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FIRST-PERSON: Seed-sowing after the tsunami

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (BP)–“My heart is deeply moved by your compassion for my people,” a community leader in the Aceh province of Indonesia told a group of doctors and nurses serving as Baptist volunteers to this tsunami-stricken region of Asia. The group of eight doctors and nurses, sponsored by Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., was composed of Olive members and others from local churches. Organized with only three weeks of preparation time, we traveled to this Muslim region in mid-January and had 12 days of fruitful ministry.

The plan for this project was conceived by Troy Bush, minister of evangelism and missions at Olive, with the instant blessing of Pastor Ted Traylor, the missions committee and deacon body. It seemed natural for Olive Baptist Church and the Pensacola area to reach out to a disaster-stricken community as others had done for the Pensacola area after last year’s Hurricane Ivan. Pensacola churches, businesses and media quickly embraced the project and provided unprecedented wide-scale community support. Sarah Davies, a local pharmacist, led other church volunteers in the urgent task of collecting the necessary medications, medical supplies and food for the team within a very narrow time frame.

Estimates place the death toll from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami on the westernmost tip of Indonesia at over 200,000 lives. Few in the region had ever even heard of a tsunami before this tragedy. An earthquake of similar intensity in the region in 1967 did not result in a subsequent tsunami.

No one was prepared for the resultant collapse of the local infrastructure. Water supplies were contaminated. Rice fields were destroyed. Destruction of concrete homes required the establishment of makeshift refugee camps throughout the region. Everywhere were the sights and smells of human death. Curiously, few animal carcasses were found after the event. Locals report that the creatures sensed the perilous event and fled to the hills.

The people of Aceh were searching for spiritual answers in the midst of this natural disaster. Some said they cried out to God to save them while floundering in the water. Many said that it was a sign of God’s judgment on them similar to the flood of Noah. Prayers were offered up daily for God’s mercy. Assurance seemed elusive.

The Pensacola team members listened to the grief-stricken people of Aceh tell their stories of the loss of loved ones. It seemed no family was untouched. Missing person posters were found on walls in public locations. The survivors were suddenly forced to scramble to meet their basic needs for food, water and shelter. Orphaned children were taken in by neighboring families.

Indonesia’s Aceh province has a population of more than 3 million. The region has been relatively closed to westerners for decades and the people there lived under Islamic law. The provincial capital Banda Aceh (population 300,000) is known as the “Veranda of Mecca” as it is the final stopping point for ships of Southeast Asian Muslim pilgrims heading to Mecca. Christians in the entire province are estimated at less than 50, and some say “to be Aceh is to be Muslim.”

To add to the woes of the local people, the region has been in a civil war since the 1970s, pitting the Indonesian military against a rebel army (the Free Aceh Movement known as GAM) intent on establishing an independent Islamic nation of Aceh. The GAM forces, with many civilian sympathizers, have strongholds in the mountainous regions of the province and along the western coast where atrocities have been reported on both sides. It was this western coast that was hardest hit from the tsunami and subsequently now is the most isolated. The announcement of resumed peace talks by the Indonesian government is a welcome development.

The heart-wrenching destruction caused by the tsunami naturally led to an outpouring of concern by Baptists in Florida and beyond. What could our churches do to reach out to these people on the opposite side of the world? During a sermon preached at Olive by Troy Bush, minister of evangelism and missions, on “Who is my neighbor?” a call was made for doctors and nurses to form the first of several teams to travel to the region to provide care for physical needs as a tangible expression of God’s love. Subsequent teams would supply disaster relief, medical/dental care and construction help. Many uncertainties faced the first team. Initial plans called for the use of tents, water purifiers and MREs for team members. Few had ever even heard of the region before. The safety of team members could not be assured under such conditions.

Following Troy Bush’s challenge, the eight initial team members all personally reported a strong sense of God calling them for this assignment. A logistical strategist for the endeavor praised their “instant obedience” while aware of the unprecedented nature of the assignment and its challenging conditions. It was envisioned that the project would help launch a tangible, ongoing expression of God’s love. Some called it the beginning of a “second tsunami” of Southern Baptist volunteers for the disaster stricken region. Certainly such work would have to be contextualized as the people of the Aceh region live under a belief system in which Americans are often perceived as decadent due to the influence of Hollywood and world media. Efforts by team members would be stressed as they attempted to share Christ’s love by good deeds. Obedience to Christ’s command to “Go” compelled the Olive church leadership to press forward with the project.

Upon arrival in the tsunami-stricken area, the team immediately set out to unload supplies, stock a pharmacy and meet with local village leaders in order to schedule clinic times at various refugee camps in the region. By God’s grace the team was able to stay in a comfortable home with electricity and safe food and water. Food choices were quite interesting. There was plenty of rice, which was prepared boiled or fried and sometimes served with eggs, meat or chicken. The area had an array of delicious fruits including pineapple, watermelon, oranges, apples, papaya, mango, as well as less familiar choices such as rambutan, salak and langsat. The coffee grown in the mountains of Aceh is reported to be the best in all of Indonesia. All were grateful for God’s bountiful provisions.

The team traveled daily to refugee camps where hundreds were seen. Typical medical problems included dirty wounds, respiratory infections, asthma, scabies, malaria, head and body aches and rib injuries. Many had swallowed ocean water as they attempted to swim in the tsunami waters to safety. Psychological trauma was evident as survivors struggled to cope with their grief. This provided the opportunity for team members to pray with the people and share in their sorrows.

One man told a physician he was unable to look at the ocean because every time he did “it rose up like a cobra and started dancing trying to hypnotize me.” He feared that the bodies of tsunami victims had been desecrated and that their spirits haunted his refugee camp at night. The physician through an interpreter was able to pray with the man who was afterwards quite moved.

Team members traveled to one village where tsunami waters had destroyed 60 out of 70 homes. A door was used as an exam table and assistants resisted talking for fear that flies would rush in their mouths. One of the group’s physicians drained a large leg abscess. Another physician visited a small hospital where all medications and supplies had been exhausted. The Olive team was able to supply complete treatment courses for all the patients, including a teenager with severe asthma who was gasping for breath at the time of the visit.

Throughout the visit team members actively sought for “a person of peace” as described in Luke 10. Such a person would open his door to you, receive your blessing, and show interest. A leader in the local mosque became such a person as he befriended a team physician and allowed the entire team to see patients inside the mosque. One of the patients that day was the leader of an Islamic political party who arranged for the team to treat patients at the refugee camp his party sponsored. A veteran of ministry in Indonesia later remarked, “I never thought I would see a time when Southern Baptists would be allowed to work in a mosque or at a camp run by an Islamic political party and here it has happened on the same day. God be praised.”

Team members were well-received during their stay. People would often stop them on the street to thank them for coming to the region to help. The local children were quite playful and talkative, providing daily entertainment. Townspeople often would provide fruit and coffee as thanks for the Olive team’s efforts. Unfortunately a local radio station often broadcast false reports that American missionaries were kidnapping children and having illicit relations with the local women. Fortunately, locals seemed to shrug off such reports as the media had a reputation for inaccuracy.

Team members saw their task as a “seed-sowing” work that would reap spiritual fruit in future days. Their job was to establish meaningful and ongoing relations with the local leaders and their people. Such relationships would build valuable bridges of trust and communication for later teams’ efforts. Every effort was made to dispel the stereotype of the “ugly American” as team members strove to be the visible representation of Christ to the people of Aceh. The team’s prayer is that many other workers will follow them in shnowing God’s love to this grief-stricken land.
Don Buckley is a physician in the Pensacola area and a member of Olive Baptist Church. He also serves as a member of the board of directors for Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Don Buckley