Redividing the Light

Evangelicals Embrace Phnom Penh’s Sinners

Jesus must have worried Mary sick, staying out late in all the wrong parts of Judea will all the wrong sorts of people. His buddy Matthew-future publishing career pending-was a tax collector, a profession viewed more or less on par with prositution, the rumored avocation of his confidant Mary Magdalene. His first followers were the seedy people who lived along seedy strips of bars and brothels.

Jesus might feel comfortable in Phnom Penh, not so much in the NGO dominated districts but on the street that stay up late, where men, some here solely for this purpose, will go out tonight looking for a prostitute or a bar girl to take home. Most of these men-the ones truly committed to the endeavor-will succeed. But before they do, some will stagger up street 51 and some will stagger down Street 136. where John Yoder will be waiting, thinking about his savior’s truancy.

“His biggest beef was with religious people,” says John, of his lord and savior. “He never minded people who’d made mistakes.”

In every sense, John is the bigger man. His laughs easily- giggles rise from his feet, resonate in his belly and burst quite suddenly out from behind his beard-but he’s serious about love. He insists the MST Project, his street ministry, is about rescuing fallen western men by offering them an opportunity to step away from the central-casting cliché of the aging leche, the sexpat.

The MST Project-the name stands for Men and the Sex Trade, but appears in none of the group’s material as anything but an acronym-was founded several years ago in Bangkok, where a group of preachers took to the City’s red-light districts in the hope of educating male tourists to the dangers faced by the Soi district’s working women and perhaps win a few converts on the side.

Every other Friday, John and his largely Pentecostal team of roughly twenty break into three groups. One group sets up a table outside Heart of Darkness while another sets up a table across from Candy Bar. The third team stays behind at a church center and prays; not only the success of the street team but also for the men whose names the MST workers text back to them.

Prior to game time, everyone involved takes a few hours to engage in spiritual self-reflection. The notion here, John says, is to make sure that no one hits the streets “with anger in their heart” so the ministry can focus on love rather than judgment, the purview of their higher power.

Outside the bars, the MST team stands behind a table emblazoned with a scarlet question mark, a sign ambiguous enough to solicit interest, then passes out questionnaires and tries to engaging passing men in conversation. The point is to provide an alternative source of affection for the men. Many of these men, John and his coworkers point out, are simply lonely.

This seems to hold true. Some of the conversations prove unexpectedly long and unexpectedly frank. Men share their spiritual autobiographies and John listens patiently. Of course some men are dismissive. They didn’t come to this part of town to talk about their feelings.

Most men simply walk away. Pastor Ann Greves whose number the MST volunteers had out to interested parties, has never received a call from man approached on the street. But John says minds do change. Their materials, a packet of black, white and red postcard, includes a testimony from one saved man.

“Once we were done, she ran to the bathroom, locked the door, and began to softly cry?while I continued to feel an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt for what had transpired. That night was the beginning of the end of that kind of lifestyle for me. Today I am a new man, with a new life and a new hope?a hope that is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

“Our Ministry is unique because it is not about numbers, but about reaching out to a part of the population that has been rejected by many community organizations,”

John uses a vaudevillian zinger to describe the situation:

Jesus happens upon a group of villagers stoning a man for stealing bread. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” cries Jesus. A minute passes as the villagers pause to consider this challenge, then a single rock flies from the back of the crowd and hits the thief in the face. “I wasn’t talking to you Mom,” says Jesus.

There is no dearth of sex-trafficking oriented NGOs in Phnom Penh, but few if any show generosity toward or reach out to the western men that are often perceived as being the source of the funds fueling the trade in young women. This may not evidence confused priorities, but John says it shows a lack of imagination and the persistence of a social stigma.

The sexual relationship between western men and eastern women has always been fraught. In Europe, the myth of the sex-crazed oriental harlot was imported from colonial outposts while in America, the first immigration Chinese men during the California gold rush was followed by a small second wave of Asian prostitutes. The fetishizingof the promiscuous Asian was then exacerbated during World War II-the Japanese used the sultry broadcaster Tokyo Rose to frustrate allied soldiers- and during second Indochinese War, as US GIs look for an outlet and found one in Saigon’s brothels. Hollywood’s boundless capacity for re-enacting the sexual piccadillos of American soldiers has doubtless reinforced stereotype.

Now that colloquial has replaced colonial, the western men interested in subservient Asian partners or simply aroused by the Asian appearance are said to have “yellow fever,” a condition for which local NGOs and law enforcement have offered a strong prescription.

Of the 141 arrests for debauchery and indecent acts made in the last seven years, 26 percent of the suspects were Cambodian and 13 percent were Asian men, according to Samleang Seila, the director of Action Pour Les Enfants, an NGO focussed predominantly on combating sex tourism. In a survey conducted by the Christian charity World Vision in 2001, a group of people living in Phnom Penh’s red-light districts estimated that nearly 50 percent of foreigners seen taking home young girls were of Chinese, Japanese or Korean descent and experts are quick to point out that the demand driving the most reprehensible sectors of the sex trade is often domestic and often Asian. The US State Department in this year’s trafficking report claimed that at least one obviously harmful practice was a predominantly non-western problem: “The sale of virgin girls continues to be a serious problem in Cambodia, with foreign (mostly Asian) and Cambodian men paying up to $4,000 to have sex with virgins.”

None of which is to say that western sex tourists do not need to be monitored, but engaging in unjustified racial profiling can do more harm than good according to Steve Morrish, an Australian detective who run the anti-trafficking NGO SISHA who says the arrest record shows organizations putting the cartoon before the whores

“I think there are a number of NGOs that see western men as the main issue, which is tremendously misinformed….” says Mr Morrish. “I’d prefer that Khmer women worked at the bars if they have to prostitute themselves because it offers a potentially safer environment. In the worst case scenario, that is the best case.”

Mr Morrish points out that most of the brothels catering to pedophiles are in Tuol Kork, away from the strips frequented by the MST team, and that many of the girlie bars are female run.

The MST Project’s volunteers lean towards realism when discussing the importance of shutting off the girlie bars’ barang tap.

“We aim for these men because they speak English and because we honestly believe we can change their hearts,” says Frank, who volunteers for the MST Project and asked that his last name not be shared for fear of abuse from both the male expat and NGO communities. “They may not be the ones getting abused, but they still need love in their lives.”

That their presence and the testimonies they provide to their congregations could distract would-be do-gooders from focusing on more pressing issues doesn’t seem to bother MST’s volunteers because they are engaged in a zero-sum game with sin. As John says, “stopping one man is enough.”

But choosing which man can be tricky.

“On her blog, an MST volunteer named Kelly who had recently arrived in Phnom Penh identified Candy Bar on st. 136 as a brothel, saying “It’s advertised as a 24 hour bar and guesthouse, but once you see it its purpose is obvious.” Pimps, the hardened ones anyway, rarely wearing neon nametags.

“When I first got here, I was told the girls in the bars were indenture servants, chained to beds,” says Steve Nyirady, who used to work in the non-profit sector and now owns a number of Phnom Penh bars and restaraunts. “Its really not like that…. I’ve never heard of a girl being forced to work and while they may not be proud of what they do, the work helps them support their families,”

According to Mr Nyirady, bar work might be less than ideal, but it helps some women-many of whom are divorced or separated and thus perceived as tainted-support themselves and their families.

While it seems unrealistic to conclude that every woman canoodling with the girlie bar regulars is doing so of her own volition, the opposite conclusion is equally far-fetched.

John and Frank have a hard time buying this. Stepping into another person’s stilettoes proves difficult. They both maintain that life in what they call “red light districts” shouldn’t have to be any woman’s choice. To acknowledging that it is, would be to heretically accuse women of abusing men because, to these men, lust is a powerful weapon.

John and Frank are both honest about their urges and they’ve asked other MST volunteers to be as well. Before volunteers are allowed to join the street teams, they are broken into same-sex groups in which they discuss their urges.

“We talk honestly about our weeks, even what we’ve seen on the Internet,” says John. “If someone isn’t ready they can say that it is not a good week and stay behind.”

Frank explains the unusual situation his ministry puts him in with coy fatalism: “We ask the men to have relations of above a toilet, which is a hard choice given the ease of access to sex.”

Jesus is the selling point. Frank and John both believe that the acceptance of Christ brings a level of satisfaction that sex can’t, at least in the long term. They also believe that finding a longer-term partner is important. They are both recently married to younger Khmer women, a fact that John jokes about uneasily.

“I think it was an arranged marriage, but not by me,” he laughs. “When I arrived in Cambodia my wife was working in the house where I was staying. I guess they’d told her I was coming and she moved in.”

Everybody needs something, but having predictable desires is embarrassing.

This truism may account for the negative reactions Frank and John sometimes receive on the street-a man insisting on taking their photographs, another laughing at them from across the street.

“People assume we are like the street preachers who berate people, bu-believe me I used to do it-that isn’t us,” says John. “We don’t want to force Jesus on anyone, just bring him into their lives. We aren’t waving bibles.”

All the representatives of the MST Project are careful when they talk about they do very much because they don’t wish to be misidentified as a fundamentalist group. John, who was a street preacher in the seventies, is quick to draw a distinction between what he used to do and what the MST Project does now.

“The point back then was to save people from going to hell,” he says. “Now we are just asking them not to go to the brothels.”

The other, more tight-lipped, volunteers seem to follow John’s lead, though he admits that the occasional overzealous newbie may step out of line and threaten damnation. John admits that visiting evangelicals who join the stable of regular volunteers can be a bit of a wild car, but points out that they are outliers. Far from placard wielding pulpiters, the MST Project’s volunteers look passable advertisement for the Gap or J Crew. This effect is enhanced by the fact that seem to huddle together, to keep the wagons perpetually circled.

“Excuse me,” they say. “Would you like to take a survey?”

The pass out a paper that asks men to describe themselves and take a position on prostitution, a response that quickly creates an opportunity for conversations. Because their goal is to keep men out of brothels, the volunteers will not walk away from these talks, even if they drag on for hours, even if they are contentious, even if they are accused of god-bothering.

Heidi Hoefinger, a social researcher who spent years among Phnom Penh’s prostitutes, the MST Project is probably no more or less moralizing than the other organizations that provide assistance to sex workers.

‘Save us from our saviors’ is a common slogan among sex workers according to Ms Hoefinger. According to Ms Hoefinger, the alliance of Christian abolitionist groups with the “very colonialist western development community” has created an atmosphere where advocating for rights sounds like heresy. The moral question overwhelms the personal experience.

“Moralism is dangerous–particularly when one group or another is pathologized as ‘good’ or ‘bad,'” Ms Hoefinger wrote of both John’s work and the work of many of the Cambodia’s anti-trafficking NGOs.

In July, an MST volunteer named Chris pondered the nature of sin on the group’s blog and posted Daniel 8:4, “I saw the ram butting westward, northward, and southward, and no other beasts could stand before him nor was there anyone to rescue from his power, but he did as he pleased and magnified himself.”

The ram is always someone else.


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