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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Bringing Health and Hope

By Dr. JoAnn Butrin
Feb. 7, 2010

The woman sitting across from me immediately tugged at my heart. She was thin, tired-looking and in obviously poor health. A baby and two small children wore ragged clothes and seemed to lack even the basics of life.

The situation was typical in the area of Paraguay where our HealthCare Ministries (HCM) team was working. The majority of the illnesses we saw were caused by a shortage of nutritious food, poor living conditions, and no access to adequate instruction and medical care.

I took the toddler on my lap and played with her while I did a preliminary exam. Immediately, I noticed lice, a skin disease and a draining ear.

Looking up to ask the woman a question, I saw tears running down her cheeks. When I asked what was wrong, she said, "No medical person has ever been willing to touch my children until now."

This time the tears were my own. To think that such a simple act had touched her heart! I hugged her and told her about the love of Jesus and how much her Heavenly Father cared for her. She accepted Christ and was warmly embraced by a team of counselors from the church that hosted the HCM team.

Such a scene is common where HCM clinics are held. Touching those in need in the name of Jesus breaks down the barriers of language, culture, gender and social standing. Each time that happens, the curtained clinic transforms into a sanctuary.

Medicine and ministry
HCM was formed when Dr. Paul Williams, an Assemblies of God neonatologist, sensed a call to medical missions. In the early 1980s he approached AG missions leaders about starting a medical missions program. After several challenges and hindrances, HCM became an AGWM outreach in 1984. I was among the first missionaries to join Dr. Williams, along with missionaries Joe and Eloise Judah and Peggy Johnson Knutti. Rick Salvato joined soon afterward. Today, under missionary Dr. Deb Highfill's leadership, HCM includes 21 missionaries and support personnel.

The first HCM clinics were held in Latin America, but the ministry quickly expanded to other parts of the world. In addition to clinics, HCM personnel began responding to disasters and emphasizing health education. I wrote You Can Be Healthy, a children's book on hygiene and nutrition, and Dr. Williams and I worked together to develop Foundations for Health, a Global University course. HCM also sponsored seminars and training courses on topics such as community health and development, tropical medicine, disaster preparedness, medical evan­gelism and much more.

HCM clinic locations may differ widely, but the method of conducting the clinics is similar. At each clinic site, nurses begin with triage - taking patients' medical histories, blood pressures and temperatures. The patient then sees a doctor or other medical professional who makes an assessment. If the clinic is in a country where there is religious freedom, HCM personnel proceed to spiritual counseling where patients hear a clear presentation of the gospel, followed by a visit to the pharmacy to receive instructions on how to take their medication or to pick up their glasses.

"Anything can happen there!" says Deb, director of HealthCare Ministries. "People accept Christ, receive both natural and divine healing and some are delivered from demons. When an outpouring of divine healing and God's intervention takes place, the news spreads like wildfire."

Partnering with the national church
All HCM clinics begin with an invitation from a missionary or national church. During the planning stage, missionaries and church leaders arrange the logistics for the team and canvass neighborhoods to let people know about the upcoming clinic. When possible, the HCM team works side by side with medical professionals from the host area.

"We like to work with national physicians for two reasons," says Deb. "First, it helps local medical personnel understand what we do. Second, we can learn from each other. They help us understand the local medical conditions, and we can at times inspire them so they can continue reaching out to others long after we leave. We develop strong relationships with national believers, and couldn't do our work without them."

One of HCM's goals is that people in an area understand the connection with the local church. This gives the church positive recognition. Local churches help by providing translators, assisting with registration and traffic flow, and working as spiritual counselors. The spiritual counselors at the clinics must be people from the area — someone people know and who will remain after the team leaves. All these factors affirm the church and provide pastors with opportunities to meet and minister to people in the neighborhoods.

"The pastors we work with have a tremen­dous desire to reach the lost," says Deb. "For example, when we were conducting a dental clinic in Ethiopia last year, a young woman kept asking to have her teeth cleaned. The dental hygienists with us were completely booked and didn't have even one empty time slot. We tried to explain this to the woman, but she kept coming back. Thinking we weren't communicating well, we finally took her to one of the pastors and asked him to explain the situation. Instead, he graciously gave her his time slot so she could have her teeth cleaned. When we told him we would have no time available for him, he said, ‘I understand. But it's more important for her to receive help.' He was more intent on reaching people in his community than he was about his own health and comfort."

Since HCM's purpose is to facilitate the work of missionaries and national churches in their outreach to communities, its ministry is often tailored to meet specific needs. At times a team will offer medical care in a clinic setting; at other times it is more appropriate to con­duct a health fair, teach on health education, or sometimes both. Other teams provide training in community health evangelism and development. All of these venues point to the ultimate goal of advancing the kingdom of Christ and seeing people give their lives to Jesus. HCM often receives reports of churches doubling in size following a medical clinic. In many areas a medical outreach has been the catalyst for a church plant.

A vivid example of HCM's role in opening doors for ministry took place several years ago in Albania. The government had recently opened its borders to outsiders after many years of complete isolation and strict communist rule. Missionary Rodney Tilley requested a small HCM team to work alongside a group of Albanian doctors in the capital city of Tirane. I was privileged to be a part of this groundbreaking outreach.

The doctors were filled with questions about our work. As we built relationships with them, we approached the subject of reading the Bible. As Dr. Williams traced the history of how the gospel spread around the world and was now being shared in their country, they were truly moved and wanted to pray with the team. This marked the beginning of what eventually became the first church plant in Albania. Today the Albania Assemblies of God is thriving, with a number of churches and a Bible school.

By offering medical, dental and optical care, HCM has the opportunity to touch the physical needs of those they serve. Offering a tangible demonstration of Jesus' love often opens doors to share testimonies of His saving grace. In countries where HCM teams can share the gospel openly, as many as several hundred people pray to receive Christ at the clinics.

Spiritual sight
Not every country welcomes medical clinics. Some actually view them as an insult against their own medical system. In these countries we may do health teaching or an optical clinic.

An infectious joy occurs when a person puts on a pair of glasses and sees clearly — often for the first time. The smiles are contagious.

"At one clinic a man came to us in desperate need," says Deb. "He lived in an area where men hunted for food, but his eyesight had deteriorated so much that he could no longer hunt and provide for his family. The only way he could find food was to go to the local garbage dump and pick out leftovers.

"At the clinic he was examined and given a pair of glasses. He put on the glasses and realized he could see clearly again. Turning to us, he asked, ‘Why did you come here?' We told him we were there because of the love of Jesus.

"Before he left the clinic, the man accepted Christ. He gained both physical and spiritual sight that day, and as a result, his entire family was transformed."

Deb also tells of a woman who came to an optical clinic in Eurasia. After workers fitted her with glasses, the woman started to cry. When asked what was wrong, she looked down at the toddler at her side. "This is the first time I have seen my baby's face," she said. Turning to the optical worker, she then asked, "Why would you leave your country of wealth and come here?" The HCM volunteer was able to share the gospel, and the woman accepted Christ as her savior.

More than clinics
The ever-increasing areas of need and the unique circumstances in countries around the world are prompting HCM to expand its areas of outreach. Since its beginning, HCM teams have ministered in 86 countries, taking 17 trips in 2009.

"The Lord is opening great doors through medical evangelism," says Deb. "Most people think of HCM as strictly medical and dental clinics, but we do much more than that. In places where clinics are not allowed, opportunities are available to provide health education. People who would never come to a church for a service often attend teaching sessions about health, hygiene and illness prevention. As they witness the compassion shown by HCM personnel and sense the love of Christ, they often start coming to church to find out more."

In an African country, a medical evangelism team assisted in a prison by doing physical exams. As a result, an inmate accepted Christ. Later the team discovered he was a notorious criminal. Because of that outreach, the Assemblies of God was allowed to build a baptistery inside the prison for further ministry among the inmates.

HCM is also including counseling as part of its outreach. Especially as follow-up in disaster-stricken areas where people need help in dealing with the emotional devastation that occurs. In response, counselors now accompany HCM teams sent to areas of war or catastrophe.

"If we continue to make ourselves available to God, we are confident that He will open doors and make things happen," says Deb. "HCM is all about using the skills He has given us to touch lives. We're excited about what He is allowing us to do."

Dr. JoANN BUTRIN is International Ministries director for AG World Missions and former HealthCare Ministries director.

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