You are valuable. You are precious. You are to die for. So often, we use those words, ‘to die for’, to describe the latest, greatest and newest thing. But on this week’s episode, Brian McConaghy joins us to remind us of the power of those words. Last week, Brian shared about his encounters with victims of human trafficking, and how it can be so easy to put that knowledge of these harsh realities in a box and move on. It’s one thing to hear about the horrific realities of trafficking and exploitation in a far-off place and carry on with your day; it’s another thing to do actually something about it. Joshua and Brian zero in on how we can respond and help support organizations like Ratanak International, challenging each of us to be part of the mission of freedom.
Who's our guest?
Brian McConaghy, Founding Director of Ratanak International, was a career Forensic Scientist in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He has examined crime scenes both nationally and internationally, testifying in some of Canada’s most complex murder trials. He has addressed Parliamentary and Senate committees and advised G7 Law Enforcement on international child sex investigations and Human Trafficking. Today Brian finds his greatest joy in serving exploited Cambodians and seeing lives transformed from slavery to freedom.
Welcome to the indoubt podcast, where we explore the challenging topics that young adults often face. Each week we talk with guests who help answer questions of faith, life, and culture, connecting them to our daily experiences and God’s Word. For more info on indoubt, visit indoubt.ca or indoubt.com.
Hey everyone, this is Kourtney, and I’m so happy you’re joining us for this week’s episode. Today, we’re joined by Brian McConaghy for the second time. Brian is the founder of Ratanak International, and last week we heard him talk about the work that Ratanak does and the many different encounters he has had with human trafficking. Just like last week, we’ll touch on some topics that might not be suitable for younger listeners, but in this episode, we’ll lean into how we can respond as Christians by either supporting organizations like Ratanak or by becoming involved with their mission of freedom itself. I hope that you enjoy this episode with Joshua and Brian.
We’re joined again by Brian McConaghy, the founder of Ratanak International, they work in Cambodia, empowering those who have been exploited, those who have been suffering in slavery, real life slavery happening today. And I’m really pleased to be joined by him again today and talk a little bit more about practically how do we deal with the brokenness that we see in the world. Thanks so much for joining again, Brian.
It’s a pleasure, thanks.
So why don’t you share just a little bit briefly about yourself, who you are, what you do, just to catch our listeners up.
I’m a forensic scientist, Weapons Specialist, which is a really peculiar set of skills for Christian missions. Many times I’ve joked about being an oxymoron and all of this, because my skillset is actually working with dead people, and in 22 years of being a Weapons Specialist with the RCMP, doing the autopsies, doing the crime scenes, doing the CSI work, I never had one person respond to the gospel.
They were all stone dead before I ever got to them. So, this is a useless skillset for evangelism, and yet God chose to use me. Through a variety of circumstances and investigations, I ended up starting an organization working with human trafficking victims in Cambodia and trying to deal with the massive human trafficking in a post-genocide environment that Cambodia is.
So today, I wonder if we could talk a little bit about the brokenness here in North America that you’ve seen, maybe even that some of our listeners think about themselves, probably very similar things that you shared last week, feeling dirty and unclean and not good enough. How have you seen that here, and what would you say to those people who are thinking those things?
If I’ve learnt anything through working with human trafficking victims, and particularly those sold into sex slavery, I have learnt that there is massive amounts of shame in terms of who we are, and that can be a major barrier to us encountering a God that would love us. And what I’ve discovered is Christ’s ability to redeem. That kind of sounds like when of those warm, fuzzy little spiritual terms, but I’m talking really serious redemption, to redeem lives to lives of joy, no matter what’s been done to them.
Take, for example, a young woman who has been sold as a slave. She has lost touch with her family, who if they knew what had happened to her would reject her, because in a Cambodian context she has lost her virginity, she has no value anymore. She was sold for, perhaps, depending on the period, sold for as little as $200 outright, sold, gone, pimped out to everybody, raped let’s say five to 7,000 times, something like that.
She comes to the table shattered, emotionally shattered, psychologically shattered, culturally and socially dislocated from family and friends. She is, in her own mind, subhuman, a product to be used and abused, not dissimilar from prostitution in North America which, unlike ‘Pretty Woman’ and other ridiculous movies that glamorize prostitution, this is slavery. It starts normally, in a North American context, at the age of about 13, that’s the entry level for prostitution in Canada and the U.S.
So these young lives are completely shattered, and we all know in our own lives there are things that sort of block us from … You know, “God’s not going to spend any time with me.” Well, try that kind of history. And what I have learnt with comprehending that history is that Christ is good for it. Christ does not recoil at all. Christ runs to these young people.
I love the image in The Prodigal Son, where the father does not sit in his grandeur on a large seat on the porch, watching his beleaguered son staggering home in shame. He does that which is shameful in biblical society: he gathers up his robes and, probably in the most undignified way possible, goes charging down that road, sprinting for the kid that is a mess. And that’s the God I see.
And so, for young people who are listening, who themselves feel shattered, I would use the young people of Cambodia as an example and a challenge to them. If God can redeem and restore lives sold into slavery, absolutely worthless, rejected by society, and can redeem them into young people of dignity and of hope because they are absolutely loved, that’s transformative. It’s transformative for them, and it’s transformative for us.
One of my favorite expressions is “to die for”. We use the expression, you know, “A Gucci purse is to die for.” No, it’s not. It’s a product, it’s garbage. But these lives, the lives of the listeners to this podcast, are to die for. And that is precisely what Christ did.
Now, if He feels a young girl who has been abused, assaulted, and sold, absolute garbage in the eyes of society, if He feels she is to die for, then where are we in that equation? We are just the same, we are to die for. And the illustration I always have in my head is imagine a young woman or a girl, you go into a slum somewhere in Cambodia, wherever, and it’s this rancid, stinking slum full of brothels. It’s just everything in your worst nightmare.
And you find this person in squalor, and they have a good understanding of their own worthlessness. And you tap them on the shoulder, and you show them a document. The document is a single eight-and-a-half by 11 sheet of paper, and it says “birth certificate” on it. And the birth certificate identifies that young, scummy person as being a child of the King.
What does that document prove? How does that document transform that life? Well, that young woman’s life goes from being worthless to being priceless with one understanding, and that is that “I am now a child of the King, I am not a scum dweller, a gutter dweller. I am a princess.” That is the transaction that God loves and celebrates to do in our lives. He is not the dour old quote-unquote “Christian God” who limits our lives; He is a God of vibrant joy who sprints to us, who comes running with a fistful of birth certificates saying, “You don’t get it. This is who you are.”
And if we can grasp that, all kinds of possibilities open up to us in terms of who we are and where our lives can go. So, this is the gift that we have the privilege of introducing young Cambodians to, and I would long to see many young lives in North America experience the same thing, where you are profoundly valuable. And if you’re sitting listening to this, shaking your head, and kind of going, “Oh no, no, if you only knew,” well through the lives in Cambodia, I kind of do know. And let me tell you, you are valuable, and you are precious, and you are to die for, and you are to be celebrated.
Some of the richest experiences I have, and some of the most honoured and cherished friendships I have, both in Canada and in Cambodia, are those who the society would deem as prostitutes. I never use the term prostitute. They are prostituted young women or young men; their identity is not prostitute. They are some of the richest friendships I have, and I honour them as young women and young men of dignity.
What a wonderful picture of the gospel that you get to see in Cambodia real-life. But, in all that brokenness, you show up and you see these people, their lives shattered. At what point do you see God show up in their lives? When does God show up in that kind of brokenness?
There’s a wonderful line by Rich Mullins – I’m dating myself here – but Rich Mullins is a wonderful singer, and he has this line in a song where he refers to Christ and he says, “The reckless, raging fury they call the love of God.” And I love that line, because He is a dad who has been separated from His children.
Picture a dad with, let’s say, a three-year-old child that has gone missing an hour ago in a mall or a market. That dad is no longer being polite. He is turning over tables, he is pushing displays aside, he is pushing people aside, he is going for it because he has lost his child. And there’s this reckless, raging fury of a father seeking his children; that is precisely what God is doing for us.
And yet I’m in these circumstances kind of going, “I don’t have the skills for this.” And God’s saying, “Would you get over yourself? It’s not about you.” It’s about the reckless, raging fury of a God who loves His children. So, I need to be dependent on that. Invariably He would show up, and then, to my shame, the next year I’d find myself in the same situation, and I’d walk into it and go, “Oh God, I don’t know what to do, I don’t have the skills.”
Fifteen years into the sex, human trafficking issues of life, I’m still doing the same prayer. I’m still an idiot. I’m still kind of going, “Oh, I don’t have what it takes,” and over and over again God’s going, “When are you going to get this? This is about me, and I will show up.” But what I’ve learnt in this process is that we have to be diligent in actually depending on him. And it’s easy to put lip service to that, but actually depending on Him is harder because it necessitates not relying on our skills. And so often in our society, we are trained, we are educated, we are certified to do given jobs.
Now, if you’re going to go to Africa and be a surgeon, you’d better get trained. I get it, this is not a slight against education. But coexisting with that, there is this understanding where we actually have to be dependent, and it’s not about our skills. What I’ve discovered, if God puts me in a situation where I am trained, skilled, qualified, and certified, I will rely on my skills and certification. That’s precisely what I rely on because I’ve got those.
It is in those times where we choose to allow ourselves to be put in positions where we don’t have the skills, where we are completely overwhelmed, we don’t have the training, we don’t have the certification, we don’t have the qualifications … And there we find God saying, “Now I’ll use you because now it’s about Me.” Because you’re outside of the box. You’ve actually been brave enough to say, “Okay, I’m going to step out, knowing I don’t have the skills, but do it for you.” And it’s not a matter of, “Lord, I’d like you to show up.” It’s “Lord, you’d better show up.” That’s where He shows up.
And so I think we’ve been domesticated, our faith has been domesticated a lot of times into, “Are you trained to do that? Okay, great, go ahead. If you’re not, don’t bother until you get the training.” I don’t see that in the New Testament. I see the opposite, I see Christ challenging us to trust Him and move forward.
And so that’s definitely what I feel when I’m in brothels in Cambodia, when we’ve executed warrants, when we’ve not been sure who the enemy is, when there are real challenges. And I’m completely out of my depth, and I learn to hear that voice. This is about me. I am skilled, I am qualified, I cannot be surprised, and there’s nothing in the circumstances that we encounter, and there’s no circumstance in our own lives, that can shock or overwhelm Christ. You can’t do it. You simply can’t overwhelm Him.
So as you listen to this, anybody who’s feeling, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, but, but -” there are no buts. There are no buts, there is nothing you can present to Christ where He’s kind of going, “Oh, I love you, I died for you, you’re to die for. Oh, wait a minute. Oh, you’re right, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, that’s just over the line, can’t go there.” You can’t do it. Everything He has seen before, and I would submit that everything He has seen, He has seen actually worse than in our lives. And He runs with it anyway. He gathers up His robes and He runs to us with that birth certificate. How can we not be empowered by that?
Yeah, absolutely. So, your word to those who are broken is: “God is a God who can redeem and does.” And to those who see that brokenness, would you say just be bold, be a part of it? How else would you encourage somebody who sees the brokenness around them, whether it’s on a mass scale, whether it’s on a small scale, how do we practically face that brokenness where there’s a boldness and there’s a sense of, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but what do I do?”
Yeah, there are practicalities to this too. I think God calls us … There are all kinds of contradictions in some verses, we’re called to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. So, there’s this wonderful sense in which we’re to just launch out, but He also causes us to be wise. He gave us a brain to think things through. So, as we look at, either in our own lives the circumstances, or we’re looking at much larger problems where there’s a challenge, we need to bring it to Him. We need to pray that through and seek His guidance. Not be afraid to step out, but also not be afraid to attach ourselves to others who have already gone before us.
There is this sense in my world of human trafficking and sex slavery, and all that ugliness of young people that are sold into oblivion, that those are very emotive issues. People see stuff on TV, or they read news stories, and they’re passionate and they want to go, they’re driven by the heart, and so they want to invent, they want to forge ahead.
Chances are, not always, but chances are somebody has been there before you. You are not the first person to be called to this. And so part of this, again, is allowing ourselves to be servant-hearted, putting our own ego aside, and sort of saying, “Rather than reinventing the wheel, how do I participate with others that God has already called?”
It’s very clear in scripture that we are stronger when we are in community, when we support one another. So being a loner on some of these really difficult issues, like human trafficking, like the issues of prostitution, the issues of drug abuse, being a loner is a very dangerous thing. I’m not precluding that God can call you to some kind of solitary ministry, but that’s unusual. Normally He uses others to speak into your life, to support you, and to assist you in judgment, et cetera, and you move forward as a team.
So I would certainly seek others’ guidance, those you trust, and then certainly in our world with human trafficking, et cetera, jump in with organizations. There are good organizations that are really good at what they do, and I mean really good, really good spiritually, but also really good in terms of those secular, very human skills in terms of investigation, law, et cetera, who are Christian people who are absolutely on their game.
Join them. Join them and support them. That is what’s really important and enriching, because then you start to feed off of others who’ve been before you and said, “Here’s what I’ve learnt, and here’s how God works.” And so, it’s even more enriching now.
Very cool. So, when we hear about the brokenness that you’re talking about in Cambodia that is so very, very real, maybe it breaks our hearts – I hope it does break our hearts to hear about it. How do we respond to something that’s so far away that I can’t even see it? I can’t get my hands on it. How do I actually respond to the injustice that’s happening around the globe, let alone that’s right next to me?
Yeah. I think that’s really done through other organizations that have bridged that gap, that do go those thousands of miles and are skilled culturally, sometimes in war zones and refugee camps, environments, whatever, who have developed those skills. Jump in with them and support them. I think one of the worst things we can do is, again…
My favorite book in the Bible – I’m really weird this way – is Zephaniah, and I would commit everybody to read Zephaniah. It’s a small book, it’s only three chapters, and the first two-and-a-half chapters are really appealing to a melancholy Irish guy like me because it’s really depressing reading. The vast majority of the book is this long diatribe of destruction, of what happens when you reject the Lord. But at the end of chapter three, there is I think the most beautiful picture in scripture of God returning once again and saying, “I will restore you. I will bring you home.” And the imagery is powerful.
One of the things that’s said in the end of Zephaniah is “Do not,” and it’s a command, “Do not let your hands hang limp.” And we may have met people who are just so done. I have met child and adult rape victims who are so done, they just hang limp, that they’re done. They are abused on the street for free. They are so done, they have been raped so many times, and they stand there like a piece of meat. I have witnessed that, and it’s horrendous to see the humanity has just been torn from them.
And God commands us, “Do not let your hands hang limp.” So be active, but be active hand in hand with Him, because He is the Great Physician. He understands how humans are made, He understands how humans can be restored, that is His business. And so, we need to join with Him.
And in the context of Zephaniah, He gathers. He brings home. And there’s one portion in the end of Zephaniah where God is very clear and He says, “I will rejoice over you with singing.” I often focus on that verse because I believe it’s unique in scripture, where it’s not us going before the throne of God one day, the multitude of those who have died who are Christians, and we’ll all be in front of His throne and we’ll all be pitch perfect and we’re all singing praise to Him and how fantastic that will be. That is not what He is describing.
What He’s describing here, He says, “I will rejoice over you with singing.” Who’s singing? It’s God singing for us. God singing for His lost, His broken, His shamed, His abused, His quote-unquote “worthless”. He will sing for us. We cannot imagine what that’s going to be like. And this is what I basically call people to, is to be brave enough to think that you are a child of God, you are that valuable. And you can climb up on that perfect Dad’s lap as He sings for you.
Recognizing that many people have bad relationships with their dad, and that’s hard to get there. But this guy’s perfect. He is a good Father. He absolutely loves and adores us, and we can stake our lives on it. And so, to join with Him and be encouraged in that, not letting our hands hang limp, climbing on His lap and saying, “Okay Dad, what do you want me to do?” And no matter how frightening it is, do it. But often, and normally, that involves plugging in with other Christians who have the same heart.
So I would encourage people not to be lone rangers, particularly on the difficult, larger issues, human trafficking, slavery, drug addiction, all that kind of stuff. Join with those who are skilled.
So a lot of the brokenness that we’ve been talking about today has been the brokenness that is so easy to see. It’s right there, you see somebody shattered. But in North America, in our culture, a lot of the people that we bump into on the street are broken, but they’re so covered up and cloaked in this “everything’s okay, everything’s all right, there’s no problems.” How would you suggest to us that we live in that kind of a culture? How do you live in a culture that’s broken but doesn’t want to accept the fact that it’s broken?
I have perhaps a fairly childish answer to that. My belief is we have to love them. We have to love them. I used to get really, really stressed about evangelistic kind of conversations. You’re going to take this non-Christian friend out to the restaurant, you’re going to get a quiet booth in the corner, and you’ve got sweaty palms, and somehow, I’m going to introduce how Jesus loves you. And it’s completely artificial. I’m horrible at it. I get stressed even trying, and even contemplating such a thing.
I have learnt not to do that. My wife and I do something different in recent years. We have realized, I think, that our job is to love people. And so, what we do is … You can’t do it for everybody. All your acquaintances, you can’t do it. But I’ve learnt to be strategic, and look at individual lives and say, “Okay, I’m going to choose this couple, or this individual, and we’re going to love them.”
But that’s not casual; that’s sacrificial. So, we’re going to invite that person or those people over for dinner, and we’re just going to be servants to them. Anything they want, they get. That can be costly for us. If they need a drive home, I’ll drive them home. If they need something, I’ll give it to them. If it’s inconvenient for us … We had one couple that we just sort of fell in love with from another country. They hadn’t been in a Canadian home and we invited them in for dinner, and they were shocked that we would invite them in. And we made a decision that we’re just going to love them.
He was a strong athletic guy, athletic coach actually, as was she, and by the end of that evening we just loved them, loved on them. By the end of the night we had talked about parental skills, parental styles, and all kinds of stuff. And at the end of this evening, this big athletic guy just said to me, he said, “I’d like one thing,” at the end of the evening. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I’d just like a hug.”
And you realize you have bridged a gap there. because if you love people enough, you won’t have to “evangelize”. They’ll demand it from you, they’ll ask. So, I’ve taken the whole pressure off myself, and just sort of, “I’m not going to evangelize. I’m just going to love people deliberately and in a costly way, and they will ask.” And they do, because it’s revolutionary when you actually love people.
And this is what we discover in Cambodia too. We don’t have an evangelism program in Cambodia, with those who have been sold into sex slavery and the human trafficking victims. We’re called to love them. If we love them, I’ll give you two, three days in the program before they’re saying, “Why are you doing this? Everybody sold me, lied to me, raped me, abused me, and you care for me. Why?” That’s the opportunity to say, “Well, because you’re valuable before God.”
And there’s no pretense, there’s no corralling people into a corner, in a booth in a restaurant, there’s no manipulation. It’s just loving people, and it makes it so much easier, and I think that’s how we should live.
I wonder if we could end with you maybe just sharing personally how you have seen, dramatically, God restore brokenness.
I’ve got lots, but the first one that comes to mind easily is one of the most powerful experiences in my life. I had an investigation here in Vancouver of a Canadian pedophile who was going to Cambodia to sexually abuse Cambodian children. It was my first file. We tracked those children and they were rescued, and I never got to see them. They were rescued and they were placed in care. I prayed for them diligently because I had, as a forensic scientist, memorized those videotapes, they’re burnt into my mind, which is corrosive to your psychology, but I had to do that for that file.
And so I kind of felt I knew these children, even though I’d never met them. And so, I prayed for them even though they were rescued. I didn’t know where they were, but I prayed for them for years. But three years after the investigation, these children that had been sexually assaulted, they were seven-, eight-, nine-year-old’s when they were being sexually abused. I mean, en masse, industrial sexual abuse in the brothels of Cambodia, by pedophiles from all over the world.
And about three years after the investigation I was still praying for them. And I was talking about one of our programs to one of the staff of the programs, and I mentioned a couple of the names of these individual girls, and they said, “Oh, that’s interesting. We’ve got girls in our program by those names.” And as we talked, it dawned on me that they had been transferred into our program.
And so the girls I’d been praying for for three years were in our care and I’d never met them. They said, “You’ve got to come and meet them.” And I said, “Well, I’m really nervous about that,” because it was like three years later, so they’re preteen. I can’t meet preteen girls and completely break down, because I will be a basket case. I’ve grown comfortable with my own tears. I mean, when you do this line of work, you get comfortable with your own emotion. But I didn’t want to weep in front of them because I figured I’m going to fall apart. I just love these girls even though I’ve never met them.
So I went with some friends and the staff, they coaxed me into it, and I was kind of excited but fearful. And as soon as they walked in, it was like meeting old friends for the first time. That’s a contradiction, but I knew them so well, and there they were. I was able to hold it together, I had prayed for them for so long, now I’m seeing these children now rapidly becoming young women. And we were sitting, chatting about life, and all their education, and all the stuff they were doing, and they were being redeemed and restored, it was wonderful.
And I was getting emotional, so I figured culturally they’re not going to understand some white guy crying. So, I figured I need to misuse prayer. So, I misused prayer by saying, “Can I just pray for you?” And it gave me an opportunity to close my eyes and just distance myself emotionally a little bit, that I could gain control. Not an ideal use of prayer, but hey, I’m using whatever I got.
So I kind of closed my eyes, I prayed for them, I kind of have some kind of equilibrium, I’m calm again. I open my eyes, they open their eyes, and there’s these girls sitting on the floor in a circle around me, and they’re just staring at me like I’m an absolute lunatic. And eventually one of them just says, “Well, we can’t stop praying now, we have to pray for you.” And then they all came over and they laid their hands on my shoulders, and they prayed for me for protection on my family, protection on me, and wisdom.
These are the little sex slaves that were throwaway trash and dirt in the world that no one had any hope of finding. And they were not only found, they were recovered through the investigation. They had been given as a gift, I believe, by God into our program to be restored. And here they were praying for me. And I fell apart. It’s still hard to talk about now because it is just so beautiful.
The way I describe it, it was like sitting in a room and heaven was leaking and leaching in under the doors and through the window frames. It was this little picture of profound restoration, where the victims of such abuse, the child victims of such abuse, were now ministering to me. There is no finer thing to experience something like that and realize that this is the gift God gives us because He loves us all. He loves them, and He saved them and restored them, but He also loves me and restored me. And anyone listening, He would do the same thing, because we are all to die for.
That’s incredible. Well, thank you so much Brian. You have encouraged us to think big thoughts of a God who redeems, and of His work in our lives. So, thank you so much for joining us. It was a great privilege to talk with you today.
Thank you, blessings on you.
Thanks so much for listening today. If you’d like more information on Ratanak International, you can go to their website at www.ratanak.org. And I just wanted to thank Brian for being a part of indoubt for the last two weeks. It was really good to be able to hear what we can do with the information that we’ve learned, and how we can respond to human trafficking as Christians.
If there’s anything that you’d like to share with us, I’d encourage you to send us a DM on social media, or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I do want to mention that indoubt is also partnered with another ministry, Truth and Life Today. Our three indoubt hosts recently sat down with Dr. John Neufeld, who’s been a guest here previously and hosts Truth and Life today. If you’d like to watch the episode with Isaac, Joshua, and Daniel, you can go to the website truthandlifetoday.com.
Thanks again for joining us for this episode. I hope you join us for next week where we’ll have Daniel talking with guest Johnny Markin.
Thanks so much for listening. If you want to hear more, subscribe on iTunes and Spotify, or visit us online at indoubt.ca or indoubt.com. We’re also on social media, so make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.