The God Who Sees, A Church That Sees: Hagar and Human Trafficking

On January 15th the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project and the General Board of Church and Society co-hosted a webinar to discuss the challenges and realities human trafficking survivors face when seeking reproductive health care and the way our culture contributes to the marginalization of women and girls.  During this webinar, Katey Zeh, Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project, provided a theological reflection about Hagar and human trafficking in which she calls on all of us to respond to persons suffering from human trafficking by first seeing the sacred worth in all of God’s children.

This year the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project and the General Board of Church and Society are responding to this call by asking United Methodists around the world: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth?

We invite you to read Katey’s reflection below and use your voice to help us answer this question.  We’ll be compiling your responses throughout 2014 and sharing them with you in an effort to continue the dialogue about how to make the church an agent of change for women and girls around the world.

*Click here to view the slideshow for this webinar.*

*Click here to download the audio recording of the call.*

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!’ But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her. (Genesis 16:1-6)

Sarai and Abram cannot truly see Hagar. They are blinded by their social status as slave masters. To them, she is a nameless object made for hard labor, merely a solution to their lifelong ache to birth a son. But as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child, Sarai feels her standing as a wife is threatened. Sarai inflicts so much abuse upon Hagar that even for a slave who was undoubtedly accustomed to harsh conditions, life is unbearable. With no intervention from Abram, we see that Hagar was always treated as a subordinate, as a vessel. She runs away, risking everything in search of sanctuary back at home in Egypt. Perhaps it was fear for her unborn child that gave her the courage escape.

Alone and pregnant, Hagar must know how precarious her journey through the wilderness will be, but God is with her. When she is nearly to Egypt, an angel of the Lord appears and for the first time in this narrative, Hagar is addressed and called by her name. The story takes a confusing turn when the angel of the Lord commands her to return to her masters’ home. Isn’t this the place where God is supposed to provide safety and deliverance? We can only wonder why. Perhaps there was some greater danger ahead if she continued to Egypt. We cannot know.  But what we do know is that Hagar is not sent back without hope. The angel brings her a message of survival and endurance, a covenant that promises her son will bring forth a new generation.

At that moment, I imagine all Hagar needs to hear is assurance that she and her child would be able to survive. The angel’s message from God provides immediate solace. Hagar’s pregnancy would continue, she would give birth to a healthy child, and she would live to name him.

We can wonder if Hagar hoped that by bearing Abram’s child, she would be liberated from her life of slavery. How many women and girls today are vulnerable to a trafficker’s false promise of a better life, only to find themselves in inescapable situations of abuse?  Like Hagar, they are objectified, reduced to meeting the needs of others and at the expense of their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health. How many trafficked persons today are waiting for a voice of hope, an assurance that God is with them in the wilderness? How many have dreams of escaping but have no way out? How many simply wish to be seen, to be heard, and to be called by name?

Hagar calls God “El-Roi,” the God who sees. Even when those around her cannot value her humanity, she is God’s child. Her story is painful, and yet it calls out to us to  respond to the needs of persons suffering because of human trafficking. We begin by praying that our eyes be opened so that we might see the sacred worth in all of God’s children—including those in marginalized social contexts.

The question that we ask of you is: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth?


Katey Zeh is the Project Director for the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project. She is grateful to Rev. Dr. Cheryl Anderson and Rev.Lehlohonolo Henrietta Montjane, two of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Ambassadors, whose theological insight helped shape this reflection.