By MARILYN TINNIN
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40
Born from a desire to exalt Christ by fulfilling the biblical mandate to serve orphans and the poor, Reclaimed Project strives to serve the least of these in our state and around the world. To accomplish this, Reclaimed Project provides adoption grants to local families, while also launching orphan care centers and creating jobs in Africa. You have rarely seen the gospel proclaimed, administered, and transforming individuals and whole communities in quite this way.
The Reclaimed Project is named appropriately. The fact is it has many moving pieces working with a supernatural synergy and unity. Here is a diverse core of young people from Starkville, Mississippi, stretching to the other side of the world—Lesotho and Botswana—all pouring themselves into their mission with an enthusiasm I can only compare to the most passionate SEC football fan on game day—times 10.
To hear their story is to be reminded of the book of Acts. This is the church as the church was meant to be.
It Began with Heart
Jason and Shannon Stoker were helping plant a Pinelake campus in Starkville. Jason was in charge of their Adult Groups Ministry and Shannon was a schoolteacher and new mom looking for a job, as well as a way to be with her son. Their friends, Justin and Nicole Oswalt, were part of the same small group at Pinelake when they partnered to open a retail store in 2012.
Jason, who describes himself as a dreamer and an eternal optimist who only sees the glass as half full—always—said, “We really wanted this business to do kingdom things in some way. We decided right from the start that we were going to take a percentage off the top every month, before we paid the first bill, and give that percentage toward adoption and orphan care ministry of some kind.”
Deep South Pout opened its first store in the fall, and from the start God’s hand was all over it. A second location in Columbus opened in 2013. (www.deepsouthpout.com)
The first year this new little venture was able to give over $50,000 to ministry. For Jason, it was tempting to pat himself on the back and say, “Well, check that off the list now.” But he kept going back to James 1:27 and to Matthew 25 and looking at his heart and being certain he had not impressed God with his “Super” Christian giving. He was sure God was constantly bringing these particular scriptures to his mind because there was still more that he had not quite grasped.
“So, what are you doing with this, Jason?” was the question that followed him all the time. When Pinelake did a two-year campaign called “Outlive Your Life,” it began with a sermon series with the same name. The focus was threefold: Grow like you’ve never grown before; Go like you’ve never gone before; and Give like you’ve never given before. Jason wanted to embrace and absorb every lesson that was there for him.
Deep South Pout’s giving had been centered on adoption by giving the grants to Believers who were trying to fund the adoption of a child. The statistics pertaining to orphans everywhere were eye opening, but the plight of orphans in Africa was something that weighed heavily on Jason and the other members of his Pinelake small group.
The AIDS epidemic meant there were at least 300,000 children in Botswana in 2011 that were HIV positive. They usually contract aids through their HIV positive mother’s breast milk. There is no baby formula. Newborns have no available nourishment except a mother’s milk. Although the government will provide the medicines for the babies once they contract the disease, they have so little food that they take it on an empty stomach, it makes them sick, and so they stop taking the medicine. Many children are orphaned as toddlers and many siblings, by the age of nine find themselves head of household and caring for their younger siblings.
For Jason Stoker, as a young father, the whole orphan crisis became real in a way it had never been real before. “I began to realize there were children in the world like my Charley who did not have anyone to tuck them in at night, to love them the way we love Charley. These kids are not being taken care of—many do not even have a home. And God just began to work on my heart. I took it as a personal message from God that, ‘This is not okay.’”
Jason, Shannon, Justin, and Nicole began to dream and talk about what it would look like to start a ministry for orphan care and adoption. Although they had given and partnered with other ministries, none of those were a model for what they longed to see. Jason reasoned, “The Lord calls us to do the ministry of the church—to take care of widows and orphans—but the people in Africa have the same calling on their lives. I felt so burdened that we Americans go over there and we do it all for them and we come home and feel good about what we did, but we leave and they don’t know how to do it for themselves.”
That was the huge piece of the puzzle that was missing in so many ministries
And what did he know about doing it another way? Not one thing. But that did not mean he was not teachable or that he was not about to try.
I had to laugh when Jason told me he and his cohorts had already come up with a name, a board of likeminded individuals, and applied for their 501c3 status before they had ever found the object of their philanthropy. But that is how committed this group was to their calling. Theirs was a true walk in faith with a certain confidence that God would lead.
The Next Piece
Jason, at that time, was still on staff at Pinelake. He called his friend and fellow staff member Dan Barber, head of the Global Missions Ministry. Jason asked, “If you had 40 or 50 thousand dollars to give away to ministry with these parameters, who would you give money to?” Then he spelled out the vision he and his partners had discussed hoping to give to something that could become self-sustaining in one place, then take that model and do it somewhere else creating another self-sustaining community, and on and on.
Dan did not take five seconds to answer. He told Jason about two young girls, Allison Hunter and Kasey Ambrose, recent Mississippi College graduates who had started an orphan care ministry in Botswana and it was not like anything he had ever seen. The girls were training the churchwomen there to run an after-school program for the orphans—and the results were amazing.
Not only were children coming to faith in Christ, but they were excelling in school and showing great potential for digging out of the bottomless and hopeless pit of poverty and lack of opportunity.
Jason, in true millennial fashion, decided to stalk these two girls on Facebook and see exactly what they were doing. He was sold. When he contacted them, they said they would be coming home to the U.S. in a few short weeks and would love to meet with him and his board.
Kasey and Allison drove to Starkville to meet with Jason and a few other members of the newly organized “Reclaimed Project.” Jason proudly explained that they wanted to give this tiny little endeavor what looked like a substantial amount of money.
Imagine his overwhelming surprise when Allison said, “We don’t need your money. We just need your prayers.”
Who doesn’t need money? How could they not need the money? It kind of hurt Jason’s feelings at first!
Allison explained, “What we offer isn’t money to these people.” Then she spent about 15 minutes sharing their vision for the center they had started in Botswana.
The challenges facing orphans there are compounded by the fact that there is really no economy and no opportunity to pull themselves out of their poverty. School children are required to wear uniforms, so if you were an orphan, how would you purchase a uniform? In third grade, the language in the classroom changes from their native Setswana to English. An orphan does not live in a home with relatives where he can hear and learn English, so he is likely relegated to the back of the classroom until he becomes discouraged and gives up.
The cycle is very hard to break without a multi-faceted holistic intervention by people who care. The solutions to the problems were easy on one hand—they could see what needed to occur—but at the same time, those solutions were incredibly difficult to implement. A school uniform and a hot meal were not impossible challenges, but providing the love, nurture, and the sense of their intrinsic value as God’s children required commitment from many Believers. By the time Allison finished, there was not a dry eye in the room.
Orphan Care Reinvented
Jason, Justin, Nicole, and Abby Thompson, who was one of the newly formed Reclaimed board members, went to Botswana a few months later to observe Allison and Kasey at work. The Orphan Care Center was a hub of happy children and caregivers. There was warmth and affection everywhere. Allison and Kasey functioned more as “coaches” than as leaders because they had trained the women so well in the previous months.
Bright-eyed children arrived after school for tutoring, games, Bible stories, and a hot meal. One of the highlights of the afternoon was “family circle,” a time when they sat in a circle and each person had the opportunity to share a story, a situation, a need, or a praise. Imagine the best dinner table conversation among a close-knit family—this is it. When the afternoon draws to a close, one of the caregivers walks them “home,” to wherever that might be. Because of that close supervision, the workers are able to keep a close watch on each child’s living situation and wellbeing, and there is great benefit in the life of the child who knows he is loved.
Jason tells of meeting a little boy who stole his heart. “I met this little kid named Teo. He was a person with a face and a name. He wasn’t part of a statistic. He was a living, breathing child of God who needed someone to fight for him. I totally knew then why I could not get those scriptures—James 1:27 and Matthew 25—out of my mind. It was like God was telling me, ‘Jason, you’ve done other things before, but this is what I want you to do from now on. You are going to fight for children like Teo.’ When you see that, the way I saw it, you can’t just walk away,” Jason says.
The trip to Botswana had begun as an opportunity for Jason and his entourage to learn how to recreate this model that Allison and Kasey had so successfully built. Kasey and Allison had achieved their goal. This center was going to be fine, and their time there was drawing to a close. Kasey was headed to Texas where she had accepted a teaching job. Allison was engaged to be married, and her fiancé, Brett Barnhill, was as invested in mission work as she was, but they had not found a ministry that wanted to employ both of them. Brett was on the brink of accepting a job in Birmingham.
Jason says, “I just could not imagine Allison NOT doing what she was doing with the Orphan Care Center! I didn’t stop to seek board approval—I just blurted it out, ‘Well, you and Brett could come work with us!”
Allison burst into tears on the spot. The great desire of her heart was that she and Brett could do orphan ministry together in Africa. The door had not opened until now. The next day via Skype Jason, Allison, and the other members of the mission team spoke with Brett via Skype.
As Brett says, “Jason shared with us Reclaimed’s passion for serving orphans, and the desire they had to partner with us in equipping churches in Sub-Saharan Africa to care for orphans and widows. I could hear the passion in his voice, and could feel God’s spirit in him.”
Reclaimed was a new and unproven organization, but every scripture they searched, every prayer he and Allison prayed for direction, led them to “yes.”
Brett and Allison ‘s great love for Africa and orphans had begun in college. Along with Kasey, they had taken part in a five-month mission sponsored by the Baptist International Mission Board shadowing Margaret and Robert Fortenberry—seasoned missionaries who had labored in Africa for years. Allison says she came back to the states, but, “I could not erase the plight of these children from my mind.”
She and Kasey had spent hours together, praying, making lists of needs, both feeling so drawn to going back to Africa and making a difference, but so aware that they were just two girls with big hearts and a tiny bit of experience, and no credentials that would reap big donations to launch what they believed they could do.
But they had managed to raise enough support to send them back to Botswana, test out their idea, and see great success in the center they started—but there were thousands of children who needed the same kind of care they now knew how to do.
Jason’s impulsive offer to let her continue to do what she had felt so called to do was just one more chapter in the life of a very young girl who learned that God is indeed able to do beyond all that she could ask or think—she had learned to trust God completely—but if there was a “more” completely, this was indeed it.
Allison says, “We are told in scripture that the orphan holds a special place in God’s heart. To work alongside the orphaned and vulnerable is a window into that special room in God’s heart.” Serving and establishing orphan care centers, seeing that vulnerable children are not only provided for, but loved, encouraged, and nurtured, is Allison’s total heart-calling. She adds, that for her, “It is no sacrifice to serve these children. After all, we are all orphans until that day when through His son we are adopted into His kingdom.”
Creating Jobs—The Other Piece
When Allison and Kasey first began to dream of helping the people of Botswana, they spent many an hour thinking on the most critical obstacles to creating a self-sustaining center. There would need to be a way for the center to generate income to cover its own expenses. Hence, job creation. How do you create jobs for women who have never had a job and have lived their entire lives in a Third World country?
Training the locals is the only way to make the centers sustainable. And you would be surprised. Allison and Kasey, when they were on their own, were able to get scraps of fabric from a seamstress. During the morning hours, before the children arrived in the afternoon, they taught the caregivers, local church members, how to sew headbands by hand. Allison began to sell them to the mission teams who came over.
When someone offered to buy them a sewing machine so that they could make twice as many headbands, Allison was quick to say, “No. They will buy their own sewing machine in time, and that will be best.”
The center in Botswana now has a sewing machine and it is treated with such care. Each night the ladies take it apart, put it back in the Styrofoam braces, place it carefully in the box and retire that treasure to a top shelf. They value it because they knew how long it took to work for it.
But they also take great pride in providing for the needs in the orphan care center. The fact that the caregivers purchase the paper plates and the cups and the groceries to make those hot meals has brought unexpected blessings in their lives as well. Here is a culture of achievement and gratitude. It is noteworthy that such values are passed on to the children who receive immeasurable life lessons at the Center.
The Botswana government will fund a college education anywhere in the world to a child who graduates from high school. The fact that they can do that tells you there are not hundreds or thousands getting to that level of schooling. Jason says, “The education along with the love and nurture we try to provide at the orphan centers has amazing potential to change both a life and a country.”
Product—The Lifeblood of Transformation
Jason recounts the story of a lady named Galase (you can view this moving story on reclaimedproject.org/us-in-the-media) who was a sex slave to a witch doctor in Lesotho. Witch doctors ARE the physicians there. Before Allison knew Galase’s complete story, she knew that Galase came every week to hear a Bible story. She was so hungry to know more about Jesus. Each week she would ask Allison to pray that she might get a job.
Allison tried to help, but both were getting discouraged. When Allison asked, “Galase, what can you do really well?” Galase replied that she was very good at making paper beads. Allison thought that could not possibly be a marketable skill until she saw exactly what Galase was making. Selling these to missionary teams was easy, but they were so beautiful that there was a much larger market for Galase’s work.
In time, Galase was able to have her own home and provide well for her daughter and herself. She has her own blossoming ministry making beads, teaching others the craft, and telling them about Jesus in the process. .
Reclaimed has stories of many more Galase’s. They have honed the job creation/empowerment piece of their ministry—and they have seen results. Taking into account the fact that we are all created in the image of God, that we have a soul and a spirit, we may live in Africa or we may live in Mississippi or anywhere else—we are indeed creatures who share common God-created needs. Any successful “help” program needs to consider these very basic needs that are part of our very created essence.
Jason says, “Our job creation piece where they give 25% off the top—it is fully funding all the needs of all the orphan care centers and then we are taking the product here and selling it in our mobile trunk shows.”
Women who never thought they had a thing to offer anyone are making their way and basking in the joy of running a successful ministry to orphans that is self-sustaining.
There are now about 80 artisans with unique products that literally sell themselves at a mobile trunk show. But an additional life skill provided to these artisans by Reclaimed is that they take the artisans through a Crown Financial course teaching them how to manage money, how to give, how to save, and how to do both in a responsible Christ-centered way.
The mobile trunk shows are huge—and pretty easy if you have a desire to help. Reclaimed will pack a big Tupperware container (“trunk”) filled with the products like headbands, baskets, ornaments, jewelry, and more original things than you can imagine. They will send it to you with a video that you cannot watch without wanting to help! You invite your friends, take a look—I guarantee you will find some neat and original things to buy as gifts—and then the hostess sends the box back. Easy breezy. But it has an impact on these people beyond anything you or I could even imagine. (reclaimedproject.org/trunkshows or contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jason says, “People are begging us to come and do more orphan care centers. Our need is to support the couple that goes in to train the locals. They work with a church that is already established in the community and teach them how to become self-sustaining. That’s what we spend money on are the people to go and train the locals who in turn change their communities and their lives.”
And Then There’s The Gospel
Reclaimed has now replicated the Allison/Kasey model several times. They have four orphan care centers at the moment in Botswana and Lesotho.
The challenges for an orphan ministry in Africa are not totally unlike the challenges the same ministry might face in our own country today. Families in Africa are broken in the same way they are broken here. That is a challenge in and of itself. As Jason explains, so many of these orphans have seen their fathers leave the family, supposedly to find work somewhere else, but most of them never return leaving children without a father figure to be a father. As Jason says, “When you talk to these kids about God who is your heavenly father, it’s a hard sell. They don’t have a positive image of the father. But when our Reclaimed guys like Brett or Steve (who is in Lesotho) come and you see the way the kids pile on top of them, gravitate to them—they start to get it. They start to understand what a real father is like. You can’t even describe what happens. And the best part is we get to tell their stories.”
And there are a lot of them. Kids coming to Christ. Lots of them. Communities noticing there is something about the power of this Jesus transformation—and the adults wanting to know this Jesus person, too. It’s real. It is greater than the language barrier. It is the power of the living God.
Be sure to go to the Reclaimedproject.org website. View the videos. Host a trunk show. Get involved. I could probably write 1,000 more words on this!