Welcome back the newest addition to the Saints roster, veteran tight end Benjamin Watson
You can make the case that the cause found Benjamin Watson.
Not that the Saints tight end wasn't looking for a good one; he always is, and it's among the reasons that he is a respected spokesman and advocate. When the 15-year veteran finds a cause that he and his wife, Kirsten, fully can commit to, their walk is more impressive than their talk.
But the subject of sex trafficking wasn't one the Watsons had targeted. Rather, it was one that presented itself to them often enough that they had to listen. And learn. And dive in.
So this week (Monday through Thursday), they find themselves in the Dominican Republic with the International Justice Mission (IJM), the world's largest anti-slavery/human trafficking organization. The Watsons head the "Team Freedom" group that includes at least six NFL players and several wives, including Saints receiver Austin Carr and his wife, Erica.
"About three years ago, this whole sex trafficking thing kept coming up in different ways," Watson said. Three years ago, Watson was in his first stint as a Saint, from 2013-15.
"I remember being in New Orleans, I was going somewhere and I saw something that didn't quite look right," he said. "It looked like it may have been abuse or maybe trafficking going on. Kirsten, she has always had a desire to really minister to young women, whether it be domestic abuse, sexual abuse, trafficking. And a lot of stuff just kind of came together.
"And a couple of years ago, I was reading this verse in the book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament, and it talks about God delighting in kindness, justice and righteousness. In looking for what we wanted to plug into and what we wanted to really stand behind, there are a lot of really great causes out there that people are involved with.
"But something like this changes people's lives, something like this changes generations, something like this is about freeing people from bondage, freeing people from slavery, physically but also spiritually. And so we see it on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to that. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity."
IJM is based out of Washington, D.C. Watson was able to connect with the organization more closely during his two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens (2016-17).
"Really, over the last two, almost three years, we decided to really get more involved, donating and supporting them financially but also, learning about the work that they're doing," Watson said. "Over the last year, we just had this feeling that we wanted to be involved with the justice issue, not only domestically but internationally. And this organization goes into places around the world, including the United States, and erects and rehabilitates justice systems that are either not there, where perpetrators operate with impunity, or they train the local law enforcement to recognize and understand how to deal with human trafficking, sex trafficking, labor trafficking – all those sorts of things.
"Whenever Kirsten and I are involved with something, or whenever we want to support an organization, we always want to really be hands on and kind of see the work being done first hand, as much as we possibly can. And so, we kind of decided that we wanted to take a trip with IJM and they had a new field office they'd just put in the Dominican Republic, where sex trafficking of minors is really a large issue."
Watson said that worldwide, there are about two million children in the sex trafficking trade, which branches into venues like cybersex trafficking.
This year is the second consecutive year the IJM group has gone to the Dominican Republic.
"In the Dominican Republic, perpetrators were operating with impunity – there were no arrests, there was no case work, there were really no laws on the books," Watson said. "In 2013, I believe IJM put their field office there. They've been working, training, they have lawyers and over the last couple of years they're starting to get convictions, where before, there were none.
"So last year, Kirsten and I, we wanted to go and we opened it up to any players that wanted to come with us just to check it out. We had about 10 people, or five couples, and a couple of single guys that came with us down there. We spent about three days last year, heard about the case work, heard from the investigators, kind of got an overview of the landscape, saw the work being done, went into an aftercare home – because a part is aftercare. When these
boys and girls, young men and young women, are rescued, they need basic necessities. They need counseling, they need job training, education. If they have children, they need help with that.
"And we also did something called a Day of Joy. A Day of Joy is something IJM likes to do where they kind of give the kids a time to get away from the atrocities that they're facing. What we did last year was, we had kind of a sports theme with the football guys. We had a group of young boys who had just been in a sex trafficking ring and their case was going through the system.
"We played games with them, threw the football around, played a little soccer, played a little basketball and come to find out a few weeks later, there were convictions in their cases. So we connected with them and it was literally a
time for celebration because we looked those kids in the face and we spent some time with them."
It was natural to want to return this year, and possibly make it a yearly trip.
This week, there will be another Day of Joy, another visit to an aftercare facility, and a meeting with the vice president of the Dominican Republic. Because of IJM's work, Watson said the D.R. government has a new memorandum of understanding to focus on combating sex trafficking in the country.
"This is like, major," he said.
The Watsons connected with a sex trafficking survivor home in Baltimore, and hope to do the same in New Orleans.
"For me and Kirsten, I think that it really is about sharing the love of Christ with people, and this is a way that we do it, by speaking for the least of these, by giving a voice to the voiceless, by trying to understand peoples' plight and
seeing how we can help in any way to support those that are doing that on the ground level," he said. "So, we're thankful that IJM has given us the chance to do this."