Feature Story, June 2016

Metanoia Manor: A Journey of Change

by Krista Bordelon
Breaking ground at Metanoia Manor at an undisclosed location .
Breaking ground at Metanoia Manor at an undisclosed location .

The bus was filled, the police escort in place, and the location secure. The elite gathering of some of the biggest names in Louisiana politics, law enforcement, business and church culture was not about bragging rights, but about addressing a devastating need right here in our city. A necessity to band together to fight one of the largest problems in our own backyard: human sex trafficking.

Recently elected Louisiana state Gov. John Bel Edwards was one of several to take the podium during the groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of Metanoia Manor. It may seem odd to see an elected government official standing arm-in-arm with a man of the faith, but the importance and strength of such a partnership was evident. It was a sentiment strongly supported by all in attendance, including District Attorney Hillar Moore who says, “There is no doubt how necessary this is.”

Edwards stressed this point saying, “This is an example of how the state can partner with the faith-based community to make a difference in the lives of so many people.” He continued his speech emphasizing that the majority of the victims of human trafficking are our most vulnerable citizens. “These children are being used as objects, most often not by strangers, but by [those they know]. It’s an unfathomable act happening right here where we raise our families. We have to have facilities like this. This program is needed. Our children need us to stand up and protect them. Many times we talk about how our future is all about our children, and it’s true, but we can’t just say that and not act. I’m very proud of this partnership. Getting this far has not been easy; there are lots of roadblocks out there. I want you to know how proud I am that the state government is not going to be one of those roadblocks.” In a private conversation following the speech, he said he wanted to stress to the faith-based community just how important it is to join forces and work together to support programs like these in our city.

Sen. Ronnie Johns, who is also a board member of Metanoia Inc., says the legislature strongly supports the endeavors of the 501(c)(3) organization in opening Metanoia Manor – a safe and secure facility for juvenile survivors of human sex trafficking – right here in Baton Rouge. In fact, legislation passed allowing the privately funded project to move forward was just one of many legislative acts made over the years to place Baton Rouge as a leader in the movement against human trafficking.

The list of the Metanoia board of directors alone speaks to the importance of this cause and the strength of the fight against human trafficking in Baton Rouge. The senator is joined by Metanoia founder father Jeff Bayhi of St. John’s Catholic Church and Our Lady of Assumption Catholic Church, Lt. Chad Gremillion of the Louisiana State Police Department, Sharon Pol executive director of Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center, attorney George Bayhi, the Rev. Leo Cyrus of New Hope Baptist Church, Michael McDuff of the Louisiana State Contractor’s Board, David Ferris from the Louisiana Attorney General’s High Tech Crimes Unit, Bobby Gaston from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, attorney Katherine Green, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Gail Grover, and Dr. Roberta Vicari of Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital.

The home will be run and the rescued girls will be nurtured by nuns from around the world who are uniquely qualified for this monumental task.
The home will be run and the rescued girls will be nurtured by nuns from around the world who are uniquely qualified for this monumental task.

The issue of human trafficking may be a big one, but Louisiana is willing to put its big guns into the battle against it. In fact, this has not just been an issue for the current governor. Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson began speaking with former Gov. Bobby Jindal about making this a top priority here in Louisiana, and together they made sure the issue did not go unaddressed. In the past several years there have been more than 550 confirmed human trafficking cases in Louisiana. “They’re from all over. Right here in Baton Rouge, right here in New Orleans, in Alexandria, in Lafayette, in Lake Charles, and Shreveport, and Monroe and all the points in between. This is absolutely necessary for the victims who have nowhere to go,” Edmonson says. Lt. Chad Gremillion, who has just recently seen the rescue of two victims, one in Shreveport and one in New Orleans, wholeheartedly agrees.

In 2014, legislation passed that helped in training law enforcement to identify victims and protect them by asking the right questions and knowing the red flags. Training them in making a “rescue” instead of simply making an arrest. Sister Eugenia Bonetti, an Italian nun and coordinator of the Counter-Trafficking Office for Women and Children, played a large role in raising awareness of the issues by sharing her expertise – that spans across two decades and around the globe – with the legislators. In fact, it was a trip to Rome and Sister Eugenia that emboldened the vision of Metanoia Manor in Bayhi.

While in Rome in 2002-2003 for the television show he produces for a station out of Boston, Bayhi was introduced to Sister Eugenia by a friend, who at the time was serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. Sister Eugenia is in charge of 250 nuns around the world who focus on the rescue of victims of human trafficking, as well as focusing on helping the Catholic Church provide better pastoral care for women forced into prostitution. Additionally, she appeared in the documentary “Not My Life,” was included in the Inside the Vatican “Top 10 People of 2007” list and won the International Women of Courage Award and the European Citizens’ Prize (as found on Wikipedia).

So when Bayhi led a small group of eight to Rome to investigate the possibilities of opening a facility for juvenile female victims of sex trafficking, she was the obvious choice as a “guide” through the world of human trafficking. Bayhi, Bobby Gaston, Ph. D., Suzan Gaston, Ph. D., Sen. Ronnie Johns, the Rev. Dr. Rodney Wood, Rebeccah Wood, Col. Mike Edmonson and Suzanne Edmonson spent their time in the fall of 2014 at the Vatican witnessing and participating first hand in the world they were about to embark on right here in our city.

For years, Bayhi observed what he perceived to be voluntary prostitution in Italy, but Sister Eugenia helped open his eyes to the dark truth of the sex industry. “I feel strongly that someone needs to make up for the sins of men. Men have made this mess, and men don’t need to sit by and let women clean up the mess we’ve made,” Bayhi says. He is quick to point out that this is not about sex. Human trafficking is a dark aspect of living in a culture that has so devalued human life that we view other humans only in terms of profit, pleasure or possession.

From the left: The Rev. Dr. Rodney Wood and wife Becky, Father Jeff Bayhi, Gov. John Bel Edwards, Sen. Ronnie Johns, Bobby Gaston, PhD., and Suzan Gaston, PhD. Colonel Mike Edmonson, Superintendent of the State Police and wife, Suzanne Edmonson were not able to attend, but they were members of "The Group of Eight."
From the left: The Rev. Dr. Rodney Wood and wife Becky, Father Jeff Bayhi, Gov. John Bel Edwards, Sen. Ronnie Johns, Bobby Gaston, PhD., and Suzan Gaston, PhD. Colonel Mike Edmonson, Superintendent of the State Police and wife, Suzanne Edmonson were not able to attend, but they were members of “The Group of Eight.”

He goes on to explain, “When it’s not this it will be something else. What’s next? Will we be paying others to abort their children so we can sell their parts instead of having them pay us? This is our culture; there will always be something to fight. God always leads us where we never intended to go.” He says that asking, “Why?” is the wrong question. Instead we need to be asking “What?” and we just need to do it. “I grew up in a stable, loving Lebanese family [right here in Baton Rouge]. I cannot even imagine people being used in this way,” Bayhi says. “But I bear the responsibility for other men who, for their own selfish pleasures, engaged in this. We have to address it. What do we need to do to rectify this?”

Many in our state were introduced to the issue of human sex trafficking in our city through the efforts of another local nonprofit that focuses on these issues in our state, Trafficking Hope Louisiana. Through immense community support they launched a widespread awareness campaign and opened the first rehabilitation facility of its kind in our area for adult female victims, but the need is still greater than anything being met at this point.

“It is important that our community and state provide a loving home for girls under the age of 18 because there is nothing like this in Louisiana, or in the south for that matter. It is important that the private sector become involved through donations because the state of Louisiana is low [on funds]. What better than a partnership between the state and a faith sponsored 501(c)(3) to work on these problems? Because of serious counseling and substance abuse costs, the annual budgets need financial assistance. That, plus staffing a 10,000 square foot facility, is not cheap, especially with the cost of keeping these girls away from their traffickers who are losing thousands of dollars a week. By not taking state money, Metanoia will be able to develop plans that will make it possible to handle these girls like parents would,” says Dr. Bobby Gaston.

And who will be there to “mother” these girls? Who better than a handful of nuns from around the world who have each been called specifically to help with the task of rehabilitating trafficking survivors. The assigned sisters – from India, the Philippines, Madagascar and Nigeria – who prefer to stay out of the limelight and focused on the work assigned to them, may each be from a different area of the world, but they all share one very strong common bond in their hearts. The sisters carry a presence with them that is the absolute picture of “though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Father Jeff Bayhi speaks of the plans for building, and the need to raise money and gain community support.
Father Jeff Bayhi speaks of the plans for building, and the need to raise money and gain community support.

“The power the nuns carry is incredible,” Bayhi shares. “Through them we’ve seen the power God’s presence can bring to a situation.” These women fiercely love, fiercely serve and fiercely seek the will of the father in their dealings with the lives of these young girls who have been so misguided, so broken and so tortured by the world around them. When asked what it is that drew them in, they simply said, “God did.”

Local pastor and prison rights advocate Ashanti Witherspoon knows firsthand the harm of human trafficking, even in the church. The human trafficking department of the sheriff’s office found his daughter before she could get on the bus to leave. She had run away from home but was captured that evening. She had met a man who came to a local church with a traveling evangelist, and his charm drew her in instantly. “They said we probably almost lost her. Had she been able to catch the bus, we might never have seen her again, but the quick response of praying Christians and law enforcement stopped her flight. We were told that she might have been grabbed before the bus arrived at its destination,” Witherspoon says. Luckily, their story had a happy ending, but it proves a major point: no one is safe or unaffected by this issue.

Church, state and law enforcement will be working together to ensure Metanoia Manor’s safety.
Church, state and law enforcement will be working together to ensure Metanoia Manor’s safety.

It is still groundbreaking work surrounded by trial and error and compromise. A step-by-step journey in which the next steps may not be fully known yet, but no one is turning back. As bishop Robert Muench prayed at the ceremony he asked the Lord to, “Fill us with righteous anger and sacred passion to whole-heartedly combat [this]. Help us to be ministers of prayer and healing, peace and justice, for those adversely affected and to effectively overcome.”

For more information on the project or to donate to the Metanoia building fund, please visit the website metanoia-inc.org.

February 2016, Learning For Life

Trafficking Hope Louisiana

“Vindicate the weak and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4

We as Americans have a profound disconnect from the realities of human trafficking. In our minds it is a movie plot, a third-world issue, a self-created lifestyle. It would be too hard for us to truly personalize such a heart-breaking reality. It’s hard to accept that it isn’t just kidnapped children or cultures overseas, that the truth is human trafficking is something our very own culture has created a demand for. Beyond that, not only have we created the demand, but we have created the supply that will feed it. The reality is we ourselves are broken people, living in a broken culture, full of other broken people, and the cycle of brokenness keeps thriving.

The biggest shock to our system is the fact that it isn’t just the evil pimps and kidnapped children forced into the lifestyle that have created this epidemic. The reason we keep ourselves so pleasantly disconnected from human trafficking is because admitting the absolute truth would place on us the personal responsibility that it is not just “society’s” problem, but it is our problem.

There may be a reason human trafficking isn’t talked about; why we accept this profound disconnect in our lives when it comes to an issue as significant as modern day slavery.

Understanding that in our everyday lives we encounter modern-day slaves without even going out of our way is just inconceivable. Yet, that discounted product you bought may have been made by modern-day slaves, that pedicure was possibly done by a woman who came to our country with the promise of a fulfilling career and has instead been tricked into manual labor for little to no wages, that woman sitting in the bar isn’t waiting on her boyfriend but is instead looking for a client so she doesn’t get beaten by her pimp. Modern-day slaves aren’t kept hidden from view, they don’t need to be. We as a society are so blinded to their reality that they are completely invisible while in plain sight.

DJI_0113-2We would like to think that our lives are protected from the atrocity of slavery, but the truth is there are more slaves today than there have been ever before. The truth is that not only our culture, but we personally, contribute to an ongoing desire and necessity for slavery. The truth is that our brokenness creates more brokenness whether we desire to or not. That decisions we pay no mind to have consequences we could have never imagined. And one aspect of modern-day slavery is too uncomfortable for us to talk about, especially in the church. Which is where we should be talking about it the most, especially since we are not yet a part of the solution and are still a part of the problem.

Luckily, some are willing to talk about it. Ending sex trafficking is the heart behind this organization. Trafficking Hope Louisiana is one of only a handful of organizations in the United States committed to the immense task of completely eradicating sex trafficking by raising awareness throughout the community, empowering churches and organizations, and treating victims rescued out of slavery at their live-in facility, Hope House. The very work that is to be done speaks to the blindness we as a culture still have when it comes to the issues revolving around human trafficking.

hopehousespaslsh-2It is a fight that cannot be done alone. It is a fight that has no one-size-fits-all solution, a fight that requires an immense devotion of time and financial responsibility. In fact, the blindness we have had towards sex trafficking for so long has done much to hinder the ability of organizations like Trafficking Hope Louisiana to successfully do the work they are called to do.

I remember when I personally began doing work with the organization five years ago. I told God, “I don’t want to get too deep into this.” I didn’t want to hear the stories of the victims for fear of opening up personal wounds that I had suffered. Yet, immediately I began to receive messages from people that I had known for years saying, “I see you are working with human trafficking, let me tell you my story.”

George-2These people, whom I would have never guessed had been through anything like what they described, poured out their stories. It truly is our neighbors, our friends, and our kids. George Mills, President of Trafficking Hope Louisiana, recently told a group he was speaking to, “I could take the residents of Hope House and put them in the room with you all right now, and none of you would even be able to tell who they are.” It truly is happening in our own backyards. It’s happening in all areas of our community, it’s happening in our schools, it’s happening in our churches. It’s not even a matter of “if” or “when,” it is a matter of “it has been” and “it will continue.” The time is not just “now,” the time to act has already passed us up and every second we wait is another second wasted.

Right here in Baton Rouge we are in one of the very hubs of the human trafficking epidemic. Our geographic location, high rates of poverty and childhood homelessness, as well as an overflowing foster care system only uphold the typical issues that perpetuate a culture ripe for sex trafficking, placing us at the top of the human trafficking list. Much work has been done, but there is so much work left to do, and the work will be never-ending as long as this is the culture in which we are raising our sons and daughters. It is a problem that requires work from all sides.

Every single person taken into this program requires a different method of care, which is where George’s background comes in. It is a completely individualized, continuous treatment plan that spans from their spiritual lives to addiction treatment, mental health, trauma recovery, education, and even basic social and life skills. Some don’t know how to shop for themselves, how to feed their children (40 percent of the women come to them with children), or how to eat in a restaurant. Many struggle with the basic realization of the abuse they have actually suffered.

It is truly trailblazing work and creating a successful treatment program that will be able to be proven and used with other organizations is key to continuous work throughout the United States with this epidemic. The program has been reworked once since its birth and is continually in a process of growth.

Story from HopeHouseGeorge says this about the movement, “What needs to happen is this: we have a box that we think human trafficking is in. First of all, human trafficking is just a politically correct word for ‘slavery.’ It’s much easier to say someone is being trafficked than someone is being enslaved. So, our box is a woman being forced to have sex with someone, and we call it trafficking. But sexual slavery includes chat rooms, pornography, strip clubs, anything where dollars are changing hands for sexual activity. And the truth is there is no way you can know if that person is a willing participant in that or not. Peel back [the layers] even more and the truth is [no one comes into that lifestyle without pre-existing conditions that led them there].” Breaking open that box certainly has major implications in the successful eradication of modern-day sexual slavery.

But there is only so much individuals and organizations can successfully do without the support and financial backing to continue. We need to stop stuffing the problem back down into the shadows where we are more comfortable with it, and we need to bring it out into the light, front and center. Luckily, we have an organization like none other right here, dedicated to partnering with the community to make a difference in our city and in our nation, not just for our culture today but for the culture we are leaving behind for future generations.

Make quick facts box out of this infoFor more information about Trafficking Hope Louisiana and Hope House, or for information on how to become involved in the fight against modern day sex slavery visit: www.traffickinghopela.org. Also, keep an eye out for “Caged No More” in theaters January 22, and mark your calendars for the Faces of Hope Gala March 19.