A prayer for hope

Alex Kamczyc

Down a maze of back roads 15 minutes from Kent, mass begins at the Portage County Chapel as a young woman tries to hush her child in a pew. When the band begins to play sermon music, people from every generation gathered in the violet-colored pews to sing along to the lyrics displayed on a screen. 

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll;

whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

The band leads a prayer after a few songs, then asks the small audience to sit down in the pews. After a small video, Pastor Mark Miller, a short man with combed grey hair whose presence harkens back to an old friend, walks on the stage.

He greets everyone and thanks them for coming, then begins his sermon about faith and redemption.

It’s something not only Miller believes in, but the Portage Community Chapel believes in as well. They even began The Haven of Portage County, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of human and sex trafficking get back on their feet and into society again.

“It’s God’s principle of love, it’s unconditional … God will never abandon,” said Miller, who is the founder of The Haven.

Ohio is one of the worst states affected by this crime, currently ranking fourth nationally. Since 2007, over 1,000 cases of human trafficking occurred in Ohio, according to the Human Trafficking Hotline. Last year, there were 208 identified potential victims alone based on information released by the Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s annual report. 

Females are the most targeted.

“Every person that lives in Ohio is affected by this,” said Susan Laird, a counselor at Youngstown State University. She’s also the director of North East Ohio Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “I’ve had students that lived in Youngstown whose parents were trafficking them for sex, three or four nights a week, to pay for their rent and their heroin habit.” 

Cities like Warren, Boardman, Austintown and Ravenna have seen sex trafficking in some form and many of those who are rescued from these operations have a hard time getting back on their feet, Laird said. 

Local community groups played a pivotal role in starting The Haven. They wanted to solve the homeless issue in Ravenna and soon began looking at helping survivors of the sex trade after a few concerned members of the group brought it to Miller’s attention. 

Personally, Miller cites a time when he heard Theresa Flores, a survivor of the sex trade, tell her story at a conference. Flores was drugged and raped by one of her classmates at Birmingham Groves High School. She was then blackmailed for two years to pay back a debt as a sex slave for her rapist’s two cousins.

“When I went to hear her, the thing that solidified in my mind was the pain and the trauma that she so vividly explained coming from a trafficked woman’s life,” said Miller, recalling the time he heard her speak, shifting in the pew that he sat in. “The minute I heard her speak, I was all in.”

The organization started up recently and has a small amount of people. There are eight mentors currently working for The Haven in mentoring survivors of the sex trade. Of those eight members, they have gone through the process of mentoring 14 survivors, about two per mentor. 

“They don’t have anybody that believes in them,” said Marylin Raux, the director of the mentoring program. “They don’t believe in themselves and they need somebody that loves them unconditionally. They need somebody that’s there to let them cry, be angry and all the things that come along with that.”

However, not every survivor has a success story. To Raux, the rate of failure is much higher than the success rate.

It’s Raux’s biggest fear.

“It’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating when they go back to their former lifestyle or they just don’t want to continue,” Raux said. “But, you think to yourself ‘it’s not impossible.’ So, for that one that may actually go all the way through and be successful, she makes it worth it to try.”

A lot of programs in Ohio, including Rahab Ministries, a program that has partnered with The Haven, only help victims up to a year or two. The Haven’s plan is to see these victims through for an extended period of time called “graduated mentoring.”

“Sometimes these women may not age out of the situations they’ve been in,” said Miller, referencing Paul Herbert, a Columbus judge that started the first long-term counseling program called CATCH. “So, we just committed ourselves to a long-term strategy of mentoring and counseling.” 

This work is not new ground for the Catholic Church. During the second Vatican Council, a series of four meetings that were held between Oct. 11, 1962, and Dec. 9, 1965, so the Catholic Church could address its role in modern society. In it, they reaffirmed their position on human and sex trafficking, stating:

“slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, (and) disgraceful working conditions where (people) are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons” are “infamies” and “an affront to fundamental values … values rooted in the very nature of the human person.” 

In 2006, an annual statement on migration given by Pope Benedict XVI lamented the trafficking of human beings. John Paul II also denounced the act in a letter to an international conference on 21st century slavery. The list of members in the clergy that have gone on record to denounce the act is seemingly endless.

“The church is going to be examined on whether or not it helped those unfortunate while they had their opportunity being here on earth,” said Miller, reciting three verses from the Bible to better explain why the church is so involved in fighting this crime. “Faith without work is debt.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean the church hasn’t been on the wrong side of the law either. In November of last year, three pastors were indicted for federal child sex trafficking charges in Toledo. The three men began sexually assaulting a young girl from 2014-17, sometimes at the offices in which they worked. One of the men worked in a worship center in Detroit, driving an hour to Toledo just to participate.

Despite this, Miller and his congregation keep working through the daunting task of helping a seemingly endless number of survivors get back on their feet.

“I feel like you can get tired because of the need,” Miller said. “You have to be careful of that because I feel like that would be selfish. If we step out of the game, we lose momentum.”

Regarding how he keeps his faith, he knows there will always be someone new that needs help. Knowing someone else will be in need or that someone has survived being trapped in the sex trade, the answer is simple.

“I don’t personally believe, that in and of myself, I can maintain enough strength or enough endurance to keep up with the need,” said Miller, his face cracking a smile of hope and understanding that his task is a grand one. “I have to draw from something greater than myself and my draw is Jesus Christ.” 

The Haven is planning on expanding, too. Working to accommodate the growing need to house survivors of the sex trade, they recently purchased a 10-acre plot of land in 2017 with plans to develop it into a drop-in center for the homeless and survivors of sex trafficking.

It hopes to provide further the idea of “graduated mentoring” by providing long-term housing for them so that they can continue to recover from the traumatic situation they’ve endured.

Miller ends the sermon talking about “The Moth, the Eagle and the Lion,” and how God has many ways of calling to us. To him, Raux and the members of his congregation, faith is the strongest thing to have when trying to help the growing number of survivors of the sex trade. 

“I don’t think that we will ever eradicate it. We’ve never eradicated it, it’s been around for thousands of years,” Miller said. “We might always be chasing its heels … but we can try to help.”

The sermon ends with the band playing one last song for the audience. The sound technician in the back of the room queues them to let them know that he’s ready. The projector displays the lyrics so that they may sing along.

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll;

whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Alex Kamczyc is an enterprise reporter. Contact him at [email protected].