“Just let us know that we are loved”

“Just let us know that we are loved”

“Just let us know that we are loved” 750 500 Episcopalians in Connection

“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.

Herbert 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.

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 parishioners at St. Patrick’s, Dublin, is doing their level best to help.

In many ways, St. Pat’s commitment to helping trafficking victims in their community feels like it was meant to be. One of the parish’s 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 a discussion on justice, member Nancy McCracken shared how she visited CATCH Court and listened to the women share their stories. A 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.

To get them started on their quest for deeper learning about this topic, Catherine Loveland invited the group to attend a Central Ohio Technical College Lifelong Learning Institute program on Human Trafficking. There they 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. She left an indelible impression.

Mary Kay Arbogast describes how 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 wanted to help other women reach that point of being a survivor rather than a victim.”

Members of the CATCH Freedom leadership team, pre-COVID: Fran Montgomery, Nancy McCracken, Mary Kay Arbogast, Julie Myers and Ann King

In response to what they were learning, members of the EfM group supported starting a new ministry, which they named CATCH-Freedom. Together they helped plan an Adult Forum to raise awareness about the sex trafficking and the shattered lives being healed due to the ground-breaking local programs that had become national models for therapeutic justice. They invited April Thacker to share her journey, and Freedom a la Cart Executive Director Paula Haines spoke about the prevalence of sex trafficking in Columbus, and how the non-profit was working to help the victims rebuild their lives. Attendees enjoyed a box lunch catered by Freedom a la Cart.

The presentation 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.”

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. 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. 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 is part of our Becoming Beloved Community effort as a parish, part of our ethos. It’s just in there.”

Julie Myers credits their former rector, the Rev. Stephen Smith, with building an empowerment culture. “He created an atmosphere where when people would come to him with ideas for satisfying a need, he was encouraging and 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 their EfM group was initially motivated by what they had learned about CATCH Court and continued discussions about how they could turn awareness into action as a ministry, 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,” said Myers. Judge Herbert told a 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 also trained to become mentors at Freedom a la Cart. This comprehensive community-based support program partners with CATCH Court to provide social support to survivors in the program by providing them with paid employment training to develop practical job skills and the strong work ethic necessary for sustainable employment.

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, and members of St. Pat’s have become avid patrons, helping to keep the business afloat and survivors employed during lean times. Parish volunteer teams helped to deliver these Freedom at Home meals during the lockdown and through the icy months of winter. Volunteer Rondi Purcell 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, serving lunch to the 30+ CATCH Court participants. They particularly relished the informal personal interaction with the women in the program.

“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,” said 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 a challenge using new coping skills to help them through a situation that might have destroyed them before. They were privileged to see miracles in the making.

But St. Pat’s was challenged to discover their own resilience when pandemic safety restrictions threatened to derail their blossoming CATCH-Freedom ministry. CATCH Court did not meet in person from March through July 2020, moving online to Zoom meetings. When the court relocated to a safe room at the Columbus Convention Center in August 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 CATCH Freedom leadership team shares their story with ECM administrator Andrea Owens via Zoom.

The participants ate lunch before court outside the convention center in Goodale Park. Since CATCH-Freedom was unable to prepare food for them at the church or at home due to safety restrictions, they began purchasing boxed lunches from Freedom a la Cart’s commercial kitchen instead. Costs were adding up as the ministry was exceeding its budget. With no end to the pandemic in sight, they could not hold garage sales or other fundraisers and parish funds had been tapped. Fr. Stephen suggested they apply for an Episcopal Community Ministries (ECM) grant to cover the cost the cost of boxed lunches and other expenses, like U-Haul rentals to help women move. The ECM Committee granted the ministry $3,500, pleased to encourage such a comprehensive empowerment program.

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 at Freedom a la Cart, who communicates what women in the program need – anything from bus passes to feminine hygiene supplies. Julie Myers headed up a collection of gas and grocery gift cards totaling $675. Deanna Douglas collected and delivered warm winter coats, boots, hats and gloves in winter. Volunteers like Elizabeth Lewis distributed Cookies for a Cause, a fundraiser for Freedom a la Cart in December, with Assistant Rector Mother Cameron O’Riley making sure COVID-19 safety regulations were followed during the parking lot pickup.

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. Once parishioners know about a problem, they are onboard working toward a solution.

St. Pat’s members Ginger Coco (in the car) and Elizabeth Lewis (directing a safe distance) at a Freedom Cause Cookies drive by pickup.

The 50+ 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. 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 tutor women seeking their GED… the list goes on and on. They continue to respond with open hearts through the pandemic, just in different ways. Mtr. Cameron announces any CATCH Freedom Ministry needs during virtual church services, while 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.

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 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. Fr. Stephen retired from St. Pat’s, and has since been called to lead the Episcopal Preaching Foundation’s new Lay Preacher Training Initiative. The Rev. Elizabeth Hoster has 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 is deeply committed to empowering women to have life and have it abundantly,” said Hoster. “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. The CATCH-Freedom team summed it up beautifully:

“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.” 

Andrea Owens serves as Administrator for Episcopal Community Ministries and is continually blown away by the ministries presented by congregations in ECM grant proposals. Connect with Andrea at aowens@diosohio.org.