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FIRST-PERSON: When missionaries get sick


RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Lying in a hospital bed overseas in October — for the second time this year -– I wondered what I had done to deserve, first, a bout of food poisoning and, now, an aching appendix.

As a writer for the International Mission Board, I have been blessed by the Lord with the privilege of traveling the world in search of stories about Southern Baptist missions. At that moment, however, I winced in pain and groaned as my Colombian doctor prodded my abdomen and asked in broken English, “Does it hurt more here, or here?” Both places hurt -– a lot.

Several hours (and several syringes of morphine) later, I calmed down enough for the doctors to explain they suspected appendicitis and recommended surgery, slated for 6 a.m. the next day. Nurses wheeled me into a room on the hospital’s maternity ward (I think they were short on space) and said goodnight. A funny thing happened as I lay there in the darkness staring at the room’s puppy-themed wallpaper –- I realized how thankful I was.

Thankful for a modern hospital and caring, competent doctors. Thankful for friends who rushed me to the ER, waited by my bedside, even volunteered to spend the night on one of the hospital’s uncomfortable pullout beds which we dubbed “the rack.” Above all, thankful for the generosity of Southern Baptists.

Because of your faithful giving through the Cooperative Program, I didn’t have to worry about how I would pay for my surgery. The same is true for the more than 5,300 IMB missionaries serving around the world; the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering provide for their care. In fact, 100 percent of the Lottie Moon offering is used to support missionaries on the field.

This may sound obvious, but missionaries need health care just like we do here in the U.S. -– and then some. To give you a glimpse of the enormous resources required to meet the medical needs of a global missionary force, take a look at a few numbers.


As of Oct. 1, 2007, the more than 500 missionaries (and nearly 400 children) in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa spent 395 days in the hospital and visited the emergency room 34 times (five included medevac flights). Missionaries made 669 visits to doctors, 325 to dentists, 211 to pediatricians, 128 to OB-GYNs, 98 to optometrists, 90 to dermatologists and 11 to oncologists. Those visits included 524 orders for lab work, 426 radiologic exams (X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds or MRIs), 96 cardiac procedures 72 surgeries, 67 mammograms and 50 colonoscopies/gastroscopies.

Keep in mind, these are just the figures for one of the IMB’s 11 regions. Good health care doesn’t come cheap.

Last year, the IMB spent $18.7 million meeting the medical needs of missionaries. That’s not including $1.7 million in dental care. Projected medical expenses for 2007 top $19.5 million, roughly 7 percent of the organization’s $288.9 million budget.


Sound bodies aside, many missionaries say the key value of the health care they receive is peace of mind -– freedom to focus on the Gospel without worrying about the risks of living in some of the poorest, most remote places in the world. Make no mistake, sharing Jesus in a foreign country can be hazardous to your health.

In February, armed robbers beat down the hotel room door of missionaries Carl and Kay Garvin of Arkansas who serve in Tanzania. Carl’s arm was nearly severed by a machete; Kay was shot in the chest. The bullet pierced her lung, missing her aorta by half an inch. Airlifted to a hospital in Kenya, the Garvins are completing their recovery in the States.

While crossing a city street in Tijuana, Mexico, in June, Texas natives Tommy and Beth Larner were hit by a 50-passenger bus. Tommy bore the brunt of the blow, which shattered his right femur into more than 30 pieces and ripped a gaping 8-inch wound below his knee. After five orthopedic surgeries, four weeks in a hospital trauma ward and months of physical therapy, Tommy and Beth again are planting churches among the people of Tijuana.

About the same time I was being prepped for an appendectomy in Bogotá, Florida native Tami Wood was suffering the early stages of her eighth bout with malaria.

That’s right, eighth. Tami and her husband David serve in Burkina Faso. Together, they’ve endured more than 15 cases of the mosquito-borne disease during their 13 years in West Africa. This time, Tami’s symptoms warranted a trip to the ER and a 24-hour hospital stay.

Think that sounds bad? Consider the host of diseases that plague members of the “Xtreme Team,” missionaries serving in ultra-remote areas of South America. Besides malaria, a few of the other “bugs” they’ve sought treatment for include dysentery, giardia, typhoid, dengue fever and skin anthrax (bacteria).

“The IMB takes care of everything and we never, ever have to worry about medical attention,” says Xtreme teamer Joe Brewster, a member of Southpark Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. “I thank God every time for the way He has provided through Lottie Moon.”


And don’t forget about missionary kids (MKs). Lottie Moon and Cooperative Program dollars ensure the well-being of some 3,400 MKs living overseas, including more than 120 babies born to missionary parents so far this year.

As a new father myself, I have plenty of things to worry about regarding my 7-month-old daughter (namely boys, dating and marriage) without obsessing over every cough or sniffle. The thought of her getting hurt or becoming seriously ill here in the States is scary enough -– but what if it happened overseas? My faith is put to shame when I consider folks like missionaries Charles and Brittany Shirey in Suriname.

The Louisiana couple share Christ with the Aukan, descendants of Dutch slaves who live deep within the South American country’s rain forest. Instead of returning to the States to give birth to their first two children, Brittany says she felt God’s call to remain in Suriname. Both boys were born healthy by emergency cesarean -– both deliveries covered because of Southern Baptists’ passion for missions.

“It was a witness to the people,” Brittany says, explaining that the Lord has used her obedience to open new doors to share Christ with Aukan women.

While working on a story in France this summer, I met Texan Craig Kendrick, who serves among West African Muslims in Paris. Craig and his wife Julie have five kids, including 4-year-old Michael who was born on the mission field with cerebral palsy. His condition requires weekly visits with speech and physical therapists, special shoes to develop his walk and prescription drugs to prevent epileptic seizures. Michael’s care costs thousands annually, every dime paid by Southern Baptists.

“Because of generous giving, my wife and I are able to raise Michael with no worries about whether he is getting the best care available,” Craig says. “Thanks to amazing partners like you, our biggest concerns each morning are the salvation and spiritual walk of our children and how to best join God at work to tell West Africans about His gift of Jesus Christ.”


But no matter how generously Southern Baptists give, not all stories end the way you want them to.

In 2004, missionaries Mark and Jan Moses of Texas were both diagnosed with cancer the same month. The couple had ministered for 19 years among the Philippines’ Illongo people, raising a family of five along the way. Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon funds provided the treatment for Jan’s two-year cancer battle after the couple were forced to return to America. She lost that fight this past February at the age of 50. God blessed Mark with a full recovery; he is now awaiting medical clearance to return to the Philippines to continue the ministry he and Jan left behind.

Whenever I hear news of some sickness or tragedy that befalls one of our missionaries, the devil fans the flames of a nagging doubt -– one I believe keeps many from accepting Jesus’ gift of salvation. If God really is good and loving, why do bad things happen to good people?

“Missionaries are not exempt from illness, accidents or attack,” IMB President Jerry Rankin once shared with me. “It is not a matter of whether one is struck by affliction but how we respond to it. God allows sickness because He knows it is an opportunity for us to reflect our faith and God’s faithfulness through it.

“Sometimes that is a missionary’s most effective testimony.”

Here’s my challenge: With the Christmas season upon us, prayerfully consider what the Lord may be leading you to give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Your gift could help save a missionary’s life or bring a new one into the world. What is certain is that you’ll be answering God’s Great Commission call, helping enable thousands of Southern Baptist missionaries to share Jesus Christ with those who have never heard.
Don Graham is a writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. The Lottie Moon Offering for International Missions, with a goal this year of $165 million, accounts for more than 54 percent of the IMB’s budget to support 5,300-plus missionaries serving around the world.