More favor than I can comprehend

Sunday was, as I had expected, bursting at the seams with challenges and celebrations. And despite ending the day with a case of food poisoning (or flu? My intestines don’t know or care about the difference), the blessings far outweighed the pain. 

Once again, God had mercy on me and on the staff and kids of Asia’s Hope; I wasn’t prepared for my sermon, but God gave me words that seemed to hit the mark.  After church I presided over a sensitive meeting that could have gone very badly, but God gave all of the participants grace and peace.

After my meeting, we headed back from Prek Eng into Phnom Penh to meet Savorn and his family — Sony, Billy, Malvin (and Malvin’s girlfriend) — for Korean barbecue at the Aeon Mall, a shopping center so vast and upscale I still struggle with believing it exists in Phnom Penh. Savorn told us that a group of young adults who had grown up at our Prek Eng 1 home and had since finished university and entered the workforce wanted to treat us to dinner. The place they chose was also at the Aeon Mall, so Dylan and I decided to park ourselves at a coffee shop and work on photos and blog posts rather than head back to hotel for a rest.

In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. By the end of the evening, I was a mess. Exhaustion, headache, repeated visits to the loo... you get the idea. I barely slept on Sunday night; between the fever and the nausea, I think I got three hours of sleep. 

But I’m so glad I didn’t miss the dinner with the PE1 graduates. Maybe it was the food poisoning kicking in; maybe it was the fact that I had eaten so much for lunch. Either way, I only picked at the food and spent most of the time just chatting with these young adults about where they had been, where they were now and where they saw themselves going. After dinner, the chats turned to intense, tear-filled interactions that left me feeling like the most blessed guy in the world, despite being completely unworthy of all the good things Asia’s Hope has brought to me over the last 16 years.

Bunnaroth, is now an official in the Ministry of the Interior. This young man just exudes confidence and competence. When I had introduced him to Dylan before dinner, I said, “Bunnaroth is going to be governor of a Cambodian province in ten years.” Without boasting, without a hint of irony, he said, “Actually, seven I think.” 

After dinner, he sat down in the chair next to me, put his arm around me, and leaned his head up against mine and expressed words of thanks so deeply personal I don’t think I could ever feel comfortable sharing them in a blog post. One by one, the kids came and and told me — quietly, privately, whispering in my ears — how Asia’s Hope had changed their lives, how they came from nothing, had no hope and no future. They expressed their deep appreciation for their Asia’s Hope homes and parents, and then they told me how they remembered my first visits, our first interactions — the games we played, their reactions to this crazy (and once young) American guy who showed up in their lives 15 years ago — and stayed.

These conversations were so precious, so intimate, I wouldn’t dare share them without permission, and even then only on a face-to-face basis. 

On Monday morning, I had planned to take Dylan to visit a local market, lunch in the city and then to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Still feeling a bit weak, I skipped breakfast and stayed in bed; Dylan grabbed a bite in our hotel. At about 11am, I decided I felt well enough to venture out and we hailed a tuk tuk and began our shopping excursion at the so-called Russian Market. Savorn called and said, “If you are free to visit some of the college students, meet them at Royal University of Phnom Penh in one hour; they have time to spend with you.” 

Well, if we were to make that timeframe, we would have to leave the market within 15 minutes. Dylan was wearing shorts, which would not be culturally appropriate for a visit to a university, so we cut short our souvenir buying and set out to find a pair of suitable trousers. Dylan found a pair of Kermit-green pants in something close to his size, tried them on sans-dressing room and negotiated a non-extortive price. Slacks on the legs, shorts in the bag, we found ourselves another taxi and got to the university with no time to spare. 

We were greeted by five smiling faces — all kids who had grown up at Asia’s Hope and are thriving in their studies. Architecture, International Relations and Business majors, these kids have not only overcome the odds, they’ve pinned those odds to the mat, hogtied them and posted them “return to sender.” For the next three or four hours, we walked around the campus with these guys, sipped smoothies and talked about the dreams they hold for their own lives and for their country. We laughed a lot and we took a bunch of pictures of campus buildings designed by world-famous Cambodian modernist architect Vann Molyvan, the progenitor of the brutalist New Khmer Architecture style.

Around 4pm we said goodbye to the students, some of whom had classes that evening. We rode down to the riverfront, and spent most of the evening editing photos over drinks and dinner. We walked around and took some photos of the city after sundown and headed back to our hotel exhausted.

I don’t need to get into the details, but this morning was no fun at all for me. We met our home parents for breakfast at a local restaurant, and about halfway through, I had to run to the boys’ room. I barely made it to the toilet before vomiting. I spent the rest of the morning at a local clinic and then in bed at the hotel. Ravy, the dad at our Prek Eng 4 home, took Dylan to the genocide museum and then out to lunch. By mid-afternoon, I felt strong enough to make the 45 minute drive to Prek Eng.  I was still a bit sick, but it would have taken something worse than a little food poisoning to keep me from spending one last evening with our staff and kids before heading out to Battambang.

Neither Dylan nor I felt hungry enough for dinner, so we’ve just arrived at our hotel and have settled for a couple handfuls of pistachios.  

Despite feeling like death-warmed-over, I will go to bed tonight satisfied, knowing that I am extraordinarily blessed, and incomprehensibly favored. If I can stay awake, I’ll finish this post with some pictures that loosely correspond to the text. Tomorrow we drive across the country to see our other kids and staff. May God keep my insides on the inside and the road free from water buffalo. Catch you on the other side of dawn. 

 

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Dinner with some of the Prek Eng 1 home university graduates. 

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Somany’s baby, one of a growing number of Asia’s Hope grandchildren.

 

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Some of our bright young students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. 

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A few of the kids in front of the I Heart RUPP (Royal University of Phnom Penh) sign. 

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Beautiful albeit stark buildings designed by Vann Molyvan. 

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Feeding pigeons and koi at RUPP. (Photo credit: Dylan Menges) 

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Our students proudly showing us their classrooms and study haunts. 

 

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Dusk at the Foreign Correspondents Club. 

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Nighttime in Phnom Penh. 

 

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Students at the Asia’s Hope Primary School on our Prek Eng campus.

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32 new bikes for our six Prek Eng homes!

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Dylan gives one of the new bikes a whirl.  

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It was hard saying goodbye to the kids in Prek Eng, but it’s time to go to Battambang. 

John McCollumComment
Keeping the pace

When I arrive in Asia, I tend to hit the ground running. And I try to keep an aggressive pace for the first few days in an attempt to defeat jet lag by sheer force of will. It’s not until I look at the people around me that I realize not everyone’s clock runs like mine. 

Last night, after spending about four hours playing with the kids at Prek Eng 2, 6 and 3 homes and another three or four hours hanging out with the students at our university center, Dylan said, “Hey, man. I don’t want to cramp your style, but maybe I can just take a taxi back to the hotel...” I then remembered that we were up and out the door at 545 am on a photo safari to a local market and we hadn’t really rested much since. 

We wrapped stuff up and headed back to the hotel and I realized that we’d done some 18 hours in a row, and I was beat. Dylan, who’s far more athletic and active than I, he hit the hay pretty quickly. 

It’s not just the long hours, the jet lag and the heat. A day in Cambodia — especially a day with the staff and kids of Asia’s Hope — can often feel like a flood of emotions, thoughts, sensations that takes it out of you, leaving you refreshed and depleted all at once. 

We got a good night’s sleep, and got out of the hotel at a reasonable hour. We’re enjoying steaming bowls of pho — Dylan’s first in Asia — and drinking coffee. In a few minutes, we’ll drive out over the Mekong River on the Monivong Bridge and join our Prek Eng homes and neighbors from the surrounding villages for worship. I’m preaching. And who knows, I might be singing and playing piano too; I always have to be ready for whatever they throw at me. 

After church, I have a couple of staff meetings, and in the evening, the university students from Prek Eng 1 are taking us out to dinner. With their own money! Wow. As I told them last night, they’re ready to lead. They’re no longer our children, nieces and nephews or wards, they’re our colleagues. And I am almost literally bursting with pride. In fact, I’m likely to lose as much in tears as in sweat on this trip.  

With any luck (and a little self discipline) I’ll get a short nap this afternoon.  

Thanks for your prayers and your support of the work we’re doing here, in Thailand and in India. 

Me, up early taking photos around Phnom Penh. 

Me, up early taking photos around Phnom Penh. 

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Phnom Penh early morning; Independence Monument in the background. 

Psar Thmey, known tourists as “Central Market.” 

Psar Thmey, known tourists as “Central Market.” 

Butcher at Psar Thmey. 

Butcher at Psar Thmey. 

Food stall at Psar Thmey. 

Food stall at Psar Thmey. 

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Breakfast porridge at Psar Thmey. 

Fantastic fresh seafood at the market. 

Fantastic fresh seafood at the market. 

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Unloading ice at the market. 

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Fresh Oolong at the QN China Brand Tea shop. 

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A perfectly made flat white at Feel Good Coffee. 

A little boy at Prek Eng 2 is delighted by “Chin Up Chinchilla” illustrated by Asia’s Hope friend and supporter Jeremy Slagle. 

A little boy at Prek Eng 2 is delighted by “Chin Up Chinchilla” illustrated by Asia’s Hope friend and supporter Jeremy Slagle. 

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I try teaching the kids at Prek Eng 3 how to shoot a basketball. And yes, I know that’s not a basketball, but it’s the closest thing they had. 

Me, telling a story to the kids of Prek Eng 6. 

Me, telling a story to the kids of Prek Eng 6. 

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Dylan using the tiles as a white board to write the names of all the Prek Eng 6 kids and staff. 

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The kids were delighted by Dylan Menges’ handiwork. 

One of the Prek Eng 6 caregivers, Many. The lines on her face tell a harrowing, but hope-filled story. 

One of the Prek Eng 6 caregivers, Many. The lines on her face tell a harrowing, but hope-filled story. 

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Snacks and games with the kids of Prek Eng 6. 

Enjoying fresh fruit daily is a benefit of visiting a tropical paradise. 

Enjoying fresh fruit daily is a benefit of visiting a tropical paradise. 

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Enjoying worship with the university students.

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Our university students are some of the sweetest, strongest, smartest young leaders you could ever meet. 

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The students grilled a delicious feast for us. 

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I didn’t call to check the price, but I was tempted. 

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Blogging at breakfast. 

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I don’t really like iced coffee, but the way they do it here and in Vietnam — it’s spectacular. Lousy coffe brewed super strong, poured over ice and sweetened condensed milk... 

Fresh herbs for my pho. 

Fresh herbs for my pho. 

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This sweet little one really loves being at church. 

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Saving, Ravy, Dylan, Sopheng, Rassy and Samnang hanging out after church.

Korean barbecue after church with Savorn and Sony. 

Korean barbecue after church with Savorn and Sony. 

If I told you how much we ate, you’d be scandalized.  But what a blessing to be treated to such delicious food by our good friends and colleagues.

If I told you how much we ate, you’d be scandalized.  But what a blessing to be treated to such delicious food by our good friends and colleagues.

John McCollumComment
Back in the Penh

From the moment we touched down in Phnom Penh less than 24 hours ago, I’ve been vascillating between abject exhaustion and utter elation. The jet lag is real, man. 12 hours difference is no joke. But the smells, the tastes, the sounds — and most importantly the people — are just so extraordinary, I can’t help but grin. 

I’m joined on this trip by my longtime friend — and former co-worker — Dylan Menges. He’s heard me and others talk about Asia’s Hope for, well, I guess more than 15 years. He’s supported Asia’s Hope in a lot of ways since the organization’s founding, and now he gets to be my traveling companion for the next four weeks. It’s fun watching him experience it all for the first time; it helps me maintain my sense of wonder. So, even though this is something like my 30th trip to Cambodia, it still feels new seeing it through his eyes. 

Both Dylan and I are going to be taking a ton of photos, and I’ll post some of mine along with tales from our adventure. I only took a few today, and I’ll share some of them here. Please keep us in your prayers as we try to bless the staff and kids of Asia’s Hope. 

 

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These boys get in a few minutes of hard after-dinner play before heading in to do homework.

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Dylan enjoying his first meal in Cambodia, grilled pork on rice at a street side cafe. 

Fresh fish and produce at the morning market. 

Fresh fish and produce at the morning market. 

Asia’s Hope dads help with the cooking in celebration of International Women’s Day.

Asia’s Hope dads help with the cooking in celebration of International Women’s Day.

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Beautiful flowers thrive in Cambodia’s tropical climate. 

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Beautiful smiles abound at Asia’s Hope in Prek Eng. 

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A guard stands by outside Phnom Penh’s royal palace. 

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The kids at Prek Eng 4 watch with fascination as Dylan draws a portrait of one of the children.

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The moms from three of our Prek Eng homes start up the grill, an important step in a delicious Khmer dinner. 

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When these guys play badminton, they aren’t messing around. 

John McCollumComment
Thankful for so much.
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As I look forward to the Thanksgiving holiday and the beginning of the Christmas season, my heart is overflowing. It’s been another year full of celebrations and loss, of tragic passings and exhilarating new beginnings. All of us at Asia’s Hope have been inspired by your generosity, your courageous leadership and your prayers of support.

I wanted to take a moment to share some of the things that I’m especially thankful as I reflect upon this day set aside for gratitude.

God’s extravagant favor

Growing up, I believed that God was a harsh gatekeeper, looking for flaws and shortcomings to disqualify imperfect people from service in his Kingdom. But the last 16 years of ministry have shown me that God is actively pursuing flawed, under-qualified people like me to use for his glory and for the good of those he loves. I’m so thankful that God chose people like me — and like you — to act on his behalf to rescue and restore these kids.

Our leaders in Asia

When people introduce me saying, “John runs this amazing ministry called Asia’s Hope,” I have to laugh a little bit. I’ll own up to “stewarding” it, or maybe even “steering” it, but I can’t claim to run it. Nothing — and I mean nothing — would run at Asia’s Hope without the wise leadership and hard work of our country directors: Savorn Ou in Cambodia, Tutu Abourmad in Thailand, Amber Gurung and Sunil Tamang in India. It is an honor to serve with them.

Our home parents and caregivers

Asia’s Hope could not exist without the home parents and caregivers at our 34 children’s homes. Their job is so much harder than mine — they’re on the clock 24 hours a day, every day of the year. They have opened their hearts and homes to the 800 kids in our care, and have become real moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers to these children, revoking the curse of orphanhood and repealing the sentence of poverty and despair that would have otherwise doomed these precious kids. May God fill each of these dear servants with his wisdom and strength.

Our board and executive staff

Led by our board members — Glenn Kelly, Ron Biddle, Sam Cobb, Adam Heath, Sherrod Fields, Keith Wong and John Campbell — our tiny executive staff punches far above its weight. With just four people in the home office — me, Administrator Carol Wardell, Project Manager Addison Smith and Administrative Assistant Satian Preamjaisanchat — we manage a project portfolio as complex as that of organizations with five to ten times our administrative resources. I’m thankful for and inspired by the tireless efforts of our board and executive staff.

Our partners and supporters

Some organizations employ a staff of fundraisers and even hire professional consulting firms to generate the significant resources required to do this difficult and often expensive work. At Asia’s Hope, we don’t have a “development staff.” We have you. We have partners — churches, businesses and family foundations who commit to the hard work of funding significant, long-term projects. And we have individual donors who have dug deep and given generously so we can sustain and grow our ministry to some of the world’s most vulnerable kids. I’m humbled by the opportunity to help you invest your hard-earned money in God’s Kingdom, and I’m thankful to you and to God that we’ve seen such a bountiful return on that investment.

So as I look back over the past few months with gratitude and toward the next with anticipation, I’m thankful for the opportunity to work with some of the kindest, most generous people in the world.

May God bless you and your family during this season of thanksgiving.

John McCollumComment
Marshmallows and Tea — and Popsicles, Too.

Late night marshmallows and tea with friends under a cabana at our Doi Saket 3 home in Thailand.

For the last few nights, our plan to visit our children's homes have been scuttled by heavy rain. And I mean really heavy rain, like those Florida pop-up storms that deliver buckets and then depart as quickly as they arrived. Except these rains kept pouring for hours and hours. The front yards of the homes we were trying to visit were quite flooded.

So last night, we made a contingency plan. We stopped at Toys R Us and picked up some card games, Jenga and Matchbox cars, and invited the kids to come to our guesthouse. Rain or shine, we were covered. No rain, we'd go swimming. Rain, we'd play inside. We ended up getting only a light sprinkle, and splitting into two groups. One group — mostly older girls — decided to hang out with Kori and Xiudan and play. The rest came out with me and swam.

We had a great time, although I may have over-exerted myself. Two-and-a-half hours of pulling kids around a pool in an innertube expends energy in a way that only shows up later, like the next morning. I'm a little stiff today, but I guess I never learn, as we're planning to do the same thing again this afternoon.

At about 8pm, after the kids had returned home and finished dinner and a little homework, we walked over to our Doi Saket 3 and 4 homes (they share a single piece of land), and we sat under a cabana and drank tea. We also brought a few bags of marshmallows, which most of the kids had never seen before. We chatted with translation help from Tutu and, when she was occupied, Google. It was really a memorable evening, and left me longing for that kind of interaction with friends at home. Now all I need is to build a cabana.

Today is Saturday, and is full. We spent the morning at Doi Saket 1, playing badminton and card games with the kids from the four homes there. We ate our fill of homemade popsicles, and grabbed a quick lunch in town with Tutu. Now we're taking a very quick break. I'm going to edit some photos, Kori and Pak are working on college loan paperwork and Xiudan is watching YouTube. If I was smart, I'd take a quick nap.

Tomorrow is Sunday. I'm expected to preach, but I still have no idea what I am going to say. I'll let you know how it goes after...

John McCollumComment
Transition to Thailand

Long gone are the days when I could come to Cambodia, Thailand or India and just spend endless hours with each home, returning day after day and forging deep connections with each of the kids and staff.

With 32 homes, 200+ staff and more than 800 kids, I'm lucky if I can get a whole evening in one place, and I spend the majority of my energy encouraging and strategizing with our senior staff and collecting stories to tell throughout the next year.

But we have had some really sweet times the last few days, times that have felt intimate, though fleeting.

We arrived on Saturday, and had a really nice time worshipping with some of the kids and staff on Sunday morning. Our church building is being renovated, so we gathered only about 1/3 of the kids living at our seven Doi Saket-area homes. It's so nice to see kids realizing and exercising their leadership potential. They're singing, teaching, writing songs; as I've told them so many times before, they're not the church of tomorrow. They're leaders today.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch of Khao Soi (pictures of that at some later date) at my favorite little restaurant in the world. I ate two bowls — about half a bowl too many — and earned a short nap to sleep off my culinary conquest.

In the late afternoon, we visited our Doi Saket 1 campus, where we have four homes, our church and — thanks to the generosity of some donors from Florida — a beautiful new soccer field that our kids have been waiting to enjoy for almost a year and a half. The grass is now strong enough to survive the rigors of play, and my sons joined a group of the older boys and staff for about three hours of vigorous competition.

After watching them play for about a half hour or so, I joined the rest of our team in volleyball, takraw, monkey-in-the-middle and various other leisure pursuits. We laughed, we sang songs, we ran around, we ate mangos and finally as dusk settled in and the kids returned to their houses to get ready for bed, we reluctantly said goodbye and returned home ourselves.

On Monday, we headed up to Wiang Pa Pao, the site of two existing homes and, God willing, seven or eight new homes over the next five to ten years. I can't wait to share those plans when I get back. It's going to take a lot of work, but it's going to be absolutely transformational, not just for the lives of the individual kids we rescue, but for the entire local community.

Today our Indian directors will be heading home. On Friday, our son Chien will be on his way as well. It's been great having them here, and our trip will definitely feel different without them. We're game, though, and will enjoy every stage of this journey.

Today we're headed into Chiang Mai for a little shopping and some tourist activities. Tonight we're hoping to visit our Doi Saket 2 home — we wanted to go last night, but torrential rains prevented it. Here's hoping for a dry evening and more family time.

Beautiful church service in Doi Saket.

A relaxing evening — mangos, tea, soccer and laughter — at the Doi Saket 1 homes.

Barbecue and family fun at Wiang Pa Pao

John McCollumComment
Wrapping up our Cambodia trip

Well, our time in Cambodia is complete. My family and I will be leaving our hotel in Siem Reap and heading for the airport in just under a half hour. We're bringing Amber and Sunil — our Indian co-directors — and their wives with us to Thailand, where we'll spend time with our Thai staff and kids before heading back to the States.

I've been doing a decent job of keeping current with emails and in-person meetings, and I've kept our Instagram feed populated, but my blog posts have been few and far between. It seems that every day is packed full from stem to stern, and I usually have three or four hours of work to do after everyone else has gone to bed. Unfortunately, that means that there are a lot of pictures and stories I'd love to share that I may not get around to, at least not in this forum.

I wish I'd had more time to focus on communicating the needs at our secondary school in Battambang, Cambodia. That's something I'll be hitting on repeatedly between now and the end of the year. We urgently need to find long-term supporters for that project. It is essential to our work, but it's expensive for our little organization to keep the doors open. Please join me in prayers for that initiative. 

I do hope that if you've been reading my posts here or following on one of our other social media platforms you have gotten a sense of use what kind of ministry we are and what joining with us could mean for you. Please continue to pray for our time in Thailand. God is moving in and through Asia's Hope. 

If the admittedly marginal internet connection here will allow it, I'll post a few albums of pics from my Cambodia trip. Some of them I've posted before, some are new...

Our trip to Cambodia and arrival in Siem Reap.

Our amazing day exploring the temples of Angkor.

Family time with the kids and staff in Prek Eng.

An evening at the fights in Phnom Penh.

Wonderful times in Battambang.

John McCollumComment
Dancing in the streets

Sundays are always fun at Asia's Hope. This one had us dancing in the streets. 

The morning started at Hope Fellowship, our church in Battambang. With more than 400 attenders, this counts as something of a megachurch in Cambodia. We kicked off the service with a few congregational worship songs, and followed them with performances from three different groups of our kids. I sang one song, and then I preached a message from Romans.

I love worshipping with the Asia's Hope staff and kids, and this time was extra special, because I was joined by my family, Carol's family (Carol is the administrator for Asia's Hope's main office in Ohio), Addison (our project manager) and the co-directors of Asia's Hope India, Amber and Sunil and their wives. It's probably unwise for us all to be in the same place at the same time; if a meteor struck, Asia's Hope would be set back significantly by the loss of executive personnel.

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After the service, we stopped to take a group picture at each of our 13 homes. Even at a quick pace, it took us more than an hour. We had a delicious lunch together with Savorn at a local Indian restaurant, and returned to our hotel for a brief rest.