The problems associated with poverty, crime and injustice can overwhelm neighborhoods, cities, even countries. Facing such enormous problems, many people throw up their hands and think, “What good can one person do?”
But others, like Arunkumar “Mike” Sunker, look at “hopeless” situations and see endless opportunities to share the love of Jesus. Then they get to work.
By the time Mike died in 2021, he had helped thousands of people, and his life stands as a testament to just how much good one person can do — in and through the power of Jesus. Mike’s legacy of love and service lives on, especially through one of his most successful endeavors, the Christ Church Christian Care Center in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Mike, who died of a heart attack at age 73, is revered as a true champion of poverty-stricken children in South Africa because he rescued kids from desperate need and brought them into a stable environment, where he sheltered, nurtured and educated them. But Mike also aimed to introduce the children in his facility — fondly called the 5Cs — to the Savior who had rescued him from his own spiritual poverty and changed his life forever.
Mike was born on July 4, 1947, in Durban, South Africa. Mike’s parents, whose family had roots in India, were Hindu and alcoholics, and Mike and his eight siblings grew up in deep poverty. Not long after Mike married Renu in 1970, Christian missionaries came to their home and shared the Gospel with Mike, whose heart was stirred. Unfortunately, Mike began attending a church with dubious teaching, where he remained for four years. Thankfully, God put other Christians in Mike’s path and also opened his eyes through his love of reading.
In search of a book to read, Mike one day came across a dusty Bible that his father had thrown on top of a wardrobe when his daughter had brought it home from school. He began to read from Genesis 1:1 but stopped when he got to the first commandment in Exodus 20:3: “Thou shall not have any other gods before me.”
Mike’s son, Ajith, explains, “Dad would say that the Holy Spirit then and there told him that Jesus really was the way, the truth, and the life.” On Oct. 23, 1975, at 6:30 p.m., Mike Sunker was convicted of his sin and surrendered his life to Jesus.
Renu and his children followed suit, but Mike’s extended family initially rejected him. “He was told he was no longer welcome into their home,” Ajith recalls, “and he received a lot of pushback.” But Mike persisted, and through a miracle only God could bring about, he was able to share the Gospel with his parents, who accepted Christ within a year of Mike’s conversion. God had revealed His power in Mike’s life and given a preview of the lives Mike would touch in the years to come.
Mike and his family began attending a Reformed church in their Indian community. “Dad would carry us boys on his shoulders as he walked into church,” Ajith recalls. As Mike’s zeal for his burgeoning faith attracted the attention of several leaders, two Anglican missionaries from Ireland mentored Mike in discipleship training, and Mike became passionate about sharing his faith. After joining a mission organization, he decided to attend a Bible college in Cape Town in 1979, and after graduation, Mike became a full-time pastor with the Church of England in South Africa, which is now known as REACH SA.
Times were tight for the young family while Mike prepared for his future as a pastor, but together they sacrificed so that Mike could fulfill his calling. Mike did his practical training at Christ Church Newlands in Durban before planting his own church in the nearby town of Phoenix, where he was instrumental in encouraging people to go into ministry and helping pastors with their theological training. Because of his struggles while attending seminary, Mike became passionate about helping to provide theological books for seminary students who couldn’t afford to buy them.
"Mike also loved developing lay leaders for a life in full-time ministry," said pastor and friend Raj Moodley, who recalls that Mike had a gift of discerning gifted and godly people and encouraging them to explore how they could use their talents within the church. "Several people were influenced by him. Personally, I thought Mike was amazing with evangelism, and I learned a lot from him about how to present the Gospel to a non-believer in a clear and uncomplicated way."
After a long stint at the Phoenix church, Mike received a call to serve as senior pastor at Christ Church Hillbrow, a neighborhood known for high levels of poverty, unemployment and crime that is often considered one of the most dangerous areas in the country. More than 70,000 people are packed into an area that attracts both poverty-stricken citizens from rural areas of South Africa and penniless immigrants from other African countries.
Mike not only chose to pastor a church in the heart of this neighborhood, he also became deeply committed to the idea that he could bring restoration to the brokenness he saw all around him. As could be expected, his task was not without its struggles, which began as the family was moving to Johannesburg from Durban in January 1996. The truck carrying all their belongings was hijacked en route, and everything was stolen. “We literally started with nothing,” Ajith states.
As soon as Mike began his pastoral duties, he set about trying to address the neighborhood’s justice issues and minister to residents who had fallen on hard times. To rescue homeless men from the streets, Mike started a soup kitchen at the church and opened a men’s shelter that welcomed hundreds. Many were transformed through the experience, and several even went into the ministry. Mike also got involved with “street kids,” opening a shelter for them as well, and that effort became a mission.
Ajith remembers, “Through his many outreaches in the early years in Hillbrow, Dad realized that working with destitute children was his true calling.”
In 1999 a hotel came on the market on Mitchell Street at the edge of Hillbrow, and Mike raised money to buy it. “He envisioned filling up this former hotel with as many children as possible,” Ajith recalls. “He visited countless churches, organizations and businesses to raise funds.”
Mike registered the hotel as an orphanage, and it became a nonprofit in 2000. Ajith adds, “It costs a lot to run the 5Cs — a half-million rands per month — but he never tired of fundraising because he believed in what God was telling him to do.”
Mike moved his family onto the property and began searching for kids who needed a safe space where children could flourish. He went to nearby townships and asked for referrals, filling up crib after crib with babies who were born with AIDS. The center started off with four to five children, but when word got around that a new orphanage was accepting children, Johannesburg authorities simply began dropping off kids they found in desperate situations. It took only a few years for the facility to reach capacity at 120. So the center expanded to two campuses, employing a staff of 20.
It did not take long for Mike to realize that a good education was essential to prepare a child for a successful future, and the 5Cs soon became known for making studies one of its top priorities. Ajith states:
"Education is the future, we believe. We saw that when the children came here they lacked basic education. We got in touch with several schools and enrolled each child where they would flourish. We have a dedicated staff member who places kids in the right school, hand-in-hand with a social worker who will oversee their progress."
While placing a high value on academics at the 5Cs, Mike was even more concerned about the kids’ spiritual development. For 20 years, Mike was there for every child who walked through the doors at the 5Cs, serving as a loving earthly father who wanted to provide for their practical needs while also pointing to the heavenly father who could give them eternal life and love them in a way humans could not. Children were required to attend nightly devotions and a youth program at church every Sunday.
Buti Nthite was one of the first children at the center, arriving in 2002 when he was 13 years old. He becomes tearful when he talks about Mike. “He shared the Gospel and gave the kids dignity so they could become productive citizens in the country. His love for Jesus made such a difference in my life and the lives of so many children in this country.”
Buti, who rarely had enough to eat before he arrived at the 5Cs, is one of the center’s many success stories. After high school, he received a scholarship to attend Boston College where he studied IT and received a degree in business administration. He lives in Johannesburg and now works in the IT department at the international company Bain. “I never thought I’d be where I am today,” Buti says. “I never thought I would learn to speak English. I can buy whatever I want to buy. If it weren’t for the center, I would never have been exposed to anything. But it’s all because of God working through Pastor Mike.”
When his father died, Ajith stepped down from a pastoral role to take over as CEO of the 5Cs. He shares his father’s priorities of emphasizing education and looking after the kids’ spiritual development. “I feel confident that we can carry on the great legacy that my father created here.”
Ajith and his two siblings serve as a testament to their parents’ faith and emphasis on education. Ajay lives in Texas where he runs an IT business, while Satish is an IT engineer in Johannesburg and Ajith has served as a pastor for more than 25 years. But Ajith says his father’s legacy extends far beyond his biological family.
“He had a heart of compassion, but he was a man of action. He always was a man who tried to improve other’s lives and lead them to the Lord. He was someone who handed someone a sandwich wrapped in a gospel tract, aspiring to meet physical needs and spiritual needs at the same time.”
Buti believes Mike should be remembered as a national hero. “In South Africa you hear a lot about the good works and leadership of Nelson Mandela, but in my eyes, Pastor Mike wore the same shoes. He is a hero not just for the center or for all the kids he helped, but really for South Africa.”
Mike knew what life looked like without the hope of Jesus because he lived that way for many years. And because the hope of Jesus had so radically changed his heart, he dedicated his life to introducing Jesus to the scores of children he saw struggling every day in the poor neighborhoods of Johannesburg. As scores of now grown and successful children can attest, Mike lived the life of a good and faithful servant.
Christina Ray Stanton wrote an award-winning book about 9/11, and worked for a decade as missions director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC (Founder, Timothy Keller).