Interview with Doug Collins

Dr. Doug Collins and his family.
By Brad Dupray

Dr. Doug Collins had every opportunity to pursue the American dream, earning his medical degree from Wright State University, near Dayton, Ohio, and completing his residency at the University of Cincinnati. But Collins studied medicine with a different purpose in mind: taking the gospel overseas as a medical missionary. Collins’s prayer to find and marry a woman passionate about missions was answered when he wed Heidi in 1999. Their son, Taylor, is now 5, and their daughter, Karissa, is almost 3. Collins was raised in LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is now serving Christ in Cambodia.

What fans the flames of your passion for missions?

The fact that salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone. For every people around the world, he is their hearts’ cry, though they may not know it. In Jesus is found complete healing, joy, and peace. I cannot read the Bible and ignore God’s passion for his glory among the nations. As Psalm 67 declares, God blesses us so that more might praise him, and in that “be glad and sing for joy.” He is the light of the world and the dark places are so desperate to know that! And it’s not just individuals, but entire cultures, that are steeped in darkness. Missions announces the reality of the kingdom of God , present in his church, transforming hearts and cultures in ever growing strength.

Which came first, the interest in medicine or the interest in missions?

As an undergrad at Wheaton ( Illinois ) College, I made the “mistakes” of reading about Jim Elliot, listening to Keith Green, doing a soccer evangelism trip to the USSR , working with the homeless in inner city Chicago , and working on a well building project in rural Honduras . The seed started with a concern for the poor, and along the way, I saw how much medicine could meet their needs. The Honduras experience gave me a glimpse of the joy of holistic ministry. By day we partnered with Hondurans to build the well, and by night we shared with them about the source of living water. And so, eventually, the two streams of medicine and missions merged.

Was there a key point in time where you made the decision to go into missions, or was it more of a process?

It was definitely a process. My interest was first in serving the inner city poor something I still care about deeply. But the reality of a world where 2 billion people have not had a chance to learn about God’s love in Christ created a growing burden in my mind. I deliberately exposed myself to learning more about that. God brought into my life a friend with a like minded interest in missions. A second short term medical trip to Honduras began to solidify my interest in missions as a career. The closest thing to a point of decision may have been on a fourth year med school rotation in Mashoko, Zimbabwe, the mission hospital Dr. David and Eva Grubbs had served. That was the same year I took a challenge given at InterVarsity’s Urbana ‘96 and prayed through Operation World.

Why not just go to the mission field? Why did you take the medical route?

Missions is the work of proclaiming Christ’s salvation. Christ himself, echoing Isaiah 35 and 61, defined salvation very much in terms of healing. The evidence of his coming that he offered to John the Baptist in prison was, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk . . . the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is preached to the poor.” Jesus sent out the twelve “to preach the kingdom of God and to health the sick” (Luke 9:2)—this is the so-called “holistic commission.” To me, medicine is a wonderful way to help express God’s love to hurting and lost people. It enables me to authentically minister to people—not only at the point of need which they recognize (physical illness), but also at the level of their deeper spiritual need.

Besides the biblical backing for proclaiming salvation “in word and deed,” medicine is a challenging and satisfying field. Back in my college days, I had looked for hints from God about what direction to go in life—my strengths and interests, the advice of others like my parents, and the strange “God things” that happened on the path—all steered me toward medicine.

What was the reaction of your non-Christian medical classmates to your plans to practice medicine overseas?

Medical school was itself an enjoyable mission field. Going into it, I wasn’t sure I’d end up overseas—I was just as interested in serving the American urban poor. But I think overall, classmates respected that interest very much. If conversation veered in the direction emphasizing the “medical” in “medical missions,” that was something palatable and even admirable. But if and when it veered toward the notion of evangelism or church-planting, that often received disapproval as narrow-minded, culturally insensitive, politically incorrect, “Bible-thumping” proselytism. I tried to be shrewd yet honest, but the truth is offensive to those who reject Christ—and the wise of the world will always call us fools. The challenge for me—and where I often failed (and still fail!)—is to be more concerned with God’s reputation than I am my own.

How did you decide on Cambodia?

There are so many places you could have gone.As a missionary vision blossomed in my heart, and as Heidi came into the picture alongside me, a few key priorities emerged: we wanted to serve among a “least-reached” people group in an area of extreme poverty where medicine would be a strategic asset. I was also encouraged by our sending church’s leadership to focus on a field where open evangelism was legal, enabling me to use the gift of teaching God has given me. These priorities narrowed the field significantly. Long before all that, a friend from Team Expansion had mentioned I should check out Southeast Asia. Then, in praying through Operation World, Cambodia came onto my radar. Finally, one night while on-call at the hospital, around 3 am, I caught a glimpse of a Time magazine cover highlighting poor, war-torn Cambodia. I took the article home and shared it with Heidi and the momentum built. A survey trip and a few other “God things” happened and the ballot was cast.

Are there a significant number of U.S.-trained doctors in Cambodia, or are you a rare breed?

There are about six American missionary doctors in Cambodia. Cambodia has a significant contingent of development organizations (“NGOs”) as well, with many docs—especially Australian and European—scattered throughout. Currently, there are only two Christian clinics that I know of, and no hospital with Christ’s glory as its focus. Given the prevalence of secular NGO hospitals here, the absence of a Christian hospital is a disappointment to me; however, gladly, one is on the drawing table.

How has your medical degree opened doors that couldn’t be opened otherwise? Or has it?

That’s a hard one to answer. In days gone by, medicine was thought to be a door-opener to get into “creative access” countries. It still is in many ways; however, for me it closed as many doors as it opened. Of the four countries on the Southeast Asian peninsula, only Cambodia was open for me to work as a doctor and a church-planter. Politically, the climate is trickier to navigate nowadays. But, at the individual and local village level, medicine has certainly been a strategic “need-meeter” on our team. People who are hurting or facing death are very open to listening to spiritual truth. Providing compassionate, competent care to people who are often used to a corrupt health system rife with bribery and neglect causes many defenses to fall—for them and their families. Village mayors are more open to allowing us to start an evangelistic Bible study in their village when we tell them we’re also willing to help the sick.

What are some of the most pressing medical needs you deal with in Cambodia?

As a poor and tropical country (without the public health advantage of winter), Cambodia has a high disease burden. Add into the mix a very undertrained and often unethical health care system and a recent history of war and oppression, and you get a discouragingly high level of illness. Tuberculosis infects more people in Cambodia than almost anywhere in Asia. HIV/AIDS is also very prevalent (a higher percentage of infection than India), as are mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria. But the more common diseases are the biggest killers: viral and bacterial diarrheas (often worsened by malnutrition) and acute respiratory infections.

What about medical facilities? Is there a hospital? A clinic?

Typically, the context of medical missions in Asia requires interfacing with the existing national health system. So I have had to develop a two-pronged approach to my work. Part of the time, I work in an advisory role at the local rural hospital, and another significant chunk of time is dedicated to visiting the poor in their homes in the villages surrounding the rural town we live in. The adventure of motorcycling on dirt roads to villages or sitting on the raised-bamboo floor of a patient’s tiny house are some fun elements of the work. But there are a wealth of frustrating elements as well: the child whose parents refuse surgery or a cast for a grossly fractured arm, preferring the inadequate care of the local traditional healer, or the hospital’s refusal to treat a probable case of TB because they can’t see the germ in the patient’s sputum, to name a few.

How do you get the supplies you need to do your work?

Supplies to run this “clinic on wheels” are secured largely through purchases made in the capital (Phnom Penh) of medications that are relatively cheap and sustainable for the people here. Occasionally, we’re able to secure more expensive equipment through donations from organizations like FAME.

How do you transition people from medicine to the Word of God? Are you working with a team of missionaries? If so, how does your work dovetail into theirs?

Most commonly, I simply share with people that there is a God who made us all and loves us. He is the One who sent me to Cambodia, and he gives us a way to happiness. I invite them to hear the stories of “the God who made the world.” I also share with them about the God who is able to heal not only our bodies, but our “soul-spirits” as well. If they’re interested, I or my teammates will follow-up with them or invite them to a Creation to Christ style Bible study. But usually the interest is slow-growing; a relationship develops and with it, interest in God may as well.

I work on a team of eight adults, though I am the only one active in providing health care. Our focus is initiating a church-planting movement in rural Cambodia—the cities have young but vibrant churches, but Cambodia is 80 percent rural, and most of the country has not had a viable chance to hear a contextualized message of the gospel. Medicine integrates easily into our work, as our entire team sees as a priority loving people holistically; thus, we help kids with funding for their education, help widows and orphans get the rice they need, and seek to help people medically as well. When a teammate meets someone or hears of someone with a medical need, they let me know; and when I meet someone who expresses interest in knowing God, we follow that up as well. And we pray together!—perhaps the most mysterious yet important part of our work.

Are you able to see response to the gospel from people you treat?

The culture is of minimally educated folk Buddhists who practice religion as an expression of loyalty to their nation. They see “Preah Yesu” (Jesus) as a prophet of the foreigner’s religion, and have no foundational concept of monotheism, sin-nature, or linear history. For those reasons, there are almost no quick conversions. But, response happens, it’s just a slow process. And when it happens, we’re able to model compassionate ministry to the new believers who then feel empowered to help care for others.

I understand the weather is a little different in Cambodia than it is in Cincinnati.

Indeed! There are three seasons in Cambodia: hot, hotter, and hottest. March to June is what I call “ridiculously hot season” when the dry climate gets to 110 (and my office peaks at 100!). July to October is the “rainy but still hot season”—providing for pleasant evenings in our large wood house on stilts. The downside of rainy season is that it’s also the peak season for dengue fever (a scary one because it can evolve into a hemorrhagic fever like yellow fever or Ebola). November to February is what the Cambodians call (and I laugh at) the “cold season”—where the temperatures “dive” into the 70s on a lucky day. The physical discomforts, from mosquito bites to the heat, can be draining, but the trade-off—the chance to be here, to shine God’s light here—makes it worth it. He is worth it.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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