The serious suggestion from Mark Flynn came wrapped in a lighthearted smile and was slightly tongue-in-cheek.
"I think I know what Jesus wants for Christmas," the senior pastor at Christ United Methodist Church said during a sermon late last year. "I think he wants an orphanage."
Members of the East Brainerd congregation, which numbers more than 4,000, knew exactly what he was talking about. Once a dream by former church member Libby Dearing, the refuge for children in Pakuka, South Sudan, had been clothed in plans, discussed in midweek programs, written about in newsletters and approved as the recipient of a Christmas Eve offering from church members.
For $85,000, they were told, they could build residences for two dozen orphans there.
When CUMC director of ministries Becky Hall received a text message about the actual amount donated in the offering, she was in disbelief.
The figure was about $225,000.
"I thought, 'Is that the real amount?'" she says. If not, "what could [the figure on her phone] mean?"
Hall quickly shared it with her husband, David, the church's minister of evangelism and care. Then they both looked at each other before requesting church business manager Brian Grow confirm the amount. He did.
By the time families who'd been out of town on Christmas Eve contributed to the fund, it swelled to nearly $300,000.
"It was totally a God thing," Becky Hall says.
On Saturday, Grace Home for Children, which not only has four residences for six children apiece but also a dining hall, director's house, guard house, bathhouses and latrines, will have its grand opening. The church's offering paid for it all, plus two years of operating expenses to boot.
Beyond that, children at CUMC raised enough money to dig a well to provide the orphanage with fresh drinking water.
"We never got that kind of money," David Hall says of previous Christmas Eve offerings. "It was a new experience."
To date, the orphanage houses 20 children who range in age from 2-1/2 to pre-teens.
Dearing, author of the dream, now lives near Pakuka, where her husband, Fred, is district superintendent of the denomination's Sudan District within its East Africa Conference. As the orphanage took shape over the months that followed the offering, she was able to oversee its construction, the hiring of staff and the interviewing of children that would be housed there.
The children are "now smiling, laughing, and playing as children should," she says in an email from South Sudan.
HEART FOR SUDAN
The Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church has had a relationship with South Sudan since 2006, a year after the country formed its own autonomous government and six years ahead of its full independence from Sudan in 2011.
The most recent civil war, which resulted in the new country, left nearly 2 million people dead and turned 4 million into refugees.
Initially, children orphaned because of the war, disease or abandonment were the focal point, and the Hope for the Children of South Sudan fund was created, according to David Hall.
Dearing, whose husband was superintendent of Chattanooga District United Methodist churches at the time, was an early and passionate advocate.
"She never moved away from [the focus on children]," Hall says. "Her dream was to build an orphanage."
In the meantime, the Holston Conference helped build 19 churches, a school for 1,100 children, a missionaries residence and borehole wells, and sponsored children in South Sudan.
Later, the Halls went to Sudan on a short-term mission and were shown drawings for the orphanage that Dearing said she would like to have built if there ever was money available. When the Halls gave a report on their trip during a CUMC staff meeting, Flynn asked what the orphanage residences would cost. Told $85,000, he said, "Hey, that's our project."
Flynn says that, the morning before the Halls' report, he had been working on a visioning plan for the church.
"I thought, 'Isn't it time for this church to build a hospital, an orphanage or something -- something of value?'" he says.
The $85,000 figure "seemed to be reasonable -- something we could accomplish," he says, "or surely we could make a dent in that."
David Hall says the church's congregation quickly caught the spirit.
"There was phenomenal interest" whenever they showed photos from Sudan, Hall says. "We'd be packed. The project was really starting to resonate with people."
By the time Christmas Eve came, church leaders believed the offering might reach the goal, maybe even a little more. But no one had a clue the total would be so high.
In retrospect, they believe church members knew their money would be used by "a trusted, known quantity" in the Dearings, and that it would go for a cause and a people they were familiar with through the conference's tie with South Sudan and the photos they'd seen from the country.
But it also was because of the children, the innocent victims of the savage war.
Church members were aware that, as they were sitting "down with [their] abundant Christmas dinner," there were Sudanese children dying alone out in the wilds of the African country, says Becky Hall.
"People want to help," she says. "They want to make a difference. They don't always know what to do. If given an avenue, they want to participate."
Flynn also noted that Christmas Eve came 10 days after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in which 26 people, including 20 children, were killed.
"There was a palpable desire to do something significant for children," he says. Church members knew the effort was trustworthy and could make a difference between living and dying.
"I think that fed into it," he says.
UP AND RUNNING
Libby Dearing says she and her husband, like the Halls and Flynn, were incredulous at the amount of money raised by the church.
"When Fred and I received the first email giving us the total," she says in an email, "we were totally stunned. We couldn't believe our eyes and actually read and reread the email. We even discussed that it was possibly a typographical error."
Construction began on the project in February, caught every weather break and was completed in early September.
Dearing says each of the residences has a living room, and the four share a kitchen/dining area.
"We wanted the children to feel that they are part of a family and not being raised in an institution," she says.
The orphanage was built with South Sudanese labor which, according to David Hall, was both cost-effective and provided food for local families.
"People there need work," he says. "We gave them the money, and Libby managed it. It goes faster that way. And it was an incredibly productive team."
The buildings were completed for $165,000, so there was plenty of money left for at least two years of operating expenses.
Cooks and house mothers were interviewed and hired by late August. The orphans, recommended by pastors of the United Methodist churches, were interviewed next.
"The process has not been as brutal as I thought," Dearing wrote in a blog about the process, "because the pastors have been very good at adhering to the requirements. However, the stories can be pretty heartbreaking. One grandmother told us that the 6-year-old child she was keeping ran to the bushes when he was beaten and wouldn't talk. At that point, I just wanted to take the child with me!"
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at email@example.com or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to my posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.