Five Questions with Episcopal priest, fighter of human trafficking

Father Ray Bonoan has diversified his Episcopal church in Safety Harbor and leads anti-human trafficking efforts from there.
Father Ray Bonoan has diversified his Episcopal church in Safety Harbor and leads anti-human trafficking efforts from there.
Published Jul. 9, 2014

It was just a few days before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Washington, D.C., targets in 2001 that Father Ray Bonoan took over as the rector at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Safety Harbor. "On 9/11, I was still moving in. We decided to leave the church open. So many came and just sat. … All our hearts were broken. I will say it was difficult. As a priest, sometimes you need to be a healer when you are wounded, too.''

Born in the Philippines, Bonoan received his bachelor's in theology and his master's in divinity at St. Andrew's Theological Seminary in Quezon City. He came to the United States in 1983 and eventually settled in Hillsborough County, where he served at St. Luke's in Land O'Lakes and at St. Andrew's in Tampa.

Bonoan serves as the canon missioner for Asian ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida and is the founding director of the Diocesan Church Against Human Trafficking office, which has headquarters at Church of the Holy Spirit. In 2009, he received the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking's Freedom Award.

At the national level, Bonoan is a member of the advisory committee working with the General Convention for the Episcopal Church on human trafficking issues.

He lives in Lutz with his wife, Ning. They have three adult children.

When did you first recognize the need to get involved with victims of human trafficking?

When I received a phone call in 2008 from someone involved with the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking who told me about a group of victims that were being transported to our community from Boca Raton. They were victims of labor trafficking, workers in the service industry like motel workers and country club workers. They were Filipino, and I was called because of being a Filipino myself. There were 13 of them, and they were temporarily housed in a former hospital in Clearwater now run by the Salvation Army. Unfortunately, when I met with them the first time they were afraid. It turned out the person, their victimizer, was a Filipino too, but over time I befriended them. They eventually talked, poured out their hearts, really, their stories. There were lots of tears. We eventually started bringing them to church, and now the victims are survivors.

Why do you think this region has such problems with human trafficking?

Florida is a tourist belt. There's always a need for people to work for low wages. People are always willing to hire workers for low wages, no wages or under the table, which means nobody sees the exchange of money. There are also the ports — the Port of Tampa, for example. That's where they come in, and we also have the main arteries that connect to other states, Interstate 75 and I-4.

If you could ask community leaders for more help to stop human trafficking, what would you ask for?

More collaboration from the top to the bottom. We all have to work together, from the federal level to the state and local level and then to the nongovernmental level, which includes this church. I also think having more safe houses for the victims would help, too.

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What is the biggest challenge in your daily job as the rector here?

A big challenge is always being open to the unexpected. You just never know what the holy Lord will bring you. For example, that unexpected call that linked me to the victims came from nowhere, so I must always be ready to deal with the unexpected.

And when you think of your time at this church, what surprises you the most?

(Laughter) That I'm still here. Seriously, the pleasant surprise is that the church has transitioned into what the people, the leaders, hired me to do: to diversify and to incorporate new ministries. When I started, the congregation was more than 90 percent Anglo-American, but the diocese put me here to incorporate all the ethnicities of the area, and now it is 75 percent Anglo.

Contact Piper Castillo at or (727) 445-4163. Follow @Florida_PBJC.