First of two parts.
At the start of the century, incidents of prostitution reached epidemic proportions in Chicago, with 900 women being arrested for solicitation over the summer. New Life Covenant Church in 2002 opened New Life for Women, also known as the Farm, in rural Illinois as a safe means of removing women who wanted to be rehabilitated away from the degrading environment.
The Farm developed under the leadership of Wilfredo “Choco” De Jesús, then senior pastor of New Life Covenant Church, as a ministry outreach in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. Through funds raised entirely by church donors, New Life Covenant purchased the property to rehabilitate women struggling to overcome alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, and sex trafficking. Today, the ministry is under the umbrella of the Chicago Dream Center. De Jesús now is general treasurer of the national Assemblies of God.
The Farm has since gone nationwide in providing a Christian alternative to what the former drug addicts, gang members, and prostitutes might face otherwise: prison, homelessness, or even death. Many of the women have lost their homes, jobs, and families. For some, the Farm is a last opportunity to salvage their lives.
The rustic tranquility of the Farm is designed to help women experience God’s restoration. The three mentors at the facility have credibility because they have overcome similar circumstances.
There is no cost to the residents, as the tab is financed entirely by the Chicago Dream Center. Consequently, the Dream Center is selective in who is accepted at the Farm during the intake process. It’s not meant to be a stopping point for a woman to dry out before returning to her destructive lifestyle.
“The hunger of the woman wanting to get out of the lifestyle is the deciding factor,” says Dream Center Executive Director Marisol Constanza, 38. “Women who don’t want to be weaned off a cellphone or medications for 30 days won’t make it.”
LIFE AT THE FARM
The layout includes a two-story house and an adjacent dormitory addition. No identification sign draws attention to what goes on inside. There are no sirens, gunfire, or needles in the gutter — only chirping birds and an occasional rumble of a semi-truck along the road where the property is situated.
The home provides a Christian atmosphere in which women regain a sense of normalcy in a residential yearlong program. Christian-themed posters and paintings line interior walls. Comfy couches and chairs create a homey atmosphere. The sparse bedrooms are immaculate, with Scriptures verses painted on the walls. Bibles, commentaries, and notebooks spread upon a long table for study is a common sight between classes.
The Farm is a training ground for women to live on their own and to establish routines that will help them become the mothers and daughters they neglected to be before. While daily prayer and Bible study facilitate reshaping their outlook, simple disciplines and caring for their bodies as well as living space are necessary, too. The boarders learn to cook a variety of dishes, to scrub floors, and to clean toilets as part of their weekly chores.
For the first month on the Farm, students are isolated from the outside as a way to break from their old life: no cellphone, computer, television, visitors, or trips. Still, there are no locks on doors; occasionally a resident will flee back to old haunts.
Many inhabitants have accepted Jesus as Savior before making the trek west, but those who haven’t understand this is a biblically based program. Upon arrival, few enrollees know much about the Lord or the Bible. But from the time they wake up until they retire at night, they are focused on Scripture, much of it through Adult & Teen Challenge curriculum. Hourlong devotions occur both morning and evenings.
The Farm is but one of 100 ministries operated by New Life Covenant. Upon graduation, many of the women initially begin serving 3- ,6, or 9-month internships at the Chicago Dream Center. For those who plan to return to their family, Constanza — who has been involved at New Life Covenant Church since 2004 — drives them home to ensure that the graduate isn’t returning to a toxic environment.
Since its inception, 787 women have graduated from the program, “sober, healed, and saved.” The residence accommodates up to 16 women, ages 18 and older.
Maricellia Rodriguez has been working at the Farm since 2018 and program director since October. She began serving as an intern while still enrolled, graduating as the “house mom” to the rest of the students.
Although the circumstances vary, Rodriguez can identify with the trauma many of the women have endured on the road to recovery. Soon after birth, Rodriguez’s heroin-addicted mother lost custody of her. By the age of 7, Rodriguez went to a bar after school every day because that’s where her adoptive mom spent all her time. By 9, she had tasted her first alcoholic drink, opening the door to a dependency on drugs. At the same time, Rodriguez says her adoptive mother strictly enforced discipline, yelling more often than instructing. In an effort to escape an abusive stepfather, Rodriguez joined a gang at 14 and ran away from home and into a lifestyle of drugs and sex.
With this militant background, Rodriguez relates well to women who rebel against rules. She admits to mellowing a bit since becoming program director.
“God is teaching me gentleness,” says Rodriguez, 48. “Breaking off old behaviors happens here. We come alongside the women, and assist them in the process of being transformed by the renewing of their mind based on biblical principles.”
Back in Chicago, Dream Center staffers have befriended the owners of four motels where the women are pimped out. Outreach events are held at the motels, including a Christmas party extravaganza last month at one of the inns. More than 100 women — prostitutes, escorts, exotic dancers, and trafficked victims — attended.
Constanza, a participant in the recent Assemblies of God national human trafficking summit, says the motel owners typically treat Dream Center staff and volunteers with kindness because of their humane treatment of their clientele.
“They know what they are doing is wrong, and they feel guilty,” Constanza says. “By allowing us to come help, they believe they are redeeming themselves. We use that to the advantage of the Kingdom.”
At the Christmas party, the Dream Center team distributed gift baskets to each woman that included items such as perfume, scarves, watches, earrings, nail polish, hats — and information about how to leave the sex industry. Sadly, some women left the gathering periodically to service clients in rooms.
“They looked so broken when they came back,” Constanza says. “We talked to them about the love of God. Many of the women are addicted to drugs, so the pimps don’t care if they leave.”
Next: Two recent graduates tell how the Farm changed their lives.