FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (BP) — Because of a trip to East Africa eight years ago and a life of twists and turns, Wesley Wallis believes God has equipped his family to start an orphanage in Kenya.
“God has prepared me,” said the pastor of Walstone Memorial Baptist Church in Fayetteville, N.C. “God has prepared my wife.”
Wallis told the Biblical Recorder his previous roles — as a chaplain for Raleigh Rescue Mission, correctional officer in multiple prisons and pastor in Freewill Baptist and Southern Baptist churches — have helped prepare him for orphan care.
His wife of 21 years feels the same. She grew up in a large family in rural Tennessee.
“They washed clothes by hand,” he said. “They had goats and chickens and a garden.”
It wasn’t until college that Cindy ate food from a can.
In his early 20s, Wallis lived near the North Carolina coast, in what he called the “beach life.” He had a surfing accident while riding hurricane force winds that left him with a deep gash in his leg. An infection led to gangrene, and doctors recommended amputation.
Wallis argued with the nurse, doctor and God. He refused to believe he would lose the leg. He prayed, “Lord, from this point on, with or without a foot, I will go anywhere anytime regardless of pay or danger.”
Shortly after his foot healed, his father told him about a Freewill Baptist church looking for a pastor. Wallis said it was in a fishing community not far from the coast — “in the middle of nowhere.”
Wallis wrote a note with his name and number on a receipt and left it pinned to the church’s door. He preached the following Sunday, and the 16 people in attendance voted him in as pastor at $100 per week.
It wasn’t much money, but Wallis remembered his promise to God and resigned the following week from his prison job. Less than two years later, the church was averaging 160 people weekly in worship attendance.
Wallis eventually landed in Alabama as a divorce recovery counselor and then made his way back to North Carolina as principal of a Christian school.
Later, he and his wife became house parents for Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina. It was his first introduction to Southern Baptists.
Then, when he became an ordained Southern Baptist pastor, he was called to a church near the coast –- Sea Level Missionary Baptist Church in Sealevel. When Hurricane Isabel struck in September 2003, he received a large-scale introduction to Southern Baptists, in the form of Baptists on Mission, also known as N.C. Baptist Men (NCBM).
“I was told, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to have a caravan of yellow hats. Just get out of the way,'” Wallis said.
In November 2003, he represented his church on stage at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s annual meeting, where an offering was taken to help the church rebuild.
Visit to Kenya
Wallis, 50, has been at Walstone Baptist for 12 years. Eight years ago, Wallis visited an orphanage in Kenya at the invitation of a pastor he had met who was visiting the Fayetteville area.
“I cried and cried, and cried” after watching a video of the 12 orphans they had, Wallis said.
Wallis received permission from Walstone to travel for three weeks. The first week, Wallis said, he felt peace about raising funds for an orphanage. But over the next week, he began to have concerns.
The third week, Wallis said, “I didn’t know what to do. Going over there and starting an orphanage was the last thing on my mind.”
A gospel illusionist, Wallis performed shows while in Kenya at orphanages. After one event, Wallis stopped for coffee when he saw a girl who pierced his heart.
Dressed in a tattered, filthy T-shirt down to her knees, this girl appeared to be malnourished. Wallis bought her a drink and fries and asked about her parents. Her parents had died of AIDS, and she didn’t appear to be under anyone’s care.
“Show me where you sleep,” he said to her. They walked behind a building and “there was a bush with a hole dug out … just enough for her body. She climbed in the hole. She laid down and ate her fries with her eyes closed.”
He picked her up and started back to the orphanage, but was told that there are 20,000 orphans in this area.
Wallis was told, “Put her back where you found her.”
He suggested adopting her because he felt like he couldn’t leave her, but no American adoptions were allowed.
“I just can’t leave her there,” he said. The response he heard was, “You have no choice, Pastor Wallis.”
The man also assumed Wallis would take pictures, but likely return to the U.S. and forget what he saw.
When Wallis was asked to return on another trip, he told the orphanage leader, “Next time I come, it will be to come help, not just put Band-Aids on.”
Returning home, Wallis was broken. He fasted for 21 days before sitting down to talk with his wife.
Wallis contacted the International Mission Board for help. Though the IMB does not build orphanages, he learned he could consider launching a nonprofit ministry. The conversation led to the creation of Helping Orphans Thrift Stores to raise funds for the mission.
What started as one thrift store has grown to six locations with 35 employees in Hope Mills, Carthage, Fayetteville, Spring Lake and Red Springs.
Plans for Kenya
Wallis wants 100 acres to be used for an orphanage, church, school, garden and other resources, with a goal of 300-400 workers. While the couple has four children, two of the children are adults and will be staying in the U.S.
Their oldest son is in the U.S. Army, and their oldest daughter will continue to manage one of the thrift stores. The Wallises will take their two youngest to Kenya with them when they move after Thanksgiving. Their youngest daughter has been diagnosed with autism, but Wallis said she is high functioning and eager to make the trek overseas.
“When you come to Africa to start an orphanage, you can’t leave until you die,” Wallis was told.
His family plans to stay at least two years before returning stateside for fundraising and visiting family. But the goal is to live there long-term.
Running a nonprofit has been a learning experience for Wallis, but now that things are stable, the hope is for four of the stores to support the remaining two, with profits from those stores going straight to Kenya.
Wallis went to Kenya in August to find a short-term housing arrangement for their arrival in November.
Elim Ministries International, Inc., is the name of Wallis’ organization, which operates three ministries: Helping Orphans Thrift Stores, Orphans of Kenya Project and Kids Helping Kenya Kids.
“We’ve already got people saying they are going to come help,” he said.
Walstone has been supportive of his efforts.
“My church has been the best, to allow me to build thrift stores,” Wallis said. “Our goal is to provide physical education and [for the] spiritual needs of the orphans of Kenya.”
He prays his family is there to help every step of the way. Email [email protected] for more information or visit ookp.org.