Merlene Davis: Local minister is coordinating fund-raiser to help stop human trafficking

The Rev. Mike Cantrell started City Life Church, a new church in Lexington meeting at Tates Creek Middle School, a few months ago.

Along with leading the church and being a family man, he has begun a campus ministry at the University of Kentucky and is launching an Every Nation Campus Ministry at Asbury College. That should take up about 24 hours in a day, right?

Well, maybe. But Cantrell is also finding time to start a branch of Stop Child Trafficking Now, and it may be the first one in Kentucky.

"Child trafficking is using children — usually underprivileged, homeless and orphans, vulnerable children — in sexual acts or for sexual favors," he said. "The children are as young as 5 or 6 and as old as in their teens."

That stuff happens overseas or outside our borders, right? Human trafficking doesn't happen in America, does it? Well, yes.

Kentucky Rescue and Restore Coalition, set up in 2008 to identify victims and to heighten awareness of the problem, reported that as of July, Kentucky has had 91 cases identified as human trafficking. There were 138 victims of which 53 percent were children.

The state and federal legal definition of the trafficking of children is "the recruitment, enticement, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a child for labor or services (including attempts) through the use of force, fraud or coercion.

"Under federal and state laws, sex trafficking (such as prostitution, pornography, exotic dancing, or other commercial sex acts) does not require there to be force, fraud or coercion if the victim is under 18."

Marissa Castellanos, program manager of human trafficking at Catholic Charities in Louisville, said trafficking is "modern-day slavery."

"People are forced to do things against their will," she said, including forced labor or prostitution. "The fact that we have any cases is bad enough, but I'm still shocked at the number we are seeing."

Catholic Charities in Louisville and Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center in Lexington are two of the five agencies that partner with Kentucky Rescue and Restore Coalition. My daughter is the local contact for human trafficking at the rape crisis center here.

Cantrell has started a branch of SCTNow in Lexington because the problem doesn't need to grow any larger than it is, he said.

"It is not a new crime. We want to raise awareness of the dire problem happening right here in our backyard," he said.

While the coalition is working to mend the damage inflicted on victims, Cantrell said, SCTNow is a national non-profit organization that works to stop demand on the front end.

In January, SCTNow became a self-standing charitable organization, separating from Strategic Global Initiatives after four years, which helps to fund humanitarian projects worldwide and is based in New York.

One of the major fund- raisers for SCTNow is a walk, which is occurring in September throughout the country.

Cantrell said he hasn't seen any notices for walks anywhere in Kentucky, so he's starting one here with "SCTNow — Community Walks" planned for Oct. 7.

In Tennessee, where he pastored a church for seven years, he raised several thousand dollars for the national organization. For this first walk, which should be about three miles, Cantrell hopes to raise about $3,000 and have about 100 walkers.

Through word-of-mouth and social media, he's gotten several students on board and about 13 walkers from the Asbury softball team. I wish him much success with such a worthwhile project.