosh, that's just a drop in the ocean. If you get this 12-year-old go out the front door, while the trafficker is just ushering in more girls in the back door, what have we really done? It doesn't feel like sufficient." So for me, what I really needed was not just hope that God will right things one day in the end, but extremely tangible hope, hope that not only can we help one or two victims here or there, but we can actually have a large percentage of victims experiencing freedom or being spared from this trauma in the first place, and that is the kind of hope that I think God is inviting us into in this particular area.
LA: This is a perfect transition, Victor, 'cause I wanna get into the actual work you do at the Human Trafficking Institute. I know that with other government agencies or foreign countries that you work for, they have practical problems, they wanna solve the problem of human trafficking, but they don't have enough prosecutors, they don't have the trained police officers who know how to go after these cases, so what are the practical solutions that you offer them through HTI?
VB: Yeah, I think one of the things that was initially very discouraging was thinking about the reality that even if we do a really, really good job of caring for survivors, the traffickers just don't care because they've already moved on to the next set of victims. And they're not making any less money when, as one trafficker very coarsely put it, "When you guys clean up our mess." And I thought, "Wow, what an ugly, crass, dark thing to say." But I think it's a very accurate window into how traffickers see this crime. For them, these victims are not individuals, they're just sort of nameless, faceless profit units. And they don't care which profit units are making them money, as long as they're making them money. And so for me the question became, "Is there a way that we can not just deal with the tragic consequences of trafficking after the fact, when it's so, so hard to recover from that trauma, but could we actually move upstream and stop it at its source, which is really the trafficker?" If you can stop the trafficker from making that decision to use force and threats and violence, then not only do you free their current victims but you also spare that future stream of victims from having to spend years enduring that trauma and struggling to recover from it.
And I think the game changer for me, the big light bulb that went off for me, was understanding the traffickers are economically motivated, that is, this is a cost benefit crime, they're only engaging in the crime because the benefits outweigh the cost. And that actually is a great point of hope, because what it means is that if you can just increase the costs a little bit until they outweigh the benefits, then it's no longer worth it to engage in the crime. And so once traffickers understand, "Hold it, wait, there's a specialized enforcement unit that could come in and seize all my profits, and I could lose all my money and my family, my freedom, go to jail, then all of a sudden it's too risky, I'd rather shift industries or pay a few extra dollars to voluntary laborers than risk losing everything," and you start to see these big drops in the prevalence of trafficking. And so for us at HTI, the question began to be, "Well, how do you do that? How do you increase enforcement capacity to help police and prosecutors create that little bit of enforcement risk that produces drops in trafficking?" And what we did is we essentially used a model that we helped pilot when I was a federal prosecutor at the Justice Department, and we're now taking that model to developing countries to help them apply that model and bring freedom to victims and stop traffickers.
I'm so interested in this model 'cause I've read about it, and you're actually sending people into their departments, almost a mentorship job shadowing program. And mentorship is something that Mark and I have talked a lot about on the podcast, because literally coming along someone else in their work has such power not only to teach skills, but to build the relationships that are necessary to have someone else go on and do this work. So can you talk about how you've seen this model be effective in your work in terms of the results of decreasing trafficking in these areas?
VB: Yeah, so what we do is we now partner with governments around the world to help them basically do three things. We help them first build and vet specialized enforcement units. So these are teams of police and prosecutors and victim specialists that focus exclusively on trafficking enforcement, and sometimes we have fast-track courts to help make sure those cases don't get stuck in a backlog. And then the second thing we do is we take these teams and we put them through kind of a mini law enforcement academy, where we walk them through, "Here are the strategies that we've seen be effective at each stage of the process, from identifying cases all the way through trial." And then the third thing we do is we embed former prosecutors, former FBI agents who actually move to that partner country, and by agreement with the government, start officing with these units and start working with them day in and day out on their cases, helping them build their skills, solve case-related challenges that come up, and ultimately help create that transparency and accountability that protects against corruption risk, and then we measure that from start to finish.
And to your point, what we found is that human trafficking enforcement is just very specialized, the way that you do a human trafficking case is pretty different than the way you do other types of enforcement cases. And if you're serious about building specialized skills, it always involves two components, it's first mastering some core knowledge that you need, and then having an extended period of time where you can practice applying those skills with someone who's done it before.
And what we've seen has been very exciting. In Uganda, for instance, this past year, we had set a very ambitious target, this is prior to COVID coming up, of seeing a 70% increase in enforcement. COVID hit, everything became way, way harder, but we tried to hold on to that goal, and ultimately between July and October, what we saw is not a 70% increase, but a 1200% increase in the number of traffickers stopped and almost a 1300% increase in the number of victims protected. And I do feel like this is a little bit like the loaves and fish. You can't exactly congratulate the little boy for feeding 5,000 people, Jesus used his loaves and fish to feed 5,000 people, but ultimately, Jesus fed 5,000 people. And when you're talking about that kind of multiplication, it really is hard to attribute to our work. I think we did a good job of offering our loaves and fish, but this is something that God cares about, and I think that He really multiplied those efforts in ways that we couldn't even have dreamed or imagined.
LA: That certainly is an uplifting success story. [chuckle] And definitely, listening to this, I wanna say, "Well, there you go, just take the first step towards the calling that God has given you, and you're gonna have this over-bounding success." But I imagine there are also moments in your work, in your career, where you haven't seen such success, and I wonder how your faith sustains you when you're facing a big problem that either feels intractable or you haven't seen the needle move on it yet. Do you still have moments at this point in your career that you feel like they challenge your sense of hope?
VB: For sure, I think the two biggest areas where I felt that sense were really in getting the sort of leaders that I need, which are very unique, they're extremely experienced. How do you find highly experienced human trafficking prosecutors or law enforcement agents that are ready to leave their great positions and move often with their family and their kids to the developing world in order to lead these efforts and to do it in a way that's culturally sensitive, that embodies incredible leadership, and also moves toward outcomes in a humble way? That is not an easy ask. And that you felt like, "Gosh, where am I gonna find those folks?"
In that case, when I was thinking about Uganda, it's kind of amazing how ultimately over time God provides. And in our case, we ended up with this incredible prosecutor, one of the most experienced trafficking prosecutors I know out of Houston, who ended up... He and his family started doing some short-term trips to Uganda, they felt the sense of calling to Uganda, I'd had no idea about this at the time, and he was actually so compelled by Uganda that he was thinking about leaving his job as a prosecutor just to go do missions work in Uganda, and ultimately discovered that the attorney general... Heard someone say, the attorney general of Uganda is actually pretty passionate about anti-trafficking stuff, and I think he sent him a cold email, not expecting a response, just saying, "Hey, I heard you're doing great work here. Good to hear that, and keep it up, and kudos, I don't expect a response."
And the attorney general responded and said, "Hey, I see that you're a human trafficking prosecutor. I don't know if you know our partner in this work, the Human Trafficking Institute, but if not, you should check them out." He'd never heard of us, goes to the website, sees the job description, long story short within a few months, he's got the job and is selling his cars and his home and is moving his wife and three girls to Kampala, Uganda to go lead this work. And that's something that... It was not a product of my great strategy, and despite my hand wringing and feeling like, "Gosh, I'm never gonna find this person," God had already begun to provide for that in ways that I could not have imagined. And so I would say that there definitely are times where you feel like, "Gosh, I'm not gonna find the right leaders or I'm not gonna have the financial resources I need to support and grow this mission and this team." As particularly when I left the Justice Department and I thought, "Gosh, all my contacts here are government attorneys and teachers who are just trying to put food on the table and take care of their children, who's gonna fund this?" For the last 10 years when I was at the Justice Department, the IRS was my fundraiser, and they were really good at it and I didn't have to worry about that
LA: Very consistent.
VB: But now all of a sudden I've gotta worry about that and I don't know, I have no idea where this gonna come from. And I realized this experience of stepping out of the boat, which I thought was so cool when Peter did it and I was reading about that as a kid, I realized that's a double-edged sword. Stepping out of the boat is thrilling; it's also very scary. And I think it's been tempting, I think, in my experience as a prosecutor, to believe that I can outwork any problem that comes my way. But it's in these moments that I've experienced this sense of like, "Wow, I really need God to show up or it's not gonna happen." And I'm outside of my sphere of certain competence. I'm stepping out of the boat, the water's not gonna hold me up unless God does something to make that happen. I'm not gonna find this leader, I'm not gonna get these resources unless God moves people in some way that I can't do. And those were the kinds of things that really were massive faith-building experiences that then carried me forward, so that when new challenges come, I have that history of faithfulness that reminds me that this is something that God cares about and He doesn't need me to do it. He's just allowing me to be a part of it.
LA: Now, you mentioned, I have to pause on your story of stepping out of the boat, because this is the second time in this podcast that you've mentioned one of these big miracle stories that comes from, I just looked up the chapter, it's Matthew chapter 14, and Matthew, the author of this gospel, is recounting a bunch of miracles that most of us can't do in our normal lives, like the first you mentioned is that Jesus takes a few loaves and fishes that are given to him and multiplies it so that they feed a whole crowd full of people. And then immediately after he does this, he goes off on his own to pray and his disciples go on a boat to the other side of the lake, and then they see him walking across the water on the lake. And then what happens, Mark? I'll let you finish the story for me.
MR: Well, it's one of my favorite stories in the Bible, 'cause I so relate to Peter in this. So anyway, so the disciples see Jesus and they're kinda freaked out, but Peter is excited. And he gets out of the boat and he starts walking toward Jesus on the water, just kind of forgot, I guess, that he was walking on water, he was so wrapped up in seeing Jesus, and then he looks down and realizes what he's doing and he starts falling in. That's my favorite part of the story, 'cause I'm like, "Oh, I'm so like Peter," 'cause there is a part of me that I just wanna know Jesus, I wanna follow him, I wanna be bold, I wanna get out of the boat. And there's some part of me that looks down and I fall in the water. And then of course Jesus comes over and picks him up, and it works out. So it is an amazing miracle story, and then it's also just an amazing story of sort of human desire and fallibility and weakness, but then it's an amazing story of God's grace in Jesus. And I just find that so encouraging because I think I'm also the kind of person, that, "I'm not gonna get out of the boat till I am absolutely certain I can walk on that water." I'd have to wait till that thing was frozen solid a foot deep before I'm getting out of that boat.
LA: I want the special shoes, the water skis.
MR: And because I wanna control everything and do everything and be self-reliant and be strong. And not that it's always wrong to be strong or those things, but I think this story encourages us to take risks, knowing that if we fall in the water, Jesus is still there and he's gonna help us. And so, on the one hand, we have this picture of just sort of this amazing miracle, on the other hand this utter humanness surrounded by this, and permeated by the grace of God that's gonna help us and be there for us even when we fall in the water.
LA: There's so many stories, it's funny that folks often think of a life of faith as kind of like a safe bet. I have no idea why, 'cause there's so many stories in the Bible about taking risk, that encourage us to take risk, although this story about Jesus walking on water and Peter falling in, that's not super encouraging to me. I don't wanna even risk looking stupid and getting egg on my face. But we think of, Victor, you mentioned before, financial risk, when you left the Justice Department and thought, "Who was gonna fund me now that the IRS isn't funding me anymore?" There are even stories in the Bible about financial risk. I think of the story in Matthew 25, which is often called the Parable of the Talents, which is literally about financial risk. There's a master who has several servants, the master's going on a trip and he gives each of the servants an amount of money and encourages them to take a financial risk, and ends up rewarding the ones who have taken more of a risk. I don't know, Victor, is this a story that's been encouraging to you in these moments in your career?
VB: Absolutely, in fact, my pastor asked me if I would give the Labor Day sermon at our church in DC, and that was the very passage that I chose as the text that I was gonna preach on back in this past Labor Day. And it's been an incredibly powerful passage for me. And really, I think three lessons for me just emerged as I began to think about and reflect on that passage. And the first was really that our choices really matter. And it was shocking for me, I don't know why, I don't know where this came from, but in my head when I was a kid reading that story, I thought of a talent as maybe like $5, 5 or 10 bucks, and I learned that one talent was 20 years' wages for a laborer. So depending on how you calculate it, that means that in the US today, one talent would be a little bit more than a million dollars. We are entrusted with such significant responsibility and real opportunity to bring tangible hope in the Kingdom of God." And it was like imagine if God gave each of us, literally gave us $5 million to steward for Kingdom purposes, and we knew He'd be coming back to see how we used it. That was so sobering, like these choices really matter. And this idea of in Ephesians 2, I think Paul talks about that we are God's handiwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. And that means that there's very specific good works that God has prepared for us to do, and there are real kingdom returns that God intends for you and for me to bring about. And if we opt out of doing them, if we bury our talent in the sand, then those returns will not be realized through us. It doesn't mean God won't bring them about, but it may be in a far more costly way. When I think of... I think of each trafficker as a spark that if left unchecked will become a fire consuming forests of God's children. And so stewarding that tangible hope today is like the difference between putting out a spark and putting out a forest fire. And to me, that was an incredibly powerful lesson that came out of the Parable of the Talents.
MR: What struck me as we're talking about this parable and about what you had said earlier, Victor, is that on the one hand, absolutely, what you reported and how the work is going is absolutely a miracle of God, and it absolutely requires extraordinary training, skill, ability, wisdom, human work ability. So you're not just taking well-meaning nice people and putting them in these countries to help sort out this problem. You're taking people who are... And so, they are, in line with the parable, they have been given a lot in terms of their capabilities. And so they are doing that with, you might say, the best of human faithfulness and stewardship, which is a part of how God then works that in a miracle.
And so, whether it's someone is using their giftedness to fight human trafficking or to deal with other kinds of social causes or in more "ordinary" workplaces, the calling is to really use well what God has given us and to do so for God's purposes. And I love, by the way, Ephesians 2, you're singing my song when you go to Ephesians. And I'll just say for a lot of my life, when I read that verse in Ephesians about we're God's handiwork and we're supposed to walk in the good works God has prepared for us, I always sort of thought of those good works as like lead a Bible study, share Christ with your friend, they're very churchy good works. Now, those count. What I've come to realize is that I was thinking way too small. The good works are sort of the broad works, including, "Be a good teacher. Be a good lawyer in wherever God has placed you. Be a good craftsman. Be a good mother." And it's just such an amazing thing to think that God has remade us in Christ so that we can live our whole life walking in the good that God has for us, but we've gotta choose to do that. We've gotta choose to receive that opportunity and then steward well what God has given.
LA: I feel very bouyed by your own, the hope that you have, Victor, in your work. And I also feel that in my own work, I can get stymied by problems that are so much smaller. The day-to-day what gets me down is like I have this big problem with my Google files that I don't know how to fix, and that seems really challenging, and I'm gonna have to think hard, it's gonna give me a headache. It's hard to connect the bigger sense of calling that I might feel with the challenges in my day-to-day work. Do you have a piece of advice for folks at my level of difficulty and frustration in my work about connecting a big sense of calling to the day-to-day challenges?
VB: I actually think it's a discipline. I don't think it comes to us naturally. I think our natural state is to be thinking about the very immediate problems right before us, and I think that's totally human, totally understandable, totally natural. I think it actually requires a level of discipline where we're actually specifically and intentionally setting aside time to step back and elevate above the ground floor and look at the larger picture of like, "Okay, God, what are you doing here in a larger sense? How do I not miss the forest for the trees?"
And sometimes we can see that and sometimes we can't, but I do think that as we engage in our work, trying to take time to intentionally connect this Google file that's causing me so much trouble to the connection of, "Okay, God, and maybe you're gonna allow the teaching that I do through this Google file to actually bless people who are really struggling or having a hard time, or they're feeling very discouraged, perhaps this is gonna give them hope," and to really understand that we won't always see it, but that, like the parable of the talents, life... I think the thing for me that has also been helpful is remembering that life is short. I mean, to think about James's comment in James, I think it's 4:14, and he says, life is a breath. It's like the vapor that we see for a moment on a cold winter day, and then it's gone. Our life on earth is this tiny sliver in the timeline of eternity. And so we have this just brief moment where God is entrusting us to steward things for His glory and for His Kingdom.
And so when I think about that and understand that God's eye is roving not on my tiny cramped drama, but on the much larger timeline of eternity and the purposes that He is enacting through us, and that He could do it without us but He's choosing to work through us, He's operating through His body, which we are His body, and that is actually... Helps breathe meaning into what the sort of menial tasks and problems of the day to understand that God is using this for a larger purpose. But I don't think it will come naturally, I think it has to both individually and maybe as a team, as a group, as a community, as a Bible study, we have to intentionally take time. I remember reading one author who talked about using the Sabbath in that way, that he would take his week and he would look at the week behind him and look at the week ahead and say, "Okay, God, what can I celebrate about what you did this week? And what are the larger movements of this past week and what are the larger movements of the coming week, and the coming month and year?" And breathing meaning into those things, giving thanks for that and giving thanks that even though he doesn't need us, we're getting to be a part of something larger that He's doing in the world. But I don't think it happens by accident, it has to happen with a great deal of intentionality and discipline.
MR: Well, and you pointed to one very specific discipline that certainly could support that, and that is the Sabbath, or actually taking time to rest, but not just to take a nap and play with your kids, which would be a great thing to do on the Sabbath, but to take some time to reflect about the week and what God is doing. I'm struck by how often in the Gospels Jesus takes off for the wilderness to be alone in prayer, and I often think, "You know, if the Son of God needed to do that, I probably ought to do that."
LA: It happened between those two miracle stories that we were just talking about in the book of Matthew, between feeding the 5,000 with the loaves and fishes, and between walking on the water, Jesus was, he was out, he was taking a time out in the mountain.
MR: You know, people are gonna think this is a set up, Leah, they don't realize you just pulled that out. I love that. But you're right, so in the middle of all this stuff going on, and miraculous stuff, Jesus goes off to be alone, and that's surely gotta be one of the places that he got refreshed in the vision of what God was doing in the kingdom, so that then he could put up with all the other things he had to put up with all the time, like Peter falling into the water.
LA: He's got hungry kids on one side of him, he's got wet kids on the other side of him, he's taking care of everybody. Thank God he had that moment on top of the mountain to get refreshed and get the bigger picture himself.
MR: Well, but that I think is great encouragement, Victor, for all of us to really think about what are we doing in our life to help develop that discipline to see our work. And again, our paid work, but also just the work of our lives, the unpaid work, all the work of our lives in terms of the larger thing that God is doing, and really connect our work to God's work. I think that's just a great reminder, thank you.
VB: And I do think one additional high point of that, and this also comes out of parable of the talents, which is really striking, is, although we are stewards and not owners, God still gives us a generous return. This is very weird, right? It's His talents in the parable, it's the master's talents, and yet the master gives the stewards this generous return at the very end, as he's talking to the two stewards who multiplied their returns, he says, "Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master." So engaging in this scary exercise of stepping out of the boat, of actually recognizing, "Gosh, our choices really matter. There's actually a tremendous amount entrusted to me that the master wants me to invest and put at risk for His Kingdom," that by doing so, we actually get this tremendous return for us, which is His joy. And that is a very, very exciting place to be, and that joy is absent when we bury our talent in the sand. And the great enemy of that joy is fear. And I think so often what I realized I struggle with is that I'm often afraid of the wrong things. The steward was afraid to lose his talent, and the biggest risk, though, is that we can genuinely miss the gains that God intends for us to bring about. We can be so concerned about backing away from the fire that we genuinely miss it, and by playing it safe, we can actually miss out on making real kingdom impact and entering into joy.
LA: I have to say, I personally feel very encouraged in my work after this. I really am struck by the magnitude of the work that you do at the Human Trafficking Institute, and also about the very humble fact that you are one person doing it. You have the whole team behind you, but one person with faith can do a lot with that investment of risk for God.
MR: Well can I just add, Leah, so I'm struck by the magnitude, but also, I just gotta say, I'm struck by the practical, pragmatic, down-to-earth wisdom of what you're doing too, 'cause there are a lot of people that wanna do good, but you looked at this thing, and of course God helped you, but you looked at this thing in terms of the bigger picture, "What's really going on here, how can we really not just deliver people from trafficking, which is of course a huge and a wonderful and important work, but how can we stop this?" And what you came up with it was really, in one sense, sort of highly technical, and... So what I'm grateful for as a Christian, 'cause I'm one that thinks 25 million people being trafficked, I'm one guy, I feel overwhelmed, there's nothing I can do. Well, I can do something. I can both be aware of what you're doing, and if the Lord puts it on my heart, I can actually help to support that, 'cause what you're doing is just really like nuts and bolts smart, and hard work and good work. So I just wanna say I'm impressed by the magnitude, but I'm also just impressed by the sort of the down-to-earth mechanics and wisdom of it, and I just think that's part of the gift that God gave you, part of the calling God gave you.
VB: Well, thank you, Mark, I appreciate you saying that. And I do wanna just add that what I get to do in my job, which is so much fun, it's just to get to shine a spotlight on this amazing team that is the team that's actually going out and doing that gumshoe investigative work and mentorship and support to make this all possible. But there are real life heroes out there that are doing in an incredibly humble and winsome way this nuts and bolts smart work that you're talking about to support and build up leaders in other countries to also help lead and do that kind of smart nuts and bolts work. And so it is just a great joy and it's also quite inspiring to get to be a part of a team like that and watch the team do that on the ground.
LA: Victor, thank you so much for inspiring us today. Thank you for joining us on the podcast. It's been a pleasure.
VB: The pleasure's been mine, thank you so much for having me. I look forward to, hopefully, future conversations.