"Helping Without Hurting"
As I watched our toddler imitate the hand-raising movements she saw on the screen during the worship time, I was reminded that every detail of our institutional practices can be formational. At the same time, the life-and-death struggles involved with medical missions work and the tenacious commitment required to get through medical training in order to do that work require a certain amount of emotional reserve built up through experiences like the postcard toss. When the final speaker—who, in his retirement years, had followed God's leading back to North Africa to start a training program for Christian surgeons—spoke of people in the room doing "hundreds and thousands of miracles in the years to come," the spontaneous applause that erupted spoke of the hope that those gathered held: that they would see lives transformed through their labor.
While the emotional pleas were hit-or-miss, the emphasis on the spiritual realities governing our preparation and practice was solid. The point was made (in a plenary talk that could have taken place at any missions conference) that we could gain converts and still go to hell if we are not careful to guard ourselves against our own sinful inclinations to glorify ourselves. Dr. Brantly talked about imbibing Scripture through the kids' songs he learned that he later sang to himself as he lay in an isolation unit, unable to clean himself as he suffered from voluminous diarrhea. He also described his first patient in Liberia, a boy with Type 1 diabetes who died because the laboratory and pharmaceutical resources necessary weren't available, observing that "death is not the ultimate enemy." For physicians like me who often watch our patients—especially children—die despite our best efforts and the careful implementation of multi-level health programs, placing our work in this larger context of resurrection hope is both a challenge and an encouragement. Looking at our endeavors as part of God's "endgame" for redemption does not dampen the effect of any of the tragedies that we see, but it does help us to process these horrors and imbue our labor with spiritual meaning as we ache along with our patients for Christ's return.
For all the less charitable stereotypes fulfilled at the GMHC, there were many more endearing impressions: 2,800 Christian professionals and students committed to loving others through their work gathered not only to get fired up about sharing the Gospel but also to learn how to do their work with excellence. Attendees were repeatedly called to collaborate with local health systems wherever they found themselves, carefully consider the ethics of their work, and search for the best evidence to guide their medical practices wherever they were. Most important, ample time was dedicated to fellowship and discussion so that people could form relationships that will guide them for years to come.
I would encourage any health professional to visit the conference at least once in their career, as it provides an excellent counterbalance to the prevailing cynicism and despair found in many medical settings (I would offer the gentle caution that if one is inclined to be turned off by the trappings of a megachurch like Southeast, deciding in advance to overlook such things as much as possible will improve the experience.) The GMHC—or any similar missions conference—also reminds those of us in the West of how encouraging the advance of God's Kingdom across the world is at a time when a myopic narrative of decline (often tied to political or cultural "losses") frequently dominates the evangelical conversation. For those who cannot attend, the MedicalMissions.com website is an excellent place to learn more and find a mentor.
Next year, I anticipate that I'll be too busy delivering babies (in a place where it is often very unsafe to be a mother or infant) to attend. However, I am certain that I'll be in that place in part because of the GMHC, and my day-to-day practices will be shaped by what I have learned at this conference.
Matthew Loftus is working at Healthcare for the Homeless (a Federally Qualified Health Center in downtown Baltimore that serves the needs of the city's homeless) full-time as a family physician. He and his family are preparing to serve in South Sudan.
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