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Medical volunteers heal Lebanese hearts amid war aftermath

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SOUTHERN LEBANON (BP)–Sherri Redding* listens intently to her stethoscope. It’s 10 a.m., and the makeshift Southern Baptist medical clinic in southern Lebanon is already buzzing. Patients line up outside the clinic’s door in plastic lawn chairs. Inside, a handful of doctors and nurses are moving at full tilt.

But Redding manages to tune out the commotion. Right now, the nurse practitioner is focused on the man at the other end of her stethoscope. His name is Abdullah* and he’s complaining of back pain and breathing problems. What Redding doesn’t know is that while she listens to Abdullah’s lungs, she’s also healing his heart.

Redding is part of a Southern Baptist medical relief team ministering to Lebanese communities ravaged by the recent Israel-Hezbollah war. Abdullah, like many others, has come to the clinic because treatment is free and because there are no doctors left in his hometown.

“During the war a lot of people evacuated to Beirut, even left the country,” Redding said. “But not everyone has come back, and there are still areas where the [local] physicians haven’t returned. … We want to be there to fill the gap.”

Most come seeking routine medical care. The morning of Abdullah’s visit, the team treats a baby suffering from a mouth fungus, a diabetic woman with a wound that’s slow to heal and a grinning 6-year-old named Ahmed*. He’s come so nurses can check a row of stitches on his head. Bashfully, Ahmed explains that a friend hit him with a rock.

By nightfall, the team has seen nearly 40 patients.

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With the fighting more than two months behind them, volunteers haven’t had to contend with gunshot or shrapnel wounds, trauma one might expect in a war zone. Instead, work-related injuries are on the rise as rebuilding efforts intensify. One man is treated for a cut from a jagged piece of rebar, another limps in after dropping a concrete block on his toe.

But mending broken bodies is only part of the team’s task in Lebanon. Despite their experience and expertise, medicine can do only so much to make their patients whole again. Children shriek in terror at the booming sound of soldiers detonating unexploded bombs. Some families have seen everything they own reduced to rubble. Many are thankful simply to have survived the war without losing a loved one. Others are not so fortunate.

“Their spirits are wounded and they’re very afraid,” said Elaine Brown, a volunteer nurse from a Southern Baptist church in Georgia. “The suffering is just so real it’s hard to see, especially the children.

“We heard so many people say over and over, ‘We’re used to this; it’s our way of life.’ That was really disturbing to me.”

LIVING OUT LOVE

There is hope amid the devastation, however. Redding and other Southern Baptist relief workers have witnessed firsthand how the Lord is using them to bring healing to this war-torn community.

“Right now the medical needs are not that huge, but the spiritual needs are great and people are really seeking,” Redding said. “A large percentage of our patients talk about feeling stressed -– not feeling any peace. It gives us an opportunity” to provide real encouragement.

“We pray that the Lord brings people to the clinic whose hearts He has already prepared.”

Wrapping up her exam, Redding hands Abdullah a blister-pack of Pepto-Bismol-colored pills and a book as a gift to his family. Inside the front cover she writes, “I pray God brings healing to your body, peace to your heart and blessings to your family.”

Abdullah’s deep-set eyes betray he is deeply touched by her bedside manner.

“I’ve never actually had anyone listen to my lungs before,” he tells her. “I’ve seen lots of doctors and they just take my pressure and tell me to leave. They don’t actually listen to me. I’ve never had anyone take this much time with me.”

“Our spiritual needs and our physical needs are intertwined,” Redding explained. “If someone is sick or hurting, they may not be able to think about their spiritual needs until their physical needs are met.”

Though volunteers weren’t always able to talk about their faith directly, the medical team wasn’t short on alternative means to share the Good News. Doctors and nurses frequently asked to pray with patients. Sometimes, sharing Jesus’ love was as simple as sharing a hug. Brown, a geriatric nurse, recalls meeting an elderly woman who visited the clinic.

“She was so hungry for contact, to hug somebody, to have somebody hug her –- to love her. She latched on to me and didn’t want to let me go. I loved returning that hug. I don’t even know her name, but I will never forget her face.”

Opportunities to love others also came outside the doctor-patient relationship. When the medical team’s van blew a tire, Brown was able to share hope with a young man named Nassir* who helped change it. Another day, the wife of a high-ranking Lebanese government official visited the clinic. She came with an entourage of about 30 women to thank the volunteers for their work.

Every one of those ladies welcomed the team and the hope that they brought, Brown said. “That really thrilled my heart -– the whole trip was worth it just to see that.”

CHAOS AND FAUX PAS

Representing Christ wasn’t always as easy as talking with a new friend or checking blood pressure. The medical team also dealt with its share of communication chaos and cultural faux pas.

“It was difficult because of the language barrier –- we didn’t always have interpreters,” Brown said. “If you’re creative, there are always ways you can [express love and compassion] through a smile or a motion or whatever.”

Kerfoot Walker, a physician from Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, recounts a mishap he experienced while treating a woman having trouble with her knee.

“I touched her knee to examine it and you would have thought the world had suddenly erupted,” Walker said.

To his surprise, other women in the room suddenly stood up with a collective gasp. Unbeknown to Walker, Arabic culture dictates that it’s inappropriate for men to touch women other than their wives, especially in a public setting like the clinic’s waiting room.

“We then discussed her knee more carefully without touching it,” he said. “She didn’t care if I touched her knee, but everybody else in the room was fainting!”

Cross-cultural pitfalls aside, volunteers said overall they felt very welcomed in southern Lebanon.

“The way the people received us -– they were so appreciative and hospitable, just really genuinely open and accepting of us regardless of the fact that we were Americans,” Brown said.

INVOLVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES

Medical teams are scheduled to continue relief work in southern Lebanon into next year and volunteers are needed. Individuals with medical experience interested in learning more about work in Lebanon should e-mail [email protected], or call 1-866-667-8996.

Disaster relief opportunities also are open for volunteer teams working to rebuild homes in southern Lebanon. Construction experience isn’t a prerequisite. E-mail Jim Richardson, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, to find out how to get involved — [email protected]

Southern Baptists who can’t travel to Lebanon can still be part of the work God is doing through giving and especially through prayer.

“A lot of times they [Southern Baptists] feel like they’re praying for a place that’s far away, for people that they can’t see, for people that they don’t know,” Redding said. “But the Lord is answering their prayers.

“If we go out without prayer, we’re going in our own strength. Yes, we can treat patients, but if the Lord isn’t in it, then what we’ve done is no different than secular work,” she added.

Gifts for relief efforts in Lebanon can be made to the World Hunger and General Relief funds by calling 1-800-999-3113 or by going online to imb.org/worldhunger.

“As hard as the war is, God has allowed it to be an opening for us to be here and for us to share His love,” Brown said. “We can be something that they can cling to, and we can offer them hope in Him.”
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*Names changed for security reasons.
— See Southern Baptist volunteers in action in Lebanon; watch the “Stand Firm” video.
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— Prayer requests:
* Pray for peace in Lebanon and throughout the Arabic world.
* Pray for the recovery and renewal of those who lost homes, livelihoods and/or loved ones during the war.
* Pray for volunteers willing to go and minister to the Lebanese people.
* Pray for physical protection of volunteer teams, as well as for boldness to make the most of opportunities to share the love of Christ.
* Pray that the Lord will continue to open doors for volunteers and soften hearts.
* Pray that God will strengthen Lebanese Baptists and continue to grow their vision for ministering to their Muslim neighbors.