Human Trafficking: Let the oppressed go free

“Awareness is the first weapon to fight human trafficking,” said Timothy Schmalz, world renowned Canadian artist.

That’s why Schmalz created Let the Oppressed Go Free, a life-sized bronze sculpture that depicts human trafficking slaves being released from captivity. The 23-foot long sculpture is on display on the north side of Cleveland’s Public Square, across from the Old Stone Church, through March 31, 2024.

Let the Oppressed Go Free includes 100 figures—which represent different faces of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage—being released from the underground by St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave who eventually was freed in Italy and joined a convent in Schio, Vicenza, about 30 miles west of Venice around 1890.

Eventually, the sculpture will be permanently installed at Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. The sculpture was brought to Cleveland this month by the Community West Foundation and Cleveland’s Collaborative to End Human Trafficking. The only other copy of the piece is installed in Schio.

Schmalz, whose works include the Matthew 25 collection of six statues in Cleveland, said Let the Oppressed Go Free was inspired by Isaiah 58:6:

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?”

The slaves being released from the underground include men and women and boys and girls of many races who illustrate that human trafficking is a generations-old societal problem. Coins in the sculpture reflect the connection between human trafficking and money.

“This sculpture is going to be an inconvenience,” said Schmalz, whose work has been installed around the world, including at the Vatican. “Human trafficking is a problem in our society that is often invisible.”

Before facilitating the sculpture’s viewing in Cleveland, the foundation acquired several other Schmalz works that are on display locally. In 2017, the foundation purchased a replica of his Homeless Jesus sculpture, which depicts the basic need for shelter and raises awareness of the homeless population. Eventually, the foundation acquired five of the six permanent artworks in the Matthew 25 Collection, which is based on the 25th chapter of the Book of Matthew:

  • Homeless Jesus – located at St. Malachi Parish
  • When I Was Sick – located at Cleveland Clinic Lutheran Hospital
  • When I Was in Prison – located at Bridge CLE (formerly Family Ministry Center)
  • When I Was a Stranger – located at The Refugee Response at Urban Community School
  • When I Was Naked – located at Malachi House

The sixth sculpture in the collection, When I Was Hungry and Thirsty, was purchased and installed by the Old Stone Church, making Cleveland the only city, along with Rome, to have the full collection on display. A map of the six sculptures, is available here.

The foundation says it is guided by the words of Matthew 25:35-40.

The collaborative provides resources to address and create awareness of human trafficking, in large part through its Greater Cleveland’s Coordinated Response to Human Trafficking, a multi-disciplinary group that works together to develop a comprehensive and coordinated response to human trafficking in Northeast Ohio. I represent the Rotary Club of Strongsville on the collaborative.

Human trafficking—or slavery— involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to engage a person in commercial sex or slave labor. Millions of men, women and children are trafficked in the U.S. and around the world every year.

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