by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — It’s a $150 billion dollar industry.
Pope Francis has called it a scourge on the planet.
But the Rev. Barry Feaker, executive director of Topeka Rescue Mission Ministries, said that it all comes down to something very simple: the money.
“Human trafficking [markets] a commodity that can be used over and over again,” he said. “And you make more money each time.”
The numbers are staggering.
According to Exodus Cry, an international organization based in the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area (see sidebar), human trafficking generates at least $150 billion annually and affects at least 21 million worldwide.
Approximately 4.5 million of the victims are trafficked for one specific purpose: sexual exploitation. Ninety-eight percent of the victims of sex trafficking are women and girls.
In 2014, the Urban Institute estimated the underground sex economy generated $39.9 million in Denver and $290 million in Atlanta alone.
In Kansas, the numbers have been rising steadily. For example, according to the Kansas attorney general, there were 44 “official” cases of human trafficking within the state in 2012.
Three years later, the number had grown to more than 400 “official” cases. For a variety of reasons, hundreds — if not thousands more — go unreported in the state each year, said Rev. Feaker.
The numbers alone can bring about a sense of powerlessness. After all, what can one person do?
Don’t ask what you alone can do about human trafficking.
Ask, instead, whether you are ready to enlist.
Because Rev. Feaker is raising an army.
An army of Christians, he said, is what is needed to combat this epidemic of global proportions.
Part of that army he’s calling for is already in training or serving on the front lines here in the archdiocese. One such person is Deacon Brad Sloan.
Ordained in June as a permanent deacon, Deacon Sloan is engaged in pastoral work at Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka. He is also assigned to pastoral work at the Topeka Rescue Mission’s Restore Hope division.
As part of his ministry — and in concert with Rev. Feaker — Deacon Sloan is developing presentations about human trafficking for area Catholic parishes. He said this topic is important, and people need to be aware of it.
“Human slavery and trafficking have been around since the dawn of man,” said Deacon Sloan. “It’s no different today in our enlightened society than it was during the Middle Ages, than it was during Jesus’ time, than it was during Abraham’s time.
“I think that sometimes what we want to do is say we live in this great technological society, and that can’t possibly happen here.
“As a culture, it clouds our vision,” he continued. “We don’t want to see those things. We don’t want to believe those kinds of things are occurring.”
Rev. Feaker agreed, and said that the first step in this battle is to accept the fact that human trafficking occurs throughout society.
“We’ve got to embrace that as a possibility,” he said. “Once we do that, then we can talk.”
A lot of people don’t realize how much trafficking occurs in the city and the state, said Deacon Sloan.
“Topeka sits in a very unique location. We’re not very far from a large urban center. We sit on I-70, which is a major artery that runs from the East Coast to the West Coast. The potential for nefarious activities is high,” he said.
“We’re in the heart of the Midwest. We’re in the middle of the country,” he added, explaining the Midwest is buffered somewhat from activities on the coasts, making it a prime recruiting ground.
“We don’t think in terms of these kinds of things going on here,” he said.
As a Catholic deacon and a professional working at an alcohol and drug treatment center, he views himself as being in a unique position to affect change, as well as serve as a bridge of commonality among Christians. Topeka Rescue Mission is an agency aligned with Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ.
“I want to be able to utilize [my positions], God willing, to affect change,” Deacon Sloan said.
The Rescue Mission, he believes, is an “awesome collaboration” between Catholics and other Christians — “one that speaks volumes about the church in the world today.”
But raising awareness is a critical first step.
“It starts with just raising awareness and just by virtue of that, there will be people interested in getting more involved,” he said.
‘Now that you know . . . ’
Already fighting the good fight in the city of Topeka is Mary M.
Nearly four years ago, she saw a video about human trafficking, one that changed her life.
“The very last question was: ‘Now that you know, what will you do?’” Mary recalled.
“I didn’t have any concept that it was actually happening right here,” she said.
Learning that it did, weighed heavily on her heart.
So Mary organized a fundraiser. And while she called the fundraiser “a complete disaster” financially, the event still had a profound effect on her life.
It was there she heard a firsthand account of trafficking on a local level from a survivor.
“The survivor shared her story and what had occurred to her right here. It blew me away,” Mary said. “I just couldn’t believe that it was happening.”
After hearing the survivor share her story, Mary felt a sense of urgency to go deeper. So, she researched the issue.
As she learned more and more, she remembered some of the young women with whom she’d once worked in a juvenile justice intake program and wondered if they had been victims of trafficking.
Still spurred on by her previous work and the video, Mary kept researching the issue. She even decided to open a safe house where victims could seek shelter and rest as they healed from the indignities they’d suffered at the hands of their traffickers and “clients.”
There was just one problem. She had no idea where to find the victims.
Meanwhile, Rev. Feaker and the Topeka Rescue Mission were actively helping trafficking victims — without realizing that’s what they were.
“Some folks in drug houses, homeless camps, abandoned homes and other places would tell us they ‘weren’t allowed to leave,’” he said.
“Why can’t you leave?” and “Why is it not your choice?” wondered Rev. Feaker and other agency staff.
“That brought us to an investigation of this thing called trafficking,” he said.
Mary and Deacon Sloan and his wife were not the only ones beginning to recognize the evil that was taking root in their community. Fortunately, there were already some resources available to help.
The Sloans participated in a 49-week curriculum titled “Hands that Heal,” designed to equip church workers and other service providers with tools to reach victims of trafficking. It also educated caregivers on practical ways to help.
And in 2014, Restore Hope, a division of the Topeka Rescue Mission, began “reaching out in love, rescue and restoration” to trafficking victims, particularly of sexual exploitation. The name of the ministry, Restore Hope, is intentional.
“[The victims] are children of the kingdom, and [God] has a plan for them,” Rev. Feaker said.
That first year, the ministry worked with four individuals. By 2016, the number served had increased to 92. By June of this year, more than 60 individuals had already been served by Restore Hope.
“I really think we’ve just begun to scratch the surface,” Deacon Sloan said of the ministry’s efforts thus far.
He recalled a story about a young woman who had gone to a house to use drugs with others.
“They were holding her down and shooting her up with methamphetamines for the purpose of using her,” he said.
Most traffickers, he explained, prey on the emotionally vulnerable, those with low self-esteem and those who can be easily manipulated. That’s why he advises parents to be on alert.
“Know who your kids’ friends are,” said Deacon Sloan. “Know what they’re doing online. Know who they’re talking to and where they’re at.”
“Most people think it’s not going to happen here in Topeka, Kansas,” he said, “but every one of the folks I’ve come into contact with are local.
Reverend Feaker agreed. Most trafficking in the United States is relationship- based, he noted.
“The traffickers look for those vulnerabilities and exploit them,” he said.
Traffickers, Rev. Feaker and Deacon Sloan said, plant themselves in schools, camps and colleges. They also seek out victims online. They might start dating someone and, after about a year or so, when things get serious, the traffickers will say they could get a better start in life for the two of them if (in most cases) the woman would be willing to engage in some sexual activities for money.
“If she says no, that’s when the force comes in,” said Rev. Feaker, adding that the trafficker has already figured out how to isolate her, but he might also physically assault her and threaten her family.
Once a victim succumbs to the pressure, it’s extremely difficult to get out of the situation.
That’s where Mary reaches out to victims in love, helping them to become survivors.
“The whole thing is set up to take advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities,” she said. “They don’t feel as if they’re a victim. Ninety-five percent of them do not identify as a sex trafficking victim.”
A simple thing that Mary has found useful in helping victims of trafficking is art. As such, Restore Hope keeps on hand — and is always in need of — art supplies such as adult coloring books (particularly Christian-themed ones), drawing paper, paints, colored pencils and crayons.
“The best way to do therapy with sexual trauma is to do art because it’s a complete redefinition of beauty,” she said.
She recalled a young woman who had come out of a trafficking situation. The young woman could not speak and was curled up in a fetal position.
After bringing her to the Restore Hope center, Mary offered her some crayons and paper. The young woman started to draw a landscape scene reminiscent of where she had grown up. The act of drawing it helped draw her out in a way that enabled Mary to finally talk with her.
“She was finally able to talk [after that],” Mary said. “[It] literally unlocked her.”
“[Giving her the crayons] was the only way we were able to get inside and talk with her,” she recalled.
Other things Mary does to help victims is to give them a safe place to relax for a little while before transporting them to another location (sometimes out of state); take them for ice cream or a meal; and offer them clothing, like socks and T-shirts.
In every case, Mary said the needs are somehow always met by God’s providence.
“It’s exciting like that,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”
And for Mary, helping someone restore their sense of self-worth is a constant reminder of her faith.
Although she has a master’s degree in theology and has spent a lot of time reading books and articles about the faith, she said it’s in the “dirt and grime” of being on the front lines of this battle where she has seen firsthand how much God truly loves her and everyone in the world.
“I literally see it in the day-to-day grime of the world and what it means for Jesus to say, ‘I care for you. I died for you. I rose for you and I am here,” she said.
“They need us to fight for them before they can fight for themselves,” she added.
Daily, Mary said she has seen God’s “fanatical, crazy” love for the women she serves.
“That has been a huge honor for me,” she added.
‘The perfect storm’
While Rev. Feaker, Deacon Sloan and Mary are training a spiritual army and serving on the battlefront in Topeka, many individuals and organizations have been doing the same in the Kansas City area. One such individual is Deacon Dana Nearmyer, evangelization division secretary for the archdiocese.
Ordained as a permanent deacon in 2011, Deacon Nearmyer serves as a board member of Elevate KC, an ecumenical organization formed to pray for the challenges facing the Greater Kansas City area — like trafficking.
“You know these things are out there, but they seem so big you can’t do anything about them,” he said.
He had been encouraged to get involved with the organization by Father Dennis Wait, the director of Sanctuary of Hope in Kansas City, Kansas, at the time and a priest of the archdiocese.
As a group of Christian believers, ElevateKC decided to zero in on four specific challenges, one of which was human sex trafficking.
Because Deacon Nearmyer serves in an archdiocesan office, he has many connections with parishes, high schools and youth groups throughout the area. He tries to be “systematic in praying for this issue and in encouraging the youth groups to be in prayer for this.”
He also tries to educate youth about the links between pornography and human sex trafficking.
“I’m trying to help young people understand the injury they cause by participating in the sex industry through pornography,” he said.
Pornography might seem like “a nameless and potentially painless thing to a lot of people but it fuels great harm,” he said.
The other thing he remembers in prayer and speaks about to youth groups and high schools is to educate them on the pervasiveness of human sex trafficking in the Kansas City area.
According to research he’s learned as a result of his interactions with others engaged on the frontlines of battles, the corridor along I-435 and Metcalf is considered a hot spot for such activity because of an abundance of “posh hotels, a lack of awareness, a proliferation of money and beautiful girls.”
Those factors, he said, create “the perfect storm.”
Discussing sex trafficking, Deacon Nearmyer said, is often unpleasant, but it’s important.
“We want to shut this down for kids around the world,” he said. “Our own children are very vulnerable.”
In addition to education, there are two keys to shutting down trafficking for good. One is to turn off the demand.
The second key, he said, is to expose Fortune 500 companies for their involvement in such activities.
People would be surprised, he continued, to learn how many household brand names are associated with companies involved in sex trafficking.
Despite the challenges, said Deacon Nearmyer, it is important to have the necessary conversations on these topics as we all seek to imitate Pope Francis and go to the peripheries, “where people are hurting and broken.”
‘In the life’
Kristy Childs was once broken by the sex trafficking life she was a part of.
Now she is helping others in the Kansas City area escape its clutches.
After 24 years “in the life” as a prostitute — she started as a 12-year-old runaway from an abusive home — Childs found herself feeling broken and unloved, with no hope of escape.
Then one sound changed everything: the beating of her unborn son’s heart.
From that point on, Childs was committed to doing whatever it took to begin a new life for herself and her son.
She eventually got a job at a local area chamber of commerce and, through the assistance of Sister Linda Roth, SCL, enrolled in “Keyboards to Success,” a three-month class that taught her important job skills.
The program also matched its students to different job opportunities. Childs eventually landed a job interview, and a job followed.
But the connection with Sister Linda paid even more lasting dividends.
“I ended up sharing my story with her,” said Childs. “From there, she knew what was on my heart.”
Childs eventually wound up working for Sister Linda — who would go on to help her secure the $25,000 in grant money that Childs would use to start a nonprofit agency to help victims of prostitution.
That was in 2000.
Now, 17 years later, Veronica’s Voice has grown and includes a program known as Magdalene KC.
Opened nearly a year ago, the program is mentoring its first group of women.
Modeled after a similar program in Nashville, Tennessee, the program works to help women form “authentic friendships,” as well as learn life skills.
The women are placed in teams of eight and offered a place to rest and recover with wraparound services; however, they are expected to put in work.
Childs said the participants are pushed and held accountable. They have people “who walk alongside them” and “be like a friend would be.”
“We think that’s what love is really supposed to look like,” she said.
“To go in and see these women in this home environment creating community is just so awesome,” she added.
That love, Childs said, has already seen some incredible transformations.
One of the program’s first participants has received a college scholarship and just started school this semester.
“To see her blooming into the woman she is, I could just cry right now,” Childs said. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”