Encounter and Accompaniment: A Sister’s Perspective

Former LifeWay Network Director of Development, Sr. Melissa Camardo, gave a powerful speech at “Faces in the Fight Against Human Trafficking Conference and Exhibit” at the United Nations on July 29th. Below are excerpts from her moving account at the Holy See Mission. 

A desire to see and be seen.
A willingness to risk.
A non-judgmental attitude.
A welcoming home to self.
A strength and joy to step toward new freedom.

In my experience, these are the qualities of real and deep relationships between sisters and survivors of human trafficking.

I came to the anti-trafficking movement and ministry with survivors over three years ago when I moved to New York City to be a part of LifeWay Network. At the time, I knew hardly anything about human trafficking and I had never met a survivor. But I felt called to seek something more in my life and an invitation to take this kind of step started to emerge. 

The mission of LifeWay Network focuses on two of the most critical needs in the anti-trafficking movement – direct services for survivors and education for the general public to raise awareness and encourage action to end trafficking. We envision a world in which human trafficking is eradicated and every survivor is strong, connected and free. 

Relationships are at the center of who we are. We provide confidential, safe housing and supportive services for women survivors over the age of 18 who have experienced all forms of trafficking. Spread over 3 locations in the New York metropolitan area, we have 2 beds for emergency stays, 12 beds for a one year program and 2 beds for transitional housing if needed after completing the full year. Since the housing program started in 2012, we’ve served over 100 women from 37 countries, including the United States. Each safe house has a full-time, live-in, core community of 3 Catholic sisters, and I am privileged to be one of them. The safe house is our home, and we do our best to welcome and enfold each survivor into a place that she can call “home” too. 

LifeWay invests in this intentional community model because we believe that healing happens in the context of community and over time. A truly restorative path honors both the dignity of every human person and who we are together as persons in community. A loving, imperfect but striving community is the place in which life can be reclaimed with its rights and responsibilities for the flourishing of the human person. 

Relationships start off slowly in the safe house as each new person gets settled in her own way, and then they grow as we eat and laugh together, celebrate holidays, go on outings, work through conflict and just live ordinary days of life. 

It is my privilege to be here today with Helen*, a woman of strength and courage, who is an important part of this journey for me. Living in community with Helen*and also knowing her beyond that time together, is an example of encounter and accompaniment that fills me with gratitude. 

Here are just a few moments that will give you some insight into our shared life: 

  • Helen: Making chapati and main dishes, endlessly chopping onions and tomatoes, and adding so many spices! Me: Eating 
  • Helen: Birthday dinner – getting dressed up and relishing every moment in front of the birthday cake. Me: Taking photos like paparazzi. 
  • Times of stress and worries about the future. Both of us. 
  • Shared Conversations about God and faith and religion. 
  • Helen: The artist – painting and creating. Me: Watching in awe. 
  • Helen: Shoes! Outfits! And on a budget. Me: So interested to see what you’d come downstairs wearing next. 
  • And finally, the support you found in a real friendship with another resident toward the end of your time. It was special for both of you and you were there for each other in the right ways at the right time. 

In fact, being in the safe house community as that particular relationship developed between the two of you, showed me an incredible example of how we all heal hearts. It is never about trying to fix what may seem broken or help what may seem weak in another person. It is not about having this kind of power over someone. 

Instead it is love and power “with” another person – it is being with someone and seeing their wholeness, acknowledging their own power which they may have forgotten. It is creating the conditions and supporting a space for them to welcome and reconcile a range of experiences, emotions, and reactions. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from the women we serve who have experienced so many horrifying things done to them is that just as they are not to be defined or controlled by what has happened, I too am not just what has happened to me in life. I too am a whole person and have choices in front of me. 

When my heart is broken, I can let the shattered pieces fall to the ground, jagged and useless. Or I can do the hard work, like Helen and so many others in our community at LifeWay Network of survivors and sisters and people committed to ending human trafficking, to gently hold my very-much-still-alive heart and to smooth the rough edges and cracks into channels for love and joy to flow more freely than ever before.


*name has been changed