In the heart of Minneapolis on Aug. 22-26, North Central University served as the command center for The BIG Search. Powered by the dedication of FREE International , this event has grown into a nationwide movement with a mission that resonates in the hearts of many: to search for and aid missing children who may be lost within the shadows of human trafficking.
Spearheading the effort to bring The BIG Search to Minneapolis for the first time was Joe Malhoit ’89 and his wife, Amy (Krawczak ’91) Malhoit, who see their work with FREE International as a beautifully aligned chapter in their lives that has God’s fingerprints all over it.
Career planning—God’s way
After Amy graduated from North Central in 1991, the Malhoits, who had both received ministry credentials from the Assemblies of God, moved to New Jersey and served as pastors in youth and young adult ministry for two years. They returned to Minnesota and worked part-time at a church. To supplement their income, Joe worked in a structured day program caring for brain injury survivors. When his organization offered to pay for him to get a master’s degree in psychology, he added four years of night school to his docket.
By the time he graduated with his advanced degree, Joe and Amy had two children. “It was time to look for my adult job,” he said. But the job search was tough. “I applied to 30 or 40 places,” he recalled. “Nobody wanted me.” The feeling of desperation to find work led him to do something he never would have scripted for himself: Applying to work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Admitting he submitted the application with no expectation it would come to anything, he was surprised to get an invitation six months later to go to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, for further testing. “I shouldn’t have been there,” Joe said. “Everybody I tested with—40 or so people—was way more qualified. But only one other woman and I were left standing at the end, and she dropped out. So the least qualified guy got in—that’s how you know it was God’s idea, not mine.”
Joe Malhoit went on to a 20-year career as a Special Agent, working federal cases for two years in Southern Illinois and 18 years in the Minneapolis Field Office. The work was rewarding but difficult, and one four-year stint working on child prostitution cases was the toughest of all, yet also part of the preparation for what he is doing now.
When Joe retired from the FBI, their kids were grown, and he and Amy both knew they were being called back into ministry—but doing what? And where? They looked at multiple opportunities in the areas of international justice and compassion ministries, but nothing seemed to fit until one day at their church, a representative from FREE International showed up.
As part of the presentation, the organization had sent one of the command center vehicles, in part because youth from Minnesota were instrumental in raising funds for FREE’s anti-trafficking initiatives through Speed the Light. Joe and Amy spoke with the representative and knew they had found it. “We met him, and said, ‘Okay, we’re in.’”
The Malhoits were relicensed through the Assemblies of God and, in 2022, became missionary associates serving with FREE International. Joe’s pension and work as a mental health therapist provide their living expenses, and they raise funds for their work with FREE International to pay for travel costs.
Ultimately, Joe sees the whole package of his experience—pastoral, mental health, and criminal justice—as perfect preparation for their work traveling to cities throughout the U.S. for The BIG Search operations.
Bringing The BIG Search to Minneapolis
In 2022, Emmanuel Christian Center in Spring Lake Park, Minnesota, initiated a conversation with FREE International to bring The BIG Search to Minnesota. Joe and Amy stepped up to lead the charge. Months of preparation included outreach to law enforcement agencies, volunteer recruitment, and finding the right place to serve as the operation’s headquarters.
Phil Zarns, Ph.D., Director of the Schools of Global Studies at NCU, fielded the initial inquiry from Joe about the possibility of using North Central facilities. “Joe reached out last May,” Zarns noted, “recognizing the potential of North Central University as a base of operations situated in the heart of our neighborhood.”
University staff quickly got on board, and Jordan Robertson, Executive Director of Operations, Brandon Watson, M.A., Director of Housekeeping & Events, and Bam Garner, Housekeeping, teamed up to make the idea a reality. Zarns noted, “It seems close to the heart of the Lord for communities of transformation like NCU, Free International, and partner churches like Emmanuel Christian Center to work together towards the common good of our city.”
When the university offered Zimmerman House to house the 20 out-of-town intel and operations staff, Joe said, “Suddenly, my life got easier, since securing affordable lodging is typically one of the bigger logistics involved in preparing for the mission.
During the days of the operation, North Central employees and volunteers from Emmanuel Christian Center and other area churches played crucial roles. “I want to give a shout-out to the security staff,” Joe said. “They’re rock stars! Some of them even came out with us to do some of the work.”
The time at NCU was personally meaningful for Joe, as well. “I got to stay in the same house I lived in when I was a student in 1987!”
Finding people, building bridges
The BIG Search is a turn-key event hosted in cities across the U.S. to coordinate that community in searching for local missing children. The four-day event includes highly trained intel, operations, and communications teams who work in partnership with local law enforcement to direct the operations.
The primary job of the volunteers—the Minneapolis event drew nearly 200 of them—is to fan out in teams to connect with people in neighborhoods to gather leads that could result in finding missing children and youth.
“When we do a search,” Joe explained, “part of what we do is we build picture photos of all the folks that are missing with their identifiable information, who to contact if you see them. And we have these booklets made up that we pass those out everywhere. So we get the faces out there, we get the names out there to the public. The teams were going out into targeted areas all throughout the cities, putting out these brochures in businesses and hotels.”
When missing persons are located, The BIG Search team members—whether volunteers or professional operations staff—engage with law enforcement to approach the individuals. Sometimes, they simply learn that someone is alive and well, but they do not want to reunite with family or reconnect with others at that time. Other times, the connection opens a door for someone to leave dangerous or unhealthy situations. Ultimately, the outcomes are as varied as the stories of the people who have been missing.
Joe noted that the majority of the missing children or youth they find have run away from home. Many get involved with traffickers, and the teams are able to work with those who want to break out, providing immediate care and solutions to help them transition back to safer environments. The team knows they can’t rescue everyone. “We lovingly build bridges,” Amy said. “We’re not there to force anything, and we just keep finding.”
The BIG Search headquartered at North Central University this summer was more than a rescue mission; it was a testament to the power of community. Every shared flyer, every conversation sparked, and every moment spent scouring the city was a brick in the foundation of hope these young individuals desperately needed.
Thanks and future opportunities
On Oct. 19, Joe and Amy Malhoit met with Doug Graham, D.Min., Interim President of North Central University, to present an award expressing FREE International’s gratitude for the university’s participation in The BIG Search. Graham commented, “Anytime North Central can partner with organizations that are doing good work in the world, we want to be a part of that. That’s a great value for our students’ learning experience.”
Phil Zarns noted that they are in conversation with the Malhoits to have them speak in classes this fall to share more about the opportunities available to fight human trafficking at the local level.