I was only fourteen when I decided I was going to become a medical missionary. I assumed I would be going to Africa – back then I thought all missionaries went to Africa.
But I was surprised to learn that female medical personnel were most needed in Muslim countries, where women must see a female professional and sometimes died when there were no women doctors to attend them.
So I ended up doing a medical student placement in South Asia. It was in a compound with high fences and armed guards. Women were not allowed outside the compound alone, and we had to cover every part of our body including our head. I remember old rusty beds, surgical gloves hanging out to dry after use, hot sweet tea and lots of kids with thin mums.
I started to think about wholistic health and doing medicine in a different way after I witnessed a nurse stomping a baby’s bottle under her foot. Her strange action made sense after I learned that bottle-feeding contributed to the illness of babies there. Big multinational companies sold their milk formulas cheaply and promoted bottlefeeding as the way of the West. However, many poor village women watered down the formula to make it last longer, depriving their babies of the nutrition necessary for growth. The lack of clean water and difficulty to sterilise bottles frequently led to infection and diarrhoea, then dehydration and death.
My brief time there taught me so much. I learnt the importance of preventative and community medicine. I learnt that even though curative hospital care was exhilarating and necessary, for me prevention is better than cure. I began to understand that people’s health is more than physical, and that it is bound to their poverty, education level, status, economic means, gender and religious beliefs. In short, I had begun to understand about wholism.
Another turning point in my Christian journey came when I had the opportunity to go on an evangelistic ward round. The hospital evangelist shared the gospel with patients’ relatives, who stayed to care for the patient. I thought it was great that the gospel was shared, but I was uncomfortable with the division for me: because of time constraints doctors mostly dealt with the physical and evangelists dealt with the spiritual. I didn’t want to restrict myself to being a doctor; I wanted to be a doctor sharing Christ and to teach from the Word of God. This was a good fit for the way God made me.
So I began full-time theological study while working part-time as a GP and completing my training. I was able to reflect on the interaction of the physical, emotional and spiritual. We are complex beings and being healthy is a complicated business.
When I applied to join Interserve, I was willing to go where I was most needed. That turned out to be Central Asia, where the church had grown exponentially since the fall of the Soviet Union, but leaders were young in years and young in faith. I quickly caught the vision of impacting communities in a wholistic and grassroots way, where they could be empowered to recognise and solve their problems with local resources. Our community development lessons covered many topics, such as physical health, income generation, agriculture, emotional issues and moral values like honesty and forgiveness.
Most of the communities we worked with knew we were followers of Jesus, and in time, through interaction, they developed a more positive understanding of Christianity. We did this work not as a means to evangelise or plant churches, but because it is good in itself and demonstrates the love of Jesus. In many places around the world, however, the natural consequence of such wholistic community development is that, over time, new communities of faith begin.
These early lessons have shaped my work as an Interserve Partner for the last 22 years. When there is harmony between people and God (the spiritual dimension), among people (the social dimension), within the person (the emotional dimension) and between people and their environment (the physical dimension), we have wholistic health. As Christians we work to show that Jesus is Lord of all and has reconciled all things in heaven and earth to Himself (Colossians 1:15-20). That’s wholism.
Lyn is Interserve’s Regional Director for East Asia and South Pacific. She lives in Australia with her family.