Selling a church building to benefit people in a country halfway around the world may seem radical to some.
But when the Rev. Dale Crawshaw met Setan Lee — a Cambodian refugee who is now helping others who have been affected by the 1970s mass killings by the Khmer Rouge regime — he knew it was something his church must do.
“If the average pastor were to get in front of the congregation and say, ‘Let’s build a youth building.’ Well, most everybody is going to jump up and down and start raising money,” said Crawshaw, the pastor at North Georgia Church in Dawsonville.
“But if you say we are going to live with a smaller building on land that we don’t even have ... my pastor buddies have told me they’d get reprimanded or really called down on the carpet because that is not the American way of thinking.”
North Georgia Church, a nondenominational congregation, put its debt-free building on the market for $2.2 million about six weeks ago. When the building sells, one-third of the profits, or about $600,000, will benefit Lee’s organization, TransformAsia, in Cambodia.
“Our theory is, we could sell this building and live on two-thirds of the sale,” Crawshaw said. “Which would be very tight and very challenging for us, but do it at the expense of things like paved parking lots or whatever we have to do to make it work.
“We felt like we were supposed to make a drastic contribution to Cambodia, but we wanted to apply the biblical concept of being diligent in business.”
Once the church building, located just off Ga. 400 in northern Dawson County, is sold, TransformAsia will be able to build the first phase of a university, finish walls in the girls’ dormitory and offer commuter classes.
North Georgia Church was founded 20 years ago by Crawshaw, who lives in Dahlonega, and he said there are some fears with the sale of the church building.
“There is a lot of nostalgia here and a lot of memories, so emotionally there’s not one of us that wants to do this. But we feel like that’s what God has called us to do and somebody has to make a sacrifice,” he said.
Which is what Lee did 15 years ago in his native country. He founded TransformAsia, which operates an orphanage with food and educational programs. The organization also sponsors churches and has a home for battered women.
In April, three North Georgia Church members traveled to Cambodia to see exactly what TransformAsia is doing and to film a documentary.
“They basically just showed us around to their various places (where) they do ministry over there,” said Wes Montgomery, church member and Dawsonville resident. “We went to a museum for the killing fields, where they converted a grammar school into a prison ... you walk through and there are these metal beds in each room and they have people, they would have tied people down to those or chained them down and tortured them.
“(We went to) document and feel for how we can use our talents and technology to give them more exposure.”
For Montgomery, the idea to sell the church to help those in Cambodia came at a great time for him spiritually.
“To me, it came at a time in my life it was almost a sign,” he said. “For me, I was developing my feeling that the American churches in a lot of ways are self-serving and look after their own needs before what I believe is the biblical call.”
Montgomery traveled with his brother Daniel and friend Josh McKague, who produced the documentary.
The passion for this mission came to Crawshaw after he met Lee about 15 months ago. During a meeting at a coffee house in Gainesville, Crawshaw said he felt God speaking to him as Lee told his story.
“The thing is, he (Lee) is a humble man and if he were the kind that would go around the states beating his drum, he could probably raise a lot of money,” Crawshaw said. “But he is more inclined to his people and to build this university. He was a refugee who actually lost many of his family members in the killing fields, as did his wife.
“He could have made a lot of money in the states as a doctor or a lawyer, and he said he couldn’t do that; ‘I have to go back to my people.’”
Crawshaw admits that he is more “a visionary than a pastoral type,” but said he hopes his church’s efforts will produce a domino effect in Northeast Georgia.
“We’re helping other people help themselves instead of just going and giving out food,” he said.
And that domino effect has already started in his own church.
“There are three people with houses in Big Canoe that are selling them and giving from 20 to 100 percent of the proceeds,” Crawshaw said. “We have a man that has donated a boat, another one that has donated two golf carts. If we sacrifice a little, it could help change the face of a whole nation.”
Right now, the church has had a couple of other congregations inquire about the building, but they haven’t found the right match yet.
“They have to understand we will have to rent the building back from whoever buys it while we are building,” Crawshaw said. “We have a new building design that is a little more compact than this one, near the North Ga. 400 corridor, on it or very close.”
Bob Warren, a member at North Georgia Church and board member for TransformAsia, said when the Cambodia mission was presented to the church there were many reactions.
“We had people that were just like us and thought this was just the greatest idea in the world. Then we had people that were a little nervous,” said Warren, a Murrayville resident. “It was a matter of time for people; the more information they got on what was going on in Cambodia and the need there, the more people realized ‘How can we not do this?’”
Warren became a member of the TransformAsia board this year and hopes to travel Cambodia before the end of the year.
“When you start realizing what they have been through,” he said. “You realize how incredibly blessed we are even in a time right now where a lot of people are really kind of struggling with this economy ... but in our worst days we are so blessed. We could really do something that really could change the life of somebody.”