Editor’s note: This article first published in the summer edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room.
Kathleen Bryant grew up in southern California, the eldest in an eight-child Catholic family. She split her time hanging out on the beaches of San Clemente, practicing trombone and studying at school, and playing organ at church.
Self-described as “not the pious type,” Bryant was surprised to find herself knocking at a local convent door and turning to a life in the church. She entered the convent in 1967.
Fifty-six years later, Sister Kathleen Bryant is one of over 650,000 Catholic nuns around the world, and one of about 2,000 who have chosen as their mission the battle against human trafficking. The group, Talitha Kum, was formed in 2009.
“The name comes from the story of Jesus bringing a 12-year-old girl back to life,” Bryant said. “Jesus said, ‘Talitha koum!’ Little girl, arise! We educate, we raise awareness, we support survivors so they can get back on their feet.”
Bryant recently spent a month at a Talitha Kum program in Nigeria, where they help trafficking survivors get on their feet through vocational training.
“If they want to be tailors, we take them through a series of lessons. At the end of the training, we give them a sewing machine so they can make money, feed their children,” she said. “If they love to cook, we train them how to be caterers, how to sell goods in the market.”
Bryant’s passion for this work shines everywhere she goes. Sister Ann Oestreich, President of the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, observed this while riding in a Los Angeles, California, cab with Bryant years ago.
“By the end of the ride, the driver was promising to report signs of trafficking,” Oestreich said. “Sister Kathleen will talk to anybody and everybody to spread the message. She is anxious to help people reclaim their God-given dignity.”
That message-spreading helped connect Meeting Professionals International with the Talitha Kum mission. MPI President Paul Van Deventer met Bryant at a Beverly Hills, California, dinner party seven years ago.
“It was a beautiful home; the dinner was outdoors; spectacular weather,” Van Deventer said. “Then Sister Kathleen was asked to speak. The topic was a stark contrast—but it rocked me. She challenged me: ‘How can you help build awareness?’”
Van Deventer went back to the MPI leadership team, did some research, and began to use his organization to leverage its power in the fight.
MPI uses a community of more than 80,000 members to build awareness, working toward a goal of ending human trafficking.
“We build it into event RFPs, we bring in speakers,” said Van Deventer. “It’s become a core part of our DNA. We will always be talking about it.”
Bryant has another hospitality industry champion in Brian Stevens, CEO of meeting-and-event-management firm ConferenceDirect. “Brian gave me entree to speak with hotel managers and others in the industry,” Bryant said. “I used to go to websites to look for missing and exploited kids. I’d find a photo of a girl and you could see the headboard, see that it was a good hotel ... I educate the industry to use hotels that sign an ethics code and train their employees to spot and report trafficking.”
“Sister Kathleen has figured out how to reduce trafficking in hotels,” Stevens said. “It’s a cascading effect. In the past we were blind. Now everyone, from housekeepers to clerks to security guards, can spot it. The training program that Kathleen’s a part of has opened our eyes.”
Talitha Kum serves 97 countries; more than half a million people were reached by their work in 2022. Bryant has worked in Vietnam, Ireland, Venezuela; in Zambia, Tonga tribespeople gave her the name Choolwe, meaning lucky or blessed, as they watched her work.
“People get overwhelmed by the darkness of this topic,” Bryant said. “But what has mesmerized me, from the beginning, is the survivors and their resilience. I’ve met people who, before their terrible experiences, would never talk in front of a big audience and afterward talk at the White House. I learn from them. They become wisdom figures for me. And I keep going.”
To report suspected human trafficking, call the police, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, 1-888-373-7888, or email@example.com.
Find more resources on human trafficking here.