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A call to Vanuatu

How one couple’s obedience touched an island

By Kirk Noonan

Big Bay, Vanuatu, is remote. The road leading to it is narrow, flanked by dense jungle, and often rain-slick. A river — known as the Jordan — crosses the route, but often it is swollen and impassable.

Drive time from Luganville, the provincial capital, to Big Bay takes at least 21/2 hours if all goes well, which it usually doesn’t. That’s the reality of life in Vanuatu, a Y-shaped archipelago located between Fiji and Australia in the South Pacific. Nothing goes as planned.

Getting to and from Big Bay is an arduous task. Living there can be even more difficult. Stores, phone lines, electricity, air conditioners and indoor plumbing are modern conveniences yet to arrive in the area.

But for Brandon and Vicki Forester, the out-of-the-way locale and primitive lifestyle were exactly what caught their attention.

A calling   

Exhausted, Brandon had just finished a long shift at the hospital in Sikeston, Missouri, where he worked as an emergency room nurse. To wind down, he grabbed the March 7, 2004, World Missions Edition of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and began flipping through it. The pictures drew him to “Soul Survivors,” an article that detailed a trek through Vanuatu’s jungles where missionaries Bryan and Renee Webb were making inroads for the gospel.

Brandon says the story and pictures captivated him. But when he read Bryan’s appeal for a nurse to start a health clinic in a remote village, something unexpected happened.

“The Holy Spirit moved on me,” Brandon says. “Immediately I knew God was calling Vicki and me to Vanuatu to help start the clinic.”

Positive he had heard from God but wanting a confirmation, he prayed and asked God to speak the same thing to Vicki.

When she arrived home a couple of hours later, Vicki told Brandon that during an appointment a woman had told her about the “Soul Survivors” story.

“That meeting wasn’t an accident,” Brandon told Vicki. “I feel like we’ve been called to go and start that clinic.”

Vicki agreed, and two weeks later they contacted Bryan.

“When Brandon told me the effect the article had on him, I knew it was much more than just an emotional response,” Bryan says. “I too felt that God was calling him to Hope Clinic.”

After establishing contact with Bryan, Brandon and Vicki applied as missionary associates with Assemblies of God World Missions. Little more than a year after the story ran, they were on Santo Island, eager to begin their term.

There was much work to be done. They had no home, and the clinic had no building. They had to learn the national language (Bislama) and adjust to the culture and the tropical climate.

Yet within weeks of arriving, they were working in the local hospital and government clinics sharing their faith. Five months after their arrival, Hope Clinic held its grand opening, and doors to the gospel that had been shuttered for years suddenly flung open.

“Hope Clinic is helping to remove the cultural barriers to the gospel that have kept many tribes from coming to Christ,” says Bryan.

The Webbs have been missionaries to Vanuatu since 2001. Over the years Bryan has stood on mountaintops and gazed down on valleys dotted by numerous villages where chiefs forbade him to minister.

“Though I couldn’t go to where the people were, now they are coming to us to receive treatment at Hope Clinic,” says Bryan. “A chief might keep me from carrying the Jesus film into his village, but he can’t keep one of his own from carrying Jesus into the village in his or her heart.”

Outside help

Hope Clinic is perched on a verdant hillside in Big Bay. One of the most modern structures in the area, it has concrete floors and a tin roof. Solar panels generate electricity for the clinic. A water catchment collects rainwater and a pump diverts it to a holding tank that provides indoor plumbing for the clinic and the Foresters’ home.

The clinic is well stocked with medical supplies, tables, beds and other equipment for the sick and injured who come seeking help.

Donations made the clinic a reality.

“AG Relief responded with overwhelming generosity,” Bryan says. “It provided much of the funding needed for materials and tools used in building Hope Clinic. Without that help, I am not sure Hope Clinic would be operational today.”

Bryan notes that AG Relief also provided a pickup truck that serves as Hope Clinic’s ambulance.

“When a person’s life is saved through the use of this ambulance, the effect on an unreached village is amazing,” says Bryan. “Communities that have resisted the gospel for more than 100 years have suddenly opened up as a result of this truck, and several churches have been planted.”

Shortly after Hope Clinic opened, a container of medicine, including high-quality antibiotics and antimalaria medications, became available. Though the medicine was valued at $250,000, the organization offering it asked only $17,000. AG Relief purchased the medications, and Convoy of Hope provided the shipping for both the truck and the medications.

“The generosity of this gift overwhelmed the Ministry of Health here in Vanuatu and was widely reported in the national press,” Bryan recalls. “The Assemblies of God gained invaluable exposure because AG Relief and Convoy of Hope worked together to help us.”

Convoy of Hope continues to provide Hope Clinic with medicines, medical equipment and supplies.

Hope Clinic is a telling example of how AG relief ministries differ from secular and most parachurch relief organizations, as AGWM integrates sharing the gospel into its relief efforts. Whether giving medical care to the suffering or feeding the hungry, AG missionaries always attempt in some way to share the good news of Jesus and connect people with a church.

Pastor Mendor, a local minister in Big Bay, states that a church has been planted in the village of Wunpuko as a result of Hope Clinic. In addition, about half a dozen out stations have been started, which Pastor Mendor anticipates will become church plants in the future.

New Life

Officially, Big Bay’s population is around 5,000. As a result, the Foresters see more than 100 patients a month. Most people who come to them for help suffer from respiratory problems, malaria, skin mites, infections or machete wounds.

Occasionally, someone with a serious illness or injury makes his or her way to the clinic. Brandon recalls the day when a mother brought her 15-month-old daughter who was suffering from a high fever.

Brandon diagnosed the toddler with meningitis and decided to transport her to the nearest hospital for care. But when they reached the Jordan River, Brandon saw that it was impassable because of recent rains. Forced to return to the clinic, he and Vicki gave the girl round-the-clock care. After several sleepless nights, the child was on her way to recovery.

“If not for the clinic, I believe she would have died,” he says. “It was a very challenging but rewarding experience.”

Not every story ends so happily.

Another family brought their premature daughter to the clinic. Knowing he didn’t have the necessary equipment to treat her, Brandon rushed her to the hospital.

“We kept her alive during the trip,” he says, “but she eventually died at the hospital. The ordeal was emotionally draining for us, but the Holy Spirit gave us strength.”

The Foresters have not limited their work to Hope Clinic. On several occasions they traveled into the bush with Bryan to hold evangelistic crusades. During the day they held clinics, and at night Bryan preached.

Besides the physical lives they helped save, the Foresters are thankful for the more than 100 people who have committed their lives to Christ at Hope Clinic and during outreach clinics.

New callings

With their term coming to an end, the Foresters are moving back to the Sikeston area to further their education and prepare for the next stage in their lives.

“We believe God has called us into His ministry for a lifetime, but we’re not sure in what capacity we will serve in the coming years,” says Brandon, noting that veteran missionaries Gary and Priscilla Ross will replace Vicki and him. “Whatever form our ministry takes, missions burns in our hearts since being in Vanuatu.”

Besides getting the clinic up and running, the Foresters have trained a Ni-Vanuatu (a national) to assist in the clinic. They have also laid the groundwork for a high-tech system that will allow a nurse at the clinic to send a patient’s symptoms to a doctor in the United States. The doctor can then diagnose the sickness and prescribe proper treatment.

 “This has been one of the defining seasons in our lives,” Brandon says. “Giving two years to missions has given us a new perspective on life and what is important.”

What is the couple’s advice to anyone interested in becoming a missionary associate?

“Don’t let fear, temptation, ambition or anything else stand in the way,” says Brandon. “Being a missionary associate is very rewarding, and you’ll grow more than you would otherwise.”

Bryan is glad to have worked with the Foresters.

“Their skills have multiplied the effectiveness of the ministry here in Vanuatu,” he says. “Because they served, entire villages have been changed for eternity.”

KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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