July 7, 2014

System Health

They are called “end-of-the-road” hospitals, and we were about to reach one. It had taken long, overnight flights and sleeping in strange guest rooms, followed by more hours on uncomfortable roads in cramped vehicles. Now we were finally pulling through the gate, weary and worn, ready for real food and real beds. As our vehicle came to a stop under the mango trees at Bere Adventist Hospital in Chad, we encountered one face of Adventist medical missions today.

That face includes adventurous college students, now simply called SMs (student missionaries), young professionals, and mission-committed “olders” coming together to help such places as Bere provide modern health care. They operate well beyond the normal supply chain, face continuous political obstacles from both church and government officials, put in unhealthy hours, and raise children in risky environments—all with a smile and a belief that this is where God wants them to be.48 1BERE HOSPITAL: Jackson Brammer and Morgan Green, School of Medicine students, play with a child while serving at Bere Hospital in Chad. " class="img-right" style="float: right;">

Don’t tell me this church doesn’t believe in missions, or that its young people have gone soft, or that the world doesn’t need our healing touch. If our eschatology is correct—and all signs point in that direction—global needs have never been greater, and they will continue to escalate.

And so, whether in a remote clinic or bustling metropolis, when opportunities are provided—and, frankly, even when they are not—our young people go. Some are just willing, others demanding, to take on the toughest challenges on the globe. They search out suffering and bring healing and comfort. They improvise, take risks, grieve over pain and death, and rejoice in victories. Every year I watch them go out from my institution and many others, determined to find their own destiny.

What Makes Sense Today?

So what does “medical missions” mean in our church today? Is there a model, a strategy that makes sense in today’s world? Do we keep sending those from the privileged West or increasingly depend on those from their own cultures to reach the unreached, to penetrate boundaries we’ve never crossed? We’re much more enlightened now about the needs, slicing populations by people groups, languages, and cultures. Our recent focus has turned to cities, where more than half our 7 billion people live, masses of humanity who seem ever more immune to the winsome call of the gospel, yet just as surely part of God’s children to be reached and loved.

Do we pull stretched church dollars away from established mission hospitals, encouraging their self-sustainability, so we can focus on new areas? Do we even need institutions anymore? Perhaps this is the time for “guerrilla” tactics, spreading out in singles and small groups to move more quickly and silently to spread the gospel.

I would argue that the answer is surely YES—we need them all. Hospitals provide visibility, stability, and training, often giving political cover when necessary; while “foot soldiers” can run with low overhead, take greater risks, and often identify unknown opportunities.

There’s no question that modern medical care requires technology and infrastructure—buildings, equipment, and medicines. While there is much that can be done with the simple remedies we espouse, which often bring the close personal contact so valuable in sharing God’s love, there are also expectations today for more than that: for antibiotics and surgeries, for consultation and referrals for more complicated diseases.

The point is, we can do it all—indeed, we are doing it all! We have a church-owned health “network” that includes 175 hospitals and more than 450 clinics of one kind or another, the majority being in the developing world. Even more impressive than the institutions, we have thousands of Adventist health professionals who work on their own in cities, towns, and villages, bringing hope and healing into the lives of their patients every day.

Most impressive of all, we have millions of church members with a unique understanding of the principles of good health, which they share with their neighbors. It’s this combination of “health workers” that makes our comprehensive health ministry so powerful. There are three legs to this stool—institutions, professionals, and informed lay members—all equally important for balance and stability!

Room for Improvement?

Can we do better? Absolutely! Even simple remedies can be misinterpreted or overused. Health professionals need constant updating with new knowledge and equipment. Institutions need leadership and vision to maintain their focus and witness. But let’s not give up on our balanced strategy inspired by Ellen White. And what about resources—especially money? My response is: God’s cattle on a thousand hills are still waiting for our use.48 2DENTAL HEALTH: Samuel Kim, School of Pharmacy, provides dental health education during a community health fair at Malamulo Adventist Hospital in Malawi. " class="img-left" style="float: left;">

What I long for is more interconnectedness and intentional relationships—recognition that all parts of this “system” are valuable and needed. We have the potential of doing so much more if we could connect our institutions and professionals and lay members into a cohesive whole.

Information and technology can help solve this. MOOCs—massive, open, online courses—shared via wireless connections to all corners of the world, can download important information into computers and cell phones. It will surely take effort to effectively maintain our unique Adventist perspectives on healing and healthful living through this massive network of people. But we have that expertise already on board, waiting to be tapped. We tend to isolate the various segments of our health work, but surely there is a way to find common strategies.

Am I optimistic about the future of medical missions in this church? Without question! I know the challenges. I live with them every day. I recognize our limitations, our personal fallibilities. I know too well how stretched we already are. I know how desperate is the search for qualified professionals, volunteers, and donors.

But I believe our best days are yet ahead. When sharing the gospel commission by all other means will be hampered and eventually stopped, our health workers at all levels will be invaluable as they share the good news we all hold so precious.