Franciscan Peacemakers: On the Front Lines of Human Trafficking

The Franciscan Peacemakers have been helping women struggling with prostitution and poverty for over 25 years. Now some of the women they’ve helped are giving back.

Cynthia Perkins never got the chance to meet Father Bob Wheelock. But on August 7, 2020, she attended his funeral. She wanted to say thank you.

Father Bob, OFM Cap, cofounded the Franciscan Peacemakers, a Milwaukee-based street ministry that changed Cynthia’s life. Now Cynthia is doing the work that Father Bob began: helping to provide healing for Milwaukee women caught in sexual exploitation, addiction, or homelessness.

“Cynthia is a recipient of Father Bob’s dream,” says Peacemakers executive director Deacon Steve Przedpelski, who calls Cynthia his “guardian angel.”

Twenty-five years before, in 1995, a captain from the Milwaukee Police Department had a conversation with Father Bob that would lay the foundation for Peacemakers and help save the lives of women like Cynthia. The captain, ahead of his time, could see the effects of sexual trauma in Milwaukee’s most crime-ridden areas. He suggested to Father Bob that one of the city’s most dire needs was providing women with a safe way out of abuse.

Father Bob and fellow Capuchin Father Mike Sullivan, who were living in a friary near downtown Milwaukee, began leading outreach efforts on the corner of 16th and North, in the middle of one of the city’s most poverty-stricken and drug-torn neighborhoods. Deacon Steve would join them that same year. They handed out bag lunches. They connected with people in the community. They advocated for families who wanted help getting their children into different schools. They learned about the complex layers of sexual exploitation, addiction, and homelessness. Franciscan Peacemakers was formed.

It was on this same corner 15 years later that Cynthia would meet Deacon Steve.

Lessons from the ‘Best Theology Teachers’

One might wonder how three men ended up leading an organization that serves women on the streets of Milwaukee. Like St. Francis of Assisi’s radical embrace of the “other,” they saw Christ in this forgotten group of people and stepped into the void. Part of Father Bob’s passion may have been connected to the sexual abuse he suffered as a young boy in the Boy Scouts. Deacon Steve grew up with an alcoholic and abusive father.

Deacon Steve says that Father Bob was a pioneer in this kind of work. “I’m not saying Bob was Francis,” Deacon Steve laughs, “but he worked and lived his life tirelessly to live up to the expectations of Francis.”

In the Peacemakers’ genesis, they would sometimes cover women’s rent at recovery houses. The first two women who took them up on this in the late 1990s got off the streets and, to this day, are living full and healthy lives. One of them earned a master’s degree.

“We were thinking to ourselves, Dang, that was easy,” Deacon Steve laughs.

A volunteer at Franciscan Peacemakers makes candles
Shinichi Hamilton, production manager with Franciscan Peacemakers, hand-pours candles. Photo courtesy of Franciscan Peacemakers

It would be three years, however, before another woman would trust the Peacemakers with her rehabilitation. Deacon Steve recalls, “That was three years of intense education from women on the street—of really learning about the role of trauma without them even realizing that they were traumatized.”

For women facing sexual exploitation, the solution is hardly ever as simple as “leaving the lifestyle,” just as the cure for homelessness is hardly ever as simple as “getting a job.” Traffickers and pimps are often master manipulators, leveraging shame, threatening to kill a woman’s family, doing anything they can to trap a victim in the lifestyle for their own financial gain.

According to the National Runaway Safeline (1-800-RUNAWAY), one in three teens on the street will be lured toward prostitution within 48 hours of leaving home. In other words, this could happen to anyone. Traffickers often masquerade as loving parental figures, fooling women and children into thinking they’re safe. Before victims know it, they are trapped in a lifestyle that involves being raped several times a day.

The Peacemakers realized that they had a lot to learn to become more trauma-informed in their approach. Thus began a lifelong journey of learning from these women on the streets. “I’m a product of Catholic education from start to finish,” Deacon Steve reflects, “but these women have been my best theology teachers.”

The Gospel Model

In 2002, as Peacemakers’ founders Father Bob and Father Mike transitioned to outreach roles in different cities, Deacon Steve was named executive director. Carmen Fontanez was hired to do street outreach alongside him.

“When Deacon Steve started sharing with me what he did—just going out on the street and meeting people where they’re at—it reminded me so much of the Gospel,” Carmen reflects. “Jesus just went out to meet people where they were and for who they were. He accepted them and called them into something better. I felt this overwhelming emotion and knew that this is what I needed to be doing.”

The Peacemakers’ constant street presence during that first decade and a half led to a degree of trust in the community. Deacon Steve recalls once driving by a woman they had worked with who was being beaten up by a man on a street corner. Because of their relationships with drug dealers and gang leaders in the area, one of the dealers stepped up to protect the woman while Carmen pulled the woman into their van as they drove by. “We did good, huh?” smiled the drug dealer the next time he saw Deacon Steve.

The Peacemakers also work closely with law enforcement as an unofficial social services extension—an important offshoot, considering the distrust many people of color have for police. When Deacon Steve was first contacted for this story, he was on his way to a meeting with a detective. It isn’t uncommon for the Peacemakers to respond to a situation at a house of prostitution where several people might be brandishing firearms. When asked if he ever considered being armed, Deacon Steve laughs and says, “We’re peacemakers!”

One of the many challenges they faced over the years, however, was the success rate of the women they were trying to help. Two to three months in a recovery house usually wasn’t enough to break the cycle of years or even decades of trauma. Years of being demeaned and abused left gaping holes in their identity and sense of self-worth.

Cynthia Perkins from Franciscan Peacemakers
Cynthia Perkins was once ministered to by the Franciscan Peacemakers. Now she works for them as an outreach and recovery assistance specialist. Women in the Peacemakers’ Clare Community earn a living wage and work toward individual and collective healing by making and selling all-natural soaps, lotions, candles, bath bombs, and salt scrubs. Photo courtesy of Franciscan Peacemakers

“It was hard at first for me to understand why women would go back to that lifestyle when it seemed so much better on the other side,” says Carmen. “But when you learn about trauma, it’s easier to understand why they might slip back into something that is familiar and predictable, even though that’s not where they want to be.”

But what was the solution? How could the Peacemakers improve their model?

“It felt like we kept putting Band-Aids on,” Carmen admits. “I felt like we could be doing something more. We wanted to provide another pathway to healing, a place where they felt safe, loved, and not judged.”

Restoring a Sense of Purpose

A spiritual director once told Deacon Steve to visit the touchstones that feed his spiritual growth as often as possible for the rest of his life. One of those touchstones is Assisi, where he has visited three times. The other is Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tennessee.

Carmen was intrigued by Thistle Farms, led by Episcopalian priest Becca Stevens, partially because of the high success rate with the women they served. Thistle Farms had a two-year safe house that helped women truly detach from their lifestyle, as well as a social enterprise—or, in the words of Rev. Becca, a “justice enterprise”—for making soaps, jewelry, and bags, which helped them to rebuild their sense of self as they created something beautiful and meaningful.

“What I’ve learned in the past 30 years of doing this work is that you think people are broken, when in truth, they’re just broken open,” Rev. Becca says. “The miracle is when we come together with that ‘broken-openness,’ we can turn it into a fierce compassion. We are all invited to be both the healed and the healers. If we’re sitting across the table offering each other grace and compassion, with the idea that we are both giving and receiving, that’s when love is transformative.”

Deacon Steve and Carmen finally decided to visit Thistle Farms in 2012 for a conference. “When I heard Becca speak, it took me 10 minutes to buy into it,” Deacon Steve reflects. “I remember saying out loud to Carmen, ‘We can do this.'” Carmen jokes that halfway through the first session Deacon Steve was texting “like a teenage girl” as he reached out to board members and volunteers.

Two years later, the Peacemakers opened Clare Community, named after St. Clare of Assisi, a two-year safe home that could house two women at a time. They also launched their social enterprise, where women made candles, soaps, bath bombs, and lotion.

“What I wish for people who are inspired by the stories of the Franciscan Peacemakers and Thistle Farms is that they would use their consumerism to support those efforts,” Rev. Becca says. “If that’s what you value and you think it’s good, then buy your soap from them, not from a chain store. I wish people would use their purchasing power to support work that they believe is the right thing for the world. People can take this on as part of their story. This isn’t a story that happens to somebody else. This is our story.”

In 2021, the Peacemakers’ social enterprise increased its total sales by over $110,000 from the previous year to $273,000. That same year, the Milwaukee Biz Times named the Peacemakers the social enterprise of the year. And in 2022, the Peacemakers will open Clare Community in the former Conrad House, which will be able to care for up to 12 women looking to get off the streets. The Conrad House is the former friary where Father Bob once lived.

Survivors Take the Reins

Deacon Steve says that he always dreamed of the day Peacemakers would be survivor-led. That day is practically here.

Sitting next to each other on a Zoom call are three survivors, all with active roles in the Peacemakers. There’s Cynthia, who oversees outreach and recovery. There’s her former roommate in Clare Community, Shinichi Hamilton, who is now the production manager for the social enterprise. And there’s Shenise Davis, who works as a sales associate for the social enterprise.

Cynthia, Shinichi, and Shenise ooze with passion for the work they do. They hope to be to others what Deacon Steve and Carmen were to them. They hope to fill the Conrad House this year with women who want something different for their lives.

“It’s important to show the women we work with that you’re just not talking to them but that you’ve been where they’re at,” Shenise reflects. “I think a lot of women are scared of the unknown. They don’t know what’s on the other side, and they’ve forgotten that there is another side. We share with them where we’ve been and that they can do it. It takes one day at a time.”

Source: Franciscan Peacemakers

Cynthia adds, “Part of what Shenise is saying is that we’re not judging you.”

“And we’re going to love them until they learn to love themselves,” Shenise affirms.

“Everyone has something to give,” Cynthia continues. “There are so many beautiful people who are suffering. And if you take the time to get to know them, you’ll see that, in spite of what they present to the world, when you look into their heart and soul, you’ll see their humanity, beauty, gifts—gifts that you really want to see developed.”

For Cynthia, Shinichi, and Shenise, their gifts are not only developing but blossoming. Less than a month before, Cynthia was named the 2022 Woman of Valor by the Milwaukee Trafficking Coalition. She recently finished her associate degree and is now pursuing a degree in social work.

Four days before, Shinichi graduated from Clare Community and, one day before, was able to help her niece out with rent, something Shinichi says would have been unfathomable to her two years ago. In 11 days, Shenise will reach 20 years of sobriety through Narcotics Anonymous.

Today these three women are using their own stories of pain and abuse to meet others where they are, following the path of Father Bob and Deacon Steve in their own profound way. Next year, they hope there will be more doing the same.

“You just want to save everybody, but you can’t,” Shenise says. “So we keep coming to work every day, talking until we’re blue in the face, giving them what they need, and waiting for the next day.”

Cynthia adds, “And we hope that day for change is today.”

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