Ajay Kumar stands straight as a rod in a line of green-sweatered boys during a school presentation near Katihar, India. The show is serious business, complete with singing and an audience of honored American guests. But when the teacher calls Ajay’s name, the 9-year-old’s solemn face slips into a wide, infectious grin. This is his moment, and he knows it. Ajay steps forward, takes a deep breath and begins his monologue.
“When I was at home, there was no one to love me,” he says. “Both of my parents remarried and abandoned me. So our village used me to look after their dogs and buffaloes.”
These aren’t lines from a play — it’s real life. Ajay is an orphan. His “school” is Compassion Children’s Home, an orphanage run by his teacher/foster father/orphanage director, Mukesh Soren. The visiting Americans are a volunteer team from The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., led by Summit’s worship leader and Christian recording artist, Matt Papa.
Photo by Joseph Rose
Matt Papa, worship leader at The Summit Church in Raleigh, plays the “slap game” with a handful of orphans at Compassion Children’s Home.
Papa’s untamed shock of red hair, scruffy beard and bright blue eyes stand out among the jet-black locks of the presentation’s largely Indian audience. But Papa doesn’t mind the extra attention, especially from the orphans. Indeed, he’s traveled halfway around the world because these are his children.
Papa, 28, is part of OneLife, an International Mission Board (IMB) initiative that develops student advocates in support of global causes.
Three years ago, Papa helped Mukesh and his wife, Jasmine, start the orphanage, which is now part of OneLife’s “One Orphanage” project. It’s Papa’s job to drum up support for the orphanage by raising awareness, money and recruiting student volunteers. He knows the need is dire.
India is the world’s second-largest country, home to more than 1.2 billion people. More than 31 million of them are orphans, according to UNICEF.
“The thing that has always struck me about India is the combination and culmination of spiritual and physical poverty,” Papa says.
“A lot of these children are condemned forever to beg for money. That’s all they can do and that is all they will ever be able to do.”
Most of the orphans share similar stories. Besides being forced to beg, many, like Ajay, were treated as virtual slaves by neighbors or relatives, paid only with enough food to keep them alive. Few knew how to read or write; most had no education at all.
“There is no one to hug them. There is no one to show them the right direction,” Mukesh says.
“And in India, at the age of 6 or 7 years old, they use drugs. They drink alcohol. And they spoil their lives.”
As the presentation continues, Papa listens intently to the orphans’ testimonies, his face full of compassion.
But Mukesh and Papa aren’t satisfied with providing only earthly homes for these children.
Both men are deeply invested in the orphans’ eternal futures, too.
“Jesus has a purpose and a plan for their lives,” Mukesh explains. “They have to know that Jesus is the Way, Truth and the Life … that through Jesus only, we have salvation.”
Forging a partnership
About five years ago while Papa’s band was touring India, he hired Mukesh as a translator.
The two stayed in touch via Facebook. Then, during a trip to India two years later, Papa reconnected with Mukesh and discovered why God had brought them together – both men have a heart for orphans.
“James 1:27 gripped my heart,” Papa explains, quoting the verse from memory: “‘Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God is caring for orphans and widows in their distress and keeping one’s self unstained by the world.’”
Photo by Joseph Rose
Camera-shy Sabita Kumar, 11, peeks from a doorway at Compassion Children’s Home. “Please pray for my brother and sister who are still Hindu, that they will also accept the Lord Jesus Christ,” Sabita says.
At nearly the same time, halfway around the world, God was tugging at Mukesh’s heart from Matthew 9:35-36, where Jesus is preaching and healing across Galilee: “When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd.”
With Papa’s promise of financial support, Mukesh and Jasmine, his wife who was orphaned at 12, launched Compassion Children’s Home in January 2009, using their own home as the orphanage. They’ve since taken in seven orphaned children, six boys and one girl, all under age 12.
On the outside, Compassion Children’s Home is a drab concrete cube with a half-finished second story. But Jasmine’s touches have made the inside bright, clean and relatively comfortable. There are soft beds that the boys share, clean water via a hand-pumped well and hot, nutritious meals – even a soccer field.
But with seven children, the orphanage is already near capacity. That’s one of the reasons Papa has come. He’s personally financing the construction of a new orphanage that will house roughly 30 orphans, 15 boys and 15 girls, including five widows who will help care for them.
A planned second phase of construction promises to create room for 50 more – roughly 80 children total. It’s a drop in the bucket when weighed against India’s 31 million orphans, but Papa says that’s not the point.
“Jesus took 12 and changed the world. … And whether or not they go on to be huge world changers, they are 30 souls who need the gospel.”
Papa has designated $25,000 of his own money to cover the cost of the construction, and he’s eager to see what his investment has bought him. The day after the children’s presentation, Papa and the team from The Summit Church head to the orphanage site, a vacant lot between farmers’ fields off a quiet dirt road.
Construction began months ago. By now, the building’s foundation should be complete as well as the reinforced concrete columns that will support its second story.
“One of my albums that I made a little while back, a [record] label picked it up and my wife, Lauren, and I got a chunk of money that we weren’t expecting,” Papa explains.
They began to pray about how the Lord wanted them to use it. He told them to build an orphanage.
“The question that God taught me to ask was, ‘God, are you using me for Your kingdom or am I using You for mine?’” Papa says. “As Christians we are blessed to be a blessing. … Find your standard of living. And when God blesses you, don’t change it. Change how much you can give to bless others.”
‘Ministry is messy’
Though he knows a lot about music, Papa admits he has zero experience starting orphanages – particularly in India.
“It’s totally outrageous. … I’m thinking some days, ‘What am I doing?’” he says. “I’m 28 years old, and my wife and I have yet to adopt a child, much less build an orphanage.”
As the SUV rolls to a stop in front of the construction site, it’s clear that inexperience has cost him.
Papa stares at a heap of bricks and mangled rebar – the remains of some of the building’s support columns, none of which remain standing. There’s no foundation, either. His discouragement and frustration are obvious, but Papa remains upbeat.
“Ministry is messy,” he says. “If somebody were to drive by this place right now they would see twisted rebar. Bricks piled up. Uneven ground. But I see children who have been abandoned. Who have been forsaken. … I see them here, loved on, cared for, safe, protected and, most of all, discipled and growing and seeking God.”
The damage isn’t a complete surprise. Papa says there have been “hiccups” from the beginning — from stolen building materials and crooked contractors to a freak storm that toppled some of the columns. Fortunately the mess has cost Papa only about $5,000 of the $25,000 he’s planned to spend.
Still, there are even bigger hurdles. Once the orphanage is finished, Papa and Mukesh have to figure out how to sustain it. Though Papa’s band provides most of the financial support for the seven children Mukesh and Jasmine have now, the band can’t support 30, much less 80. That’s why Papa doesn’t want the ministry to depend on donations.
“How is this going to be a self-sustaining model?” he wonders. “We have poured ourselves into this. We did a tour this past fall and raised funds … about $11,000 for the orphanage.”
But the band can’t stay on the road forever, and in order to survive, Papa knows Compassion Children’s Home has to outgrow The Matt Papa Band. Ultimately, both Papa and Mukesh believe it’s a matter of faith.
“We’re a vapor. We have got 60 or 70 some years on this planet, and we never get another chance, ever. That’s it. And I don’t want to waste it,” Papa says.
“Here and now, what I have to do is leverage my life. Leverage my gifts, my music, for the sake of this place right here, for the sake of these children. … That’s why I’m here.”
Want to be a part of OneLife’s “One Orphanage” project? You can give, go or simply spread the word. Learn more at onelifematters.org or email [email protected]. A recent single by Matt Papa, “The Reward of His Suffering,” is available at thereward.org. All proceeds go to support missions. Visit mattpapa.com.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Don Graham is a senior writer at IMB.)