January 27, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A young man in dress coat and white shirt and green tie stands outside with slight smile on face.
Nate Knapper is a 2008 alumnus of Calvin University.

At the age of 15 years old, Leslie King was coerced into the lifestyle of prostitution. It’s a lifestyle she got trapped in for more than 20 years. During that time, King racked up a record that included shoplifting, larceny, aggravated assault, and drug-related violations. For each of these charges she paid full restitution, and each one happened during the 20 years she was trafficked. Her motivation for each of the crimes: survival.

In 2000, she finally broke free. But her criminal record remained.

“To me, freedom is a layered concept,” said Nate Knapper, “I don’t believe you can define freedom strictly in terms of liberating someone from the immediate circumstances of their exploitation.”

Gaining experience and understanding

Knapper, a 2008 graduate of Calvin University, met King in 2013 while serving with her on a human trafficking commission during his time working for the State Attorney General’s office. King was the first survivor of human trafficking he had met.

Nearly four years later, after training for five months in Quantico, Virginia, Knapper became an FBI Special Agent, ultimately returning to Michigan to work at the Bureau’s Detroit Field Office. Interestingly, his first field assignment out of the Academy was the human trafficking squad. Knapper saw that as no coincidence.

Knapper, whose knowledge of trafficking was already informed by policy assignments at the Attorney General’s office, was now getting front-line, street-level exposure to the issue.

“Fusing those two experiences together is how the idea of The Joseph Project came to be,” said Knapper.

Discovering a gap, and filling it

This project, named after history’s earliest-recorded example of trafficking, Joseph from the Bible (Genesis 37-50), would address the “justice gap” for survivors – the space that exists between the legal needs of a human trafficking survivor and getting those legal needs met.

“If you are ‘free,’ but you have a criminal record, no job, no apartment, no custody of your child, or if you are a foreigner who was trafficked into the U.S. with no legal status, and you have no family in the country, what future do you reasonably have? The answer is none,” said Knapper. “But with a little leverage, a little legal leverage, the possibilities are wide open for you.”

This was true of King, who while physically free, still had her record hanging over her, limiting her ability to dream. She needed a special agent to change that. For her, it was Knapper.

“At Calvin, they talk about being an ‘agent of renewal.’ I see that as a double entendre in my life,” said Knapper. “I’m a Special Agent. For me, to be an agent of renewal means that you are taking God’s idea of what human flourishing looks like and leveraging the law and translating that into reality for someone else.”

Redefining freedom, reigniting dreams

For King, it meant that in December 2022, she became the first survivor in the history of the state of Michigan to receive a gubernatorial pardon. Now, her dreams no longer have a ceiling.

“Because of the pardon, she can now pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a Licensed Master of Social Work. Without that clear record, she can’t move in that professional direction, and thus, to me, is not free,” said Knapper.

For Knapper, allowing others to dream more fully and freely is rooted in his undergraduate education at Calvin, where he was encouraged to dream of what renewal could look like in a broken world, and then to act.

“For me, to dream is to consider the ways you might become an agent of renewal, to leverage your skills, abilities, and professional training to make someone’s life better, to usher in a small measure of the Kingdom of God right here, right now,” said Knapper.

Dig Deeper

The Joseph Project

Leslie King’s story and pardon

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