Human beings crave purpose. It’s God’s design. Psychology Today reports “Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.” Gateway ministry partner, Charlie Milbrodt, founder and co-leader of Living Word Ministries International (LWMI), has planted this vision at the heart of his mission work in Thailand where he and his wife, Cathy, are “helping people to help themselves.” “The root cause of most problems is poverty. If we train people with skills that allow them to care for their families, it brings dignity and purpose,” says Charlie. LWMI is carrying out that vision through numerous ministries, including: children’s homes; a refugee-camp daycare, school, and orphanages; church plants; Bible education; and a coffee business. Three decades in and Charlie is known across Thailand as “The Yes Man” after acting on so many ideas that come his way while Cathy’s faithful prayers are surely known across heaven as the fuel driving the engine forward.
Choosing a life in missions is not always an easy choice. Of course, it brings a great sense of accomplishment when you feel your life’s work has bettered the lives of suffering people and expanded the kingdom for God’s Great Commission, but it requires resolute faith and believing (and lots of fundraising) before you see the rewards. Charlie and Cathy met in Bible school and married in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, in 1981. By 1985 they both knew they were being called to mission work. “Missions kind of burst onto the scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but there wasn’t a lot of training out there,” says Charlie. He and Cathy moved to Florida for their ministerial training before attending a three-month intensive missions’ school with a global outreach to Guatemala. “During training, I started each morning at 4 and prayed until 7. After five months in prayer, God spoke ‘Thailand’ to each of us,” says Charlie. Six months later they moved to Thailand with their three daughters. God knew where they would impact the kingdom.
When the family of five arrived in Thailand, it was rough. They didn’t speak Thai and only a smattering of locals spoke English. The only community they could connect with was made up of Christian missionaries, but they weren’t exactly welcoming. “Many of the missionaries at that time were from mainline denominations and didn’t agree with the charismatic way of preaching the gospel,” says Charlie. “It surprised us that our fellow Christians were the hardest people to reach when we expected it to be the Buddhists!” Money was a challenge too. Missionaries often rely heavily on donations to fund their ministry and living expenses because they usually have no means for local income in a foreign country. The Milbrodts arrived in Thailand with $800 of committed monthly support—but only a fraction of the raised funds actually came through. “I remember climbing coconut trees to feed my family in those early days,” says Charlie.
It was a stretch to set up their new life and start their first ministry—a Bible school that would meet just 17 days after they touched down! Fortunately, Charlie and Cathy are wired with grit. That Bible school, with an inaugural class of 15 students in 1987, still operates today at the core of LWMI—teaching the gospel and training up leaders to go out and reach the unreached.
“The Bible school has dovetailed into an ever-growing circle that keeps getting stronger and stronger,” says Charlie. “Those first 15 students were dusty diamonds in the rough. They’re all significant leaders today—one is the president of Abundant Life Foundation, and another is an influential elected government official.” The school teaches students the gospel, trains them up as leaders, and sends them to reach the unreached. Their evangelism team, made up of many of their graduates, has planted more than 180 churches in Thailand. Many of them stay on and minister at those churches. “The leaders are our eyes and ears in several hundred villages. They vet the children that come back to our children’s homes,” says Charlie.
Abundant Life Children’s Homes, an LWMI ministry started in 1994, has grown to three beautiful facilities caring for 270 at-risk children. They come from many backgrounds. Some suffer from severe poverty or have parents with drug addiction, and others might be refugees or orphans. The staff is made up of husband and wife teams living with and ministering to the children. LWMI provides them with education, food, clothing, housing, healthcare, and a godly upbringing. Many choose to attend the Bible college when they are old enough. And, this cycle repeats while a negative one is broken. These kids go back to their villages polite, helpful, and grateful for the opportunities they had. It opens up their parents’ ways of thinking. “If we open a village to education, transformation takes place. Most of the darkness, or animist belief in spirits, dissipates when you educate the children and give them a view of the world,” says Charlie.
“Christianity and the gospel are exploding in Asia. The challenge is to get leaders ready in time,” Charlie says. Thankfully, the Bible is widely available—ironically, most are produced in China where the Bible used to be illegal! Knock-off smart phones are also widely available. In fact, Coconuts Bangkok reported in April 2017, that its capital city hosted the largest number of active Facebook users in the world. “They are screaming with technology. You’ll visit a remote village without electricity, but you’ll see a barefoot kid playing on his smart phone,” says Charlie with a chuckle. Knowing the Thai people are internet and tech savvy prompted Charlie to develop a 215-lesson Bible app that just recently launched. This “mini” Bible college will help disciple believers quickly as an alternative to the two- and four-year residential college programs.
Although we are seeing Christian revival across Asia, Thailand’s statistics are startling. Only slightly more than 1% are Christian believers. Numbers usually register higher in the north but even smaller in the south. Thailand (which translates to “free land” in English) is made up of nearly 70 million people, most of whom are Buddhist. Even with freedom of religion, many jungles are still dotted with animist tribes held captive by their beliefs in good and evil spirits. Charlie’s and Cathy’s lives were changed forever by one such tribe.
In 1989, after Charlie and Cathy had applied for adoption in Thailand, God led them up a mountain in the middle of the heroin-producing Golden Triangle. They were looking for newly born twins that Charlie had heard were marked for death. The tribe they were born into believed if two souls were born at once, one had to be evil, so the mother had to kill both babies or be forever banished from the tribe. When the twins arrived, an American volunteer nurse had been assisting with the birth. News spread quickly among the villagers when the twins were born. They circled the hut chanting that the babies must be killed. The mother sent the babies away with the nurse instead because she feared being reported to the authorities. Ten days later, with heaps of divine intervention in between, the Milbrodts found the babies in a remote village. They convinced the nurse to let them take the babies down the mountain to safety. Today, twin brothers Jeremy and Jason Milbrodt serve alongside their mother and father at LWMI and have a much different legacy to pass on.
While forming LWMI ministries, Charlie was adamant they demonstrate the gospel. He didn’t want to just help the Christians. “This is where missionaries sometimes miss it,” says Charlie. “We wanted to be part of the community, not just serve our own.” While navigating and building those relationships locally, Charlie made a lot of phone calls. “I would call up a local official and say, ‘We’d like to come help a family in need. The only rule is, they can’t be Christian.’ This blew their minds. But the idea was to show them that we weren’t only interested in people of our own kind but the social welfare of people in general,” says Charlie. They wanted to be salt and light and it worked. LWMI now works hand in hand with local schools, police, and the government, sharing resources and supporting each other. “It opened a lot of doors for us, and hearts too,” says Charlie. “The first family we helped was an elderly couple who collected their drinking water in pans from the runoff of their roof. They thought we were going to bring a couple bags of groceries but instead we came and offered to build them a house.” A modest house at that time cost about $3,000. The couple was stunned. And so was the surrounding area when the county commissioner and a TV crew broadcast the news that Christians were helping the Buddhists. It led to tremendous favor with the local officials who in turn literally paved the way (with a new road) to LWMI. Charlie and the commissioner became friends. “After growing up in a Catholic orphanage, he rejected Christians. But after we became friends and he saw our nondiscriminating works, he softened to the message of Christ and went on to be governor,” says Charlie.
Charlie is coming up on 65, and the Lord has given him three Cs for the rest of his life: churches, children, and coffee. A few years ago, Charlie looked ahead to plan for the ministries’ futures and wondered how he could fund them long-term. It led to starting a coffee business. Mai Thai coffee has since planted coffee farms that have transformed more than 500 families in over 50 villages with occupational development and economy. Villagers have found new purpose in farming and are supporting their families. It’s changing their legacies. A little old lady in one of the villages brought Charlie into her garden to thank him. “Four of my five children never stepped foot inside a classroom. My last child will have an education because of these coffee trees,” she says. “After seeing so many children falling through the cracks and being abused, you think about the importance of economics,” says Charlie. “Villages have no economy. Whole families live on $200 a year. Kids want to grow and develop like the rest of the world.” Charlie wanted to create economy in the villages. “Orphanages are not God’s best. A mother-father family unit is best, so I wanted to help poor, rural families gain dignity and care better for their children, and most importantly, remain a family unit,” he says. The idea is that if you bring Christ to a village, build a church, and bring occupation, families will thrive, and they’ll tithe to their church, helping it become self-supportive. Though many at his age are considering retirement, Charlie admits he’s still ploughing full speed ahead while many ideas still come his way. “It is truly amazing what can be accomplished by simply staying consistent in what God calls you to do,” says Cathy. The Great Commission doesn’t recognize a retirement age, which explains why Charlie’s Chinese spiritual father and mentor, Mr. Lee Khim Thian, is still planting and dedicating churches in his late 80s. “Brother Lee has given me so much inspiration and vision,” says Charlie. “I guess in his eyes, I still have a lot left to say ‘Yes’ to!”
Charlie and Cathy spend about 70% of the year based in Doi Saket, Thailand. The rest of the year, they split time between their Tucson, Arizona, home and traveling to raise ministry funds.
If you’d like to learn more about their thriving ministries in Thailand, including a second coffee venture, visit LWMI.org. If you’d like to help support village economies in rural Thailand while sipping your morning coffee, indulge in their specially roasted arabica at maithaicoffee.com.