While riding in his car last August, Robert Bainum was listening to a sermon about how 40,000 Indochinese boat people were perishing in an "Asian holocaust."
"I kept thinking about that and said I needed to go over there and see if I could help," Bainum said the other day as he prepared for his fourth trip to Asia to aid in refugee relief.
"For two months, I wrestled with it. Finally I bought a ticket and went to Hong Kong. I talked to people and decided I needed to go to Bangkok. There I was told I could find plenty to do."
Bainum, a Silver Spring resident who works in Fairfax County, came home the day before Christmas 1979 with a plan: The Church of the Savior in Washington, of which Bainum is a provisional member, should initiate its own refugee relief program.
Through a new project, CONSIGN (Church of the Savior International Good Neighbors), the socially activist congregation at 2025 Massachusetts Ave. NW has sent about two dozen volunteers -- who give up their vacations -- to assist refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. Since it was organized in March the church has raised about $75,000 for the program and has received many in-kind donations, such as a flatbed trailer donated by a group of Japanese for use in an Asian village.
"We are providing some relief for the suffering people there. It has deepened my awareness of the world as one family," said Elizabeth O'Connor, a church member who made a fact-finding visit to Thailand soon after Bainum proposed the project.
Indochines refugees number more than 137,000, according to the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. About 14,000 of those are arriving in the United States each month.
The high commissioner and UNICEF coordinate the relief efforts of more than a dozen groups such as Church World Service and Catholic Relief Services. The International Committee for the Red Cross provides medical aid.
Occasionally individuals or small groups such as those from the Church of Savior work with the major relief organizations.
Bainum says the primary reason he became involved in the relief work was because he felt he should exercise some social responsibility.
"When I was a young man, Hitler was doing his thing and I felt powerless to do much," said Bainum, who is 55. "During the civil rights marches I was married, had five young kids and a big mortgage. I felt it was irresponsible for me to risk my life even if I wanted to. This time I had no excuse."
A cofounder of the Manor Care nursing home chain and administrator of Fairfax Nursing Center, Bainum has been a major financial contributor to the relief project, although he declined to say how much he has given. While he's away, his wife and daughter manage the nursing home.
Bainum's organizational skills, say those who know of his work, have been his primary contribution to the relief effort. One of his first projects was to help establish an 80-bed hospital at a refugee camp in Thailand.
On another visit, the first thing Bainum saw at one camp was a family of three cooking one small fish "about an inch and a half long" on a stick. The fish, Bainum said were the entire meal.
"I'd say there were hundreds of people lying on their beds in their huts shivering from hunger," he said. "The ones well enough to be up had huddled over and squatted in the sun for the warmth. We gave them what we had -- medicine for malaria and dysentery.
"They said they needed more medicine and doctors and nurses. They figured at least 2,000 people in that camp needed immediate medical care and 80 percent of the 5,000 or 6,000 people were sick, but not critically.
"We tried to make the kids laugh and smile, but we couldn't. Their expressions were kind of stony. I finally got some smiles when I borrowed a sling shot from a small boy. They all laughed when I couldn't shoot it as well as he."
Eighteen members of the church are currently working in Thailand for one or two months. Among the church's contributions have been 19 wells dug in three villages, purchase and delivery of a trailer of rice and a shipment of old tires and inner tubes for sandals.
The church arranged for the delivery of 30,000 doses of vaccine in one camp, and volunteers have been teaching English to refugees destined for the United States, Great Britain or Canada. Volunteers have bought tools, bicycles and motorcycle fuel for the refugee camps.
Now Bainum wants the congregation to embark on a new program -- the ship project.
Bainum's idea is to provide a 50-foot craft to rescue refugees threatened by pirates in the South China Sea and deliver them safely to a larger ship headed for Singapore and freedom.
"We know that 6,000 or more people are drowning each month," said Bainum, "A way must be found to save them."