HUA HUUAH, Thailand (BP)–It’s dawn in the hills of northern Thailand. A shroud of mist hangs over the tiny Mien village of Hua Huuah [who-uh WHOO-ah]. As the sun begins its ascent over the surrounding mountain peaks, some Southern Baptist volunteers begin to shake dew and dirt off their tents.
The volunteer team is made up of American doctors and dentists not accustomed to the culture, the heat or the conditions under which they are being asked to work.
They pull teeth and check patients on a spartan cement slab, competing with flies and bugs for table space. Through it all they remain focused on why they are really here. They have flown to the opposite side of the globe and camped in tents because without them the Mien may never know salvation in Jesus Christ.
Yes, some of the Mien will die as a result of the medical void in this region, but — more frighteningly — more may die without a chance to know the Savior. This is why the team is here.
I’m a video producer on assignment for the International Mission Board, sent to cover the story of mobile medical missions in this part of Thailand. I am also a missionary kid, born and raised in Thailand, so I’m familiar with the people and the territory. What I’m not familiar with is this story.
It’s a departure from what I knew of medical missions while growing up in Thailand.
As a boy, I made many visits to Bangkla Baptist Hospital. Missionary doctors performed many of my checkups. Medical missions, back then, was headquartered at Bangkla. Ministries to the sick, both physically and spiritually, were conducted out of Bangkla’s small, understaffed and overworked clinic.
This story involves some of the same people — missionary doctor John Gibson, specifically — but we are miles from Bangkla.
Medical missions has changed, not in purpose, but in technique. And Thailand is a good case study for the current trend. Missionary doctors are branching out from the centralized, populated towns — where Baptist hospitals once were built — into the unreached countryside.
Gibson caught a vision to work among the hard-to-reach tribal peoples of northern Thailand. Trading in an air-conditioned doctor’s office for a tent, he is proving himself a true missions pioneer. The days are long and don’t end with the last patient’s checkup.
“Evangelism is really intimately mixed with our medical work,” Gibson says. “We have evangelism all through the day. Then in the evenings we spend the night in the village and show things like the ‘Jesus’ movie.”
These long, back-breaking days have yielded exciting results. “Over the last several years we’ve seen a number of churches planted in villages where we’ve been,” Gibson says. “I guess that’s what brings me back. Just like last night. We were in a little village and after two days of clinics we had dozens and dozens of people asking how they could find new life in Christ.”
He and other medical missionaries, such as dentist Rhonda Emmons, have chosen to work with unreached people groups like the Mien.
The Mien are among a host of tribes living in the mountains bordering Laos and Myanmar. They have little or no access to medical resources. They are isolated — set apart from modern civilization — and lost without Christ.
Most of the Mien never have heard the name of Jesus Christ. They trust in animistic traditions, relying on spirits of the trees and water to fill the emptiness in their hearts.
Poor farmers, they once managed by growing opium. But government pressure now requires them to rely on much less lucrative crops like corn and rice.
They are scorned by their countrymen for their simple and traditional lifestyle. Their plight has made them suspicious of the outside world.
Into these circumstances, Gibson has been bringing teams of medical and evangelistic volunteers to bring healing to the Mien. With the team, we have traversed bad roads and unfamiliar terrain to set up clinics in several small Mien villages in the north.
“By far and away, the most critical need for all the people I see here in Thailand is to know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior,” Gibson tells me enthusiastically.
“That’s part of being a doctor, to me. It’s not just treating ear infections and sore throats, but also treating the spiritual part of people’s being. That is something people allow me to do because I’m a doctor.”
A worship service in one of the villages highlights the real significance of these medical trips. The service is held in the home of a family who was led to the Lord by Southern Baptist medical volunteers the previous year.
As songs of praise are sung and testimonies are shared, the excited expressions of the new Mien believers reflect the changing face of medical missions.
Martin is an electronic media producer at the International Mission Board.