Andy Soper believes people can help most by getting personally involved to help protect endangered children in the community. Photo by Michael Buck
Andy Soper, the 31-year-old project coordinator of Wedgwood Christian Service’s Manasseh Project, is 6 feet 3 inches tall, weighs about 265 pounds and has a deep voice and a goatee that would look at home on a burley biker. His black T-shirt exposes brawny arms emblazoned in tattoo sleeves.
The tattoos tell the story of his life. On his right wrist is the word “vincula” — Latin for “bond,” and on his left wrist is the Greek word for compassion. It’s a reminder to him of the shackles of slavery he fights daily — and that justice is not charity. The two values are interrelated, he said, but believing they are the same is part of the problem Soper believes West Michigan has when it comes to dealing with human trafficking.
“We’re too much about our own preservation. We’re so focused on making our house and our family safer that we’ve missed out on our neighborhoods,” he said.
“There’s inherent value to protecting humanity and the dignity of humanity in everybody. We miss that in our protectionist state. That makes me nervous about our culture, and I’m not even from West Michigan. This is me, observing.”
Soper was born in Rochester Hills but grew up all over Michigan. His parents moved the family often to find work, both of them having entrepreneurial interests. He spent his early years living on the L’Anse Indian Reservation on Keweenaw Bay in the Upper Peninsula.
Soper’s mother Jen, who is one-quarter Chippewa, grew up in Keweenaw, working at her grandparents’ diner, the Night Owl Café. Jen, whose name is tattooed on Soper’s arm next to an image of Rosie the Riveter, was a hardworking woman, he said, who volunteered at domestic shelters and eventually started a number of her own businesses.
Soper’s father, Jim, was a car salesman and something of a workaholic, he said. He died from an allergic reaction to penicillin when Soper was 3. At the time, his parents were separated but receiving marriage counseling, he said.
His mom eventually remarried and the family moved to Calumet, where Soper attended Copper Country Christian High School. He described the community as “very Baptist,” full of well-intentioned people but a pharisaical place where a kid like him, who was into punk rock, dyed his hair and wore ripped clothes and chains, was inevitably going to cause problems.
“I used to love to find boundaries, find teachers’ weaknesses and irritations, and just push, push, push,” he said. “Academics wasn’t the problem. I always got straight A’s. … Back then, I think it was a blazing insecurity masking as arrogance or confidence. I was always questioning my own skills.”
When he was a sophomore, Soper was kicked out of high school, not long after his older sister, Audrey, had graduated as valedictorian. The family moved to Florida, where he finished high school in 1999 before returning to Michigan and attending Cornerstone University, majoring in communication arts.
Cornerstone was where he pulled off the impossible “Seinfeld Switch” and fell in love with a childhood acquaintance named Marcy, who was studying social work. Her name is now tattooed in a web on his elbow.
“In college, I was going out occasionally with Marcy’s roommate. On Valentine’s Day we were supposed to go out, but her roommate bailed on me,” he said. “I called their room and said, ‘My car is cleaned, I’m wearing clean clothes — somebody is going out with me tonight.’ … Marcy was like, ‘I’ll go out.’ … We were married two years later.”
Soper acknowledges that the women in his life, particularly his mother and her work in shelters with the abused, had a deep impact on him, leading to his desire to work with women and children who suffer violence at the hands of men. As a lone son, growing up without his father and surrounded by mostly female relatives, he began to see a side of gender most men don’t, he said — that society tends to focus on women’s victimization rather than men’s perpetration.
After receiving his master’s degree in popular culture from Bowling Green State, Soper and Marcy came back to Grand Rapids to start a family — a stick-figure rendition of which he, of course, has tattooed on his arm.
In college, Soper had worked as a youth treatment specialist for Wedgwood, and he returned in 2009 to work as a training specialist, forming a mentoring relationship with both the kids and the staff. It was there Soper began working with West Michigan girls who’d been trafficked.
After a 13-year-old girl ran away from Wedgwood and was discovered trafficked in Grand Rapids, Soper said he began looking at how local medical, social and legal systems were dealing with the issue of human trafficking.
“An angry, violent 13-year-old who’s afraid of everything is not going to come across as a victim,” he said. “That was the beginning of the Manasseh Project in August 2010.”
Soper spotted the name Manasseh in his dad’s old Bible while in the process of filing paperwork for the project. It is recorded in Genesis as the name of Joseph’s firstborn son. Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers at age 17, would have been a prime target for sexual abuse, Soper said, and was locked up after refusing sexual favors from his owner’s wife. After Joseph rose to become second only to Pharaoh, he named his newborn baby Manasseh, saying “God has made me forget all my trouble.”
This is Soper’s hope for his Manasseh Project.
Manasseh recently opened an 8,500-square-foot safe house that offers 24-hour care, medical and psychiatric care, education, transportation and community involvement for the 10 trafficked girls, ages 14-17, who live there, nine of who were rescued from the sex trade in Grand Rapids.
It costs about $100,000 to $125,000 per year to house a girl there, Soper said, but the biggest issue isn’t the money. Grand Rapids, a philanthropically generous city, he said, needs to do more than cut checks because, although the money’s important, it’s not primary to fixing the root problems.
He said city residents need to volunteer their time to mentor and interact more with children and their neighborhoods, creating healthier family environments where there’s always a responsible eye on the lookout for kids. To communally ignore these children creates a culture that is concerned about circling the wagons for the children down the hall but not the ones living two doors down, he said.
Donating money without being personally connected to a mission’s big picture, he said, means the giver is never made aware of the real issues. When that connection is made, he said, real change can begin.
“My biggest fear in West Michigan is that we don’t recognize that, if money can solve it, it’s probably not a problem. We need to be personally there, building relationships.”
“I don’t have a problem with people making money … but if (money) is the first question, then that will take the ultimate priority over people, the local economy and the community.”
Fighting human trafficking isn’t what he wants to spend the rest of his life doing, Soper admits. Hopefully, he’ll work himself out of the nonprofit in the next 10 years and spend the rest of his life mentoring and working with homeless youth, an issue he feels is misunderstood but vital to the roots of trafficking.
“I work off of necessity. It’s necessary that someone do this work, and I do it because I’m passionate about it,” he said. “I think I’ll always be in a field that revolves around men’s violence against women and children in some fashion. I feel like I’m most useful there.”