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global Lutheran educators

girls from Kampot

Joy to the World: Kids Helping Kids

How do we protect and guard our children from the challenges of our world, yet prepare them for a lifetime of Christian service, empathy, and missional awareness as they grow in their faith? Growing up in Nebraska, I was surrounded by farmers, fields, gardens, and produce. I never felt hungry. I was among the 30 percent of the world’s population who always had enough to eat. Most went to a Christian church each week, and we were seldom ridiculed for that. Attending school was the norm; in fact, it was illegal not to attend. Teachers were well trained; parents respected and appreciated educators; school materials were provided. Riding our bikes to and from school or play was safe. We just had to be home by suppertime.

Fast forward to 2018 and a much different world. As parents and educators, how do we protect and guard our children from the challenges of our world, yet prepare them for a lifetime of Christian service, empathy, and missional awareness as they grow in their faith? How do we help motivate and connect them to share their gifts and talents with others who are living the antithesis to our “idyllic” childhood memories? How do we help them see and respond to the spiritual needs of God’s children half a world away? These questions were the focus of my work with students and families during my ministry as a Lutheran educator.

After serving as a missionary in Bangkok, Thailand for eight years with my husband and young children, we returned to Phoenix, Arizona in 2000. I spent the next 15 years serving as a teacher and principal at Christ Lutheran School. My greatest joy was to help our students understand and respond to the physical and spiritual disparity in the world. Their lives were forever changed as they were able to put “faith into action,” serving the world from their classrooms and homes.

I transitioned from my role as principal to serve as director of educational ministries for the Garuna (Grace) Foundation, started by my husband after we returned from Asia. He responded to the request from southeast Asian Christians for assistance with theological education and church planting. In time, there was interest in opening schools in Cambodia. It was fascinating to find that the strategy of growing Lutheran churches through Lutheran schools could be just as effective in Cambodia as in the USA.

Supporters in the USA are making a huge impact in Asia by sponsoring Garuna Kids, hosting chapel offerings, developing Bible materials, participating in mission trips, and helping build more schools as a Lutheran school system is being developed. My new role gave me an opportunity to involve schools and congregations in ministry with our six Garuna Christian Schools in Cambodia. With less than 2 percent of the population claiming Jesus as their Savior, the need is great. Our schools are tutoring schools with 700 students currently enrolled in half-day programs that focus on the Bible, math, English, and Khmer. Our goal is to enroll 1,000 students. By Christmas, we expect to enroll 850 students and employ 55 teachers. Supporters in the USA are making a huge impact in Asia by sponsoring Garuna Kids, hosting chapel offerings, developing Bible materials, participating in mission trips, and helping build more schools as a Lutheran school system is being developed.

From The Corn Fields to the Rice Fields

corn  fieldsKeegan Beisel is a 14 year old from St. John’s Lutheran Church in Seward, Neb. She had just finished detasseling in the hot, humid cornfields of Nebraska. When she got her paycheck in the mail, she visited with her mom about how to tithe. She realized that she had “just enough” to sponsor a Garuna Kid of her own for a year ($30/month) through the Garuna child sponsorship program. She shared, “I know that my job is temporary, but many people in Cambodia work in the rice fields, battling the sun and heat their whole life long, just to feed their families. Garuna seemed to be the right place for me to share my gifts so that my Garuna Kid could go to school and learn about Jesus.”

From the Dry Arizona Desert to the Parched Spiritual Desert

lemonade standFirst grader Bode Kerrigan decided that a lemonade stand in his neighborhood might be a way to support his class's Garuna Kid. With 100-degree days in Arizona, he enlisted the help of his sister, Ellery, and they decided to take advantage of the conditions. In a few hours, they raised $215.50 for the Garuna Kids ministry. Others from his school also wanted to help. Kaylee, a kindergartener, gave her tooth fairy money to help her class sponsor a child. Grace and Luke sold some of their toys. Zara, a third grader, showed me her allowance money, which she had carefully placed in the elephant-shaped chapel offering bag. Kids helping kids….it doesn’t get much better than that!

 

From the State of Missouri to Those in a Spiritual State of Misery

TJ OnnenThe Garuna Christian Schools are open year-round. The students receive free books, uniforms, great teachers, education, a safe haven, and a chance to hear about Jesus. When TJ Onnen, from Branson, Mo., heard about this program, he wanted to sponsor two Garuna Kids on his own. TJ is an active 18-year-old with Down syndrome. Though he is verbally limited, you can tell by his smiles, facial expressions, and his actions that he “gets it.” He has a special burden for areas of the world where few know Jesus. TJ feels his Garuna Kids are like extended family and takes a heart-felt interest in them. When he sees their photos, he remembers to pray for them. He trusts in the hope that he will meet them in heaven. This connection to the Garuna Kids is a special privilege and joy for him.

From a Hobby to a Ministry

“To think that God can use what we have done to plant seeds of faith in a child is so humbling.”doyle girls with craftsEmmalyn (16) and Addison (14) Doyle from Valley Lutheran High School in Phoenix, shared, “When we heard about Garuna, we knew that we wanted to make a difference in the life of a child in Cambodia. Ever since we were little, we have loved making crafts together. So what better way to raise money for a sponsorship than to make and sell crafts like bookmarks, chrismons, keychains, stationery, cards, and cup holders? We know that God will bless the work we have put into making these items. In raising money for this mission, we can help contribute to missionary efforts in Cambodia. We are thrilled to know that these children receive a quality Christian education, learning about Jesus every day. We couldn't imagine giving this money to anything other than paying for a child to hear about Jesus. To think that God can use what we have done to plant seeds of faith in a child is so humbling.”

From the “Killing Fields” to the “Living Fields”

kampot children prayingMission work is not easy. The world changes rapidly. However, we see open doors for ministry. Emmalyn and Addison said it well, “After learning about Cambodia's history with the Khmer Rouge, we understand that the country now has open doors for education. Garuna has taken advantage of this opportunity by establishing Christian schools in Cambodia. Many children have been blessed by the message of the Gospel and over 100 Garuna Kids have been baptized.” The fields are truly ripe for harvest. We invite you to join us as we share the greatest Christmas gift ever—Jesus Christ…Joy to the World!

Cheryl Ehlers recently transitioned from principal at Christ Lutheran School (Phoenix) to director of educational ministries with the Garuna Foundation. She finds many similarities in the goals and strategies of school/church ministry in the USA and in the development of a system of Christian schools/churches in Cambodia. She lives in Phoenix with the founder of Garuna, her husband Jeff. She most enjoys spending time with Jeff and their three recently married children and their spouses who all and live in Phoenix. (You can reach Cheryl at info@garuna.org.)

Photos courtesy of the author.