Medical missions is hard. One could say that, if it isn’t hard, it isn’t medical missions. As Christians, we are indisputably called to walk into the dark places of God’s creation and proclaim his glory and his love. Our hands get dirty, and our hearts get beat up.
A few months ago, at my hospital in Burundi, things were especially difficult. Electricity was out. The hematology machine was broken, as was the x-ray. I had a slew of patients who didn’t necessarily seem incurable at their arrival, but despite all our efforts, they continued to worsen. That's a particular challenge, since it feels like their being in the hospital is associated with them getting worse, instead of better. With death, instead of life. Every day I did rounds with a very green group of Burundian medical students, who had never been this entwined with caring for people this sick before.
How do we bring hope? For that matter, where is the hope? How do I encourage my students to endure? How do I beat off my own cynicism? To avoid a premature resolution of this tension, let me be clear: We believe in the free, eternal grace of God through Jesus. We believe in eternal life, and we work to integrate evangelism into all that we do at our hospital. However, neither my head nor my heart accepts that this annuls the awfulness of a young person dying of a preventable disease. No one knows this better than Jesus, weeping at the tomb of his friend.
Over the last several years, I have discussed these questions many times, with students or with visiting doctors, and each time I'm of course talking to myself as well. There are as many answers as there are challenges, but I’ll share three things that have been an encouragement to me.
First, if I want to be here when I can help, I also have to be here when I can't. Every time my patient unexpectedly dies, or the test comes back positive for the non-treatable possibility, or my last therapeutic option just isn't working, part of me wants to abandon ship, to run away from all that I can't do. I know that won't help my patients, but I guess I want to pretend that such situations don't exist, at least not in such a common and stark form.
We can't know ahead of time whom we can help. Sometimes we can make a great medical impact. Other times, we can't. The two are inextricably linked. Part of what we love in medical missions is the chance to dramatically alter someone's life for the better. Yet there is another side to that coin, because the magnitude and frequency of the tragedies go up, in a seemingly proportional manner. This must be endured, but not just endured. We have a calling here as well, for this is another place where we have to learn to trust God and find some way to bless and comfort these patients with the blessings and comfort that God has given us (2 Cor 1:3-4).
Second, as Paul writes: Fight the good fight (1 Tim 6:12). It feels like a fight. It is a fight. But it's a good fight. So, let's keep fighting it.
Third, though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16). This is just as incredibly true for me as it is for my patients. For though we are missionaries with a message to proclaim, part of our target audience is ourselves. Part of where the kingdom needs to come is inside our own hearts. So this hard road is God’s road of sanctification for us. Thus, the doctor is the patient, and we all alike need the hope of the gospel that proclaims that suffering will be redeemed, that all things will be made new, and that our God is the God who, out of death, brings resurrection and eternal life.
We’re taking some time to highlight some of the great resources that are available here at MedicalMissions.com. Today we wanted to point you to a breakout session from last year’s Global Missions Health Conference. This topic is always a popular one – Finding God’s Call for Your Life. In fact, it drives all that we do here at MedicalMissions.com!
We hope you enjoy taking some time to listen to this session – you can also find these resources on the MedicalMissions.com Podcast.
Systemic poverty often plagues the places where global health professionals serve. Grappling with this crushing reality can be overwhelming. Community health education is one tool that can help improve the well-being and dignity of those who suffer from the effects of poverty.
The need for community health education in developing countries cannot be overstated. In many communities, the prevalence of problems such as pediatric/infant mortality, maternal mortality, and HIV/AIDS is alarmingly high. Health education interventions are effective in addressing many of the causes of child mortality. For example, studies show that better breastfeeding practices alone could save 800,000 lives per year.
Dohn and Dohn’s article, “Short-Term Medical Teams: What They Do Well . . . and Not So Well” addresses this issue. They describe health education as one of those areas that medical groups do “not so well.” This is primarily because short-term volunteers often provide such education through translators and with inadequate cultural and worldview understanding. Consequently, it is unwise for use as outsiders to train local people without first learning their culture and developing relationships. The outcome will probably not be very positive. One model that has proven an effective short-term health education model is CHE (Community Health Evangelism). Primarily because it sees and understands poverty from an asset based approach instead of a needs based approach. See the global CHE Networks What is CHE?
Cross-cultural health education is challenging because we are faced with what many in the development world refer to as the “god-complex dilemma.” Jai Sarma presented these ideas at a workshop I attended many years ago. Jai was a longtime community development practitioner who serves as the head of Transformational Development at World Vision International. From his own heritage in India, he shared how westerners are often seen from the perspective of the poor. Our subconscious and subliminal attitudes can also drastically affect our interactions with the poor. He shared that poverty is to a large extent a manifestation of a marred identity and self-worth.
Without adequate understanding, volunteers from developed countries leading health education classes in developing countries can further mar the identity of those they seek to serve. We need to train local people with extreme caution, sensitivity, and humility. We should learn as much about the culture, worldview, and life circumstances as possible.
Another development practitioner also talks much about this idea of poverty being a manifestation of a marred identity; his name is Dr. Jayakumar Christian. In his book, God of the Empty-Handed: Poverty, Power and the Kingdom of God, Dr. Christian discusses the forces that keep the poor trapped in poverty. This includes a poverty of being (a broken sense of identity), a poverty of relationships (societal relationships working to maintain their entrapment rather than empowering them), and a poverty of purpose (a lack of vision for the future and lack of a powerful sense of vocation). He advocates for a holistic response to the powerless of the poor and for building their sense of self through reconnecting with their God-given identity.
How Do We Support Human Dignity?
We all know the Bible has a lot to say about serving the poor, but how do we serve the poor in a way that supports human dignity? I believe this starts with intentional study of poverty, its roots, worldview and beliefs. The challenge is that in our efforts to meet human need we often reinforce and support the limiting beliefs of poverty. Chief of which is that the poor are victims of circumstance, instead of being created in the image of God, and stewards of His resources. The goal of healthcare missionaries is not just to meet tangible, physical needs. It is also to minister in ways that enhances human dignity. It is about inspiring growth in people and helping them build on their God given capacity. Many years ago, when I was serving with Mercy Ships, I was part of a leadership initiative to rewrite all the organizations core documents related to programs. I look back on this now as one of my greatest learning experiences in missions. The idea was to create a foundation for our work that truly supported human dignity. We reviewed a lot of the literature on poverty and decided to use Bryant Myers book, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development as our blue print. This book along with Dr. Christian’s book noted above have had a significant impact on shaping my understanding of poverty. As such, these books also helped me lay the foundation of CHSC missions philosophy. Which is a philosophy that holds to an asset based (not needs based) approach. We believe strongly that both relief and development begin with the same starting point, building on, and supporting local capacity.
This includes Monday through Friday.
Barrett Duke unpacks what it looks like to "go therefore and take your job with you" in the context of Scriptural references. He walks from creation to Paul as examples of how to glorify God at work.
Barrett Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter, Facebook, and in your email.
Publication date: May 16, 2013