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The Lord’s Gym: Where even sex traffickers are welcome to work out

The Lord’s Gym in Svay Pak offers local men – including sex traffickers – a chance to learn about boxing and Jesus.
The Lord’s Gym in Svay Pak offers local men – including sex traffickers – a chance to learn about boxing and Jesus. Athena Zelandonii

The Lord’s Gym: Where even sex traffickers are welcome to work out

At the Lord’s Gym, forgiveness comes with a mean left hook. This small, single room lined with mirrors, mats and punching bags in Svay Pak – an area on the outskirts of Phnom Penh once teeming with child sex abuse and trafficking – is intended as a place to gather sex traffickers to work out, read the bible, and pray.

The website of Christian charity Agape International Ministries (AIM) presents a testimonial showing what this method can achieve, using the test case of Sokunthy – not his real name – who was “notorious for trafficking young girls” but attended the Lord’s Gym every day, “where he was prayed for by the staff [and] heard the truth about the evil he was perpetuating within the community”.

One day, the AIM staff discovered Sokunthy had raped two very young girls; his sisters, aged 6 and 9. Their pastor approached Sokunthy: “You know, we hate what you did. But the truth is, the gym is the Lord’s gym. And no matter what you’ve done, he’ll forgive you.”

He returned as a prodigal son, went to church, and “[t]hrough the power of prayer and the working of God’s Holy Spirit, he has not hurt another child and is completely transformed”, the testimonial ends.

Trainers Bird Samkhan and Sek Sopheak say the Lord’s Gym offers uneducated young men the possibility of becoming professional fighters.
Trainers Bird Samkhan and Sek Sopheak say the Lord’s Gym offers uneducated young men the possibility of becoming professional fighters. Athena Zelandonii

Though the story is ambiguous on this point, AIM’s founder and chief executive Don Brewster stressed the gym was almost always willing to welcome back offenders “in conjunction with their paying the legal consequence for their actions”.

In Sokunthy’s case, he said, “the victims were unwilling to file a complaint and the police unwilling to act”. “If we know, we’ll give the information to the police and hope that they will act – that’s our desire. But if they don’t act, shunning them or keeping them out of the gym doesn’t help,” Brewster said. “If we have access to them, at least there’s the opportunity for rehabilitation.”

More than a decade ago, the village of Svay Pak had a nauseating reputation for child prostitution – including virgins. Foreign sex tourists would purchase young, predominantly Vietnamese, children with impunity.

Its brothels were shuttered in 2005. AIM has reclaimed one of them as a community centre, dubbed Rahab’s House, along the same street as the Lord’s Gym.

Outside the gym, which was established seven years ago, a sign depicts Jesus, head crowned with thorns, straining under the weight of a cross. Inside, the boxers – some as young as 8 – throw their knees, rhythmically, into a teardrop-shaped punching bag, which strains against its metal chains. The scent of sweat is heavy in the air.

Gym training manager Sek Sopheak, dripping after a session, says he doesn’t know any traffickers who go to the gym at the moment, only motodops, fishermen, construction workers, drug users and children who all who read the Bible and practise martial arts.

A dozen youngsters who have struggled with poverty and drug addiction now box semi-professionally; they compete in the provinces and on television for between $15 and $75 a match – $85 if they win.“If they have no option to go to school, they can learn a profession to fight as a boxer,” Sopheak says.

Fellow trainer Bird Samkhan says his father was a fighter, which inspired him to box; being poor, he sought fame. Here, he sees weakened, drug-riddled bodies morph into healthy, strong ones. Kham Pheakday, 19, says he is preparing for his first-ever televised fight, while his fellow gym member, ChhunPanah, 21, tells of how the gym helped him to stop taking drugs.

Svay Pak, where the Lord’s Gym is located, was notorious for sex trafficking.
Svay Pak, where the Lord’s Gym is located, was notorious for sex trafficking. Athena Zelandonii

“Being a drug user is really bad in society . . . when I was using, people looked at me as a bad person,” he says. According to the trainers, one man who came to the gym committed a rape two days later. He was swiftly arrested by police.

Panah says he learned from the crime. “One guy, he used to work out here, he raped a girl. This is really bad; he will be in jail. This experience showed me I can’t be like that,” he says. Former sex traffickers who attended the gym were unwilling to be interviewed for “fear of arrest”, Brewster told Post Weekend.

“There is no limitation on who can come to the gym,” he said. “Children are protected through our network of social workers and church leaders throughout the village, as well as our ongoing relationship and follow up with those who attend the gym.”

Later, Brewster said there was a limit – “Pedophiles were never welcomed, nor have any ever come,” he said. Brewster said he did not see Sokunthy, the success story of the Lord’s Gym, as a pedophile.

“He was a sex trafficker who, when strung out on drugs, committed incest-rape. And this only once. I define a pedophile as an adult with an ongoing desire to have sex with children.”

There were separate sessions for children and adults, he said, and only adult AIM staff and volunteers were permitted in the children’s training sessions. Traffickers could only attend adult work-outs. While children and adults were present when Post Weekend visited, that was an exception, Brewster said, to show the diversity of participants.

Billy Gorter, executive director at This Life Cambodia, a juvenile rehabilitation organisation working in the Kingdom’s jails, said while he did not know the organisation’s work, the materials on AIM’s website raised “a number of alarm bells”.

For him, ensuring this separation between children and traffickers was vital for child safety. “[W]e clearly cannot support or condone the co-location of children and pedophiles or sex traffickers in the same ‘gym’ environment,” he said.

His organisation, he said, was a secular one, and “therefore cannot relate to any approach that relies on divine intervention, on any level, over and above due legislative process”.

Gym members compete to do the most pushups.
Gym members compete to do the most pushups. Athena Zelandonii

For Brewster, the gym is part of a “holistic” approach to tackling the scourge of sex trafficking – with his charity also running programs to help victims and conducting raids, often with information gathered from the Lord’s Gym. In the past month, such information saw the arrest of a trafficker and prevented eight “virgin sales”.

Earlier this month, the Interior Ministry’s Anti-human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Departmen presented AIM with a letter of commendation for helping fight sexual explotation.

Anti-trafficking police chief Keo Thea said the situation in Svay Pak had greatly improved; AIM, he said, had been a part of that, as they provided rice and shelter to trafficking victims.

“They have helped the children, they have given them a place to live and have food,” he said. He said even when there was no complaint from a victim lodged, if he had sufficient evidence of trafficking or rape, he had to make an arrest.

However, Hu Samorn, Svay Pak commune police chief, said: “If the victim does not file a complaint, how can police know there has been a rape and take action?”

In October of 2014, Cambodian AIM volunteer Sem Sam was found guilty of child sex crimes against four boys, all under the age of 10.

After his sentencing, he vowed to appeal, saying “the victims agreed to have sex with me voluntarily”. An appeal court this year upheld the verdict. Brewster said Sam did not volunteer at the gym but refused to comment further saying “enough has been said about him”.

James McCabe, director of the Cambodian Children’s Fund’s Child Protection Unit, which works with the police to investigate serious crimes against children, said the gym alone was not a solution for sex offenders, saying if they suspected they could get away with it, they may commit further crimes.

“The Lord’s Gym is not the place for a child rapist to be prosecuted and forgiven. I would hope that the NGO reported the event and that individual should and must be prosecuted by Cambodian law, simple as that,” he said. “I would say if these individuals have paid their debt to society . . . faith-based or not, if they are assisting offenders to not commit further offences, then that is a positive.”

Brewster has described the Lord’s Gym’s poster boy Sokunthy’s case as “a miracle”. He was given a job in construction, which earned a mere $50 per month, compared to the thousands he earned as a sex trafficker. AIM stepped in where the law had failed.

And yet, Sokunthy has never confessed to police and never faced justice for his crimes.

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How AIM’s donor funds are spent

Agape International Ministries’ finances from 2014, the most recent available data, show the charity brought in about $3.3 million. While the website says more than 92 per cent was spent on programs, that includes about $1 million for staff salaries within those programs – with Brewster saying the majority were Khmer staff.

Other listed costs include nearly $248,000 for humanitarian and disaster aid; $60,000 for travel; around $55,000 for church support, ministry supplies and disciple training; just over $50,000 on events and more than $36,000 on social workers and counselling tools.

Program operating costs stood at about $600,000, with programs like the Lord’s Gym, shelters and rehabilitation for trafficking victims, a kids club, a school and medical clinic as well as radio broadcasts and raids conducted alongside local anti-trafficking police.

AIM’s founder and chief executive Don Brewster claimed not to know his own salary for that year (financial reports put it at $80,000) but said he had donated all of it back into AIM and relied on free rent in an AIM house, AIM vehicles for transportation, and help from family to get by.

For Sophal Ear, an associate professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs and the author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy, said that such a strategy “just does not add up”.

“[I]t makes no sense that you’d have someone earn an $80k salary and give it away. Plenty of nonprofits don’t compensate, so why does this one have to do it in this strange, roundabout way? Also, he can’t give it all away because AIM would have to pay social security and medicare taxes . . . it just does not add up.”

A finance officer told Post Weekend the charity does pay those taxes under law.


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