Director's Blog

Summer 2017 — It's a wrap.

The last week or so has been a whirlwind. We've welcomed guests from three churches — Central Vineyard (Columbus, OH), Vineyard Marysville (Marysville, OH) and Vista Community Church (Dublin, OH).

I haven't had the opportunity to write posts about each team or, really, much of anything, so I'll do a big "photo dump" and upload a bunch of pictures from the last week and a half of our trip. As you can see, we had a lot of fun, and showed some wonderful kids a great time.

Thank you for all of your prayers and support. We're making a difference together as we lead courageously on behalf of orphaned and vulnerable children.

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Guests aplenty

The last 48 hours or so have flown by. For our first couple of days in Thailand, my family and I spent time with our staff and kids, just hanging out and relaxing before guests arrived. First to fly in was the Hamilton family, who were just popping in for a two-day visit. They're long-time friends of Asia's Hope Cambodia, and had just spent about a week and a half visiting the kids they support at our Prek Eng 5 home outside of Phnom Penh. Next to arrive was the Davis family, Asia's Hope Thailand supporters from Columbus, Ohio. They were followed in rapid succession by Asia's Hope project manager Addison Smith and Justin and Jamie Perkins. The Perkins family owns Holy Moses barbershop in Columbus, Ohio, and they're here to initiate a sponsorship of our Doi Saket 1a home here in Thailand.

We're all staying together at a guesthouse in Doi Saket, where the guesthouse staff — assisted by some Asia's Hope Thailand family members — are taking great care of us. We've thrown pool parties for Asia's Hope kids, attended an amazing church service, played games and hosted an outdoor movie night. And we've also eaten really well, both at the guesthouse and at my favorite restaurant in the world, Auntie Cat's Khao Soi.

For each of our guests — except for Addison, of course — this is their first time in Thailand. It's a joy to experience the culture and ministry anew through the eyes of our friends. Tonight we're heading out to Chiang Mai's famous Sunday Walking Market. I don't really need any more Thai tchotchkes, but I'll certainly enjoy a smoothie and a couple plates of sticky rice with mangoes. Tomorrow we're heading up to visit our homes in Wiang Pa Pro, where we're more than likely to kill and butcher a hog. 

Enjoy the pics. Maybe you'll join us here some day!

There may be noodles.

According to my iPhone, which I've already set to Thai time, It's 9:46am. My body isn't so sure. It's 10:46pm back in Columbus. We've been at this for quite some time.

It takes a couple of hours to get from Columbus to New York, and then about 14-and-a-half hours to Seoul, 5-and-a-half to Bangkok, and an hour or so to Chiang Mai. Add in layovers and we're at 30+ hours from port to port. The interactive map glowing in the headrest of the seat in front of me says we're somewhere between Taipei and Hanoi. Which means that we'll be in Bangkok before long.

I slept well on the big flight, but I'm still exhausted. That's the way it goes; I'll be pretty tired for the next day or so, and then I should be pretty much done with the jet lag. 

I'm traveling with Kori, Xiu Dan and Pak. Chien is staying in Columbus and working about 50 hours a week, holding down the homefront. This trip is a relatively short one in terms of days on the ground. Kori can only manage five weeks off, and that's taking all of her vacation days and leave-without-pay days in one big chunk. This year, I'm coming home with my family. Last year, they left after about six weeks and I stayed on for a total of 13 weeks, hosting various teams and accomplishing things that, frankly, can only happen in person.

Important stuff, yeah. But never again. You can hold me to that.

It wasn't just the duration, it was the pace. In 13 weeks, I figure I had a total of four days off. By the time week seven rolled around, I was already past tired and probably not at my best. We had our normal (well, "usual" is probably a better word, as none of this is particularly "normal") mix of wonderful yet tiring days — filled with hugs, laughter, tears, sweat, songs, meetings, games and dancing — and we also had some really rough, dark times. India, which I love deeply, presented a harrowing series of trials from which I'm still reeling.

So while I anticipate an aggressive itinerary on this trip, I think it's going to be a very different kind of summer for me. We're starting out in Thailand and finishing in Cambodia, postponing my visit to India to a later date. I don't really lead large teams anymore; I tend to leave visits from partnering churches in the capable hands of their own leaders. I do, however, like to give potential partners' "vision trips" my personal attention. I also am eager to meet up with new partners on their first visit to the projects they support. So if you're following this blog, you'll get a chance to meet a whole host of people who haven't yet shown up in my pictures.

I'll be hosting business owners who are committing to one of our homes in Thailand, families visiting Cambodia for an introduction to the staff and the kids at the homes they're currently sponsoring. We'll welcome a number of donors as they see for the first time how their courageous leadership is changing the world for some of the world's most vulnerable kids. I'll be joined by a former pro football player who sold his Super Bowl ring a decade ago to help us provide a place for dozens of orphaned children to cal home. Along with hundreds of teens and young adults, we'll attend Asia's Hope Cambodia Youth Conference at our Battambang campus. And we'll probably kill a pig or two. 

For the last few days, we'll meet up with a group from my home church, Central Vineyard. And then we'll come home in time to enjoy a bit of barbecue season stateside.

I hope that you'll follow along, and that share our stories with your friends and co-workers. In a world discouraged by divisive rhetoric around race, politics and even religion, your Facebook and Twitter feeds can probably use some encouragement. Pray for us, too. We need stamina and wisdom and resources to continually answer God's call with integrity and courage.

With any luck, I'll have some pictures to post soon. I'm hoping that at least some of those pics will feature noodles. I like noodles.

 Obligatory noodle shot. As eaten in the Seoul Incheon airport.

Obligatory noodle shot. As eaten in the Seoul Incheon airport.

Left it on the dance floor

For a while there I thought I could go an entire 13 weeks in Asia without getting sick. And, if you're not counting a day or two of mild intestinal discomfort in India, I almost made it. But I knew by yesterday morning that I was heading toward a mandatory day off and a visit to the pharmacist. 

I could feel it coming on as I made the 40 minute drive to church: I was feeling irritable, I had the beginnings of a migraine, my stomach hurt and I was just plain worn out. I only made it through the first song before excusing myself and heading for a shady spot for some peace and relative quiet. After the service, I joined the team for lunch at Prek Eng 6 and only pecked at the food. 

At some point (the details are fuzzy) I stumbled over to the Prek Eng 2 home where Narun and Sophal were kind enough to lend me their bed for a couple of hours' sleep. I felt more or less refreshed and I got up intending to visit some of the other homes, but I made it about as far as the living room before deciding I really didn't want to go any further.

The kids and staff at PE2 took good care of me: they gave me water, a cold compress and a fan. They also gave me a mat and a pillow. I fell asleep again to the sounds of friendly voices chattering in Khmer, kids playing soccer out front and chickens meeting their demise in service of the evening's dinner.

At around 3pm I felt well enough to wander over to join my friends at PE6. Some of the kids were playing badminton, others were kicking a soccer ball, and a few were coloring quietly or reading stories with the team. I sat down at one of the tables in front of the house and began chatting with Samnang, the home's father and with Many, one of the home's two grandmothers. Anh, the Prek Eng 5 dad was also there and he helped translate some questions we had for Samnang and Many.

Samnang had shared his life story with us the night before: he was only five when the Pol Pot regime overthrew his country's government, unleashing four years of hellish genocide and two decades of civil war. Both of his parents were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, and after that regime fell, he was sent to live in a deplorable state-run orphanage with hundreds of children and only a handful of staff. 

As a young teen, he was forced to become a soldier. He was terrified, but relished the idea of taking revenge on those who had slaughtered his family and destroyed his country. But when he actually engaged the Khmer Rouge soldiers in battle, he realized that they were not the invincible monsters of his nightmares — they were just like him: terrified, emaciated kids — miserable pawns in some incomprehensible, macabre game.

One day as he was patrolling with his unit in the jungle, he stepped a landmine which shredded his leg and left him bleeding to death on the ground. By God's grace, he was rescued by soldiers from one of the other three factions fighting the Khmer Rouge holdouts, and was taken to the sprawling and squalid Site Two Refugee Camp on the Thai/Cambodian border. Built to house 15,000 refugees, the camp ballooned to almost 200,000 by the time its residents were repatriated into Cambodia in 1993. Facing likely death from his injuries, he was taken to the smaller Khao I Dang camp, where he recuperated slowly over a period of a year and a half.

It was at this second camp where he heard the good news of the Gospel and committed his life to serving God. When the camps were emptied, he returned to his home town where he met and married his wife and began his ministry, first as an evangelist with Campus Crusade Cambodia, then as an outreach worker and pastor with World Relief. While at CCC, he worked with Savorn Ou, who would later become Asia's Hope Cambodia's national director. In 2015, Samnang, his wife and four children jumped at the chance to work with Asia's Hope, an organization he had admired for years.

I had heard parts of Grandma Many's story, but my wife Kori and I had felt such a strong connection with her, and I was anxious to know more about who she was and what had brought her to Asia's Hope.

When Anh told her I wanted to ask a few questions about her life, her eyes filled with tears. I took her hand and assured her that she didn't have to share any details if it was painful for her, but she shook her head and began to speak in Khmer. I speak the language very poorly, but I understood the basics even without translation. The words for "husband" and "children" and "killed" have become unsettlingly familiar over my past 16 years visiting Cambodia. Weeping, she told me why she always hugs my wife and gently presses her hands to Kori's face whenever we visit. "My two boys and my little girl. They killed them. And when I see Kori I think, 'She looks so much like my daughter.' Now she is like my daughter." 

Samnang explained to me, "For many years she was alone. No one to take care of her. No one to love her. One of our staff asked her to work for Asia's Hope and now she is so happy! She has children again. And grandchildren. And she is so thankful for the opportunity to love and serve them."

As afternoon faded into evening, and a cool breeze chased away the humidity, we picked up our chairs and set up folding tables next door in the courtyard of the Asia's Hope school. We were joined by the other five homes, and we enjoyed a feast prepared by our staff and paid for by Vineyard Columbus. I nibbled on a piece of chicken, but lacked the appetite to indulge any further. The kids, however, ate plate after plate of delicious food and stuffed themselves with ice cream. 

As dusk approached, we cleared away the tables and fired up the speakers. As always, the dancing started slowly. Along with 50 or so kids and a few of the staff, I ambled around the courtyard, inexpertly twirling my hands in a vain attempt to approximate the graceful motions of the more experienced dancers. As the sky dimmed, the music got louder and the dancing more energetic. Before long, almost all of the six homes' 140 kids — and a whole lot of the adults — were laughing and shouting, whirling and stomping, reveling without reservation in the restoration of the fatherless and the widow and the healing of broken dreams.

After about two hours of hilarity, the festivities drew to a close. The university students who had come home for the weekend packed up their books and headed out on their scooters to their various dorms, and I knew I was D-O-N-E. The Vineyard team was clearly exhausted, and I thought for a moment that I was going to pass out. I had spent every ounce of my energy and had borrowed some at high interest. And I was pretty sure I'd have to pay when morning rolled around.

And when I woke up at about 5am with a pounding headache and nauseated chills, I knew that much of today would be spent in bed. It's now about 6pm. I've started my course of antibiotics and slept on and off throughout the morning and afternoon. The team is out at Prek Eng with the kids, and I'm just now starting to get a little hungry.

I'm praying that I feel better after a good night's sleep. I have important meetings tomorrow with Savorn and also with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here in Phnom Penh. On a certain level, I probably shouldn't have pushed it so hard yesterday. But it was worth it, and I wouldn't take it back if I could.

May God continue to bless our work here. Thank you for your generosity and your prayers.

Leaving Battambang, heading to Siem Reap

Last night, the team from The Chapel (Akron, OH) endured a round of tearful goodbyes with the kids and staff of Battambang 6, the home they sponsor in Cambodia's second largest city. These last few days have been filled with the best of times. We've shared meals, stories, games and gifts. 

It's been such an encouragement to spend time with Pastor Tim Armstrong and his team — they represented their church well, pouring every ounce of energy into embodying the love and support of their entire congregation. By the time we hit dinner after leaving the campus, everyone was drained. 

Unfortunately Gary, one of the team members, has remained sick throughout most of the trip. He's had a few moments of joyful interactions with the kids, but has spent much of the time recuperating in bed. Please join me in praying that God ministers to him in a very special way and shows him a deeper purpose for this ordeal.

This morning we drove from Battambang to Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, one of the most significant architectural and cultural sites on the planet. Tomorrow morning, I'll serve as an enthusiastic but underqualified tour guide to the Ta Prohm and Bayon sites and to the big daddy: Angkor Wat itself. This will be my seventh trip to Angkor, but my first in about five years. I have to admit I'm kind of excited.

For those of us who travel to Cambodia for humanitarian rather than tourist purposes, it's tempting to think of Angkor Wat as a waste of time. But this place embodies the hope and pride of the Cambodian people whose greatest achievements lie 900 years in the past, and whose future remains uncertain. To miss out on this marvel of human ingenuity risks misunderstanding the psyche of the Cambodian people. If past excursions are any indication, we're going to come back exhausted and a little sunburned. But I'm hoping to have a few hundred pictures — at least three or four of which should be really nice.

I'll leave on Saturday morning and return to Battambang to attend church on Sunday and celebrate the first day of classes at our new secondary school on Monday. On Tuesday, I'll head back to Phnom Penh to meet up with the team from Vineyard Columbus, led by my colleague Asia's Hope project manager Addison Smith and visiting the home they sponsor, Prek Eng 6. The Chapel team leaves for America on Saturday night. Please pray for safety in the air and on the road. And pray for rest and recuperation for everyone attempting to integrate back into everyday life.

Lots more pictures soon!

You say goodbye, I say hello.

Our six hour trip from Battambang to Phnom Penh was mostly uneventful. I've gotten pretty good at conveying across the countryside kids and luggage in our van — a 12 passenger, 2 liter diesel that can't exceed 63 mph — dodging cows, kids, bikes, tractors and the occasional monk. All was well until we hit construction traffic about 30 minutes outside of Phnom Penh, where we blew a rear tire. Thankfully, our staff had prepared the car well, and within 45 minutes we had found the tools (under the front passenger seat, of course), dislodged the spare and changed it out for the badly flattened original.

We took only a few minutes to relax at our hotel before heading out to our Prek Eng campus about a half hour outside the city. More driving than I'd have preferred for one day, but my family's time in Cambodia was limited, and we wanted to get as many minutes with our staff and kids as possible. Exhausted from the day's transit, I unwisely left my camera at the hotel, and thus missed some really sweet times of fellowship, including a feast provided by our staff and enjoyed on the front porch of Prek Eng 1, Sopheng and Somary's Home.

The next day, we spent the entire afternoon and evening with the staff and kids, visiting each home, playing games and returning to Phnom Penh for dinner. And then on Tuesday, it was time for one last opportunity to see all of the kids and staff. After breakfast and lunch in the city, we headed to Prek Eng and enjoyed the kind of long, summer afternoon evening with friends and family that kids remember wistfully for the rest of their lives.

As the afternoon turned to evening and then to night, I knew we had to get our kids — especially the little one — back to the hotel and into bed. But it was hard. Although we'd visit the homes one more time the next day, many of the kids would be in school and that this was, for a lot of them, goodbye until next year.

Yesterday morning, we got up early and grabbed breakfast at a reliable favorite, The Feel Good Café. It's easily the best coffee in Phnom Penh, and it's run by Marc and Jose, two men whose business ethics I admire greatly. I could write a whole post on them, and might do that later. At any rate, after a filing breakfast, we headed out to Prek Eng. A surprising number of kids were home from school — I wonder if some of them were there specifically to see us off. 

After enjoying a delicious staff lunch at Prek Eng 6, Samnang and Son's home, we gathered all of the kids and staff together and spent the next 20 minutes mugging for the cameras, and hugging for the memories. It could have lasted for hours, but frankly, I hate long goodbyes. When I felt like we'd reached our threshold for sad adieus, I announced, "Okay, guys. Time to go." It took another 15 minutes to actually get into the car and exit the gates.

We were mostly quiet for the rest of the afternoon. We reached our hotel, finished packing the kids' and Kori's bags and unsuccessfully rested until about dinner time. Kori and I process these types of transitions differently. My instinct would be to spend the last few hours embracing, squeezing every drop of intimacy out of the day. Hers would be to sit quietly, perhaps even alone with her thoughts. We compromised by taking a nap. Occasionally a hand on a shoulder, a kiss on a cheek.

And then it was time.

We had to grab dinner first, and we decided on Sam Doo, a dim sum joint Pak had been bugging us to hit throughout the trip. After a preposterously difficult parking job, wherein we somehow jammed our mini-bus into a space more suitable for a Honda Civic, we plopped down quietly into the sticky white vinyl booths in the windowless first floor of the restaurant. 

The food was good. Actually, it was great. It was plentiful, too. In fact, there were dumplings left over, something that rarely happens when Dyson (I mean Pak) is in the room. For that, I partially fault my tendency to over-order when faced with a multitude of small plates. But none of us were exactly at peak appetite. 

After dinner, we drove to the airport. No real traffic, no delays. So we got there early. We were greeted by some of the kids and staff from Prek Eng 2, Narun and Sophal's house. And that was really nice. And then it was time for me to say my goodbyes. A little awkward with lots of people looking on, but I kissed my wife and daughter and hugged my son (sneaked a kiss on his cheek). 

And then there were a few tears. I hugged Xiu Dan, and I felt her shoulders heave as she buried her head in my chest. I kissed her head and told her, "I've really enjoyed traveling with you. We have memories that will last a lifetime. I will see you very soon. You can FaceTime me any time you want, day or night. I love you." And I gave my wife one last hug and kiss and then stepped back. The Asia's Hope kids stepped back too, and blew kisses as my family walked toward the security guard at the front door of the international departure lounge. And then they were gone.

I drove back to the hotel and turned on the TV. I turned it off immediately when I realized it was all U.S. election coverage — as if saying goodbye to my family isn't discouraging enough. I took a shower, read a chapter in a book and went to bed. I didn't really sleep soundly until I'd gotten the text from Kori confirming they'd reached Bangkok and had gotten checked into their transit hotel.

I woke up feeling okay. I have a few hours of solitude, wherein I plan to buy a pair of glasses, maybe look at some shoes (mine are not appropriately dressy for the meetings I have scheduled with officials later in the week) and get ready for a month of back-to-back (to back) visits from sponsoring churches and funding partners.

I am, to be honest, a bit melancholy this morning. But I've given myself until lunch to reflect on how much I miss my family. After lunch, I'll start getting excited for the arrival of the first team — one from The Chapel in Akron, joined by my dear friend and fellow board member, Ron Biddle. The Chapel sponsors our Prek Eng 1 and Battambang 6 homes, and they're underwriting support for our new school in Battambang, opening August 1! I can't wait to welcome Pastor Tim and his team, many of whom are visiting Asia's Hope for the very first time. 

Along with a contingent of staff and kids from Asia's Hope, I'll meet them at the airport around 10pm. The staff will drive them to the hotel, and I'll stay at the airport to welcome Sam and Rachel Cobb, owners of Real Wood Floors. Real Wood sponsors our school in India, and is expanding their production facilities in Cambodia. They'll join The Chapel team for the first few days, and we'll have a chance to compare notes about the kind of big, blue-sky thinking they're proposed for corporate involvement with Asia's Hope.

Even typing all that is lifting my spirits. I love this part of my job — showing off the accomplishments of our amazing staff and kids, boasting in God's power and love for his people, dreaming about changing the world with and for orphaned kids. I probably need a nap first, but I think I'm ready for this. Almost.

Thoughts on a fine summer evening in Cambodia

I remember one specific summer night as a child in Ohio at our friends, the Hoppers', farm. I can still smell the bonfire and taste the strawberry ice cream churned fresh on the clapboard porch. I remember playing hide-and-seek in the high grass, relishing the freedom to run and roam while the grownups chatted in the kitchen as the sun set at the stars stretched out across the night sky.

No, our lives weren't perfect. We didn't have much money; I felt perpetually misunderstood by my parents and alienated from my siblings. But on that night, everyone was happy. Everyone ate their fill. We all played nicely with each other, and for a few moments, I even felt like I belonged with the older, cooler kids.

I haven't thought about that evening for many years. But tonight, the memories flooded back as the blazing heat of the Battambang day slowly gave way to a balmy dusk. As we wandered around the campus this evening visiting each of our homes in turn, stopping for cookies at one, a game of corn hole at another, I felt a profound sense that, at this place, children are safe. They're loved. They're included.

Even among the teen boys — engaged in a mighty struggle against a local high school's soccer team — a spirit of camaraderie not conflict prevailed. Younger boys looked on admiringly as their big brothers settled the score with a shootout; girls of all ages cheered on their siblings and admired the lithe athleticism of the visitors who lost graciously before waving goodbye and riding off on their motorbikes, vowing good-naturedly to fight another day.

The lives of the kids at Asia's Hope aren't ideal. These kids were once orphans, after all. They've experienced loss and alienation that I can only imagine. They're here because there's no other safe place for them. Their extended family either can't or won't care for them. But tonight and in this place, they're building memories of security and acceptance that they can treasure for a lifetime.

This place is not entirely unique — there are many wonderful towns and families one can grow up in. But for the orphaned and vulnerable children of this world, this is an extraordinarily rare environment. Many children who have been permanently separated from their parents by death or abandonment live each day on the edge of absolute disaster. Of starvation. Of exploitation.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I'm sure of it. We can expand the work of Asia's Hope to include other children. More importantly, we can describe, disseminate and distribute our model to poor communities from Ukraine to Uganda, from the Burundi to Bangladesh. Will you help?  Please consider making a donation that will allow us provide high nurture, family-style care for even more of the millions of orphan kids who will go to sleep tonight without shelter, without food and without the loving home enjoyed by the children at Asia's Hope in Battambang.

God bless you.

Pu'erh and Pizza

Yesterday we got up and walked a couple of blocks to the Feel Good Cafe, purveyors of Cambodia's best cup of coffee. It's also a darn fine place for eggs, pancakes and other Western breakfast staples, and after about a month of Asian breakfasts, we decided to indulge.

We ran into the team from Central Vineyard Church and invited them to join us on a visit to the Q. N China Brand Tea Shop, one of our favorite stops when in Phnom Penh. Kori, my wife, doesn't drink coffee, doesn't really care about clothing, doesn't need any more Asian souvenirs and doesn't wear much jewelry. So I'm always more than happy to drop a few bucks on some high quality teas that would cost four times as much in the States or Europe.

After a delightful hour of sipping and selecting jasmine, fresh oolong, dried oolong and ancient pu'erh teas, we drove to a nearby branch of The Pizza Company and met 20 of our university students who have graduated from Asia's Hope in Prek Eng. Oh, how I love those kids.

These are bright, hardworking students. They put in hours of study that would horrify most American co-eds and they're involved in ministry at their church and with the kids at Asia's Hope. They're relentlessly positive — I spent two hours with them and despite some good-natured teasing among the kids, there was never a hint of snark or cynicism. They love their country despite its imperfections, and they're all committed to working for its good as lawyers, teachers, doctors, economists and entrepreneurs.

They are the first fruits of our ministry here in Cambodia, and are the living proof that residential orphan care is not only not intrinsically harmful to kids, but with the right leadership, proper funding and a family-centered model, can be absolutely transformative. 

After lunch, we headed out of the city, over the bridge and through the rapidly developing side streets that were just a few years ago nothing but rice fields and banana farms. Arriving at our Prek Eng campus after spending the previous hours with our university students, I was struck with the encouraging yet daunting prospect providing for the dozens of kids who will be joining their ranks in the next few years.