“Do you see this woman?”
Judge Paul Herbert often found himself pondering Jesus’ question over the years as prostitutes repeatedly came before his bench in Franklin County Municipal Court. The parallels between the pharisees’ scornful attitude toward the “sinful” woman in Luke 7 and the punitive sentences imposed by our justice system did not escape him. He had a revelation one day when a battered sex worker brought before his court had identical injuries to domestic abuse victims. He could clearly see that this woman was a victim, and he began to question his own assumptions about prostitution. He started asking law enforcement, mental health professionals, trauma experts and addiction specialists serious questions about sex trafficking. He also began listening to the women themselves. If restorative justice could ever be a reality, the essential question must shift from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
This intensive research led to the establishment of CATCH Court in 2009, one of the first problem-solving courts in the country dedicated to healing rather than punishment. CATCH stands for Changing Actions to Change Habits. In this specialized docket, women arrested for prostitution in Columbus have the option of joining the intensive two year program providing safe housing, food, clothing, and trauma-informed care. If they agree, the women are given probation and must attend weekly court meetings with the judge, mental health counseling and addiction recovery treatment. It is a program built on both care and accountability. This space for healing leaves room for opportunity. If they graduate from this demanding program their criminal record is expunged, opening the door to future employment, housing, and education.
The women graduate with more than a clean slate. Every step of the way Judge Herbert, his staff and the volunteers communicate to participants: “We are going to love you until you can love yourself. We see something in you that you can’t see yet.” They come to respect themselves for the strong, capable, resilient women they are. They have been to hell and back, survived, and are learning to thrive.
Judge Herbert says one of the biggest challenges the program still faces is changing misperceptions about trafficking. The women who come into the program have been misjudged and mislabeled. They are vulnerable and trapped. In addition to trauma trained professionals, the program depends heavily on community volunteers. CATCH-Freedom, an outreach ministry developed by St. Patrick’s, Dublin (St. Pat’s) in response to the problem, is doing their level best to help.
How Did St. Pat’s CATCH-Freedom Ministry Begin?
In many ways, St. Pat’s commitment to helping trafficking victims in their community feels like it was meant to be. One of the Education for Ministry (EfM) extension groups meets every Monday morning, and in December 2018 they were working through the Preparing to Become the Beloved Community Advent Study. During the discussion on justice, Nancy McCracken shared how she visited CATCH Court and listened to the women share their stories. The 11/23/18 BBC Advent Study entry asked, “How could your church actively participate in repairing one of the systems your group has identified?” The group chose victims of human trafficking based on what they had learned about CATCH Court from Nancy that morning. The study further instructed, “Together, set one concrete achievable goal for engagement in the year ahead.” They were on their way. Their initial goal was to educate the parish at an upcoming Adult Forum in May 2019.
To get them started on their quest for deeper learning about this topic, Catherine Loveland invited them to attend a Central Ohio Technical College Lifelong Learning Institute program on the topic of Human Trafficking on January 8, 2019. Catherine Loveland, Rondi Purcell, Julie Myers, Mary Kay Arbogast, and Fran Montgomery heard CATCH Court Coordinator Hannah Estabrook and Freedom a la Cart Executive Director Paula Haines describe the mission of their programs. Trafficking survivor April Thacker shared her personal story and spoke about the Butterflies program she helped found for CATCH graduates.
Mary Kay Arbogast describes how April Thacker’s powerful story galvanized the group:
Hearing a survivor tell her story really motivated us. It is a MIRACLE that they can overcome the life they were in. Her testimony is really what touched us all. We just wanted to help. We wanted to help other women reach that point of being a survivor rather than a victim.
They had seen this woman, and she left an indelible impression.
In response to what they were learning, members of this EfM group supported starting a new ministry which they named CATCH- Freedom. Dianne Clay, Mary Kennedy, Carol Langenfeld, Catherine Loveland, Betty Lyle, Nancy McCracken, Fran Montgomery, Julie Myers, Val Pittsenbarger and Rondi Purcell all played an important role in shaping the new ministry’s beginning through prayer, education, and volunteering. Nancy McCracken explains the genesis of their commitment:
As women, we felt particularly called to learn more about the largely unacknowledged massive sex trafficking industry in our county, to share our learning with the parish, and then to find ways to directly address those who are most harmed. As we widened our study group, we learned together through court visits, seminars, and workshops, and saw clear ways to answer the call. Our clergy and vestry and over 50 parishioners offered strong support for this new ministry called CATCH-Freedom.
With the help of assistant rector Cameron O’Riley, this new ministry helped plan the May 2019 Adult Forum to raise awareness about the sex trafficking and the shattered lives being healed due to ground-breaking local programs that have become national models for therapeutic justice. Freedom a la Cart Executive Director Paula Haines spoke about the prevalence of sex trafficking in Columbus, and how CATCH Court and Freedom a la Cart were working to help the victims rebuild their lives. April Thacker shared her journey from abused trafficking victim through her continuing recovery as a case worker helping other survivors. Attendees enjoyed a box lunch catered by Freedom a la Cart.
This Adult Forum was the most well-attended educational program the church held in recent memory. Fran Montgomery remembers that “the congregation was shocked at what they heard. When you learn something like this you want to help. You have to help. Everyone contributes in whatever ways they can – there is a rippling effect.”
Their CATCH-Freedom ministry provides continuing opportunities for parishioners and community members to learn about, witness, and actively support women in our community in particular need of that support.
Moving from Awareness to Action
The CATCH-Freedom ministry has continued to evolve as members became more involved in directly supporting victims/survivors of sex trafficking by partnering with CATCH Court, Freedom a la Cart and the Butterflies Continuum of Care program. As their ministry grew, Fran Montgomery, Julie Myers, Mary Kay Arbogast, Nancy McCraken and Rondi Purcell served as the leadership team.
How did they move so quickly from inspiration to action? Everyone on the CATCH-Freedom leadership team agrees that the St. Pat’s culture encourages involvement. Their vision statement declares that they believe God loves everyone and they embrace that love and share it with others. Nancy McCracken observes that they are an amazing parish for social outreach work:
We have a ministry fair every year. Almost all of them are social outreach, community support programs. It doesn’t take a whole lot of storytelling. I’m on Vestry and when I came on this was just starting, and the senior warden Mike Kennedy asked me to talk about the program at our opening of year retreat. It is part of our BBC effort as a parish, part of our ethos. It’s just in there.
Julie Myers credits Father Stephen Smith with building an empowerment culture. He believed that the people in the parish who are excited about a project and who are knowledgeable about the issue, are the best ones to make the decisions about that ministry. Julie describes his leadership style:
He created an atmosphere where when people would come to him with ideas for satisfying a need; he was encouraging, and he did not micromanage. He allowed each group to come up with their own ideas about what they could do to help improve our corner of the world. He would encourage and say ‘go for it.’ He didn’t tell us how to do it. He left it up to us to determine the best ways to proceed and to sink or swim on our own.
When they were initially motivated by what they had learned about CATCH Court and trafficking in central Ohio, their EfM group continued discussions about how they could turn awareness into action as a ministry. Nancy McCracken wrote to Father Stephen to see if they could make it a whole church ministry. His reply was immediate, “Education for Ministry, Nancy. You did the education part, now this is the ministry. Go for it!”
Soon after they visited the CATCH courtroom themselves. “Seeing the program in person, knowing that there were other people really concerned about this revolving door of women coming back in, trapped by their situation, moved us from idea to action,” observes Julie Myers. Judge Herbert told the story of his young daughter challenging him to find his purpose after reading The Purpose Driven Life and wanted to know what he personally was going to do about the rampant recidivism that plagued the court. “For me it was, OK Julie, what are YOU going to do about this? It just really hit a nerve when I realized there was some little part that I could play to help make these women realize that there were programs and people out there to help them escape the awfulness of the situations they were in.”
Determined to offer moral and physical support, the first thing the group did was to equip themselves with more knowledge, especially about trauma awareness. They attended training at She Has a Name, an organization that provides human trafficking education where they learned about the cycle of addiction, abuse, and the reality of street slavery. They also registered for mentor training provided by Freedom a la Cart. Mentors are a support person that offers life coaching and emotional support through unconditional love and friendship.
Freedom a la Cart, a comprehensive community-based support program, partners with CATCH Court to provide social support to survivors in the program. This non-profit social enterprise provides survivors with paid employment training so that they can develop practical job skills and a strong work ethic necessary for sustainable employment. It is a safe, restorative space where survivors can continue to heal, learn, and grow so they can eventually become self-sufficient and reintegrate into the community. Freedom a la Cart also provides for day-to-day needs like providing transportation, clothing, and other necessities.
Freedom a la Cart began in 2011 with a food cart. Over the past decade the business has evolved into a successful catering company and recently opened the Freedom Café and Bakery. During the pandemic they started meal delivery service to deliver dinners to people’s homes and businesses. Members of St. Pat’s have become avid patrons, helping to keep the business afloat and survivors employed during lean times. Parishioner volunteer teams Rondi & Wade Purcell, and Ann King & Don Ritchie, were road warriors who delivered Freedom at Home meals during the lock-down and the icy months of winter. Rondi remarked how uplifting the delivery experience is because many of the people who order express their joy at supporting the women survivors who have made these meals.
Before Covid-19, members of the CATCH-Freedom team actively volunteered at both CATCH Court and in the kitchens at Freedom a la Cart. Every 3rd Thursday, St. Pat’s CATCH-Freedom Ministry members would wheel in their wagons loaded with food would and serve lunch to the 30 plus CATCH Court participants. They particularly relished the informal personal interaction with the women in the program.
Nancy McCracken reflects, “It was so important early on to have people come with us to court. There is nothing like being among CATCH women to make us feel loved.”
“Being there says, ‘We are in your corner. I admire the hard work you are doing. I see you. I see how strong you are becoming. You are a beautiful child of God,’” asserts Julie Myers.
All served as loving witnesses, celebrating each milestone with the women. They applauded when someone announced how long they had been sober, or wept tears of joy when someone was able to see their children for the first time in a long time. They marveled at the resilience whenever someone overcame problems using newly learned coping skills to help them through a situation that might have destroyed them before. They were privileged to see miracles in the making.
Resilience in the Face of Challenges
St. Pat’s was challenged to discover their own resilience when Covid-19 threatened to derail their blossoming CATCH-Freedom ministry in March 2020 when pandemic safety restrictions prohibited gathering. CATCH Court did not meet in person from March through July 2020, moving online to Zoom meetings. “I received so much from them,” says Fran Montgomery, sad that Covid-19 shut down in-person interchanges in March 2020. Her face lights up when she relates how happy she is when one of her friends from Freedom a la Cart delivers a dinner order to her home and she can talk to them and give air hugs.
When the CATCH Court relocated to a safe room at the Columbus Convention Center in Summer 2020, only program participants were permitted to attend. In addition, volunteers could no longer work alongside employees in the Freedom a la Cart kitchens. The women were now sharing lunch before court outside in Goodale Park. CATCH-Freedom was unable to prepare food for them at the church or at home due to Covid-19 safety restrictions, so they began purchasing boxed lunches from Freedom a la Cart’s commercial kitchen in August, September, and October. Costs were adding up as the ministry was exceeding its budget. They could no longer hold garage sale fundraisers and parish funds had been tapped. With no end to the pandemic in sight, Father Stephen suggested they apply for an Episcopal Community Ministries (ECM) grant to cover the cost of boxed lunches and other expenses like U-Haul rentals to help women move. The ECM Committee granted this ministry $3,500, pleased to encourage such a comprehensive empowerment program.
A worrisome number of women dropped out when CATCH Court switched to Zoom meetings last year, but since the summer their numbers have grown to 31. The team at St. Pat’s is grateful that they will be able to keep their commitment to the women and the programs they have come to cherish.
Susan Trianfo, Program Director at Freedom a la Cart, expressed their heartfelt appreciation to the St. Pat’s and to ECM for their support of their mission and the women they serve:
“Your church has been such a great support to the women we serve at Freedom a la Cart. Supporting our social enterprise by ordering Freedom a la Cart meals enables us to provide workforce hours to the women we employ. It also provides the women in CATCH Court a healthy meal and the hope to one day be employed by Freedom a la Cart!
Many of these women have never known unconditional love before and are learning to love and trust for the first time. Thank you for being a part of their journey and helping us to empower the women to build a new life of freedom and self-sufficiency.”
The leadership team looked for ways to continue their connection to CATCH Court and Freedom a la Cart throughout the pandemic. They wrote notes to the women in the program as well as women in prison. Fran Montgomery served as liaison to Susan Trianfo, who communicates what women in the program need – anything from bus passes to feminine hygiene supplies. Julie Myers headed up a collection of $25 gas and grocery gift cards totaling $675. In November Deanna Douglas collected and delivered warm winter coats, boots, hats, and gloves. Volunteers like Elizabeth Lewis distributed Cookies for a Cause, a fundraiser for Freedom a la Cart in December. They also contributed to a Christmas Party for CATCH Court graduating butterflies. The congregation was encouraged to further support Freedom a la Cart by patronizing the business. During COVID-19 gathering restrictions, Mother Cameron made sure that announcements were made during virtual church services regarding CATCH Freedom Ministry requests for food and gas gift cards.
To the CATCH-Freedom leadership team, there is no mystery to the congregation’s enthusiastic embrace of their ministry. St. Pat’s has 35 different ministries. They believe they can make a difference, so they do make a difference. Once parishioners know about the problem, they are on board working toward a solution.
The 50 plus parishioners who routinely volunteer say how inspired they have been by witnessing the struggles, courage, and success of recovering women and their loving support of each other. Consequently, the congregation responds with enormous generosity whenever there is a request for help, offering their time, talents, and treasure. Before Covid-19 changed our world, they helped survivors move into their own apartments, often supplying furniture and household items to get them launched. They help people get their driver’s licenses and tutored women seeking their GED… the list goes on and on. The St. Pat’s community continues to respond with open hearts during Covid-19, just in different ways. Mary Kay Arbogast keeps the congregation informed when there is an additional training available and sends a monthly newsletter updating the parish on the ministry’s progress and activities. There are so many different opportunities to give and share their gifts!
St. Pat’s CATCH-Freedom Ministry also supports the Freedom a la Cart’s Butterflies who are graduates of the CATCH Court. This peer-based support program offers a continuum of care for graduates to increase their chances of long-term recovery. Monthly social gatherings began again this spring with an Easter meal and an art therapy project at Thompson Park in Upper Arlington. CATCH Court once-a-month outings also resumed. In March, St. Pat’s provided Freedom a la Cart box lunches which were enjoyed at the new Freedom a la Cart Café + Bakery followed by skating at the Ice Haus. Mary Kay Arbogast, Fran Montgomery, and Tawnya, Victoria & Elizabeth Lewis were thrilled to attend and help serve box lunches in April at Quiet Pastures Equestrian Center in Pataskala.
Mary Kay Arbogast is grateful to be involved in these outings that stress social interaction and peer support:
One of the things they stressed in the mentor training that we did is that most of the women have never had a friend they could trust. So part of their trying to bond, or to build community and peer support is really an ongoing process of learning to trust someone else. Learning exactly what true relationships could be like because they have never experienced something like that before. Both CATCH Court and the Butterfly program are trying to support that goal.
The Vision Continues
One sign of a successful program is the ability to weather change, particularly a change in beloved leadership. In October 2020 Judge Paul Herbert retired from CATCH Court. He turned over the reins to Judge Jodi Thomas, who is long admired for her restorative justice work with the Helping Achieve Recovery Together (HART) court program and her work helping trafficking victims. She knows that she cannot fill Judge Herbert’s shoes, but promises to “follow those strong footsteps that [he’s] planted to lead these beautiful, resilient, inspiring women to their freedom.“
The new year brought additional changes. The Rev. Stephen Smith retired from St. Pat’s. He has since been called to lead the Episcopal Preaching Foundation’s new Lay Preacher Training Initiative. The Rev. Elizabeth Hoster joined the congregation as Interim Priest in Charge. She brings great generosity of spirit and was delighted when CATCH- Freedom received their ECM grant in February 2021 allowing them to continue their mission. “The community of St. Patrick’s Episcopal is deeply committed to empowering women to have life and have it abundantly,” Rev. Hoster observed. “CATCH Court and Freedom a la Cart are tangible ways to assure women have the futures they richly deserve. Everybody wins!”
In the ECM grant application, ministries are asked how their outreach ministry meets their Baptismal Covenant. Everybody wins when the answer is love:
We have compassion for the women we serve who have been abused and have experienced trauma by being threatened, manipulated, often beaten, and always exploited. They are vulnerable, lonely, depressed, and hopeless. Most of them have lost connection to their families including their own children. They have lost their sense of self-worth. In our ministry we are attempting to share the love of Jesus Christ which we have experienced.
An example in the words of one we serve: When during our court lunch visit, this transitional survivor was asked what else she most needed from us volunteers, she answered, ‘Just let us know that we are loved.’”
Freedom a la Cart Café + Bakery
123 E. Spring Street
Columbus, OH 43215
Article submitted by Andrea Owens, ECM administrator.