Knutson and Arthur help build orphanage in Sri Lanka

Sponsored child ... Four-year-old Harshanna got to actually see his American sponsor, Rod Knutson. Mission of Mercy has partnered with Asiana Educational Development to raise and educate orphans and to help educate sponsored children of Sri Lanka, as well as other counties.

An island civilization with over 35,300 casualties and over 12,000 orphans from the 2004 Tsunami, 75 percent of its fishing industry destroyed, and a violent group of civil-war separatists disrupting government activities; this is Sri Lanka.

Why would anyone travel half way across the world to help build an orphanage there? "Because I prayed," said Curt Arthur of Milesville, South Dakota.

Arthur and Rod Knutson of Philip visited Sri Lanka from June 8-20 as part of a Mission of Mercy partnership with the indigenous Asiana Educational Development (AED) group to build and expand orphanages. The two men joined 41 others from several mid-western states.

"I had never wanted to go to a foreign country," said Arthur. "But, I have some skills and I want to help people, and God opened the door." After his family's original shock of "Are you nuts!," the closer it got to the departure date, the more they thought that it was a good thing.

"My girls have all been on mission trips," said Knutson. "I heard about this trip over the radio and mentioned I might like to go. By the time I convinced myself to sign on, my wife and girls already had the earnest money put together." Expenses for both men were raised through families, churches, bible camps and other donations. Extra money raised was given to the orphanage for tools and future materials.

"Flying to Sri Lanka was a long trip in a small space," said Knutson referring to the total of 48 hours in a plane. He had a carry-on bag and two full-size bags - one full of gifts for kids in the orphanage/school and on the streets.

Sri Lanka is an island of 25,000 square miles (a bit bigger than West Virginia) with over 19 million people. After landing at the airport in the capital city of Columbo (one of 16 airports in the country), Knutson noted, "You never run out of people and villages. There are people all over. The "small" fishing village of Negambo has around 50,000 people. Walkers and bicycles crowd both sides of the narrow streets. Because of the condition of the roads, 20 m.p.h. is usually top speed.

Knutson saw, visited with, and got many hugs from the foster child whom he is sponsoring through regular monthly donations. The boy, four-year-old Harshanna, had just started at a local AED school, which he will probably attend until he is 10 or 12. Pledged contributions of $30 per month per child are the main funding source that Mission of Mercy uses to school the children. Higher-payed Sri Lankan families pay an estimated one-third of their income so one of their children can attend school. The government requires parents to register permission for their children to attend Christian schools and to be taught about Christ, as well as all other religions.

Over 500 children are waiting in refuge camps for openings at orphanages. Arthur and Knutson worked on small buildings in a complex that will eventually hold at least 320 boys. The children will be taught trades, mostly fishing, and will raise tilapia fish in a small lagoon to help finance the orphanage.

The mission trip was hard work. "I can't imagine earning a buck a day for that kind of labor," said Arthur. Construction of the cabanas first requires digging holes for the footings, pouring the footings, pouring a raised floor, and putting in cement supports for the roof. With their climate, there is no need for windows, just louvered slats and rain sheets. The only wood used is for framing of the tiled roof - the teak wood that is used is so hard that holes have to drilled first for the nails. The many bungalows will depend upon a central building for bathrooms, the kitchen and dining room, and classroom area. The entire complex, like all individual houses, has a high wall surrounding it.

"I know that there is so much need closer to home, and you hear about how so much money is wasted," said Arthur. "In Sri Lanka I saw where the money was going and I learned what I could do. These kids are going to be taught, be healthy, and can someday go on to help others, spreading this desire to help (Christianity) throughout their county."

The mission trip was hard work, especially since no "mission" work could be done that was religious based. Only the workers' efforts and personalities could be used to portray Christianity. Only if asked by someone else, could the workers speak of their religion. Proselytizing is against the law in Sri Lanka. "It's a bad deal," said Arthur. "They'll get you, and give you maybe five years in jail, and also make it real hard for the Christians left behind." All the AED teachers are Christians.

It's a third-world, orphan-filled country that is almost 70 percent Buddhist. The Tamil Tigers terrorists are a constant threat - in the last 25 years, tens of thousands have died in the on-going ethnic conflict. "Beautiful walled-in houses are right in the middle of hundreds of dirt-floor huts," said Knutson and Arthur. Visitors must receive a large battery of inoculations before arriving there. Street children are always in danger of disappearing.

"Hopefully we can someday change the people around toward Christianity," said Knutson.

It was hard work. Arthur said that the temperature was "95-100", and that the humidity was also "95-100." "The southwest monsoon season was miraculously held back while we were there," said Knutson. The missionary workers watched each other so nobody got too weary or sick. During the first day, communicating with the local workers was more than awkward, according to Knutson. But by the last day, learning to say "hello" and each other's names had advanced to gestures and phrases of thanks and, regretfully, farewell. The last work day ended with a small coconut feed and gift-giving.

"They usually eat with their fingers there," said Arthur. "Their food, which consists mostly of rice, vegetables, and fish with some chicken or pork, was real spicy. They toned it down for us, but still, I can't imagine how hot it was before."

On the last day, Arthur was given a hug and an untranslated conversation by a little girl, Amesha, who had not talked much since coming to the orphanage.

"Going on a mission trip will open your heart even more. You come back and, if you thought that you once had it rough, the trivial things won't matter any more," said Arthur. "I will go again. I don't know where, but I will definitely go again."