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.
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 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. Some of their backgrounds he knows; others he's hearing for the first time.
"Jai Masih ki (praise to the Messiah)," begins Sabita Kumar, 11, whose beautiful brown eyes sparkle with life. "I have no mother. When I was a small girl my father left us because of a mental problem," she says. What Sabita doesn't explain, Mukesh later tells Papa, is that the child's father "went mad" and attempted to murder Sabita and her brother and sister.
"My life was totally insane," Sabita says. "I had to feed myself ... so my aunt forced me to sell alcohol.
" when I came here there was new hope for me," she explains. Sabita suddenly had clean clothes and good food to eat. She quit selling alcohol and began going to school. "At that time I did not know a single letter," she admits. Sabita can now read and write. Above all, she finally has a family that loves her. "They are my parents," she says of Mukesh and Jasmine. Her fellow orphans are "my sisters and brothers."
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."
Says Ajay, "They teach us Bible stories, the Word of God and how to live a good life. Jesus came to this world for my sins and He shed His blood to save me."
Mukesh knows that following Jesus is a decision the orphans must make in their own time and of their own free will, a decision that he says is independent of their opportunity to call the orphanage home. But they will hear the Gospel, he says. And if they accept Christ's free gift, they will be discipled to share that gift with others.
"One day they will become the great leaders or singers or pastors or teachers of this nation," Mukesh says, his voice brimming with hope and conviction. "... And these children will change India."
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."
At nearly the same time, halfway around the world, God was tugging at Mukesh's heart from Matthew 9:36, 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." (HCSB)
Orphans were the shepherd-less "sheep" to which Mukesh was ultimately drawn, in part due the influence of his wife, Jasmine, who was orphaned at age 12.
"I praise God for Matt Papa and his team," Jasmine says, restraining tears. "When I was not married to Mukesh, I was an orphan like them. ... And I was praying to serve the needs of orphans. God listened to my prayer."
With Papa's promise of financial support, Mukesh and Jasmine 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. Mukesh vividly remembers rescuing Ajay, one of the first children to find a new home at the orphanage.
"I went to Ajay's village and I began to search for him," Mukesh says. But Ajay wasn't there. Neighbors had sent him to gather food for the cows. He was cutting grass when Mukesh finally found him; his clothes and skin filthy, his hands raw from work.
"Tears poured from my eyes ... because the village people were using Ajay for their benefit," Mukesh says. "When I saw him it broke my heart. I understood what could have happened in my life if I didn't have an earthly mom and dad."
Ajay, only 6 years old at the time, told Mukesh he was using drugs and drinking.
"But when Ajay came to the orphanage, and when he found God's love, and when we hugged him and told him that God has a purpose and a plan for you ... he understood," Mukesh says. Ajay is now "the most handsome and smiling face in the children's home."
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 for the boys, 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 to 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 fund 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 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," Papa says. "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. Thankfully the mess has cost Papa only about $5,000 of the $25,000 he's planned to spend.
"Hudson Taylor said, 'Every work of God has three phases: it's hard, then it's impossible, and then it's done,'" Papa says. "I would rather be doing something for Jesus and maybe messing up every now and then than just sitting on my butt doing nothing. We felt compelled to jump out there and take a leap of faith."
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.
"I think God is looking and watching our faithfulness" Mukesh says. "If I love them and take care of them properly, God will open the door to take care of many more."
It's about love
But being Jesus' hands, heart and voice to the children isn't about construction blueprints, fundraising models or evangelism methods -- it's about love. That's why a big part of Papa's ministry is simply spending time with the orphans.
Late in the afternoon, the Summit team heads to the field to play soccer with the children. They don't stop until dark. And all too soon, it's time to say goodbye. Papa hugs the children, tells them he loves them and is proud of them.
"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," he 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 www.onelifematters.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don Graham is a senior writer for the International Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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