When Jeff Cook (JD '06) began his education at Pepperdine University he set himself one specific challenge for the future: to incorporate his personal faith into his career. "I'd say my faith is foundational in everything I do," he says.
Now a School of Law graduate, Nootbaar Fellow, and an attorney with three years of clerking experience under his belt, Cook has found the solution to his challenge in Cambodia, where human trafficking has been a major problem in the aftermath of the 1975 communist takeover by the Khmer Rouge and dictator Pol Pot. When they were overthrown in 1979, the country was left in extreme poverty, and with few legal resources to battle human rights issues. "The Khmer Rouge actively killed everyone who had an education, and there was no one left to rebuild the system afterwards," Cook explains.
Cook now works as legal fellow for the Cambodia branch of the faith-based, human rights organization International Justice Mission (IJM). He is spending a year in the capital city of Phnom Penh assisting local attorneys and prosecutors in bringing cases against child sex traffickers and brothel owners. For a nation still building its reserves of legal education and investigative powers, Cook and his team will provide support that he hopes will dramatically decrease the sex trade there. "When working on the ground like this and getting meaningful sentences for these brothel owners, then you'll see the tide change."
He continues, "For instance, one of the biggest success stories is from Thailand. When police started enforcing the laws, and these people started seeing that it would be bad for them to be selling children, they just stopped. It's an amazing result we'd like to see duplicated in other parts of the world."
The organization has numerous branches across the world fighting such affronts to the human condition as slavery, violence, and oppression. It also has close ties to Pepperdine University and the School of Law's Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics. The innovative institute was in its infancy when the Atlanta, Georgia, native began as a law school student in 2003.
The Nootbaar Institute unites the two practices Cook is passionate about: faith and the law. "Christianity has a very strong legal foundation, going back to the Ten Commandments and various moral teachings of the church that often find their way into man-made law," explains Cook. "We take certain things, such as prostitution, in the West for granted based on these viewpoints."
Cook is interested to expand his religious understanding further by stepping into and embracing a nation that was formed on Buddhist ideals. "How moral teaching and man-made law work together in Cambodia will be interesting to me. I'm curious to find out how Buddhism forms their view of what should be deemed legal or illegal."
IJM only forms legal teams in countries that already have established laws against the injustices they are fighting. Cambodia has laws against trafficking and prostitution, but because of the systematic knowledge-cleanse of the population by the Khmer Rouge, IJM supports the laws already in place. IJM provides after-care for the traumatized victims, but the faith-based organization also looks out for the faith of its own.
"They really integrate faith into the workplace, with daily prayer sessions," Cook affirms. "I think it will be essential to the gravity of the work that goes on there. I felt a call to service and through that, doors opened. It's no accident that I'm here doing this. It is a leap of faith to go to Cambodia, but with God behind me I feel a peace and stillness. It's very confidence boosting."
Cook has confidence that he is exactly where he is supposed to be. "When I applied, I left it open for them to put me wherever the greatest need was," he says. His initial personal challenge when he enrolled as a religion major at Pepperdine University Seaver College was to find a faith-based career. The challenged narrowed when he traveled to Thailand with the Pepperdine Volunteer Center for a three-week service mission. "Seeing how the world operates, I was inspired to do something on the international level," he says, before adding, "And that was part of my reason for going to law school."
After graduating from the School of Law, he passed the bar exam in both California and Washington, D.C., where he spent a year working at a local law firm before beginning a two-year stint as a judicial clerk for a federal judge. He calls that time a "wonderful experience" that gave him the opportunity to see the legal process from the judge's perspective, something that will help him invaluably to formulate the best case against brothel owners in his current position.
The biggest challenge he envisions will be to leave behind the federal court system in America's capital. "I'm used to things running a certain way," he admits. "But I'm so looking forward to seeing the impact of the work that's being done there, the spiritual and emotional transition that will take place in these children's lives."
What he is most looking forward to encompasses the purpose of the Nootbaar Institute, the faith-based foundation of the International Justice Mission, and the answer to the challenge he set for himself ten years ago when he first joined the Pepperdine community. "It's like throwing off a life preserver and jumping into the crazy waters of Cambodia, and relying on God to bring a stillness in me. What's the most motivational and exciting element of this whole experience? To see someone go from literally darkness into light."
Visit the Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics for more information.