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Medical team meets N. African spiritual, physical needs


NORTH AFRICA (BP)–Laila* lies motionless in the sweltering heat of a remote medical clinic poised at the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Black flies swarm the young mother’s face, feasting on the yellow infection that oozes from her eyes. An IV impales one of her arms; the other drapes limply over her swollen belly.

At six-and-a-half months pregnant, Laila is suffering from a severe case of measles. Though she is likely to recover, the disease is a virtual death sentence for her baby.

Jenny Byrd,* a nurse practitioner from Georgia, watches over her. Speaking broken Arabic, Byrd caresses the Muslim woman’s arm and tries to reassure Laila’s mother and husband who wait anxiously by her side. A simple vaccination would have prevented this tragedy, but Byrd knows the situation is now beyond medicine’s reach. She closes her eyes and silently asks God for a miracle and the chance to explain why she came to North Africa.

Byrd is part of a team of Southern Baptist medical workers called TRUTH — Trailblazers Reaching the Unreached Through Healthcare. They share Christ in an Islamic country so hostile to the Gospel that its name can’t be printed without risking the team’s safety.

Chuck Castle,* a family doctor from Texas, leads the TRUTH team. After volunteering on a handful of short-term trips, Castle knew God wanted him serving overseas fulltime. By 1999, he and his wife, Debbie,* were in North Africa, pioneering a medical ministry supported by the International Mission Board.

The need was staggering. More than 17,000 people live within a 5-mile radius of the town where the Castles’ ministry is based. Jobs are scarce, so most families scrape by as farmers or nomads. Electricity and running water are luxuries, and with no sanitation, the town’s streets reek of animal waste and rotting garbage.

Corruption is rampant, even at the town’s only hospital. Locals know it as the place “where people go to die.” Castle tells horror stories of doctors turning away surgery patients until they can provide supplies for their own operations, or nurses charging extra to insert a patient’s IV and then charging again to remove it.

SPIRITUAL POVERTY

But the town’s physical needs pale in comparison with its spiritual poverty. When the Castles arrived, there were no churches of any kind or any known Christians. Folk Islam, a blend of teachings from the Quran with animism and ancestor worship, dominates the religious landscape.

“These people live in fear,” Castle said. “They’re afraid of evil spirits, afraid of God…. It can be overwhelming to be the only beacon of hope in such a dark place.”

Castle remembers the day he discovered just how deep that darkness was. When his next-door neighbor, Yusef, died, his funeral was like a glimpse into hell, Castle said.

Women were sobbing, covering themselves with dirt and ripping out their hair. Some were beaten by their husbands because their tears didn’t “honor” Yusef’s death. One of Castle’s friends swallowed an amulet engraved with Quranic verses and collapsed in a seizure. Men rallied together to count the 99 names of Allah in hopes of giving Yusef an extra push toward heaven.

But Castle knew heaven wasn’t where his Muslim friend was going. Though he had talked with Yusef about God, Castle hadn’t yet asked him to decide to follow Christ. He thought he had more time.

“From that point forward, God got my attention and said, ‘This is urgent. You can’t take for granted these people are going to be with you forever,'” he said.

HEALING THE SICK

Back at the clinic, that sense of urgency is obvious as Castle hustles to treat the crowd of about 30 people who fill his waiting room.

On an average day he’ll see patients with anything from headaches to terminal cancer. He points to dirty drinking water and mosquitoes, which fuel diseases like dysentery and malaria, as the culprits behind many of the clinic’s visitors. Malnutrition is common; so is trauma — burns, cuts and broken bones.

Making matters worse, Castle said, is a stubborn reliance on traditional tribal medicine. He’s seen old men who drink kerosene to calm an upset stomach, mothers who burn their babies’ foreheads with hot coals to soothe colic and children with broken limbs that need amputation because they were splinted so tightly they became gangrenous.

Fortunately, Castle doesn’t handle all of these patients alone. Besides Byrd, the TRUTH team includes two registered nurses, a nutritionist and a handful of national nurses and pharmacists. Working together, they saw more than 6,000 patients in a six-month period, including 3,000 children, and administered more than 1,000 vaccinations.

As a doctor, Castle admits it would be easy to lose himself in the town’s medical needs and neglect the real reason he came to North Africa. He wants his patients to know their need for spiritual healing is just as important as their need for physical healing, and he makes it a priority to personally share that message.

“Here, you treat someone and they get well, and two weeks later they’re dying again of the exact same thing because their water’s bad,” Castle said. “Without an eternal solution to these problems, it’s futile.”

With the help of the TRUTH team’s national partners, the numbers have jumped from zero to more than 90 baptized believers and six house churches in less than 10 years.

BITTERSWEET MIRACLE

Against the odds, Laila, the pregnant mother Byrd treated for measles, delivered her baby alive at seven months. He lived for about a week — a miracle, Byrd said, given Laila’s illness and the lack of neonatal care. Byrd was invited to Laila’s house to meet the child the day after he was born.

“I was able to pray with the family and tell them what a miracle their son was and Who gave them this gift,” Byrd said. “It’s not [an ideal] ending, but Laila got to spend a week with a child that should have been stillborn.

“We have to trust God and His sovereignty. Maybe He allowed this to happen so we could have the opportunity to tell her about Jesus and show her His love.”
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*Names changed. Don Graham writes for the International Mission Board. Find out more about how Christians are bringing TRUTH to North Africa at commissionstories.com/medical.

    About the Author

  • Don Graham