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Dual-degree student balances faith and practice

Jeanne Cross, an MSW/MDiv student at UNC, always knew she wanted a career that focused on social justice issues. But the vision for such a professional path remained unclear until 2007, when Cross learned just how prevalent and horrific the problem of human trafficking is.

That year, Cross—an undergrad studying psychology and sociology at Samford University in Alabama—was serving as a volunteer with a Christian nonprofit group on a mission trip to India. During her stay, she and her colleagues worked closely with Mother Theresa Homes, which provides hospice care in New Delhi. The volunteers also taught basic health skills and oversaw a children’s program in a red light district in Mumbai.

Although a previous trip to India had opened Cross’ eyes to the country’s vibrant communities and to its extreme poverty, the second visit forced her to confront the realities of sexual exploitation. As a 19-year-old, she was alarmed to see girls her own age or even younger. And many repeated the same stories: they had arrived with plans of working in a factory but were forced into a slave trade instead. Of those she interacted with, most saw no way out.

“They talked about how they didn’t get to keep any of their money, and how they wanted to go home,” Cross recalled. “It was just a very jarring experience. I had heard that slavery existed, but until then, I never really had conceived of it.”

From that moment, Cross said she was determined to get the skills she needed to help educate others and to help develop long-term solutions for ending the pervasive slave practice. This spring, she will be a few more steps closer to reaching those goals. In May, Cross will graduate with a master’s in social work and a master’s of divinity, degrees she pursued through the School of Social Work’s dual degree program with Duke University. Soon after, she will begin her new job as an anti-trafficking program director for the Northern Network for Migration and Refugees in Malaysia; the position is supported through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

“I’ll be helping to develop a shelter for folks who are just coming out of trafficking,” she explained. “And I’ll be raising a lot of awareness and doing a lot of public speaking and advocacy to further help develop the strengths already present in these communities.”

That Cross will approach the work from a practical and spiritual perspective might not seem that surprising considering her background. Born in rural Alabama and raised in a family that remains passionate about faith and God, Cross’ journey toward a divinity degree could easily have been expected. But the independently-minded student said she never really considered pursuing such a degree until one semester at Samford while working as a house parent at a foster care home. The children she encountered were curious about the world around them and like many young boys and girls, they began to pose the questions, “Why are we here? Does life have a point?”

“They would often ask me questions I didn’t feel trained to answer,” Cross said. “And that’s when I really saw a personal need in having a divinity school training and needing to be more prepared to address those kinds of questions in a responsible way.”

Cross was also adamant about obtaining an education that would strengthen her own ethical beliefs—that all human beings have value, worth and dignity. Together, she said her faith-based skills and the tangible practical skills of community organizing and counseling have prepared her for the difficult challenges she knows her new career will present. Consider the facts: the U.S. State Department reports that up to 27 million people around the world currently live in some form of slavery, including indentured servitude. The average age of girls exploited by the sex trade industry is between 12 and 14 years old.

“The reality is that half the world lives on less than $2.50 a day, and many people will die in poverty,” she said. “Some of the women I’ve worked among will die in brothels of AIDS ten years from now. But for me, believing that the way things are are not necessarily the way things always will be is important. I really believe that there’s going to be a cosmic reconciliation of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So my faith is what grounds me. It gives me the personal fortitude in continuing this work and a perspective that holds onto hope in places where that doesn’t seem to be the current reality.”

Cross’ dedication to uncovering and addressing the issues of sexual trafficking and slavery from both a secular and religious context have been impressive, said Amelia Roberts-Lewis, an associate professor and program coordinator for the MSW/MDiv degree program. “Jeanne, is indeed ‘called’ to address the topic,” Roberts-Lewis said. “She has been on the cutting edge of bringing this information to church and religious communities. Jeanne is passionate, compassionate, eager, smart, savvy, and ready to go the extra mile to fight this global issue…”

Roberts-Lewis also praised Cross for working closely with faculty in the School of Social Work Field Education Program to help develop and plan the School’s first international field placement in India; the internship will focus on sex trafficking.

With just one semester left before graduation, Cross is starting to think more about her move and her new role in Malaysia. The first year will be an educational experience, learning the language and the culture and building trust within the communities where she will work. Cross is thankful to have her faith and practitioner’s skills to guide her in her efforts to help others in need.

“Social work is essential in being able to adequately address the social and political and economic injustices of the world,” she said. “But for me, it’s also been helpful to have another framework that has a cosmic level of redemption or healing through something bigger than my efforts… It gives me hope.”