By Julie Lyons
Arch Bonnema's mission couldn't be plainer. It encircles the towering ceiling of his McKinney home, inscribed in gold letters: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…"
Though Bonnema, 56, has launched several successful businesses and played an important role in the early success of the film The Passion of the Christ—he purchased all of the seats in Plano's Cinemark Tinseltown 20 for opening day, and gave away the 6,000 tickets—orphan homes are the focus of his time and money today. Since 1991, he and his wife, Sherry, have tithed a minimum of 50 percent of their finances and work hours to missions, including their own ministry, My House.
They've partnered with longstanding local ministries in Uganda, Kenya, India, and Ethiopia to build orphan homes centered around churches and to staff them with widows, explicitly following the words of James 1:27 etched inside his home.
The decision to give on such a scale came 17 years ago after he and his wife attended a missions conference. They were driving home from Georgia on Bonnema's motorcycle, communicating by helmet-mounted radios. "We'd been silent for quite a while," Arch says, "and I said, ‘You know, honey, I have to admit I've been kinda feeling lately that we ought to increase our commitment from 35 to 50 percent.'
"I hardly got done saying that, and she says, ‘God's been telling me that for months. I was just waiting for you to confirm it with me.'"
Bonnema's response echoes what many Christians have believed in recent years—only to find their fortunes shrink drastically during the recession. "The whole time you're thinking, ‘Wow—God is gonna really bless us now.' But it doesn't always work that way. If you give, God doesn't always give back right away. That's what the prosperity message got wrong.
"There were times when my wife and I gave significantly and went through the biggest hardships, but we kept on giving. We still survived. It might have been a year or two later, but God gave us a tremendous blessing."
In Arch's and Sherry's case, their decision to tithe lavishly was followed by the loss of their savings and other assets—just about everything but their home. They even sold their last car, a two-year-old Cadillac, so they could keep the pledges they'd made to ministries. "We gave everything we had, including cashing in our retirement, to make sure that our promises to missions were fulfilled," Arch says. "It's not that my business dropped off, but I spent less time doing it, and my income dropped—while my giving increased, percentage-wise. No problem, we thought. We'll just sell this. We don't need that anyway. It's more important we fulfill our commitment to God.
"It wasn't until we had given away pretty much everything we had over a span of six years when, all of a sudden, everything just reversed faster. God started building my businesses faster than I ever could have imagined. Within two years I had more money than I ever had in my whole life."
Today, Arch has set aside Joshua Financial, the trust company from which he prospered for many years—changing tax laws eliminated much of the business--to invest in enterprises such as the buying and re-selling of electricity and hydrogen technology. Bonnema has also launched expeditions to search for Noah's Ark and the Ark of the Covenant. Arch joins in business with "kindred spirits," Christian entrepreneurs with a passion for missions and ministry.
"You want to have people surrounding you who are like-minded," he says. "There's an old saying, ‘It's not what you know; it's who you know.' But I think there is a more correct saying: It's who knows you. What is your reputation? If you develop a good track record, they come find you."
Bonnema applies the same principle to building orphan homes. He works only with ministries that have worked with orphans for years on their own, "doing a really good job." My House builds new and better facilities so the ministries can expand their work. The goal, he says, is that the orphan home is independent of outside aid within three or four years. "Once we build it," he says, "we give it to them."
Right now, My House sponsors four orphan homes in India, two in Ethiopia, one in Kenya, and one in Uganda, all in rural areas. Four other orphan homes are under construction; the Bonnemas hope to build 10 in 2010. Over the years, My House has encountered its share of scammers—"just people who want money," Bonnema says. "It's just as bad in the U.S. as it is over there." Bonnema has developed a motto—"We inspect what we expect." My House personnel are on the ground talking to people before the organization builds, checking out the credentials of local ministries and talking to pastors, mayors, and community leaders. "We make sure they have a good reputation for taking care of kids," he says.
Bonnema's passion for orphans has unlikely roots in the Minnesota farming community of Prinsburg, population 450, where he grew up. His grandfather, a farmer for many years and later "a very successful businessman," entertained a constant stream of visitors from overseas—missionaries and pastors, to whom he gave much of his money. "He felt the best gift he had was he knew how to do good business. He knew about the world, because everybody came to visit him. He was very generous. They were expecting to see some big tycoon, but he had a very modest house. He lived in a very small town. He just gave away an enormous amount."
Faith pervaded the Bonnema family, which prayed and read Scripture at every meal, three times a day, and attended the Christian Reformed church together. "I grew up in a family where all my relatives were strong, committed Christians," says Bonnema, now a member of Prestonwood Baptist Church. "When I reached an age of understanding, at 7 or 8, I committed my life to Christ."
At 19, Bonnema walked around the world with a backpack and sleeping bag, traversing remote and war-torn countries, including Vietnam. He visited Israel in 1973, right after it went to war with Egypt. In Bombay, India, he got so sick he prayed to die. In Hong Kong he started a Youth for Christ chapter that still exists today. Throughout his journey, he learned to "rely on God" in everything.
"James chapter 1 says if your life is full of difficulties and temptations, be happy," Bonnema says. "I remember reading that when I was 16, thinking, boy, did they ever mistranslate this. How can you be happy when life is full of difficulties and temptations? Because you learn to trust God. That's when you really build your faith."
Crossing the world with little money or status allowed him to see reality in the countries he visited, where no one was trying to impress him. He avoided the big cities and wandered through rural areas, "where you really see the people." He witnessed poverty and oppression, degradation and violence. As well as people with few possessions who took inexplicable joy in their love for God.
"That's where my heart was first touched by the orphans and widows," he says. "I saw a different world than the one I lived in. It did two things: It tremendously increased my passion for ministry. I saw how easy it is to change lives, compared to the U.S. When you see how easy it is to make a difference, it makes you want to do more.
"And it really opened my eyes so that I'm a good steward. It's not about just writing a check. It's like the parable of the good seeds. It's giving to the right place at the right time."
Over the years, Bonnema has visited 93 countries, all but one with his wife. That one country was Iran, where he believes his team found the petrified remains of Noah's Ark in 2006. He's also witnessed first-hand the world's problem with orphans; according to the World Health Organization, the number of orphans has doubled in the last five years, and only one-tenth of one percent are ever adopted. Yet more than 90 percent of the money spent on orphans is directed to the adoption process.
A Kenyan bishop who visited him recently represented the alternative that My House seeks: He described how he could build an orphan home housing a dozen children as well as a widow to take care of them for as little as $20,000. The facility would include separate rooms for boys and girls as well as a kitchen and bathroom.
"What's interesting is for centuries, that's what the church did. We took care of orphans and widows," Bonnema says. "Now, we let the government do it."
E-mail Julie Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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