By Dick Alexander
I’m a late in life convert. For many years I thought the best (and only) real good we could do in overseas mission work was to plant churches. Once the churches got up and running, the Christians there could take care of other needs in their societies.
I used to worry that some mission work gave lots of cups of cold water but saved few souls and had little to show for decades of investment. Maybe I was just stupid. After all, Jesus healed and preached. And good missionaries for years have not truncated ministry. Food, medical care, and education have been staples of missionaries for at least two centuries. Many African nations owe their educational systems to European missionaries.
In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul said he and his coworkers had given not only the gospel of God, but their own lives as well. Honestly, it’s sometimes easier to just give the gospel. But as we’ve attempted in more recent years to give both, it’s been not only effective, but rewarding.
The Gospel and Our Lives
In Ukraine, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the medical system was in ruins. Patients needing surgery were given a list of surgical supplies to beg for, steal, or buy on the black market. When they filled the list, they carried the supplies in a box to the hospital and the surgery proceeded.
In the early days after Ukrainian independence, we coordinated a network of 13 U.S. churches that supported a small team of missionaries. One of the American churches, Pickerington (Ohio) Church of Christ, helped lead in securing $3 million of surplus pharmaceuticals and packed them in shipping containers for delivery to Ukraine.
For 70 years the communist government had said the church was a blight on society—taking but not giving. Now Ukrainian Christians were unloading containers of urgently needed medicines and carrying them into hospitals as gifts. Lives were saved, the communist lie was exposed, and the good news had credibility. More than 60 churches have been planted in that region.
In Cambodia, each time we have a mission team work alongside Doug and Heidi Collins, members come home filled with admiration and a new view of the value of overseas ministry. Doug is a medical doctor with the heart of an evangelist. Making house calls on Vietnamese refugees living in houseboats on the Mekong River, he offers gentle medical care to children who might otherwise die. And he prays with their parents. Recently his team saw the conversion of a witch doctor.
In Kenya, Mary Kamau and Mission of Hope work in the massive Nairobi slums. I had never used the term hell on earth until I walked with her alongside the sewage troughs running between the ubiquitous steel shacks in Nairobi. The situation seemed hopeless: 80 percent of the women involved in commercial sex; a 40 percent HIV/AIDS infection rate; few schools; no medical care; workers trying to eke out $1 a day to get food and pay the $5 to $10 a month rent on their shacks.
But Mission of Hope gives microenterprise training to help the women start small businesses and get out of commercial sex. It provides HIV/AIDS testing and health education. And the schools this Christian mission has started get far better results for the poorest children than government schools get nationwide. And they start churches—churches that are filled with hope! American support has allowed the mission to explode.
Healing bodies, minds, and souls is effective and gratifying—it’s amazing what American knowledge and dollars will do in a developing nation. It’s also educational for us. We’ve learned a lot from nationals that we can use working with the poor in the U.S.
Challenges? Of course. How to help without hurting? Well-meant gifts can build dependence. And the danger of “rice Christians” is ever present.
But overall, with the thoughtful guidance of national partners, we’ve seen ministry to physical and spiritual needs flow seamlessly together—each strengthens the other.
And at home, it’s great conversation material. My nonchurch friends have a lot of interest in this kind of work that goes beyond words to actions.
Dick Alexander is senior minister with LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.