I was recently at a meeting where the idea of a medical missions institute was proposed, in order to enable our healthcare missionaries to better flourish in their international settings. In fact over 65 different agencies send out missionaries from America; if we add Canadians, Indians, Australians, Nigerians, British, South Africans, etc the number of mission agencies involved in cross cultural medicine is significant. I wonder if the time has come to begin to think again about how to better link hands together for the sake of Christ, showing the compassion of Christ to those who are suffering and speaking the words of Christ to bring salvation. The future for medical missions does certainly not depend on just American solutions.
We think we understand what is happening in our world, but a look back in history shows that we are standing on the shoulders of giants.
I have been researching the history of SIM’s response to human needs since our inception in 1893, and so I’m attuned just now to history. I discovered Christoffer H Grundmann, who is a Professor of Religion and the Healing Arts at Valparaiso University, in Indiana. In the Christian Journal for Global Health he quotes Gordon Dowkontt as writing in the Medical Missionary Record (1897), “To merely talk piously and tell suffering people of a future state, while neglecting to relieve their present needs, when in our power to do so, must be nauseating both to God and man, and certainly is a libel upon the Christianity Christ both taught and practiced, in which He combined care for the whole being of man, body and soul.” He was trying to correct a distortion of Scripture which emphasized the spiritual apart from the physical. The Scriptures shows that Christ cares for both; the root foundation for it all is His work on the cross.
In fact Rev. Roland Bingham, the founder of the Sudan Interior Mission (now SIM), warned against the dangers of a gospel which was so spiritual that it did not allow for God to use physical means (doctors, drugs, procedures, etc) for healing.
However even before the Sudan Interior Mission was founded in 1893 (by an amazing group of three men who went out to reach interior of Nigeria – another story), there were groups of men and women writing and preparing for medical missions! And we think we are on the cutting edge!
In a Google search for Dr. Dowkontt’s article, I found a Wikipedia article entitled “American Medical Missionary College.” I would like to include a few paragraphs describing the New York Missionary Society, founded in 1881. If you follow the link you can also read an online autobiography by Dr. Dowkontt in ‘external links.’ Dr. Dowkontt ‘pleads the cause of the specially educated medical missionary.‘ Note that during that era of colonialism and “Christendom,” the unreached of the world were often referred to by words which sound paternalistic (or downright racist) to our ears. I wonder if we could take the passion of this missionary society and work towards a future when East and West, North and South can work together to heal the brokenhearted of the world. Maybe a similar medical missionary society – or a network of them around the world – could be used by the Lord to work towards this end, out of the compassion of Christ.
“We have received a courteous letter from Dr. George D. Dowkontt, of this city, Medical Superintendent of the New York Medical Missionary “Home and Institute,” regarding the subject of “specially trained medical missionaries,” to which we referred in our issue of March 6. Dr. Dowkontt pleads the cause of the specially educated medical missionary. The great need of medical and surgical aid in heathen lands, and the great missionary value of such aid, are referred to, while the scarcity of men both willing and fitted to go is insisted upon. It was for these reasons that the Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society was founded in 1841, and the New York Medical Missionary Society in 1881. The peculiar need for the existence of the latter society, we are told, lies in the fact that medical missionaries must be particularly well educated medically, and American medical colleges are not good enough, and do not furnish sufficient training. Our correspondent adds:
” ‘Allow me to say, in conclusion, that there is great force in the suggestion you made, that we could well spare two thousand out of the four thousand physicians annually graduated in America; and this is forcibly shown in the fact that while in 1880 there was one doctor to 585 people in the United States, there was only one medical missionary to nearly ten millions of the heathen.
” ‘You observe that these could well be spared to go forth and disseminate the gospel. Would to God they were able and willing so to do, then we need not exist; but they must first possess this gospel in their own hearts and lives to be able to disseminate it, and they must further be actuated by the spirit of self-denial which characterized the Great Physician for body and soul, the Lord Jesus Christ, before they will be willing to do so.
” ‘Thank God for the noble men of our profession who have gone forth to heathen lands, as Scudder to India, Parker to China, Livingstone to Africa, and Post to Syria, but oh! for more such men who are willing rather to live to give, than to get.