April 12, 2017
April 12, 2017
After graduating from California Baptist University, all Andrea Benson wanted was love, marriage and a family. Instead, she began a journey filled with pain for herself and her family.
Andrea, now 27, was a firstborn for Jim and Kerry Benson of Portland, OR. The family became part of Pathway Church (formerly Greater Gresham Baptist Church) 20 years ago and quickly became involved in church life and ministries.
“I had a picturesque Christian family,” Andrea said. “I was teased as a teen about how boy crazy I was, but was involved in youth group and after a trip to Africa, I knew I wanted to become a missionary.”
Andrea pursued a degree at CBU, but her path detoured her senior year when she began an intimate relationship with a leader from her California church.
“I felt shame for it and he didn’t acknowledge our relationship to others — a pregnancy scare ended it, and I moved back to Oregon to get away following graduation,” Andrea stated. “That was the beginning of veering off-course.”
A period of loneliness and depression set in as Andrea lost her social campus lifestyle and watched many of her friends move toward marriage. So, she began searching online dating websites for a companion.
Her only relationship through the online venue was based on deceptions, according to Andrea. In reality, her newfound boyfriend was living off earnings from trafficking young women in the sex industry while claiming he ran a web design business. Her trafficker was adept at feeding Andrea smooth words of family, faith and permanence to groom her for the nightmare to come.
Andrea’s parents were uncomfortable with her new relationship, but couldn’t see the depths of what began happening.
“She was living at home so our radar wasn’t up,” said Jim Benson, Andrea’s father. “We told her we didn’t think it was a good idea to go and meet someone and we didn’t meet him right away. She eventually decided to spend nights there and we warned her we wouldn’t allow her to keep the car she had with that choice. That wasn’t the smartest choice on our part, as it pushed her into his arms. We hoped she would realize the need to come home.”
Her parents followed through with that warning. Andrea’s “boyfriend” filled her mind with comments about her controlling parents and made promises to pay her student loans, have a family and more.
“We raised her knowing the Lord, but I wish I could have trusted my instincts about him, so it shows me how vulnerable and desperate she was,” said Kerry Benson, Andrea’s mother. “We did not like having him at our house and she eventually moved in with him.”
The trafficker first pressured Andrea by suggesting she was younger and more attractive than the other women he controlled and the pair would make a lot of money. He set up the “dates” by advertising her services on lurid websites such as Backpage, which was subsequently shut down.
“I thought I could handle it for a couple of months, that he would protect me and if I didn’t like it I could quit,” Andrea noted. “He dangled promises for when the acts were over. My biggest fear was of getting murdered and my parents would find out that way.”
Her trafficker limited Andrea’s access to her phone, money she earned and even monitored her encounters via a computer. On occasions, Andrea would balk at the situation and he would kick her out of their home without a phone or keys. Meanwhile, he reinforced her fears that family and Christian friends would never accept her.
“Andrea came back home during this phase and we made the mistake of reminding her of house rules – and she went back to him within a week,” said Kerry. “In hindsight, she needed love and reassurance. We have learned so much since then.”
It was a dark time for both parents in which they retreated from their church family for a period, with Jim going for long, solitary walks, and Kerry crying out to the Lord in the shower to mask her pain.
A tip from a close friend to the Portland Police Department’s sex crimes unit brought the drama to a head. A sting operation was set up in a hotel, attempting to frighten Andrea into leaving the situation.
“They did not arrest me, but just wanted to scare me, as they knew my background,” Andrea said. “But my trafficker was sitting in the hotel lobby, so they made the spontaneous decision to arrest him on the spot.”
Although a grand jury convened in the case and Andrea was required to speak about her experience, she still clung to the belief they could become a family. During his eventual imprisonment, her trafficker underwent a supposed spiritual conversion and was baptized in order to keep Andrea, while still living a life of deceit.
It has been an uphill battle for Andrea to return to a healthy place, with counseling, support groups, the love of family and friends and a renewed trust in God’s plan for her life. A police officer involved throughout the ordeal became a friend and connected Andrea with various groups such as Compassion Connect, Abolition Now and Hands of Hope for survivors of trafficking. Another ministry, Mending the Soul, has been a lifeline for her and provided a 12 week study working through life issues, forgiveness and the difference between guilt and shame.
“The women in Mending the Soul prayed for me until I could pray for myself,” Andrea recalled. “In order to let go of the shame, I had to forgive myself, although I still feel anger. I have dreams of helping others, and God continues to open doors for me to speak. I want other women to feel their voice is heard and while guilt is a good emotion from God, they do not need to be ashamed of their story. I feel like I am in a honeymoon phase by starting over with God.”
Churches are encouraged to fight for the lives of young women ensnared in the sex industry, many who do not have a stable family to fall back on. Another avenue for churches to direct energy is combating use of pornography, which often leads men to engage in the sex industry, according to Benson.
“I don’t advise online dating sites, especially free ones,” Andrea said. “It’s good to use the internet to research people met through those venues, because there were so many signs I ignored. Just because someone is on social media does not mean their claims are true.”
A therapy dog named Patches is a constant companion for Andrea and helps her fight Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms that are a byproduct of her abuse. She became involved in a church active in the fight against human trafficking.
Andrea’s parents are proud of the turnaround in her life and are assisting in the effort to shield other young women from a similar story. “We think of them as drug addicted or other negative fates, but that is not always the case and a crime is happening against them,” said Kerry. “Andrea is trying to bring a face to this epidemic and there are still bumps in the road, but she’s on the right path.
“No one we knew had been through this stuff, so there was no manual to follow and there are no support groups for parents in our position,” Kerry noted. “My job is to support and love my daughter.”
“We are building our relationship with her and doing our best to help her build her confidence and self-worth,” added Jim.
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