Attending Sunday church services and prayer meetings? Joining Christian youth groups in public high schools? Digging up empty lots to plant organic community gardens? Could all this really be part of Adventist medical missionary work?
According to Rico Hill and Jared Thurmon—cofounders of The Beehive and developers of Community Health Advocate Training, or CHAT, the answer is a decisive “Yes!”
“In the beginning Adventists called it the benevolent work, which is basically doing good, or truly being a Christian,” Thurmon says. “In other words, every member of the church should take up medical missionary, or benevolent, work.”
“We’ve got to get out of the mindset that medical missionary work is just medical; it’s not,” Hill adds. “It’s helping someone fix their car or taking them to the grocery store. The first medical missionary work I ever did was clean up somebody’s house.”
CHAT is also about “restoring the image of God back in humanity,” Hill says. “Our health message is as relevant as ever, and people are searching for answers. We as Adventists have a wealth of knowledge, but we are either afraid to share it or we don’t know how. We’re trying to change that.”
About five years ago Hill and Thurmon left lucrative careers to team up for full-time ministry. Hill was a television executive for Nickelodeon then Turner Broadcasting; Thurmon worked in the assisted living industry. Now they produce programs and resources for health and evangelistic ministry, equipping church members to target secular society with fresh, innovative, and relationship-based approaches. They complement their health training seminars—newly termed CHAT—with their co-hosted D2D wellness program called
From Sickness to Health aired on 3ABN’s Dare to Dream television network, and two books they co-authored: Healthy Self, a strategic mingling book; and The Blueprint: A Manual for Reaching the Cities. Everything is based on a simple premise: “Let’s mingle and chat.”
“CHAT is relationship based, how to start a conversation, like when you’re standing in a grocery line,” Hill says. “As Adventists, we often are very uncomfortable with that because all our friends are Adventists. We talk about things in shorthand: we say ASI, GYC, GC. But in a world where it comes to just practical living, just talking to people and relating on a practical level, we are very awkward.”
In 2014 Hill and Thurmon trained some 50 people from various churches in Fresno, California, on how to do health ministry. One year later they are still a cohesive unit that has organized as a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation with its own board.
“They meet every month and organize ministries,” Hill says. “They have a ministry where members attend Sunday churches and mingle with the people. We train them to lead in by discussing diseases or illnesses that are prevalent today and then tell them about the health seminars. They say to them, ‘We have a solution, and we would like to come and just share with you.’ And the people open the door.”
“It’s simple, but it’s working,” Thurmon adds.“According to Evangelism, page 514, when people realize that we’re knowledgeable about physical things, they’ll reason that there must be something in our religious experience worthy of investigation.”
One Fresno congregation turned a nearby empty lot situated between an elementary school and a large public high school into an organic community garden. They talked with both of the schools’ administrators and offered to let the staff and students come and pick the surplus produce. They then added, “We’ll also train some of your students how to garden.”
“The principals loved it,” Hill says. “The high school principal said, ‘Hey, we know you guys are Adventists. We have a Christian club here, and you’re welcome to join with us.’ Adventists are now leading the club.”
Adventist doctors and dentists in Fresno also are “buying in” to the medical ministry concept and are currently making plans to purchase a building and open a free health clinic. Other members are encouraged to use their talents and skills to provide free haircuts in the community or help with home repairs.
“We need to get such people on the frontlines,” Thurmon says.
While visiting Fresno and seeing firsthand what was happening there, Hayden Lake, Idaho, church member Lorraine Gabriel approached Hill and Thurmon and said, “I want you to come and do the same thing in Spokane,” so they did. Some 90 people from 12 area churches converged on the Upper Columbia Conference office for six intensive three-day weekend training sessions from early April through late May 2015.
“The collaboration of the 12 churches is working well,” Wayne Kablanow, pastor of two church plants in Spokane, says. “Both of my churches have representatives here who are excited about what they’re learning and anxious to put it into practice. . . . It’s uniting and motivating our members into the type of ministry that Jesus wants us to do.”
The sessions cover such topics as nutrition, anatomy and physiology, the history of health work, biblical principles of health, practical application of the ministry of healing (how did Jesus do it?), and how to take the message to the community.
“Ellen White says Jesus identified with people’s interests and desired their happiness,” Thurmon says. “We have to follow Jesus’ method and be sympathetic and cheerful and connect with people where they are. We must find ways into the fabric of people’s lives.”
Throughout the training sessions various health-professional and theological speakers from surgeons and wellness physicians to Adventist historians and theologians are also brought in for presentations.
In recent weeks, Thurmon and Hill have also opened a dialog with the General Conference and North American Division Health Ministries departments to ensure that the content of both public presentations at CHAT and the materials distributed conform to the highest standards of evidence-based medicine. With the recommendations of those departments, senior health Adventist health professionals are being recruited as content editors, increasing the reliability of all of The Beehive’s published materials.
“We don’t have a health or wellness agenda apart from what the Seventh-day Adventist Church has historically believed and taught on health education,” Thurmon says, “and we welcome the close links with church leaders who are eager to see high-quality, accessible wellness information in the hands of every church member.”
“We cover all the angles and even do role playing,” Hill says. “We tell them to keep Christ at the center; don’t make it about diet; don’t tell people what to eat. Instead, show the principles, the deeper meaning of the health message. Link it to the gospel.”
And people are responding.
Verna Coleman of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, just across the state border near Spokane, first learned about the CHAT seminars while attending cooking classes at nearby Hayden Lake Adventist church. She had learned about the classes from relatives who were church members. It didn’t take long, she says, before she began incorporating many of the things she has been learning into her lifestyle.
“I’m so impressed with the knowledge base and the way the presenters marry the Bible with the health information,” Coleman says. “I had never connected all the practical aspects of healthful living with the Bible before.”
Loma Linda University Medical Center graduate Dr. Andrew Roquiz attended CHAT because of his interest in medical ministry. “I just wanted to learn more,” he says. Describing the program as well balanced, Roquiz appreciated its focus on various areas of medical ministry, such as hydrotherapy and massage, as well as the spiritual aspects. “It’s very much into the Bible and also what Ellen White says about medical ministry and its relationship to our own salvation and how we can reach people for God,” he says. Much of what he has learned, he says, will help him with a program he’s involved with where he assists and encourages people in their homes to make healthful lifestyle changes.
“The CHAT program is very fresh in the way in which it brings out in the Bible the principles of health that we so often disconnect from God,” says Lorraine Gabriel, who spearheaded the Spokane event. “The people are loving it!”
David Keyes lives two hours from Spokane, but he made the long trek there each weekend to head a team of 30 volunteers from area churches to run the video and audio equipment to record the sessions. The Upper Columbia Conference made the equipment available to CHAT, and its Communication Department staff assisted with training the volunteers.
“The conference was very willing to let us use their facilities and have cooperated tremendously,” Keyes says. “They spent several thousand dollars putting in additional needed power. We have greatly appreciated their tremendous support. . . . All this came from God.”
In Summer of 2015, Hill and Thurmon presented a five-day health seminar at the Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Oregon, sponsored by the Medical Center and the Oregon Conference. Members from seven area Adventist churches participated. A husband-and-wife team—Monica Cockerham, a nurse, and her husband, Mark, a pastor and contractor, from Yakima, Washington—are currently leading a follow-up health ministry training group program. About half of the 60 attendees are not Adventist church members.
“The people are truly so excited about what they’re learning,” Monica says. “Some of them arrive as much as an hour early and sit in the front seats.”
Monica does health screenings such as taking Body Mass Index (BMI) and blood pressure readings, and sees firsthand many health improvements. Improved diet, increased exercise, and “powering down” on Sabbaths are leading to reports of fewer migraines, weight loss, lowered blood pressure, and increased energy.
“It’s wonderful to see,” she says.
Hill and Thurmon expect a similar follow-up to the Spokane CHAT seminars, where teams are now trained and ready to begin working in the community.
“The secret is to stay connected and keep encouraging each other,” Thurmon says.
Medical missionary work is something everyone can do, Thurmon and Hill say. “Not everyone can become a doctor, a nurse, or other health-care professional, but everyone can become more like Jesus. He was the great medical missionary,” Hill notes.
“The thread that runs though it all is living a life of self-sacrifice and others-centered. That’s Isaiah 58, it’s the essence of the gospel; that’s what it’s all about.”