Body and Soul
March 1, 2004 - As Christians we are called to love—and to make disciples. That dual mission seems to require more than many of us are prepared to give. We focus on physical care and never get around to telling people of their need for Christ, or we focus on spiritual needs and never show people that we love them or care about their physical, emotional and social needs. But some Christians have found a natural way to do both. Around the world, medical missionaries bring compassionate care and the message of Christ to hurting people. Indeed, there may be no better way to show that we care, no better way to win a hearing for the Gospel, than through medical missions.
by Bob Paulson
L. Nelson Bell finished with his final clinic patient for the day and thought about the task that awaited him. A man in his mid-twenties had come to seek medical help at Love and Mercy Hospital, a Presbyterian mission hospital in Qingjiangpu, China. But the man's condition was hopeless. Bell headed both the surgical and the administrative work of the hospital, and it fell to him to explain to the young man that his sarcoma was too advanced to be treated.
It was the early 1930s. Bell and the hospital were renowned throughout China (as well as in the United States) for the healing of thousands of patients through this medical mission. But this man's tumor was so large that one eye stuck out like an orange, and any attempt to treat it would be futile. Bell entered the small room where the man waited.
"There is nothing we can do for you," Bell said. "The tumor has gone too far; we cannot operate on you. But remember this: All of us are going to die. And the big question for all of us is, 'Where will we be after we die?'"
Bell explained that Jesus Christ, God's Son, had come to earth to die for our sins. Then Bell gave the man a New Testament and some other books.
The man returned two months later. "By that time the tumor was as large as his head," Bell recalled. "It was a fearful thing to look at." Bell thought the man had come back to ask again for treatment. But as the two sat down in the same little room as before, the man said, "I haven't come back here to ask you to treat me, but I have come back to tell you that I now have accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior, and I have peace in my heart. I know I am not going to live much longer, but when I die I am going to be with Him."
And so a man whose body could not be healed found healing for his soul with the aid of a missionary doctor. Bell, whose daughter Ruth would one day marry Billy Graham, provides a remarkable example of how medical missionaries can bring wholeness to people who need Jesus Christ.
"I believe that medical missions is the most valuable tool of evangelism," said Dr. Robert Foster, a retired career medical missionary. "People are needy when they come to the hospital, and the opportunities for reaching them for Christ are tremendous." Foster, who served in the African countries of Zambia and Angola, said that half the Christians in one district of Zambia where he served had committed their lives to Christ in the mission hospital.
"We always had music and services that often led to opportunities to talk with the people personally after they heard the message," Foster said. "We asked them where they were in their relationship to Christ. We always had hospital evangelists, people from the church who ministered to the patients."
When people think of medical missions, they may think of doctors and nurses who spend their careers working overseas. But short-term opportunities—and needs—abound. For more than 25 years, L. Nelson Bell's grandson Franklin Graham has guided World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan's Purse. World Medical Mission has sent doctors on thousands of short-term stints to mission hospitals, augmenting permanent staff and helping hospitals to remain fully staffed when career missionaries go on furlough.
The mission began when Drs. Dick and Lowell Furman felt led to spend a month each at a hospital in India. They couldn't find any organizations that would send them on such a short-term trip, so they contacted Franklin Graham, at that time a student at Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C.
Franklin wrote to more than 25 mission hospitals, asking about their need for short-term help. More than 20 responded, and 19 said they wanted help immediately.
"That first year we sent maybe four or five doctors," Dick Furman said. "We send about 250 a year now. I think it's the one thing in my life that I've seen the Lord's hand completely directing." Furman noted that at Tenwek Hospital, a large mission hospital in Kenya, World Medical Mission provides seven of the hospital's 15 or so doctors, sending short-term doctors there on a rotating basis.
Short-term medical mission trips bring both challenges and blessings. Dr. Harold G. Vick, of Portland, Ore., has gone on four such trips. He spent a month in 2003 at Tenwek. While there he wrote to his wife, "This place, if you look away for one minute, gets inundated with a barrage of medical problems that takes one's breath away." But after a grueling month of serving in conditions unheard of in the United States—and reflecting on his own life—Vick wrote of the blessings of serving in this way: "Being able to focus on the purpose of my life, to love the Lord God with all my heart, soul, mind and spirit, without the noise and distractions of home, is probably the best part of all."
Short-term trips meet a crucial need, but there remains a need for health-care workers who will devote their careers to serving overseas. "Unfortunately, there are not many doctors who are willing to go overseas on a long-term basis," said Dr. Warren Cooper, medical director of the Samaritan's Purse-operated Lui Hospital, in Sudan. After Cooper finished his medical residency in 1997, he worked through World Medical Mission to spend "a year" at various mission hospitals. He's been working overseas ever since. But he does not see many people make similar commitments. "There seem to be fewer and fewer," he said. "To me, that is a concern."
In some cases, short-term mission trips can help people to catch a vision for missions and may lead them into a career of overseas service. Dr. Jim Teeter, a general surgeon from Waynesboro, Pa., has seen similar results. He went on short-term mission trips yearly from 1963 to 1999, taking with him many senior medical students and medical-surgical residents. Although Teeter is careful to point out that it was the Holy Spirit's doing and not his own, several of those people have gone on to serve as career medical missionaries.
Historically, the focus of medical mission work has been hospitals and clinics. Today the focus is broadening. In fact, according to Cooper, some of the most effective work being done might not even be considered "medical."
"I can fix hernias; I can take out gall bladders," he said. "But so much of health is related to clean water, principles of sanitation, hygienic practices. And if you can dig wells and latrines, you can probably do more good for people than a hospital could ever do."
In light of this, Cooper's hospital in Lui has begun to address public health issues, hoping to prevent illness rather than just treat people who are sick. The task is easier said than done, however. Cooper points out that changing people's lifestyles and health practices takes commitment, planning and training—and years of building relationships.
Medical missionary Dr. David Haglund is building those kinds of relationships in the urban slums of Nakuru, Kenya, a city of a quarter million people. According to Haglund, a typical family rents a 10 x 10-foot room within a row of rooms in a tin-roofed building constructed of mud-covered, wooden poles. Water is in short supply, and many people walk long distances with 5-gallon jugs to purchase water.
Haglund is part of a team of missionaries that integrates community development and Christian discipleship. The team meets with families and small groups, teaching about Jesus Christ in addition to addressing health issues such as purifying water, effective sanitation, mosquito avoidance, nutrition and prevention of HIV by following biblical standards.
"The needs in Kenya are great," Haglund said. "There are not enough missionaries, medical or otherwise. We need to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send workers into His fields—all of His fields."
Veteran medical personnel have advice for people considering their own role in medical missions. "I encourage young doctors and dentists to go on a mission trip immediately, right after graduation, and get a taste for it," said Felix Martin del Campo, a dentist from Visalia, Calif. "The truth of it is that you graduate and you have college bills to pay, and the next thing you know you get married, and then you have a baby and a house payment and car payments. And before you know it, 30 years have gone by, and you never went."
Martin del Campo himself has served short-term in many countries, and he says that his thinking about missions has come full-circle since his teenage years. "When I was 16 or 17 years old," he said, "I would go to church and hear a missionary, and I did want to dedicate my life to serving the Lord. But I said, 'Please, Lord, don't ever send me to Africa or any Third World country.' In reality, the people are so needy and so grateful that we are blessed whenever we can help them. And now my prayer is, 'Lord, send me back to Africa.'"
For Robert Foster, the decision to be a career medical missionary resulted from considering his talents and skills. "I was just looking for a place to use the gifts God had given me," Foster said. "I wish more young people would do that." He recommends that people read books about medical missions, books that will enlarge their vision and give them insight to what is possible. They also may talk to mission societies about their own talents and gifts. "That's an important part of it," Foster said—"finding the right niche for the talents God has given them."
The talents that God has given. Have you ever wondered why God gave you your particular talents and gifts? Chances are it has a lot to do with helping you to obey Christ's commands to love and to make disciples—tasks that we fulfill when we minister faithfully to both body and soul.