As a teen growing up in the late 60s, Dave Atkins felt Southeast Asia was the last place anyone would want to be. “It was a place of death.” He remembers watching friends leave to fight an unpopular war in the region, some of them never returning.
Until God changed his heart.
Today, after 30 years in the Grace Brethren ministry, Atkins, 54, is executive director of Asia’s Hope, a grass roots organization that is dedicated to mobilizing resources within the Western church to help innovative, indigenous ministries meet spiritual, physical, and educational needs among Asia’s poor.
In the early 1990s Atkins, then senior pastor at the Grace Brethren Church in Lexington, Ohio, felt a growing interest in Asia. He asked to join Grace Brethren International Missions then-Executive Director Tom Julien on a trip to Cambodia, paying his own expenses to see the country first-hand.
“It was electric,” he recalls. But on the eighth day, he got sick and found himself in a hospital in Phnom Penh. It was there he remembers God spoke: “Would you be willing to come over and help these people, even if you get sick?”
“I made a commitment to return once a year,” he says. For the next four years, he made an annual two-week trek focused on outreach evangelism and training for pastors and youth workers.
As he transitioned to a new job as youth pastor at the Grace Brethren Church in Wooster, Ohio, he began to take others to Cambodia with him. In 2001, he was joined by John McCollum, then a member of the Grace Brethren Church in Columbus, Ohio. McCollum and his wife, Kori, had adopted two Asian children (Vietnamese and Korean) and desired to become involved in a ministry in Asia.
By the end of the trip, the men were convinced that God was calling them to do more. Back in the states, Atkins and McCollum met at a restaurant in Mansfield, half-way between their homes in Wooster and Columbus, to talk about the possibilities.
“We had no money,” says Atkins. “We had dreams and ideas.” The plan for the emerging ministry was mapped out on a paper napkin.
A Suffering Region
The resulting organization currently operates in Cambodia and Thailand and is actively pursuing projects in Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam.
Both men stress that the region has suffered tremendously in the last 50 years.
“Cambodia is one of the poorest nations on earth,” says McCollum, 37. “Corruption, disease, oppression, and destitution have produced tens of thousands of orphans, many of whom are in danger of falling into the thriving sex trade industry,” he adds. “In Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital, there are thousands of underage prostitutes, many as young as five or six. Indigenous church leaders are earnest, hardworking, and committed, but lack financial and logistical resources that are abundant in Western churches.”
In Cambodia, the ministry operates three orphanages, a Christian school, and a residential university student center. In Thailand, the group works among ethnic minorities in the northern part of the country to operate two orphanages.
In addition, a farm and residential vocational training center is being established in northern Thailand for widows with young children and the organization participates in medical, dental, and other projects that arise as needed (including providing immunizations for children of Grace Brethren foundation layers in the region). They are also developing micro enterprise programs to supplement existing projects.
Atkins stresses that they work with the “poorest of the poor.” The 160 children in their care have been abandoned or one or both of their parents are deceased. Frequently, they have been referred to Asia’s Hope by local governmental agencies, charity non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or local churches. Others are simply left at their gates.
“We take as many children as we can,” notes McCollum, “but we have waiting lists for all our orphan homes. We are limited in some places by physical capacity and in others by lack of funding.”
Initially the men relied on their own funds, individual child sponsorship, and other gifts to operate. “Raising and maintaining support for a new orphan home was logistically difficult and financially risky,” remembers McCollum. In 2006, they began a new sponsorship model, trying it first with a central Ohio church.
“Our arrangement was simple: the church gave us several thousand dollars in start-up funds and put us in their monthly budget,” he notes. “Within weeks, we had a building and 24 children had a loving, Christian home.”
The model was easy to understand and efficient to implement. By the following year, four congregations, including the Community Grace Brethren Church in West Milton, Ohio, had been matched with orphan homes. (The model could also work with other groups or individuals.)
Beginning an Orphanage
The cost to support an orphanage is approximately $2,000 a month, according to Atkins. He recommends beginning with a group of 25 children, ages four to 12. Often, families within a church will support individual children, thus providing minimal impact on the church’s overall missions’ budget.
Asia’s Hope then operates the facility