Solveig Rennan: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. I’m Solveig Rennan for the Under-Told Stories Project. We report from all over the world for PBS NewsHour on the consequences of poverty and the work of change agents addressing them. We’ve done extended interviews with hundreds of experts and people making a difference in their communities. In this podcast we’re revisiting those under-told stories so you can hear changemakers around the world in their own words. This is Under-Told: Verbatim.
This episode continues our orphan care in Cambodia series. In 2005, there were about 150 orphanages in the country. Today, there are more than 400. But an estimated 80% of kids in Cambodia’s orphanages aren’t actually orphans and non governmental organizations are pushing to reform the system.
In our last episode, we heard from Friends International founder Sebastien Marot.
Sebastien Marot: the orphanage response is a simplification to a complex issue
Solveig Rennan: His interview provides important context for this episode. To get the other side of the story, correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro and our team visited a lively Sunday morning church service in Phnom Penh. That’s where we met Evangelical Pastor Ted Olbrich. Ted runs one of the largest providers of orphan care in Cambodia. Foursquare Children of Promise is an explicitly Christian organization in a largely Buddhist country. He’s pushed back on the coalition of agencies – like UNICEF and the Cambodian government – that want to close orphanages and prioritize reuniting families. Pastor Olbrich told us that he believes that his orphan care facilities, which he calls church homes are unfairly grouped with abusive orphanages.
Ted Olbrich: For them, for us to have people come to faith in Christ is close to being a pedophile.
Solveig Rennan: That was Pastor Olbrich. Our correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro sat down with him after the worship ended.
Fred: You were saying that there are good and bad orphanages,
Solveig Rennan: That’s Fred, the reporter
Fred: and you were just being broad bushed into a sweeping change that’s being led by UNICEF.
Pastor Olbrich: Yeah, if you’ve never seen their clip that they did on orphan homes about five years ago, I think it’s donate, create, and it’s a cartoon, and it depicts orphan homes as these dark, dingy, actually like dungeons from Oliver Twist with kids just in abusive situations, and dark shadows over everything. And, the whole slogan, donate, create, gives the concept that if you donate to help an orphan home, you create an orphan, and that’s just not true. Patently not true, because the only way you create an orphan is if you kill their parent. Granted, there are some organizations that have taken kids in to do tourism, or to raise money from donors to basically support their ministry, but none of the foreign staff that work with us get paid anything, and we’ve never done tourism. And we’ve only operated for the good of the Cambodian people. But a lot of the kids that they say, they love to throw the statistic around that 80 percent of the kids have a living parent, ours would be less than that, but probably over 50 percent. But there you have to look at the parent. A lot of them are, probably our biggest source of children is children that had mothers who died in childbirth. Now, those children are considered cursed, they have bad karma, so the father often times remarries, and he doesn’t want that cursed child. All of our kids are here because they’ve had parents die, at least one, or both, or have been abandoned. But the thing that I can tell you is that they’re in need, and somebody needs to. Our kids are raised in a Christian environment.
Fred: There’s a lot of literature that says children raised with adults that really bond with them, thrive, that can only happen in a family setting. How does that go up against the reality that you face here, as you see it?
Pastor Olbrich: Our kids, that’s why we have 106 church homes. We have at least one in every province. We don’t like to displace children a great distance, physically, from where they were born, because even though they’re orphans, they have maybe cousins, or distance relatives, or friends, depends on what age they were orphaned. And so, we try and keep them in the community where they were born, and then when we first got into this, we had no money for it. We didn’t come here intending to take care of orphans, we came here to build a church, and we wound up having these kids dumped on our doorstep, and we had no money for providing care. The poorest people in our congregations were the widows, and so we told the widows if you’ll come take care of these kids, we’ll give you free food, and clothing, and a place to sleep. Well, it was like a hand in a glove. We didn’t even do this intentionally. It makes us look smart, but if you read James 1:27 it says pure non-defiled religion is that which cares for the orphan and the widow. and they’re there with the kids their entire life that they’re growing up in the orphan home. Some of them will spend over 18 years here. And so it is a family, the pastor is the surrogate father, and you know, they have all these brothers and sisters, and it’s amazing to see. I don’t know how many different organizations have come in that are experts, and tell us we need psychological counseling for these traumatized kids. We bring them in here, they’ve got 20 or 30 other kids that have gone through the same thing, best care you could ever, you talk about group counseling, within a week they’re running, playing, having fun with each other. So I would just flat out disagree with them. I think they get better care, there is certainly oversight, We have to be responsible to the government, we have to be responsible to the church organization.
Fred: So when you were approached by this group of non-government organizations UNICEF, the government, what did they ask you to do? And what was your response?
Pastor Olbrich: Well, we responded, you know, cooperatively. We had no choice. If they jerk your memorandum of understanding, you can’t operate. So, we’re one of the largest non-government organizations in Cambodia and so, we just had toadhere to their standards, and they grade you. You know, are all your dishes clean, do you have two sets of bedsheets, do the kids have two sets of school uniforms, do they have four-inch-thick foam mattresses. And the problem is, these are worldwide standards that they try to impose on Cambodia. If you go out into the village, no one sleeps on a foam mattress because they’re too hot, they sleep on the bamboo mat on the floor with the mosquito net, and it’s much cooler. So, we have to put the beds up with the mattresses, and as soon as UNICEF leaves, the kids pull the mats off, throw them in a corner, and sleep back on the floor again, under the mosquito net. It’s the way that they’re used to sleeping, so why should they be forced to sleep on a foam mattress? Things like that, that don’t make sense.
Fred: Were there any things that did make sense?
Pastor Olbrich: Oh sure, I mean a lot of their stuff is just standard good sense, and it’s not anything that we weren’t doing anyway. Their interview standards, I mean we triple interview every child, and we actually don’t go out and recruit kids. I would say we turned more away than we accept, and they have to be brought to us by a government official, who certifies that these parents are dead, or this child has been abandoned. And then we actually go and research it, and if we can find any reason to doubt that, or we can find a living relative that will take them, we will just refuse to take them in. Now, we may give them some help, rice, or something that, you know, so they can stay with their relative, but no, we don’t seek to house kids for profit. We lose money, I mean it’s a burden. People think we make money by taking in kids, that’s the biggest misconception UNICEF has. They think every orphan home is a profit center, because of these kids, and it’s quite the opposite.
Fred: That is true in some orphanages.
Pastor Olbrich: Those are the ones that should be closed down.
Fred: Is that happening? To your knowledge?
Pastor Olbrich: I know that they’ve closed a lot of orphan homes down in Cambodia, and many of them were doing tourism. We’ve never had that. All of our kids have to learn to do chores. Everybody who has the ability has to do something from cut grass, to pull weeds, to clean the gardens, to raise the fish, to prepare the meals, wash the clothes. And so, all of our kids grow up responsible, loved, equally treated. My argument with them is their insistence that foster care, and adoption, are better than the kind of, and I hate being called institutional orphan care, we run church homes. The most we have in any home is 40, and when that home of 40, we’d have 10, 12 staff members. So, those kids, when you divide them up, how many families have more than one parent for every four or five kids? There are a lot of Cambodian families where you’ll have 10 kids in a family with one mom, and the dad’s hardly ever around. So, our kids, health wise, we have a full-time doctor, we have two full-time nurses, we have dentists. Every one of our kids sees a dentist every year. They have regular medical checkups. They get balanced meals with vitamins every day. This idea that foster care, and adoption are superior to what we provide, I would go by abuse rates. We’ve had maybe three cases of abuse with 20,000 kids in 21 years. And two of those people were put in jail, and one ran away and we never found them again. And we have zero tolerance for it.
Fred: But, you know, there are a number of Christian organizations that seem to be also trying to find a way to get children into a family situation…
Pastor Olbrich: They don’t do what we do. That’s it, they just don’t do what we do. They run a separate institution from the church, as you saw here today, our church homes are fully integrated with the church. The church is a vital part of their life. We never force a single child to become a Christian, and yet I’ve never known one of the 20,000 who hasn’t become an ardent believer. And so, the model that we go by is we will show you our faith by what we do.
Fred: Living the gospel.
Pastor Olbrich: Yeah. And we do it 24/7/365, not one hour a week on Sunday. So I really don’t think that you can compare what we do. I don’t know anyone else in the entire world that does what we do.
Fred: How does your work differ from the approach of other organizations that care for children, that care for orphaned children?
Pastor Olbrich: Well, the specific distinctive that would make us different, is that we do as not because we’re loving, benevolent, child loving people. We do it because we’re obedient to the command of God. And so, for us it’s not a job. It’s not a vocation. It’s a calling, and there’s a big difference in that. And so, the people that we have, they could all make more money on the outside world, we don’t pay high wages. In fact, garment factory girls make more money than our pastors do. So, they have to be committed, or they wouldn’t be in it. That’s one big difference. The other thing is that because we integrate it with the church, everybody has a very common denominator in their values, and their faith. And that brings them together, it gives us a basis for standards of civility, and performance in the home. Taking responsibility, honoring your parents. Growing up as diligent workers, and studying in school, and everything that they do is related back to their common core values.
Fred: So you don’t recruit kids, you, the kids are brought to you. You don’t do volunteer tourism.
Pastor Olbrich: No.
Fred: And you know, by your own description you have many of the best practices in the care for children who are needy. Why do you suppose the campaign of deinstitutionalization, why is there a hostile relationship if that’s an accurate way to describe it? Why don’t they like you?
Pastor Olbrich: I’ll give you the honest answer, and they’ll reject it, and we’ll be back at a loggerhead again. They don’t want to see kids come to know Christ. They actually see us “changing a child’s religion” as an abuse. And for them, for us to have people come to faith in Christ is close to being a pedophile.
Pastor Olbrich: Yeah, I believe that. I’m sure 99 percent of them, or probably 95 percent came out of Buddhist background, and the other 5 percent may be Islamic. We have some of both. But, we never force anyone. They just fall in. So, we’re not seeing it as abusive at all, we’re seeing it as unifying. And it does give the children values and foundational beliefs that they can create a life on.
Fred: Do you understand why some people would see this as, you know, in the historical context, you know, dating back a century to rice bowl Christianity that happened in China. And a lot of people would see this as coercive in that sense.
Pastor Olbrich: I suppose they could. I…
Fred: Do you see how this might be…
Pastor Olbrich: I can’t really argue with that. We don’t take them in to convert them. They certainly are never forced, you can go out and interview any of the kids, and I won’t go with you. So, I just reject that premise, it’s not, to me, valid. Even the whole concept of rice bowl Christianity. If you have someone that’s starving, and you feed them, why is that evil? And if they become a believer because you give them rice, does that make them a rice bowl Christian? Maybe they’re just grateful, and they’re thankful for someone that cares enough about them to feed them, and they want to be like that. They want that value. So, I don’t buy it.
Fred: You don’t buy the sense that some of it might be coercive?
Pastor Olbrich: They will accuse us. I’ve been accused for 21 years, I’m immune to it. It doesn’t scare me or bother me. I, but it’s not going to change me. I know I’m not guilty of anything like that, deliberately trying to deceive, or use people for statistics, or glory… goodnight, I’ve given up a whole lot to be where I am.
Fred: You know, it’s important when you go to churches in America, and elsewhere, that the congregations are supporting something that they feel is wholesome. But, a good part of that is that you are bringing these children to Christ, as you put it. I mean that’s a key part of your marketing, is it not?
Pastor Olbrich: Well, I see that as why we’re here. I’m honest with you when I say we came here to see Cambodia come to Christ. Not to raise children. That was the farthest thing from my mind. I’m not one of these guys that likes to go out and roll on the grass with kids, and change diapers, and do that kind of thing. That’s not me. I came here to build the kingdom of God, and God used these kids to help us do it. we’re not ashamed of the fact that we came here to lead people to Christ. I’ll openly admit that to anyone. To UNICEF. And that’s probably why they hate us.
Fred: That’s the key point of contention, the key…
Pastor Olbrich: Yeah, if we would renounce Christ, we’d probably be best friends. We’d probably be their poster boy.
Fred: Do you think that that’s what they want you to do, to renounce Christ?
Pastor Olbrich: They want us to quit preaching Christ and quit having children believe in Christ.
Fred: And I don’t mean to beat this to death, but part of the controversy has to do with what’s called proselytizing…
Pastor Olbrich: Oh, absolutely, I’m a proselytizer.
Pastor Olbrich: Unapologetic proselytizer. But, here’s the thing, you will not find a Christian church in Cambodia that has a higher and greater respect for the Buddha than we do. We teach that Buddha was a seeker of truth and JC was the way the truth and the life. And I tell people we believe that the Buddha would have been a follower of Jesus Christ.
Solveig: Fred wrapped up the interview with one last question. If Pastor Olbrich is against bad orphanages, then why isn’t he working with the campaign to close them?
Fred: Have you joined with any of the other campaigners to eradicate the problem orphanages in the country?
Pastor Olbrich: No
Fred: Have you been invited to?
Pastor Olbrich: No. Well…
Fred: I don’t know what you would do, but…
Pastor Olbrich: I don’t know about invited. I’m always getting asked to come to meetings. I don’t have time.
Fred: Yeah, yeah
Pastor Olbrich: I’m not interested in destroying other things, I mean, there are some that should be shut down.
Fred: Many, from some accounts. I mean, the number of orphanages is just…
Pastor Olbrich: It could be, but just quit picking on us. Honestly, I’m not against that. If they’re exploiting kids, if they’re abusing kids, if they’re using kids to generate money to support their own lifestyle, if they’re using kids to somehow, you know, promote some program in their country, to extort money out of people or anything like that, I’m totally against that. We don’t do that. We’re doing it for the reason I stated and that is to build the kingdom of God in Cambodia. And people don’t like that, I understand that. I don’t hate them, so I’m not going to go around and try to throw rocks at everybody else that I disagree with. I’m not going to do that, but I am upset with those that try to destroy us.
Fred: Yeah. And you think that that is true, that they’re trying to destroy you?
Pastor Olbrich: Oh, I don’t know if they get up in the morning, and say how can we wreck FCOP today, but I know they’d like to get rid of us. They certainly have made it difficult, and they want to bring us all back under their thumb again. God loves the orphan and the widow, and he demands his church to do something about caring for them. And we don’t do that by saying, okay, we just want them all adopted, and put in foster care, when there are a certain percentage of those people, especially in Cambodia, that cannot find alternate care. Those are the ones that we take. And so, the people that don’t like that, and want to shut us down because of it, I say shame on them. You need to support us, not try to abolish us.
Fred: Alright, thank you so much.
Solveig: Our interview with Ted Olbrich was originally featured in our story called Sending Cambodia’s Orphans Home, which aired on October 24, 2019 on PBS NewsHour. To check out the full story, go to undertoldstories-dot-org.
Coming up: Our next few episodes will explore Jimmy Carter’s post presidential legacy and chef Sean Sherman’s movement to revitalize Native American cooking. You can find every Under-Told: Verbatim episode, virtual reality 360 experiences and our entire library of Under-Told news reports from around the world at undertoldstories-dot-org.
This episode was hosted by me, Solveig Rennan, and produced and edited by Simeon Lancaster. The interview was conducted by our director Fred de Sam Lazaro.
Under-Told: Verbatim is brought to you by the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. As always thanks for your support
In 2005 there were about 150 orphanages in Cambodia, but that number grew to more than 400 in 2019.
Evangelical Pastor Ted Olbrich runs one of the largest providers of orphan care in Cambodia. Foursquare Children of Promise is an explicitly Christian organization in a largely Buddhist country. He’s pushed back on the coalition of agencies – like UNICEF and the Cambodian government – that want to close orphanages and prioritize reuniting families.