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Orphanage in India becomes utility clerk’s mission field

FRANKLINTON, La. (BP)—-An orphanage in India is evidence of how God got Deb Corkern’s undivided attention eight years ago.

Corkern, a clerk for a utility company in Louisiana, was at home recovering from surgery when, she says, God spoke to her.

“It was so loud it would bust your eardrums, but it was total silence,” she said. “He told me I wasn’t a Christian and I was going to hell.”

The message contradicted Corkern’s life. She had been a church member since the sixth grade when she prayed with a camp counselor. Still, she recognized the truth that her conversion “was a lie.”

Without hesitation, Corkern invited Jesus to take control of her life. Feeling an urgency to make the decision public, she called her pastor and asked him to meet her at Bethel Baptist Church, just outside Franklinton, La.

Even though she was not supposed to drive after surgery, she drove to the church and told him of her experience. The following Sunday she was baptized, and her life since then has been a Spirit-filled adventure.

“The first time I just repeated some words and got wet,” Corkern said. “Now I’ve got the real thing. When I do something, I want to do it for the Lord and not for me. With the orphanage, I want Him to get every drop of the glory. I’m just His hands and feet.”

Corkern, who went to work straight out of high school as a clerk, has since been used by God on the other side of the world to lead people to Christ without changing her 28-year job at Washington St. Tammany Electric Cooperative or taking her out of rural Washington Parish.

Her initiation into world missions came through Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of Samaritan’s Purse. The ministry sends shoeboxes with toiletries, a toy and the Gospel in the child’s language to children around the world.

The first year, Corkern made two boxes and included her name and address. She received a heartfelt letter of thanks and was so blessed that she determined to do it every year and to recruit others.

The fourth year, Corkern sent 438 boxes. Her project had spread through word of mouth, and some people fixed boxes and brought them to her. Others gave her money to purchase the needed items.

She received hundreds of letters and e-mails from grateful recipients. One e-mail in particular tugged at her heart. She wasn’t sure why, but God seemed to be telling her that this one was different.

The letter by Pastor Tata of Andhra Pradesh, India, which thanked her for a box received by one of the children in his church, prompted a year and a half of correspondence between the two.

Corkern learned of Tata’s compassion for the hungry and homeless as he told of buying 50-pound bags of rice to feed the elderly, widows and orphans. God began to create in Corkern a concern for the children of poverty that the Indian pastor told her about.

One day during her prayer time, Corkern felt God leading her to start an orphanage in Tata’s village. She argued with God, telling Him that she was uneducated, poor and distant. Finally she tried a compromise by telling God that she would discuss the idea of Tata opening an orphanage, not her. She sent off an e-mail to her Indian pen pal.

“When he wrote back, his excitement was so great the words almost leapt off the computer screen. He said he and his wife had been praying for years about starting an orphanage,” Corkern said.

That letter served as her confirmation. God really did want her to start an orphanage halfway around the world.

Her only knowledge of orphanages in other countries was what she had seen on television. She used that limited knowledge as her model, asking Tata to send pictures and basic information on prospective children to offer for sponsorship. She also asked him to figure the monthly cost of feeding, clothing and educating a child in India.

Tata sent 17 photos and estimated it would cost $20 per child. They would live in his home with him, his wife and his two small children. Corkern started talking to people at work about her mission and enlisted her mother to do the same. In the first month, they had sponsors for all 17 children. Two years later, the orphanage serves more than 160 children.

When the number of children outgrew Tata’s modest home, they had to split up the children. The boys spend each night in his church building while the girls sleep in the village community center.

Construction on a two-story building designed to house 250 orphans started last year with an estimated price tag of $38,000. During construction, though, the price of materials escalated. When the money ran out, the building was left incomplete. An additional $12,000 is needed to finish the project. While they await God’s provision, Tata and Corkern continue to serve the children in the temporary quarters.

While the ministry is called Corkern Christian Orphanage, many of the children served are not literally orphaned. They are children from homes where a single parent, or in rare cases two parents, are unable to support them.

Corkern calls them semi-orphans. The home serves as a free boarding school, with the parents retaining visitation rights to see their children once a month on a strict schedule. The visits cannot interfere with school, church or hygiene.

The children attend public schools, but if they were not at the orphanage, they would not go. While the school is public, it is not free. Students have to purchase their own books and supplies. Families struggling just to put food on the table have no money for education.

“The most important thing is their spiritual education,” Corkern said. “The first thing they are given is a Bible.” The Bible is in Telugu, the language the children speak. They are taught English in school as well, but Telugu is their spoken language.

The children get their main spiritual training by attending Sunday School and worship at Tata’s church. The older children, though, enjoy reading Bible stories to the younger ones at home. One of their favorite activities is acting out the stories of their Bible heroes.

“When the orphanage started, 25 people attended Tata’s church,” Corkern said. “They met under a thatched roof with no walls.”

Today they meet in a brick building, and more than 300 people attend on Sundays.

“People are coming to the Lord every week,” Corkern said. “It is so exciting.”

In October 2005, Corkern decided to visit India to see the ministry firsthand. She and her mother made the trip, and Corkern was appalled by the poverty she saw but encouraged by the thriving children in the orphanage. Even though they were crammed into tight quarters and sleeping on thin straw mats on cement floors, the children were blessed. They never went hungry or without clothes, and they got to go to school.

“They eat rice every meal,” she said. “Sometimes they get vegetables with the rice. On special occasions they add chicken.” They also have scheduled baths outside under a hosepipe.

Tata’s ministry takes place in a predominantly Hindu region where Christians are rarely welcome. But because the villagers have seen the compassion of his church, they are not persecuted. He is free to witness without fear of reprisal. Parents, who would not have taken their children to church, willingly turn them over to Tata, knowing they will be required to attend a Christian church and learn to read the Bible.

“Nothing is impossible with God,” Tata told Corkern.

When Corkern visited India, Tata shared with her his vision to expand the ministry of the church. His proposal included providing rice for the widows and elderly of the village; opening a medical clinic with free medicine; feeding residents of a nearby leprosy colony; opening a sewing center to teach older orphan girls and village women a trade; and paying the salary of 12 pastors so they can devote themselves to evangelism.

Corkern told Tata that she was still having trouble handling the costs of an orphanage.

“Nothing is impossible with God,” Tata reminded her.

Corkern returned to the United States and shared Tata’s vision with people she encountered, and she was able to raise enough money to fund all of the ministries for six months. When the money ran out, however, she was unable to raise more, and each ministry except the orphanage was discontinued.

Corkern said she and Tata may have run ahead of God. She still believes God wants all of the ministries to be restarted, and she is praying that He will provide the means.

“Wouldn’t it be neat if a women’s quilting club would decide to finance the sewing school?” she said. “They could sell a few quilts and raise enough money for a year.” And she envisions a church including the support of the pastors in their mission budget. Perhaps a doctor or group of medical professionals could adopt the clinic, she said, and senior adult Sunday School classes could contribute to the feeding projects.

Corkern’s challenge is for every Christian to find their mission.

“It doesn’t have to be India,” she said. “That’s where God put me. A mission is a mission, regardless of where you are. Every Christian is a missionary. You just have to sit still long enough to listen to God’s call.”
Andi Cook is a regional reporter with the Louisiana Baptist Message. Deb Corkern can be contacted at [email protected]

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  • Andi Cook