Director's Blog

Thailand mega-photo-post!

Our time in Thailand has been a blast. But it's been super busy. I'm here with my family (minus Kori who had to return to the U.S. for work), and with Carol Richardson, her daughter Emily, son Aaron, Emily's fiancee Zeb and their friend Joel. It's been great to see not only Tutu, the kids and staff, but also Tutu's sons Daniel and David.

I'll post more stories soon, but I'm sure you'll enjoy these pictures just as much or more!

"The rains came down and the floods came up..."

We are safe and sound in Phnom Penh, though you wouldn't know it from my blog posts, which have been non-existent over the last few days.

It's not that there's nothing to say, it's just that I've been going pretty much non-stop for 14 hours a day. Whereas it's usually just my family with me, this year I've also had staff from Asia's Hope in the U.S., a video team from Scarlet City Church and supporters from Columbus, Ohio to lead, guide and chauffer. It's been tiring, but also really exciting; I love introducing Asia's Hope and the countries in which we serve to "newbies." I helps keep my love for the people and places fresh.

Yesterday was an especially exhausting one. We got up, packed 9 of us in the 15-passenger mini-bus I've been driving around Cambodia and picked up the Biehn family from their hotel a few blocks away. 

I should stop here and point out that, even in the best of traffic conditions, conveying such a vehicle around Phnom Penh is stressful. It's enormous. The steering is imprecise. The shifter feels like a plunger in a bowl full of rocks. And the other people on the road -- drivers, cyclist, kamikaze motorbikers, pedestrians, stray animals and food carts -- don't really care that you don't know exactly what you're doing or where you're going. They dart in and out on all sides, swarming like a school of fish in a reef.

Yesterday, we didn't experience anything like "the best of traffic conditions." The neighborhood between our hotel and the Biehns' is apparently the site of some week-long royal birthday celebration, so most of the streets are closed, clogged with revelers or both. What should be an easy drive -- straight down this street, turn left on that one -- is always an adventure. But we made it. 

We picked the Biehn's up, and brought them to breakfast, after which they returned to their hotel on foot (rational choice on their part), my boys and one Scarlet City guy headed to the market via tuk-tuk, my wife and daughter returned to their hotel by some means unknown to me. I took the Scarlet City guys -- Danny and Janelle Jackson, Pastor Gabe DeGarneaux and his daughter Lilly -- to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

I've been to Tuol Sleng many times. I don't have the mental or emotional energy to process it again here on this blog, but it's a terrible place. 30 years ago, it was quite literally hell on earth: what the entire planet would look like if Satan was given free rein to twist the planet into his hateful image. Torture, dismemberment, murder, lies, violence, injustice -- all at a level that, even after hearing the testimonies, looking at the photos and reading the stories, is unfathomable.

I spent the morning trying to explain it all to 8-year-old Lilly. 

Explain it to an 8 year old? I can't even understand it myself. But I did my best. 

I talked about the American bombings that killed more than 100,000 Cambodian civilians, the U.S.-Soviet proxy war that used Southeast Asia as its gory chessboard and its government and peoples as its hapless, doomed pawns, the various internal power factions scrambling to take advantage of the chaos. And the evil. Behind it all was capital-E-Evil, Satan's greasy maw and bloody claws tearing, killing and consuming men women and children by the thousands.

We saw the actual instruments of torture -- whips, knives, ropes, flails, shackles, bedframes, buckets, pliers, wires -- all used to beat, maim, rip, shock, crush, drown and hang. We saw the skulls, the bones, the teeth, the clothes the hair. We stared into the eyes of the victims, meticulously photogrpahed and matched to forced, false confessions before being murdered.

And then we left. 

We grabbed a quick lunch at the cafe near our hotel, picked up the Biehn's and headed out of the city, over the Mekong to our beautiful new campus at Prek Eng. When we arrived, school was just letting out. The Asia's Hope School hosts about 140 kids, Kindergarten through 6th grade. Because many of our kids now attend public middle and high schools, about 90 of the Asia's Hope School students are "community kids" from the surrounding area. The rest are children who live at our five Prek Eng homes.

Shortly after we arrived, the rain started, scuppering our video shoot agenda for the afternoon. It came down in sheets. In buckets. In torrents. It rained so hard that our homes' front yards became ponds, our sidewalks turned into rivers. I think we may have actually had white water rapids in our school parking lot for a few minutes. It was beautiful; the rain knocked about 20 degrees farenheit off the scorching afternoon heat. It was also loud. Our homes all have metal roofs, so for a while there, it was like being inside a Tom Grosset drum solo. When it was all over and the water receded, the kids ran outside and picked up the fish that had failed to retreat to the safety of the nearby lakes, and the rest of us continued playing with the kids, transitioning from inside to out as the water drained.

At dusk, we piled into the van, exhausted, and headed back to the city. Once we got over the Mekong bridge, we saw that the city hadn't drained very well at all. Major intersections were flooded, and traffic was grinding itself into a maddening knot: thousands of vehicles honking, lurching, stopping and stalling at each crossroads, people driving on sidewalks, through yards, into around and over one another. What should have taken 10 minutes too more than two hours. When we finally got within walking distance of a restaurant, I gave up on driving entirely. Although it took me ten minutes to move 20 feet across two lanes of traffic (one 'official,' the other on the sidewalk), I forced my way onto the front lot of a store, gave the parking lot guard a handful of dollars, went to the counter, bought a moderately priced bottle of hooch that I didn't really want and asked the proprietress if I could park there for a couple of hours. She scowled at me. And then she smiled, shook her head in something like amusement and said, "okay."

We fought our way across the road on foot and collapsed into a Chinese restaurant where we proceeded to order way too much food. After two hours of eating, laughing, talking and drinking tea, we saw that the traffic had subsided, and we made our way back to our respective hotels.

This morning, we're taking it easy. For me that means that I actually get a shower, and don't have to meet anyone for any reason before 9:00am. We will probably take a walk this morning, maybe visit a couple of shops. After lunch, we're heading back out to the campus, hopefully to get some video interviews with Savorn, some of the kids and with me.

Please pray for our productivity and health. So far, none of us has prolapsed a colon, and I haven't hit anyone with my ungainly land yacht. Despite the challenges, we're having a great time. I can't wait to share some of the video with you. If it captures even half of the goodness that is Asia's Hope, my job of funding this beast should become a whole lot easier.

Back home in Cambodia

Over the last 48 hours, we've driven through mountains, walked in the pouring rain, flown across both the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Thailand, ridden in buses, vans and tuk-tuks -- and we're finally unpacked and rested at our hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

All of us are tired, most of us have flirted with some kind of sickness, and two of us are on the powerful antibiotic Cipro. We miss our friends and family in India, but we're thrilled to be back in Cambodia, which has become a real home-away-from-home for my family over the past few years.

We were greeted at the modest but tidy Pochentong Airport by Savorn, our National Director, his wife Sony and all of our Phnom Penh house parents. The Asia's Hope kids were all in school when we arrived, so our reunion with them will have to wait until tomorrow, but it was great to be hugged warmly and welcomed heartily by these people we've grown to love so much.

It's Addison and Jared's first time here, and I think they're just taking everything in: Cambodia can be a bit overwhelming to first time visitors, but heck, we just came from India. This place actually feels a bit serene compared to Mumbai, Kolkata and some of the other places we've passed through. 

By the time we got to our hotel, we were all ready for a nap, but I had promised Addison and Jared we'd go out to a tailor to get measured for some shirts (about 1/6th of the price we'd pay in the U.S.), so we left the girls behind and headed out via tuk-tuk to the Khmer Independent Tailor on Sihanouk Boulevard. We placed our orders, grabbed a SIM card for my phone and picked up some necessities (and a couple ice-cream bars) at Lucky Market.

Tonight we're going to have dinner with the staff, get a good night sleep and then spend the morning intoducing Addison and Jared to Phnom Penh. We'll grab a bowl of noodle soup, visit a tea shop and then spend some time at the ever-sobering Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. After lunch, I think we're heading out to Prek Eng to see the kids and visit the new campus for the first time since its completion!

The only things that could put a damper on our great times would be sickness...and traffic. I'm driving a huge van -- a mini-bus, really -- to accommodate our family, the guys and the team from Scarlet City that will be joining us next week. I've never driven anything this big anywhere, and driving in Cambodia can be zooey even in a small vehicle. Oh, and I don't have a Cambodia license. So, I'm praying for traveling mercies, and would invite you to do so as well.

I'll be keeping a few loose dollars on hand in case the coppers pull us over and trying to concentrate on the road and remembering how to drive stick. Here goes nothing!

Poised for success

We arrived at the Kalimpong Home 2 early yesterday, and got to see the kids eating their breakfast and getting ready for school. We're shooting a lot of video this year, and one of the four videos we're producing is focused on education, so we wanted to capture some of the "day in the life" kinds of images we'll need for that project.

For a home with 25 kids, two parents and "aunties," things went really quite smoothly. The children all enjoyed their breakfast together in the main living area, and then the aunties and parents helped the girls comb their hair, braiding it or putting it in ponytails. The aunties and mom, Punam, slicked back the boys' hair, and helped them straighten their ties Dad, Sunil, touched up all of the shoes with polish and a brush. The kids then piled into vans and headed off to school.

We then went with Nandu and Kumal, a driver from the church, and visited Jubilee High School, where 16 of our kids, mostly from the Kalimpong 1 home, attend. I was impressed by the school -- it's semi-public, and all of the courses are taught in English. The headmaster and the teachers seem highly qualified and treat the children firmly, but with respect. 

After hanging at Jubilee and taking videos and photos in our kids' classes, we headed to the Asia's Hope school for more footage, but also some fun and games. The school is in a rented building (we'd love to have our own building some day -- more on that later...), but is very well suited to the needs of the nearly 100 Asia's Hope elementary-age students who study there. 

We have a large concrete playground, about the size of a basketball court. This is extremely unusual in this part of India, where everything is built into the side of a mountain, and flat land is at a premium. We enter the campus as road-level, and then descend along a steep, curving driveway. The property consists of the playground, two wooden outbuildings and a large, three-story brick building. The school occupies the ground floor of the large building and one of the smaller wooden structures. Our Kalimpong 2 home occupies the second story, and the landlord's family lives on the top floor. (Whereas all of our homes in Cambodia and Thailand are single-family structures, I think that in Kalimpong's land-scarce and expensive real estate mountainside real estate market, building in this town will mean stacking our homes in the fashion of the locals.)

Even though Asia's Hope is primarily dedicated  to providing family-style homes for orphaned children, I really love this school. Our headmistress, Mrs. Wang Lamu, is an experienced educational administrator whose firm, yet grandmotherly bearing earns the respect and affection of our kids and staff alike. Our teachers are young and energetic, and so patient with our kids. 

And patience is definitely required in this job. As Mrs. Wang Lamu told us yesterday, when these kids first come to Asia's Hope, they come in as orphans. Some have lived on the street, some have been abused. Some have lived in bus stations, others have lived in brothels. Many of the children have no idea how to sit in a chair on their first day of school, some have only received their first-ever pair of shoes only days before. At first, reading, writing and 'rithmatic are simply out of the question. In some cases, they don't even know how to use a toilet -- they'll just wander outside to go potty; sometimes they'll even do it in the classroom.

But in a matter of months, the new kids learn from their peers, and from loving teachers and parents, and before long, they're actually learning. Our kids stay at the Asia's Hope school until they're ready to transition into local schools. And when they do, they're poised for success. Some of our kids at Jubilee High School are among the top in their class! It's amazing what progress a child can make when they're in a school and a home that is designed around their needs. 

So while politicians in the States claim to leave no child behind, that's a reality at Asia's Hope. Rather than forcing our kids into a learning environment in which they cannot succeed, we work hard to create and maintain one that ensures each child gets the care they need to learn and grow and thrive.

Like our elementary school in Prek Eng, Cambodia -- and unlike each of our children's home -- the Asia's Hope school in Kalimpong, India has no permanent sponsorships. We fund this school out of our general budget, the same budget we rely on for medical emergencies, home repairs, staff salaries and other recurring needs. Please pray for our two schools. And if you want to participate financially in the operation of these schools on a one-time or long-time basis, I'd love to hear from you!

tick-tick-tick...

As our days have gotten zooier, and my time alone for introspection scarcer, I've gotten a little behind on my blogging. I may be able to rectify that, but I can't make any promises.

Right now I'm running on the proverbial fumes. One of the only things I don't love about Northeastern India is the 4:00 a.m. sunrises at this time of year. It's been playing havoc with me sleep, and I'm almost always tired. Wah. Okay. I'm almost finished complaining: our hotel also lacks light-blocking curtains, so if I wake up at 4:00 am as I did this morning, there's no chance of me getting back to sleep.

Okay. 

At any rate, the first part of our trip was really about maintaining and deepening my family's and my relationship with Nandu, his wife and two kids. With more than 150 staff, it's impossible for me to have deep personal frienships with all of them, my affection for each of them notwithstanding. But it's essential that I stay close with my top guys in each country.

As you may know, relational equity and social capital are of infinitely greater value in Asian business and ministry than in Western. In the U.S., for example, you can fly into Boise, walk into a conference room at a Holiday Inn, be introduced to your new regional manager at 8:00 in the morning and launch into a frank and open S.W.O.T. analysis before you've finished you first cream cheese danish. Not so in Asia, where interconnected --  and to me often-incomprehensible -- systems of personal and quasi-familial relationships underly every interaction, business, ministry or otherwise. So for me, sharing a meal is a part of my job whether or not we "talk shop" or explain to each other the differences between cricket and baseball.

Nevertheless, there's quite a lot of work work that we need to get done in the remaining time in India. And that time is slipping by, tick-tick-tick. Addison Smith, my colleage and project manager, and Jared Heveron, a videographer from Scarlet City, one of our partnering churches in Columbus, Ohio, arrived on Monday, and Nandu and I spent the day driving from Kalimpong to Siliguri, and then after we picked them up at Bagdogra Airport, from Siliguri to Darjeeling to Kalimpong. 

Yesterday, Tuesday, we spent the entire morning and most of the afternoon at a dance and music recital that our kids had been preparing for the last few weeks. It was wonderful -- we have some unbelievably cute and talented kids -- but it was very long. Five hours long if you include the lunch. Jared got some great video, and I got a couple good photos as well. In the evening, we met with our Indian lawyer, who is helping us navigate India's byzantine bureaucracy.

We leave India next Monday, so we've still got a lot to do. We have four videos to produce. Thankfully, Jared's sticking around for our Cambodia trip as well and then returning to India with another shooter and some storytellers afterwards. I'm sure we'll get them all "in the can," but right now I don't see how. So today we're meeting with Nandu to go over the shot list and make a plan to get rolling.

We also have at least one more meeting with our lawyer, budget and fundraising discussions, photos of all our staff and kids, various documentation projects and other miscellanea. Not only that, I want to spend more time playing with the kids, chatting with the staff and hanging out at each of our 4 homes. Oh, and we need to look at land for a future capital campaign. So, yeah.

But things are going well. I really do believe not only in Asia's Hope's overall philosophy and strategy, but in Asia's Hope India specifically. Our location is fascinating, complex and of extreme strategic importance. We border China, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and are not far at all from Myanmar. We are at one of the world's great crossroads for migration, a dubious distinction given the illicit and exploitative nature of much of that transnational travel. We are in the nation with the world's greatest number of slaves, the most orphans, and much of the worst labor and sex trafficking. I could spend the rest of my life just focusing on India, expand Asia's Hope to 100 times its current size and impact and still have only scratched the surface. 

But God and his people are on the move in India, this vast, diverse country, home to five times as many people as were alive on the planet in the time of Christ. Our ministry is a tiny one, only a bubble on a great sea of need. But we're willing. And we're trying to move ahead with purpose and integrity. And that's what we've been called to do. And I'm so grateful to have all of you along for emotional, moral and financial support. This is all very good.

Holding up and heading on

Well, our brief time in Vietnam is coming to an end. It's been a good experience for us. By stringing together all of our "days off"  and putting them at the beginning of the trip, it's allowed us to ease into our time in Asia and get over jet lag before jumping right into ministry and work time. It also means that we're pretty much going non-stop from here on out, and that we won't be enjoying any buffers between the various legs of our journey. It's a bit of a gamble, but we're betting that it will work out okay.

Pictured left to right: Pak, John, Kori, Xiu Dan and Chien McCollum in Hanoi, Vietnam

In the past, we've gone almost directly from the last day of school to the first day on mission with no time at all for adjustment. This year, we've enjoyed the opportunity to spend a few days as a family, and I think it's been healthy. Vietnam is a special place to us, the birthplace of our love for and commitment to Asia. 

On our way back from breakfast this morning, we paused briefly in front of the former Claudia Hotel where, 16 years ago, a rust-red Chevy Suburban rolled to a stop and produced an old Vietnamese woman who, without a word, handed a tiny sleeping infant whose name, Chien, was written on his arm in blue ballpoint pen to a couple of mostly-clueless kids from Ohio who really had no idea what they were getting themselves into. It's almost unbelievable that Chien is almost an adult, ready -- at least in theory -- to navigate the world without us to guide and protect him. I'm not sure who's more unprepared for our oldest son to leave the nest, him or me. 

Ugh. Ouch.

But I digress. Tomorrow afternoon we head off toward India to spend a few weeks with our Asia's Hope family in India. Our travel schedule will be pretty intense until we reach Kalimpong -- Bangkok, Mumbai, Kolkata, Siliguri -- I think we miss a night's sleep in there somewhere. After a week by ourselves, we'll be joined for a couple weeks by Addison Smith, Asia's Hope's project manager and Jared Heveron, a videographer from Columbus, Ohio. Later, we'll be joined by other friends, colleagues and co-workers for various portions of the summer.

While in India, Cambodia and Thailand, we'll be interviewing, photographing, documenting. We'll be consulting, planning and strategizing. We'll also be laughing, singing and playing. If all goes well, we'll leave Asia with all of the documents, stories and hugs we'll need to keep the organization running smoothly until next summer's trip.

I'm sure that there will be hitches -- attitudes will falter, shots will be missed, phones will be stolen (as mine was last night), luggage will be lost and appointments will be unavoidably missed. But for now, despite a few minor mishaps, the McCollum family is holding up pretty well, and we're heading into the rest of the summer in good spirits and as much esprit de corps as a couple of teenagers, an old married couple and a fourth grader can be reasonably expected to possess. 

It's morning now. We leave in a few hours. But first, I'm going to head off to the stolen phone black market area of town to see if I can find and buy mine back, or at least get a good deal on one lost by some other hapless traveler.

Maintaining my sense of wonder

When Kori and I first visited Hanoi, Vietnam 16 years ago to adopt Chien, the city was unlike anything we'd ever experienced. We were impressed and, at times, nearly overwhelmed by what seemed like a constant barrage of sights, smells and sounds. Hanoi seemed a blur, a blender. Everyone was honking and shouting and bustling from before sunup to way after my bed time.

After 20-some trips to Southeast Asia, this place seems to have slowed down quite a bit. Compared to, say, Phnom Penh, traffic in Hanoi is downright orderly, and commerce is positively genteel. This morning, Chien and I were walking around the Old Quarter, and a motorcycle came buzzing towards us down the middle of the sidewalk. We stepped aside without thinking and Chien observed, "A few years ago that would have freaked me out." Yeah. Me too.

Breakfast in Hanoi

It would be easy to become jaded: "Oh. A motorcycle with four live pigs stacked on the back like firewood. Ho hum." "Guy has his arm inside a cow's rectum. Nothing to see here." "Weasel poop coffee and phở for breakfast. Again?" I'll admit that I'm not as easily scared, amazed or impressed -- I don't walk the streets, slack-jawed in a gobsmacked daze. But I've worked hard to maintain my sense of wonder.

I don't take any of this for granted, and I hope my kids don't either. Stewardship of this ministry is an awesome privilege. In just a few days, we'll be heading to India, flying into Mumbai, passing through Kolkata, driving through the Darjeeling foothills of the Himalayas and spending a few days with orphaned kids and the wonderful people who have rescued them and welcomed them into their family. I get to call them my friends. They remember me and I remember them. I'll get to watch them grow up, get married and have kids. That's my day job. 

Wow. 

I'm not sure how or why this happened, but I'm humbled and I'm still surprised that I get to represent Jesus -- and all of you -- in Cambodia, Thailand, India and beyond. 

This summer is just beginning. Soon, we'll be with the kids and staff. I'll try to keep the posts and photos interesting! Keep praying for us.

Good morning Vietnam

After nearly 30 hours in the air and in airports, we arrived in Hanoi at about 10pm last night. Even though it was dark, it was clear upon approach that some aspects of Hanoi, specifically Noi Bai airport, have changed  since our last visit 16 years ago. Last time, the airport was just a low-slung concrete 1960s-style box with a couple of runways and a dozen or so water buffalos lazily munching along the tarmac. 

Today's Noi Bai is a modern, glass-and-steel airport with airconditioned jetways and flat screen TVs. The intimidating middle-aged soldiers unhappily stamping huge ledger books with blood-red crests and seals have been replaced by bored twenty-something functionaries indolently scanning passports into modern PCs. It's all very efficient, but somehow disappointing from a travelogue standpoint.

We made our way through immigration and baggage claim with no trouble at all, and were greeted by a driver with "MR. JOHN MCCOLLUM" written on a placard. After a 40 minute drive on a modern interstate highway, we reached Hanoi. The outskirts of the city certainly start out a bit farther than I remember them, and I'm certain that there weren't nearly this many shiny hotels. There may or may not have been a shopping mall.

When we finally reached the Old Quarter, I smiled and sighed -- this is Hanoi as I remembered it: tightly packed buildings, each about 6 feet wide and 4 stories high; street corners filled with shirtless men sitting on red plastic stools drinking weak yellow beer and smoking white filterless cigarettes. The smells, the sounds, the signs -- some things haven't changed much at all.

We checked into the Hanoi Central Hotel, which is unsurprisingly a hotel in the center of, well, Hanoi. It's cheap, but it works. There's no hot water and the bathroom smells a bit like sewage, but the internet is fast and there are a couple of English-speaking TV channels. The location makes up for the simple amenities: it's just a block from lake Hoan Kiem, and is in the heart of the city's oldest neighborhoods. When we adopted Chien, we stayed just a couple of blocks away.

Chien and me at the Thuy Ta Cafe today.

Chien and Kori at the Thuy Ta Cafe, June 1998.

The boys went to their room, and Kori, Xiu Dan and I tried our best to get some sleep by around 12:30 a.m. Aided by Ambien, I got a couple of hours of decent shuteye. Thanks to jetlag, I was wide awake again by 5:00. At around 6:00, I took a cold shower, got dressed and grabbed my camera. When I got down to the lobby, the desk clerk was still asleep on the floor. He quickly got up and let me out, and I hit the streets. 

I headed straight for the lake and wandered among the hundreds of Hanoians exercising in the cool of the morning. The lake is an oasis of tranquility in the heart of the busy capital city. Young men jog and lift weights, children play badminton, and old women practice Tai Chi under the boughs of ancient willow trees. A red lacquered bridge stretches from the west bank to a tiny pagoda on an island in the center of the lake where tourists snap pictures and supplicants burn incense at the shrined dedicated to the magic turtle who once returned the sword of power to King Ly Thai To.

There are fewer cyclos and bikes and more cars. Most of the motos are fizzy, late-model Honda Dreams and Yamaha 125cc jobs, rather than the Super Cub C90s that used to burble around the streets, but little else has changed in the heart of the city. Tired yet mighty worker-women still waddle the sidewalks with heavy bundles of fruit on poles over their shoulders, men still chop glistening piles of grilled meatparts on heavy wooden cutting boards and hungry Hanoians of all ages still slurp steaming bowls of phở from metal folding tables at streetside cafes.

After locating and photographing the Thuy Ta Cafe where Kori and I used to feed baby Chien stacks of Ritz crackers and the Claudia Hotel where we first became a family, I returned to the hotel, gathered the family and headed out for breakfast. We found a tiny family-run restaurant serving the city's famous beef noodle soup, phở, and reminded ourselves once again why we don't bother ordering the stuff very often in Columbus, Ohio. If Hanoi wasn't filled to the brim with other, equally-tasty treats, I could eat a bowl of at salty, spicy and slightly-oily brisket-and-broth for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 


We strolled around the lake, visited the pagoda and grabbed tea and fruit smoothies at the Thuy Ta -- that was about all we had energy for, and we have returend to our hotel for a couple hours of rest before lunch. By tomorrow morning, we should be mostly adjusted to the new schedule, and will be ready for full days of fun.

I love this place. I'm more accustomed to the heat, the pace of city life and the profound Asianness of the place than I was 16 years ago, but I'm not jaded. I've worked hard to maintain my sense of wonder throughout my 20+ trips to this part of the world, and so far, it's paying off with a great visit to Hanoi. 

Pak and Xiu Dan are enjoying themselves. Kori and I are definitely a bit emotional. Chien seems to be quietly taking it all in. "It's kind of strange being here," he said. Yeah. It is. But I'm glad we're all here together.

We're going back to the start

The name "Asia's Hope" first emerged at a Denny's restaurant in Mansfield, Ohio. It was halfway between Columbus, where I live, and Wooster, where my co-founder Dave lived. Dave and I had started meeting there on a monthly basis over hash browns and eggs shortly after we returned from a short term missions trip he had led to Cambodia in the summer of 2000.

So, the organization -- at least the formal incarnation of it -- technically started about 14 years ago when we put a name and a shape to a commitment we'd made to each other and to God to move beyond intermittent involvement in God's work in Asia to an ongoing commitment to raising funds and recruiting supporters. But when I answer the question, "How did you get into this kind of work?" my answer always starts in 1997, a few years prior to the founding of Asia's Hope. 

Kori and I had moved back to Columbus from Detroit, and had started the long, arduous and expensive process of adopting from Vietnam. 

Kori, Chien and I in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 1998

Kori, Chien and I in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 1998

We didn't choose to adopt out of any distinct calling to serve orphaned kids, and we didn't select Vietnam due to any longstanding interest in the continent of Asia. We just felt like adoption was God's plan for us to start a family, and the only programs that would take a couple in our situation -- we had only been married 5 years, and had no diagnosis of infertility -- were Guatemala and Vietnam. And when we prayed about it, Vietnam seemed to be the right choice. But as soon as we started filling out the paperwork, our hearts started to shift toward a country that previously only existed to us as the site of disastrous war.

By the time we were approved to travel to Hanoi to meet our little baby son, Chiến, were were already fascinated by and drawn to Vietnam. We had read every book we could lay our hands on, had begun cooking Vietnamese recipes and had even briefly considered trying to learn Vietnamese (we gave up after we realized that we were completely unable to distinguish between the six tones, the slightest mispronunciation of which render the speaker incomprehensible).

From the moment we touched down at the Nội Bài International Airport, we were in love with the country -- the sights, the smells, the tastes, but especially the people. The chaos that other travelers found so daunting was for us invigorating -- even a painful run-in with a motorcycle on our first night in Vietnam couldn't dampen the spirits of my wife Kori, who is by nature an introvert. Both she and I relished the jet lag, the bruises, the traffic and the bewildering trappings of communist bureaucracy as fascinating components of this grand adventure. And while other adoptive families we met were stressing out over the dirt and the apparent disorganization of the city, Kori, Chien and I found the entire experience enchanting -- enchanting, but also challenging.

People on the streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, June 2008

People on the streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, June 2008

A guard at Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, Hanoi, 2008

A guard at Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, Hanoi, 2008

Beyond the thrill of engaging with a new culture and the joy of finally taking custody of our perfect, long-awaited little boy, we encountered for the first time real, grinding poverty. We saw women my wife's age begging on the streets holding emaciated children my new son's age. We witnessed firsthand the deleterious effects of even a short stay in an underfunded, institutional, state-run orphanage; our son was in good health, but many of the other babies being adopted were gaunt, listless and covered with sores. 

Before traveling to Vietnam, the plight of the world's orphaned and poor was only theoretically real to us. After only a couple of weeks in Southeast Asia, we felt as if the "brown smudge of poverty" that had previously haunted the shadows of our consciousness resolved into vivid detail and had forced their way onto our worldview's center stage. The "least and the last" now had real faces, and to us, those faces were Vietnamese.

How quickly those sharply drawn images faded when we returned home to America. We had a new baby to care for, and I had just started a business. Within a few months, we had adopted Pak, our second child (an interesting story in itself, but one that will have to wait for another time) and the people of Southeast Asia were no longer front and center in our wide array of daily concerns.

Nevertheless, something had changed. We watched the news differently. Our ears would perk up whenever we heard the word "Vietnam." We'd squeeze each others hands when we walked past an Asian kid. Our politics, or at least our political lens, started to change as well, and we realized that we were no longer comfortable advocating for things that might be good for us, but bad for poor people on the other side of the world.

We started seriously considering becoming full-time missionaries somewhere. We were only temporarily deterred when our missions pastor told us, "We've talked about this, and we don't think that this is your calling." We just couldn't stop thinking about Asia and orphans and poor people and refugees. So when our church's youth pastor said, "I know you guys really love Vietnam, but would you ever consider doing anything in Cambodia? I have a friend who takes mission trips there every summer..." it was sort of a no-brainer. "Of course I'm interested."

At any rate, I'm really excited and quite emotional about our upcoming summer trip. We're leaving on June 2. And before we visit the Asia's Hope staff and kids in Cambodia, Thailand and India, we'll be taking something of a pilgrimage back to Vietnam. It'll be our first time in the country since we adopted Chiến almost 15 years ago to the day. We're going to retracing our steps -- visiting the Claudia Hotel, strolling around Lake Hoan Kiem, noshing at the Thuy Ta café where we fed our little baby Ritz crackers and watched the city pass by -- maybe even trying to find the site of the former Tu Liem Orphanage, which has since been torn down. 

As Asia's Hope heads toward its 15th year and our son into his 17th, this seemed a good time to reflect on how this all started for us. And we invite you to join us on this journey. I'll be blogging a lot over the next two months, posting a ton of pictures and stories. I hope you'll rejoice with us as we celebrate this wonderful life that God has give us. I also pray that you will feel compelled to reflect with gratitude on wherever it was that you received your calling.

And if you haven't heard God's spirit call you to a deeper, more significant role in his kingdom, I pray that this will be your year, one you'll look back upon with gratitude and joy.

Are orphanages only a "last resort?" Separating the baby from the proverbial bathwater.

God himself cares for orphans and expects his people to do so as well. This much is not particularly controversial. It’s barely debatable.

But as we move past the theological and abstract into the practical and concrete, things quickly get much more complex. How we should care for the world’s 150,000,000 orphans?

We all recoil in disgust at the notion that any child should ever be sentenced to languish—untaught and unloved—in a squalid, Dickensian, prison-like institution. This healthy aversion to the warehousing of orphaned children has led many governments and charitable organizations to emphasize family preservation and kinship adoption as alternatives to orphanages—considering these the “best-case scenario” solutions.

It has also driven many of us who do provide permanent residential orphan care to develop healthier models of service. Asia’s Hope, the organization I work for, has spent the last 14 years investing in family-style residential care, where orphaned and abandoned children are placed with full-time moms and dads, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters. They are afforded the best possible education, counseling and life skills training available. Many of our graduates are successful university students, entrepreneurs, and professionals; their success outpaces even that of many of their non-orphaned peers.

Unfortunately, in an attempt to avoid the tragic mistakes of the past, an increasing number of orphan advocates now consider the permanent placement of a child into any kind of residential care setting an out-dated, inhumane, and ultimately harmful option. Some have even called for a moratorium on the establishment of all new orphanages and the closure of existing ones. The proposed Children in Families First Act, for example, will pressure foreign nations to limit the growth of or even eliminate orphanages and group homes as a condition of U.S. aid.

This kind of overcorrection is misguided and dangerous, and risks throwing out literal babies with the proverbial bathwater.

There is no credible scenario under which the proposed alternatives can be implemented for the vast majority of our world’s 150,000,000 orphans. According to some estimates, a child is orphaned every second of every single day, often as a result of abuse, neglect, extreme poverty or mental illness. We are already way behind in providing even the most basic resources for these children; we can hardly afford to discard, disparage or defund improved, improving and improvable care models that are working today.

The practical obstacles to global implementation of alternative care models aside, there will always be some cases in which residential orphan care will provide the best solution for an orphaned child.

Due to general scarcity of resources and lack of social service structures in many impoverished countries, the vast majority of orphaned children alive today will never benefit from the kinds of care advocated by orphanages’ most vocal opponents. As Christians who care about orphans, we certainly need to fund and advocate for organizations working to keep children in their families and communities of origins. But we also need to recognize that there will always be some cases in which residential orphan care will provide the best solution for an orphaned child.

In my experience, there are children for whom a placement with an aunt, uncle or grandparent — or adoption by a member of the community — would provide an experience inferior to placement in a well-funded, properly organized orphanage:

1) When a foster, adoptive or kinship care placement would separate siblings that could be kept together in a residential program.

 So often kinship care or adoption splits up a primary family relationship (brother to sister, for instance) to maintain a secondary or tertiary (uncle to nephew, grandmother to granddaughter). By placing an entire sibling group—intact—into a children’s home, we are actively preserving the most important remaining bonds an orphan child needs to be successful in life.

2) When the child’s status as an orphan would relegate them to an inferior or subservient role within the home

 Children placed with extended family often fall prey to the “Cinderella Syndrome,” where they are permanently relegated to an underclass within the family. The family’s birth children go to school and receive a larger portion of the family’s emotional and material support, while the orphaned children are resented and or treated as domestic servants. In an excellent residential care setting, each child can be guaranteed equal treatment, regardless of their social status or the circumstances that led them to orphanhood.

3) When foster-care or kinship placement is likely to be temporary

Stability and permanence plays a greater role in predicting long-term success for a child than familial proximity or even family size. We see this clearly in American children’s services structures, where kids are bounced back and forth between unsafe and unstable birth families and temporary foster families. On the other hand, when an organization like Asia’s Hope admits a child or a sibling group, we can guarantee permanent, uninterrupted care for the remainder of their childhood.

4) When legal or social factors make adoption or kinship care placement illegal, unsafe or infeasible

In China, the “one-child policy” renders the legal adoption of hundreds of thousands of “extra” children by extended family members unthinkable. To report a birth that violates the strictly-enforced law would put the entire family—and the birth mother most directly—in grave danger of fines, penalties, even prison. In other parts of the world, orphaned children are believed to be cursed, the object of a powerful spirit’s wrath, and are neither worthy of nor entitled to dignity and protection.

A significant, long-term investment is needed in these types of societies, and requires not just NGO generosity, but the commitment of local governments to support, foster and oversee competent social service mechanisms. It also requires the dismantling of deeply entrenched systems of power that lead to injustice and oppression of the poor. As Jesus said, “The poor will always be with you.” Until the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we will always struggle against powerful forces that orphan and exploit children.

We need to reject both overcorrection and utopianism, recognizing that systems of injustice are inter-connected and multi-faceted. There can never be a “silver bullet” or a single solution to the world’s orphan crisis. We should support organizations and individuals doing good work across the entire spectrum of care, advocating for excellence in both new and existing models. We must commit to working together, valuing unity rather than uniformity.

At each of Asia's Hope's 29 children's homes, orphaned kids enjoy all of the benefits of a real, permanent family.

At each of Asia's Hope's 29 children's homes, orphaned kids enjoy all of the benefits of a real, permanent family.

Will cynicism kill your capital campaign?

I read today -- and I don't know if this is true -- that construction on an average new church building costs about $6,000,000. That's for 9,000 square feet, seating 288 people and a parking lot for 72 cars. 

That's a lot of money! And based on my experience with church capital campaigns (I did the marketing for a few of them when I was in that business), it can be pretty difficult to raise those funds. Aside from the fact that people tend to be strapped for cash, church building projects tend to tap into a reservoir of cynicism that can cause people's wallets to snap shut and go into hiding.

"Do we really need a new building? Are there better things we could be doing with this money? Should we really be spending millions on fancy buildings and expensive sound equipment when there are people starving to death all over the world?" 

I've heard all of those before, and I'm guessing most pastors have too.

And wait -- full stop -- before I go any further, I should say that I'm not here to criticize churches for building things. On the contrary, I'd like to *help* churches raise those funds. And, perhaps, help orphaned kids in the process.

What if every church embarking on a capital campaign took proactive steps to inoculate themselves against cynicism and enthusiasm-sapping congregational self doubt by building into every fundraising project for themselves a gift for orphaned kids?

Think about it. It costs an organization like Asia's Hope around $75,000 to build a beautiful new home for 25 orphaned children. That's an unthinkable amount of money to a poor child in, say, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. But that's really nothing in church construction costs.

I mean, when putting up a new building, most churches will make $75,000 decisions about carpet. Or AV equipment. Maybe even signage.

What if that $6 million campaign became a $6.1 million campaign, and what if pastors and elders added a new home for orphans into their plans for a new home for their congregation? If church members knew that the money they were giving was also transforming a community of orphaned kids half way around the world, they might be a lot less likely to dismiss the overall campaign as frivolous or unnecessary. 

If you're a leader in a church that's thinking of embarking on a capital campaign in the next few years, I'd love to talk with you about how we can work together to help Asia's Hope provide homes for orphaned kids and help your church raise the funds you need to build or expand your facilities.

If you attend a church that's doing a feasibility study or starting a capital campaign, ask your leaders to contact me. I think this just might work.

Email me or call me at 614.804.6233. 

 

"Come see! Come see!"

I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in a family with limited financial means. In addition to their day jobs, my parents took on extra work at times -- my dad as a janitor at the church, my mom selling AVON. As a result, we always had enough. But we were never anything close to wealthy.

We lived in a small house -- two adults, three kids in a three bedroom house with one bathroom. When I was 13, my maternal grandmother died, and left my parents a significant but not extravagant sum of money. I remember well three major purchases: a new but sensible Toyota Corolla, a trip for our family to Disneyworld and most significantly, a new house.

Left to right: Me, my brother Steve, my sister Julie. 1984.

Left to right: Me, my brother Steve, my sister Julie. 1984.

I remember feeling as if we had somehow won the lottery. My parents picked out a floor plan, selected a builder and began to make modifications to suit our family's needs -- two and a half bathrooms, a living room with a wood-burning stove, a workshop for my dad in the basement and of most interest to this teenager, a room of my own that seemed huge: I mean, I could open the door without hitting my bed!

I remember vividly our visits to the construction site and our excitement as the house took shape -- first the foundation and cinder blocks, then the framing. When the second floor was finally roughed out, I could actually stand in my new bedroom. I paced out measurements on the dusty plywood floors, and figured out exactly where my bed would sit. I remember lying down on the floor before there was even a roof, closing my eyes and imagining what it would be like to shut my door, turn on some music and tune out the rest of the world in my own private space.

I'm sure my parents were stressed about the money and about the logistics of the project, but I loved everything about the building process. I loved the smells, the sounds, the sights. Most of all, I loved what the new house seemed to represent -- we certainly weren't rich, but we didn't feel poor anymore. I'm sure that our overall financial situation didn't change much at all with the purchase of the home, but as a kid, my stress about our family's fortunes was allayed -- unlike our old place, where everything seemed to be broken, everything was new, and in good condition.

 

How much more exciting it must be for the kids of Asia's Hope to watch the construction of their beautiful new homes at our Prek Eng campus! Most of these kids can still remember lives of real, not just imagined, destitution. They remember the death of their parents, their subsequent dislocation and the terror of being alone in a big, scary world. Some of our children were themselves heads-of-household facing the impossible task of providing food and shelter for younger siblings after their parents were killed, deported, imprisoned or ravaged by disease.

We've worked hard to provide each of these children everything they need, and thanks to our generous supporters and the hard work of our staff, they've recovered miraculously from the trauma of their youth. The homes they currently live in really are just fine. No one has to sleep outside, and there are gates we can close and lock at night. Mothers and Fathers now tuck them in at night and kiss them gently when they're sick or scared. But for years, I've wanted to do better for them.

The unstable property rental market in Phnom Penh has meant that some of these new families have had to move three, four, even five times over the last decade. And every time we outgrow or break something, we have to decide if it's worth investing in a property we're likely to lose at the end of the year. 

By 2011, our long-held plans for a permanent neighborhood-style campus in Phnom Penh started to take shape: the board approved a capital campaign, and we began gauging key donors' interest in the project. In July 2012, my son and I stood sizzling under the Cambodian sun with a couple of pastors from partnering churches, a few potential supporters and a handful of staff looking out over a nondescript plot of land, completely undeveloped except for a copse or two of tropical fruit trees and some untended and unruly chili plants wilting in the summer heat. We made a bold request of God: "Would you give us this land as an inheritance for our orphan children, and bless us with the resources we need to build permanent, high-quality homes, playgrounds and a school?"

For the sake of the kids and to His Glory, God has answered our prayers! Not only have we purchased the land, but we've finished construction on the school, nearly completed three of the five homes and have started building the fourth! And the homes aren't just adequate, they're beautiful. Each home has separate levels for boys and girls, apartments for staff, generous multipurpose living spaces and lots and lots of bathrooms. There's room for a soccer field and for playgrounds, and there's even adjacent land available that we could purchase if God provides the funds.

Yesterday, my family visited the site with the children from Prek Eng 2. As we pulled up to the gate of our property, the kids let out a cheer. As we spilled out of our cars, they grabbed us by our hands and dragged us, running toward their new house. "Come see! Come see!" they squealed as they led us around. "This is my bedroom, and this is mom and dad's. And this is the kitchen. And here is where we will study!"

"No swimming pool?" I joked. "No, but we can use this," one of the boys laughed, pointing toward the half-submerged septic tanks out back. Soriya, one of the teenage girls hugged me and said, "We can't wait to move in! It will be so nice to have all five homes on the same land -- we can improve our friendships, have lots of fun and feel very good."

In less than two weeks, we'll be dedicating the new campus with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that will be attended by some of the people who helped fund the project. God willing, the campus will be finished and furnished by the end of the year.

But we still have work to do. We've raised more than $600,000 for this project in just over a year, and we haven't even really gone "public" with our needs. But we've seen before, the last dollars are often harder to raise than the first. And we still have about $170,000 to go before we can build Prek Eng 5, outfit the homes, church and school and get the campus ready for full occupancy. 

To be honest, I don't know where that money is going to come from. But I do know a couple of things. 

  1. God will provide these funds; and
  2. God will bless everyone who helps with this project.

I really believe this. I've already seen God work miraculously on behalf of these kids. He's used rich people, and he's used people of very, very modest means.

The stories of generosity will be told for generations on earth and in heaven. One of these homes was built with funds that came from a family who, along with their children, decided that their house was bigger than they needed. They sold it, moved to a smaller one and gave us the money we needed to provide a permanent home for 25 once-orphaned kids!

Churches have taken special offerings. Kids have done bake sales. Businesses have tithed profits. Families have given tax refunds. Young couples have given money they were saving for downpayments on first homes.

As Proverbs 19:17 says, "He who is kind to the poor lends to God." Matthew 19:29 says, "Everyone who has left houses...or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."

At the risk of sounding like one of those crazy guys on TV, will you talk to your spouse, your kids, your boss and your pastor? Will you ask them to pray about joining us and finishing up this project for the sake of these wonderful children? 

We've set up a giving page on our web site. If you click on "Capital Project in Prek Eng," you can give via credit card. You can also send checks through the mail. And, of course, you can email me directly if you have any questions about this project.

Join with those who have already been blessed by their participation. Together and with God's help, we can do this! I look forward to celebrating with you as God continues to provide for the kids and staff of Asia's Hope.