by Laura X. / 9.7.23

Heartbreak, Hope & God's Plan: A Story About Unconditional Love

After we announced our official partnership with First Fruit Ministries and our pledge to help them fight human trafficking and homelessness, I hinted that there would be lots more to come, including a Q&A with First Fruit founders Rick and Lee Anna Stoker. The interview was incredibly insightful, both when it comes to the inner workings of First Fruit but also them as individuals. There are so many nuggets of info and wisdom throughout that I will share about half of it today and release a Part 2 in the upcoming weeks.

Here's Part 1 of a fascinating, heartbreaking, surprising and hopeful interview with Rick and Lee Anna:

Describe what First Fruit is about and what you do.

Lee Anna:
There was a recent study that said 64% of trafficking victims said that they were recruited into trafficking while they were homeless or experiencing housing instability. We operate at that intersection of homelessness and human trafficking by doing outreach and supportive housing and focusing on sharing God's unconditional love with people.

We say that our mission is to share unconditional love because we feel like all of the services and care and housing outreach, all of the things that we do are motivated by that. One of the most common things you would hear from any client we serve is that they come here because they're not judged for their circumstances. They are not pigeonholed into stereotypes. They are not set up to be a failure just because they have experienced failure, and that's very unique to our organization.

I'm not saying that other organizations don't try to do that, but I think it is where we are the most successful. You can come here just as you are, and we will love you even if you never change, if you never improve. We will still love you as much. We will still offer you grace. We will still invite you in and invite you to be part of the community, because we think that the experience of being welcomed and accepted just as you are is what motivates you to change your circumstances and make new decisions.

First Fruit members praying in a circle

So when we talk about what First Fruit does, yes, we do all kinds of street outreach. We have a whole menu of supportive housing options from short-term rental assistance, transitional housing, crisis response, to permanent housing. And we do a lot of different activities, but the reason that we do those is because we want to be able to meet the needs of every person that comes to us. And we focus that on those that we think are the most vulnerable, which are people that are experiencing homelessness or human trafficking.

How did it all begin?

Well, I was kind of minding my own business and I had a really good, lucrative job working with a group of orthopedic surgeons. But I felt like my life was just working and making money.

All of a sudden I really felt called by the Lord to move into something that needed to be done, and I felt like the Lord told me to find a need and fill it. The Lord calling me out of the financial world and saying hey, there's something more important!

So I got in the streets and tried to start moving and shaking and seeing what it was about, and Lee Anna was involved in trying to put structure and detail to the plan, and we just started from scratch.

I ended up moving under the bridge where the majority of the homeless people were. Living under the bridge was the only way I knew to really connect because I'd never really dealt with homelessness and prostitution, so on and so forth. I was just opened up to a whole new way of living, and Lee Anna was too. Moving under the bridge was really an emotional, crazy time for me. Here are girls in traffic coming and going at night and men picking them up and leaving, and drug dealers coming, and people coming to get the homeless to do gang work and all that.

It broke my heart to witness it all, but I saw an opening for how I could help. I saw something Lee Anna and I could do, and I'm like, I really need to do this. My life doesn't belong to me. I'm gonna give my life to this. So that's how I got started.

What surprised or shocked you the most about your experiences under the bridge?

At the time, I didn't even know what the word trafficking truly meant. I wasn't naive but when you're not a part of that world it's hard to fully understand what trafficking actually is. You know, were these girls being pimped or was there some other kind of industry?

You know, you get upset, I get upset. We all get upset sometimes. We have children. We have spouses. We'll come to tears over an injury or a death in the family, but most of us aren't laying down at night under a bridge and hearing women cry all night long. I could go to sleep, wake up two hours later, and they'd still be crying. Just the tormenting of their soul, as I call it, the struggle, the day in, day out survival, the no family. I mean, we can think like that, but we're not experiencing that.

So think about no husband, no wife, no children that you can get to. Things taken away from you like your children, your home, a spouse turning you in so you can be trafficked. Just the woundedness, the trauma of life and hearing it cry out all night, and then to have to put on a fake smile to get up and go and panhandle or steal or whatever for the next habit.

People say well, homelessness under a bridge just consists of a lot of drug addicts. Yeah, if I had to live like that, I'm not sure I would not be one. I've never really said that before till now, but I'm not sure how I would handle it in a sober, honest world to exist in because I'd be such a wreck. So sometimes when I get fatigued at work, when I'm trying to figure out my next step, I think of those crying voices that will never, ever have to make decisions because they're doing the same things day in and day out. It's planned and it's never good. I can still hear them cry from time to time, 26 years later. It's haunting.

How do you find and rescue victims from traffickers? And what happens after you rescue them?

Lee Anna:
Here's a data point that gives a bit of perspective. About 91% of homeless people report being approached with an offer of a lucrative 'opportunity' or some sort of sales pitch that turns out to be a scam or oftentimes trafficking. Now obviously not all of them bite the bait there, but it's so common, right?

So our work starts out on the streets. We take teams out. We take food out to the streets consistently, and even on days that we're not bringing food, we're out in the camps, we're in the woods. We focus specifically on unsheltered folks. For us, it's not necessarily those that are already in emergency shelters or being served by other opportunities. We go in the woods, under the bridges, anywhere that someone is experiencing living outside, and we identify and engage people and build a relationship. I don't expect you to trust me just because I showed up with a meal. I hope that you'll trust me once I earn your trust, and in the process of building that relationship, you'll learn that you can trust me, and that's when you'll open up to me. More and more as you open up, you'll allow me to speak life and hope into your situation.

One of the ways we do that is we pick everyone up three days a week. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, we pick everyone up and we bring them to the ministry campus where we offer everything from showers, free laundry, barber services to full primary medical care - all for free. We have lunch and dinner, and we have housing counseling where we will sit down with you and start to unpack your obstacles and identify new strategies and then walk with you. And so we go from being outside with you to hopefully bringing you to our outreach center on campus. And when you start to open up to letting us make suggestions around housing opportunities, we can provide a crisis response housing here on campus.


We occasionally get some hotel money that we try to manage very tightly. But we can, you know, if I find a family with small children, infant children in the woods, my rule is and all the staff know this, number one, they go in a hotel immediately tonight. There will be no preschoolers sleeping outside. And then we have transitional housing programs. So programs that you could go for six months to a year.

When you complete the process of getting a job, increasing your income, working on your resources, we'll pay the first month or two of your rent, your rental costs to help you get set up, and we'll do housing navigation. We'll help you identify an apartment, apply for it, all of the things that it takes to get housing. We also have just straight rental assistance programs, and we have a whole other set of permanent supportive housing, and that is for folks that will always need wraparound supportive care tied to permanent housing.

There are those who are chronically homeless, who have extreme trauma usually, and have most often a severe or persistent mental illness that causes them to be disabled. What you find is that trafficking happens in this context of vulnerability. If you have a substance use disorder or if you have a severe and persistent mental illness or extreme trauma, particularly in childhood, it makes you so vulnerable that you are very likely to get approached by traffickers and sucked into that, and then you're re-traumatized.

So we go from meeting you out in the woods or wherever you're being trafficked, all the way to wraparound permanent support housing. It's the whole spectrum. We try to make sure that we have a way forward for every single person we encounter.

How do you deal with an extremely urgent situation where you have to act immediately and haven't had time to build a rapport with that person?

Lee Anna:
That's a great question. One of the things that we really value is the excellent work that we do using best practices. And so our whole agency is what you call trauma-informed. That means all of our staff from the very first week that they begin here start to be trained in trauma-informed care, and one of the elements of that is knowing how to de-escalate crisis situations and do what is called motivational interviewing. It's a way you talk, a way you ask questions that empowers someone who is in the midst of crisis to center themselves, identify their strengths, and think critically about things that are sort of these mental loops people get into that trauma can cause. To get out of that loop, it takes someone walking alongside them. So all of our staff are trained to do that, and one of the things that we do - and it's kind of unique to our agency - is work with people that are in immediate crisis like that.

Trauma can be very complex and the preparation to deal with someone who is caught in that in the moment of crisis, you have to be highly trained in a lot of ways. When we talk about the work that we do having excellence, a lot of what we mean is that people are trained in all kinds of techniques to be ready because you might not have time to build a slow rapport with me. I might need to be the one light in the darkness that you can find. And that's what our staff are prepared to do.

People comforting each other

So if you were a victim of sexual assault, we would be where the hospital would send you, and you would work with a rape crisis center. But if you were also concurrently a trafficking victim or homeless, we would be the first person that you would call, and we would take you immediately, so our staff are prepared to jump right in.

Is there a specific memory during these 25+ years that has really stood out to you?

There is, Laura. We were struggling financially, you know, just trying to keep the ministry afloat and I would go out and feed by myself, rain or shine, and we didn't have staff a lot, we'd just started.

So I've come in, I'm soaked. It's been raining, I've been all over town. I was pulling in driveway, getting ready to go in, and I'm like, I'm a horrible husband, I wanna get home. I wanna pull in the driveway and run in and see my wife...and I literally knew that I was not through. So I sat in my truck a minute, and I felt like the Lord said, "Go to 4th Street Bridge." I'm like, "I just came from there!"

I sat there a minute. Then I go back down to 4th Street Bridge, kind of like I was mocking the Lord. I got down and I'm just thinking, who's under here? I just came; there's nobody here. And I literally heard the Lord say, "Mr. Johnson." And I was just so mocking; one reason I use that word was I'm thinking, "Okay, Mr. Johnson, where are you at?" I'm so ashamed that I would do that.

I said "Mr. Johnson" and I heard somebody say, "Help, help."

He had covered himself up in so much newspaper cuz he was cold and he was wet and he was up in the abutment of the bridge. Water had literally plastered him by the bound up wet paper. I tore the paper, got him out, little skinny guy, and I just said, "Oh my gosh, man, you need medical. You need help."

I took him home, and I'm thinking, Lee Anna's not going to be liking me, but I took him in, and she never said a word. He'd wet himself and other things had happened, so I put him in the shower and left my clothes on. I'm scrubbing him and trying to get him washing his hair. And he had lice and now I've got it, and I’m like, oh my gosh, we got lice in the house. I got lice all in my beard and my hair.

So we treated all that and Lee Anna got all the stuff and we put this guy to bed. I went through his belongings trying to find out who to call. Turns out he was some decorated military guy, and he had went through a traumatic event. I won't even discuss that. Anyway, so this guy just lost his mind and started walking. So I called his intelligence officer, and they came and got him and helped him.

It would have been so easy to not hear the Lord. It was so easy not to go back out. Just knowing how God has a plan for everybody and he let me be a part of the plan. He let Lee Anna be a part of the plan. And to rescue this guy and not think about the lice, not think about the danger, and not think about what's going on. He could have died, and we saved him. And it's so important that I had a spouse that never flinched to help me.

I never heard from him after, but I don't need to. I did my part and I feel like we did our part and God covered that.

Lee Anna:
The ministry has always been very woven into our lives. It's a mom and pop shop, you might say. We have a daughter who's now 17, but when she was younger, she was essentially born into the work of the ministry. I had a bassinet in my office and I used one of, it's like a Maya wrap where you kind of strap your baby to you, and I basically worked with her strapped to me for all of her infancy.

When she became a toddler, she would always run around our transitional house at the time. This was a transitional house for trafficked women and families. And so all of her childhood friends were children who were in families where they had been living on the streets, living in vehicles, someone in the family had been trafficked, and also single women who had been trafficked, she was close to them all. She was sort of the household's child.

Rick and Lee Anna talking to homeless man on the street

We had one woman in particular who'd been in prison for quite a long time who was released and came to live with us in our transitional house. Val had been in prison for more than 10 years and needed to rebuild a life from absolute tragedy, trauma, and brokenness. I don't know what it was about this woman Val, but our daughter Sophia was so attached to her. That was her absolute best friend. Every time I'd look up, she'd run out of the office somewhere and I'd go to Val's room and there she was. Val got her coloring books, and they would sit and color together.

I think having our Sophia grow up in the ministry, it added so much hope there of like, you're in a family now. For them to be welcomed into our family in such a way where your kids are playing with my kid and we're all doing this together. We're doing this life together. And I have as much to learn from you as you learn from me, and we're gonna collaboratively support each other in helping you be restored into what God's created you to do and be in your life.

That story over and over again in so many iterations is kind of the heart of First Fruit Ministries. You are now part of a community. You belong here, and I think that's one of my favorite things about the ministry.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, which will be released very soon!