'Man of Sorrows': The Minister Who Helped a Woman Kidnap a Child

More

Three years ago, Lisa Miller renounced her homosexuality, left her partner, and fled the country with their daughter. The author forms an unlikely friendship with the Mennonite leader who aided her escape. 

menonites2-top.jpg Mennonite supporters of Ken Miller (right) gather to sing hymns during his trial. (Andrew Harmon)

On my desk, I keep a small maroon book, hardcover and ringed by a single coffee mug stain. It was written by a Christian missionary who spread the Gospel throughout India in the early 20th century, and as with all evangelism, it promises salvation through surrender to God. Throughout the book's pages are small exclamation points and asterisks in black ballpoint pen, the epiphanies of its previous owner.

Inscribed on the yellowed title page is a note to the new owner, as it was passed to me in a federal courtroom during a criminal trial I attended last August. The handwriting appears to be that of a child who writes fast and small and without flourish.

To a most "unlikely friend,"

This book is one of my prize possessions. About 5 years ago a friend gave me a copy. It has led me much deeper into knowing Christ.

I will pray that Christ will lead you into that kind of surrender and into His abundant life.

There is an eternity to prepare for --

Ken Miller
Burlington VT
2012

Ken Miller is not a child. He is a 47-year-old Beachy Amish Mennonite minister from Virginia, convicted in one of today's most bizarre plots against the growing normalcy of homosexuality in American society, the civil rights that have followed, and the perceived threats to social order that they pose.

This afternoon, Miller is scheduled to be sentenced for his role in the parental kidnapping of a young girl who disappeared more than three years ago. Her name is Isabella Miller-Jenkins, known in court documents simply as "IMJ," and for most of her life, she's had the misfortune of being at the center of a custody fight that has played out on the national stage. Isabella is now 10 years old and believed to be hiding in Nicaragua with her biological mother, Lisa A. Miller, a woman who fled the United States penniless and arguably delusional, having renounced her former homosexual life and having blocked custody visits between Isabella and her other parent -- Miller's lesbian ex-partner of many years.

Though they share the same last name and faith, Ken is not related to Lisa. It's not entirely clear how she found her way to Ken's door in 2009. Ken won't discuss how they met, only what he felt when they did.

"I could see the peace of God in her life, an inner joy that radiated on her face and her being," he said in January, two days prior to being jailed on a civil contempt charge for refusing to testify before a grand jury on the continuing investigation. "No decision was a good decision at that time. She was in trouble, but she was also at rest. So I looked at that and made a rather quick judgment. I've been hoping ever since that I made the right one." He said he has not heard from Lisa since, and doesn't believe he will again, at least in this lifetime.

"He talked about our gay brothers and sisters," Ken said of President Obama. "That's how I feel toward you and anyone struggling with sexual sin."

When I last saw Ken, he wore a beige button-down shirt and wrinkled slacks with running shoes. We met in a school field trip-filled cafeteria at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where he had taken his wife, Linda, and five of his six children to see an IMAX film on the migration of monarch butterflies.

He is short, with the parted hair of a schoolboy and the ruddy face of a man long accustomed to outdoor labor. Ken's family owns a garden supply and greenhouse business in Stuarts Draft, Virginia, where he has paid himself a $10-an-hour salary since his return to the United States from missionary work in Ireland. His legal bills, thus far totaling $175,000, have been covered -- and then some -- by donations from Mennonites and evangelicals around the world. Ken lacks the charisma of Billy Graham, the creepy zeal of Warren Jeffs or the vitriol of Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps. Instead, he is as he describes himself: a country bloke, a nice guy, and a lousy criminal.

He's also been compared to a historic martyr by some Mennonites, although Ken says he resists such veneration. Visit MillerCase.org, a support website created for him, and you'll see an etching from Thieleman J. van Braght's 17th-century work Martyrs' Mirror depicting two men. One has fallen through thin ice covering a frozen moat. The other comes to his aid with arms outstretched. This is Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist (of which Ken's sect is considered a descendent), who was jailed for his faith. Willems escaped from prison using a rope made of knotted rags and saved the prison guard in pursuit, yet was burned at the stake for heresy in 1569.

Ken greeted me warmly, his grin a jumble of gray teeth. But he hadn't slept the night before, and there was a lot on his mind. For one, Ken was certain he'd be going to jail and not returning to Virginia anytime soon. He thought of his family, and also of President Barack Obama's inaugural address the day before. "He talked about our gay brothers and sisters," Ken said of President Obama. "And I liked that -- I liked that very much, because that's how I feel. Toward you and anyone who is, you know, gay. I feel that way toward my human brothers and sisters who would be struggling with sexual sin, with any of the stuff I've struggled with" -- the "stuff" being pornography, in which he indulged as a young man.

We're probably all broken sexually, Ken believed. "By my actions, I'm saying that I don't have any hatred or any bias in my heart any more than I do toward my own sinful nature. But I'm saying that what's going on in our culture is wrong. And President Obama, just yesterday, applauded it." He became quiet as the din of schoolchildren rose in the background.

I asked him what he thought about the future of this country. "I expect it to decay and to disintegrate and to fragment and to decline," Ken replied, looking up and off to the right, as he did throughout much of his trial. "I appreciate our country very much. I appreciate the judicial system, even though I'm caught in it right now. But I don't expect too much out of this world anymore."

***

Ken and I first met last summer, a time when even eating a sandwich at Chick-fil-A was becoming a political statement on same-sex marriage. As a former reporter for a national LGBT publication, I had followed the longstanding custody dispute between Lisa Miller and her former partner, Janet Jenkins -- a litmus test on the rights of gay parents when relationships crumble and state laws are discordant.

In 2000, Miller and Jenkins entered into a civil union in Vermont and moved there from Virginia to start a family. They bought a four-bedroom Victorian house together in the small town of Fair Haven a few months after Lisa Miller gave birth to Isabella in April 2002. Lisa Miller filed to dissolve the civil union in November 2003 and moved with Isabella back to Virginia, a state that does not recognize civil unions or same-sex marriage. What followed has been excruciatingly pored over in legal briefs, media exposes and online bloviating on both sides of the divide.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Andrew Harmon is a former senior editor for The Advocate magazine and has written for the L.A. Times and Los Angeles magazine.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In