Alumni Spotlight: Joe Stoltenow starts Ray of Hope Ministry
2010 Parker Lutheran grad, Joe Stoltenow, is a missionary in Cambodia running Ray of Hope Ministries. Read his story here.
BY Chris Loesel
Joe Stoltenow graduated from Lutheran High Parker in 2010. He is currently serving as a missionary in Cambodia with his wife, Viya, and son, Raymond.
How did you initially end up in Cambodia?
I first came to Cambodia in July of 2014 on a mission trip with my church, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Centennial. Shepherd sponsored another missionary who worked with street kids in Cambodia through an organization called Crossing Cambodia. My mother was organizing a mission team to provide a VBS for them and invited me to come along.
During the mission we took a group of street kids to the ocean for their first time ever as a reward for passing the first grade. While we were playing in the ocean, one little girl who couldn’t swim accidentally went too deep in the water. I was the closest person to her so I reached for her and she latched onto my arm as tight as she could. That little girl (who was too shy to talk to me so far on the trip) and I were inseparable after that. Being around those kids and getting to know them made me really fall in love with them and Cambodia. So three months later I moved to Cambodia full time to work with street kids and teach them about the Gospel and their Lord and Savior Jesus.
Ray of Hope is a new ministry, started by my wife Viya and me, that works with homeless children or “street kids”, to not only educate them, but to introduce Jesus into their lives and show them that through His Word they are destined for so much more than a life of poverty.
The kids we work with in Battambang are homeless and very poor. Some live in the slums and others live in abandoned buildings, but most just live on the sidewalk with their families. They are usually very dirty, unkempt, and not well behaved. Besides not getting baths, they also don’t eat on a regular basis with most kids only receiving one meal a day.
Due to their parent’s low income, as well as their poor personal hygiene, the kids are unable to attend school on their own. This is where we come in.
At Ray of Hope we provide a program that allows people from home to sponsor a child and help pay for their school tuition as well as other basic necessities such as food, vitamins, and personal hygiene supplies. Then, every morning we pick up the sponsored children and bring them to our center and get them ready for school. We give them a bath, wash their dirty clothes, feed them breakfast, and drive them to school.
After school we will provide any tutoring they need for their classes, teach them Bible lessons, and give them another meal. Then, at 4:00pm, we change them back into their freshly cleaned clothes from the morning, and drive them back to the street with their families as the law requires them to stay with family even if they don’t have a home.
What are the greatest challenges you face working in Cambodia? And the biggest rewards (what do you enjoy/love the most)?
The most difficult challenge I face here is working with the parents of our street kids. Most of them suffer from drug abuse and alcoholism and are rarely sober when we meet with them to talk about their kids. We have a lot of difficulty trying to get them to encourage their kids to study and work on homework instead of making them go out begging for money until one in the morning. We also struggle with trying to get them to tell their kids to brush their teeth on our days off.
But the greatest rewards for me come when I get to teach the kids how to pray and when I can see the impact the Holy Spirit has made on them. My favorite part of the entire ministry is when the kids become confident enough to pray on their own out loud to the class. To hear them actually pray to Jesus in their own words makes all of the difficult parts worth it.
How has God grown/changed you, your faith and your worldview during your time spent serving in Cambodia?
This is probably the most frequently asked question I get and there are a lot of answers I could give, so for now I’m going to give the answer that has been on my heart for the past couple of months.
For reasons that I can’t even fathom, God decided to bless me by giving me a gift that I am completely and totally unworthy of: my wife Viya.
Viya was born in Cambodia in 1993 in a hospital that had no electricity. Her parents had been in a refugee camp on the Thai border during her mother’s pregnancy, and were kicked out with thousands of other Cambodians and were left homeless and with no money. But God looked after them and Viya’s uncle purchased a very small plot of land for them in a village just north of Battambang and her father built a small house with only one room for them to live.
Viya grew up in what Americans would refer to as “extreme poverty”. While her mother took care of her and her two younger siblings, her father worked in rice fields typically making around fifty cents a day. Her family never had a hot water heater for showers, never had a refrigerator to store their food, and they didn’t even sleep in beds until Viya was ten years old. There were times when all Viya had to eat for dinner was a small bowl of rice. Viya knows hunger in a way that I never have and probably never will.
I asked Viya how she was able to grow up with so little and still be one of the happiest, kindest, and most loving people I’ve ever met, and her answer was simple, “Because we had Jesus.”
Shortly after Viya was born, her parents came to know Jesus and became Christians. They taught her to know Jesus as well and brought her and her siblings to a small church in their village every Sunday. No matter how difficult her life was, no matter how little food she got to eat, she always knew that God was going to provide for her and her family.
Viya’s faith is the most remarkable thing I’ve ever witnessed in another human being and I have learned how truly powerful our Lord Jesus really is. Even though she had nothing, she had everything. Perhaps this lesson is why God put her in my life. My only hope is to someday have as big of an impact on her as she’s had on me.
Now that you have lived in Cambodia for over three years, what would you like to share with us to clear up any misconceptions and misunderstandings we tend to have about this country and its people?
It’s not really a misunderstanding but more of a lack of awareness I think most people have about Cambodia and the events of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide Cambodia suffered under its regime.
From 1975 to 1979, communist dictator Pol Pot and his forces known as the Khmer Rouge committed mass genocide against the Cambodian people in an attempt to rid Cambodia of all western influence. They targeted the highly educated and religious leaders of the country and killed over 2 million Cambodians, making it the second worst mass genocide in the history of the world.
Due to the actions of the Khmer Rouge, more than fifty percent of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 22. Cambodia is a broken country and while it’s slowly improving every day, it still has one of the most corrupt governments in the world. I’ve often described the classes of Cambodia as having a high upper class and an impoverished lower class with little to no middle ground.
What did you value most about your time as a student at Lutheran High? How did God use Lutheran High to help prepare you for your current calling?
I valued the relationships that I made while I was there. My two greatest friends today, Christian Parkinson and Mitch Helfer, are friends that I made at LuHi. Those are strong, Christ-centered relationships that you can’t get anywhere else. I have some seriously great memories of our time at Lutheran. The three of us were even on LuHi’s first ever football team back when it was still 8-man.
Now I use those relationship building skills to connect with the people I work with in Cambodia. A huge part of working with street kids is working with their parents and that requires a lot of patience and understanding. I definitely learned about patience and understanding at LuHi when I saw how the teachers had to frequently practice it while teaching me.
Is there any advice/encouragement you would like to offer to the current and future students of Lutheran High?
God calls all of us to be missionaries.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20
It doesn’t matter if you’re a missionary in Cambodia, Africa, or Parker, Colorado. No matter where you are, never be afraid to share your faith with people, even if it’s just your next door neighbor.
How can we learn more about “Ray of Hope” and how can we best pray for your family and ministry at this point?
You can learn more by visiting our webpage at http://www.globallutheranoutreach.com/blog/stoltenow or by following us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Ray-of-Hope-Cambodia . And if that still doesn’t quench your thirst you can sign up for our newsletter by emailing me, Joe, at email@example.com.
Please pray for God’s continued guidance for Viya and me, and that our mission here in Cambodia would be to His glory. And please also pray for our newborn son, Raymond Joseph Stoltenow, and that we may teach him to know and love the Lord just as our parents taught us.
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