Fred Kornis has done countless mission trips to India and considers the region his second home.
So when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck neighboring Nepal in April, killing almost 9,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, the Mission resident began making plans to go.
Kornis, 65, is executive director of Heartland International Ministries, a Mission-based non-denominational network he helped start in 2002 to sponsor mission trips, provide disaster relief and work with schools and orphanages overseas. Run on private donations, it has operations in around 20 countries and already had two workers based in Nepal who could serve as local guides and interpreters.
He left Kansas City on May 11, carrying with him 120 water filter kits commonly found in U.S. sporting goods stores for camping, as well as Bibles and books of scripture. An Army veteran who says he found his religion while serving in Vietnam, Kornis has always embraced a guerrilla-style of evangelizing, eschewing conventional churches for street preaching and going into foreign countries either by himself or in small groups to reach people one by one.
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After landing in New Delhi, India, he crossed into Nepal at the town of Lumbini. Even though it was three weeks after the original earthquake, Kornis said he regularly felt tremors and aftershocks.
Kornis continued traveling toward the capital of Kathmandu, passing through the towns of Butwal and Lalitpur. Along the way, he and his workers would stop to distribute the water filters and demonstrate their use with instructions printed in the local dialects. He said the classes were often predominantly women, not only because they often oversaw their family’s water use in cooking and washing but also so they could teach others how to use the filters.
“I just got intrigued by that way of unifying people, empowering the women and drawing people together around clean water,” he said, adding that he would then also discuss spirituality during the classes.
In total, he said he distributed about 50 of the filter kits and Heartland’s workers in the region will handle distribution and training for the remainder.
In addition to the filters, Kornis visited families who had lost their homes in the earthquake and handed out cash to rebuild. He said many homes in the countryside are simple structures of bamboo, mud and tin and can be rebuilt relatively quickly and cheaply. He added that many survivors are scrambling to build some sort of shelter before the annual monsoons arrive and make the situation worse.
He acknowledged that many aid agencies frown on his style of assistance, preferring more coordinated efforts. But Kornis said he doesn’t trust many of those organizations, which he said can sometimes be corrupt or send assistance to the wrong places.
“Our deal is relationships,” he said. “If you know somebody who’s been there 50 years and have a network of community and family, you can bypass all of the red tape, you can bypass all of the politics, and they take you down the path and say this is a family that needs help.”
In fact, Kornis himself said he originally planned to travel to Kathmandu and see how he could help there. But it was his local workers, Dika and Surenda, who told him it was the people in the countryside needing help but so far receiving little assistance. Kornis refused to give his workers’ last names out of fear of religious persecution from local authorities.
He described many of the people he met as “down to earth” but that the continued shaking had instilled an ongoing “wave of fear bordering on paranoia” that made it difficult to plan for the future.
After he arrived back in the United States, he said he was dismayed by the relative lack of attention now being given to the disaster and the recovery.
“I got my first USA Today when I got back and couldn’t find anything about Nepal,” he said.
While Kornis originally intended for this to be a one-time trip, he said he’s already planned to return to Nepal in October. He said he’ll bring more members of Heartland to help and hopes by that point that the country will be more stable, both literally and figuratively. He said he ultimately believes these efforts, while small, will have a difference in Nepal although it could be some time to find out how much.
“I can’t follow all of the ripples,” he said. “I just try to throw the brick and trust there will be a splash.”