In 1999 I reluctantly agreed to lead a small medical team, from my home church, on a short-term mission trip to Honduras. Little did I know what awaited me. It was November and roughly one year since hurricane Mitch devastated the small Central American nation. The destruction was beyond my ability to describe. There were "tents", made from any scrap of wood and plastic, lining the highways. Tent cities had been erected by the Red Cross to replace villages that had been washed away. People, who had very little to start with, had lost all. My team had the privilege of working in some of these tent cities and we provided medical and dental care to some 900 people.
I had been on several short-term trips prior to this one. I had worked in Costa Rica, Belize, and a previous trip to Honduras. Each time that I went on one of the previous trips, I was always ready to get back home by the time it was over. The experiences were valuable and cherished, but I liked the US and was eager to return. This trip, however, was different. I began to be transformed by the Holy Spirit and my priorities were shifting as He molded me, bit by bit. This time, I was struck by the need that was all around me. I knew that there was work to do and not enough people to do it. A God-sized task was at hand and He was calling. I did not want to go home at the end of this trip, I just wanted to call my wife Marty and tell her to sell the house and I would meet her at the airport when she got here.
Obviously, some planning would be required if full-time missions was the call for Marty and myself. First of all, I had to ensure that Marty felt the same as I did. God never calls spouses apart and I knew that I would need to talk this over with her. We needed to spend time in prayer determining if this was just my reaction to an extremely emotional experience, or a legitimate call from God for the two of us.
Now Marty is quite the international individual. After defecting from what is now the Czech Republic in 1968, as the Soviets took over that nation, she and her family moved to Austria. From there they immigrated to Germany where she spent a rather tumultuous childhood. Life’s circumstances eventually brought her to the United States where God brought us together. Asking her to move to another country was not such a big deal. As the epitome of the "third culture kid," she did not have roots anywhere, and to this day, has a difficult time calling any one place "home."
I asked her what she thought about moving to Honduras and working as missionaries in a small clinic in a tiny village in the mountainous interior of the country. She immediately said, "sure, let’s do it." We prayed about the issue, went to our pastor and other respected, mature Christians that we knew. The Bible tells us that "with many counselors, plans succeed." We wanted to get good advice from third parties so that we could remain focused on God and nothing else. After much prayer and discussion, the decision was made to go to Honduras and spend time in the village where we were going to be working. The sole purpose was to determine once and for all if this was God’s call.
I blocked out my schedule for two weeks and Marty took vacation from her job and we took off for Canchias, Honduras. We began working in the Karen Smith regional medical clinic that is owned and operated by Heart to Honduras (www.hth.org). Even though our plan was to spend two weeks searching for the answer, after three days of work, it became crystal clear to both of us what was to be required of us. We were moving to Honduras.
Upon returning to the States, we informed our pastor, Steve Birch, that it was official, we were called to be missionaries. He sat us down and grilled us pretty good. He had seen too many people before that felt they were called to missions, but only went out to fall on their face because they had not been following the call but something else. Steve asked us many tough questions and prayed with and for us. He too was convinced that the call was to go to the mission field and so it started.
Steve announced to our church that we were going to enter the mission field. We had the daunting task of raising financial support for what we planned to do. Little did we realize how expensive it is to live in poverty in the third world. Money had to be raised to pay for flights, language school, food, housing (we would have to build a small house in the village in which we planned to work), medical and dental supplies, pharmaceuticals, vehicle expenses, etc. The killer, however, was going to be my student loan payments. As is the case with many in the medical and dental professions, my loan payments were quite significant and were going to be a big hurdle to overcome. We decided to take everything one step at a time and focused on all the other expenses first.
Steve set a Sunday aside that was going to be our kick-off for fund raising. We had no idea what to expect from the congregation of 350. We knew we were loved and we knew there were many terrific brothers and sisters in Christ that we called our church family. We did not know how God was going to use our home congregation. That first offering blew us away as $15,000 came in, and with it more confirmation that we were on the right track. Eventually, seven other churches came on board for support. They were followed by friends and family who were so generous that it humbled us to our knees in gratitude for what God had done to touch their hearts to give. It seemed that we had no sooner started raising support that it was there, it only took six weeks for all the day to day and up front expenses to be covered. The only thing that remained was the student loan payment.
We had exhausted every avenue, of which we knew, to seek financial support and still we had the student loan payment hanging over our heads. A PA who had accompanied me on the 1999 trip was also very interested in going into the mission field. He also had the burden of student loans and was exploring ways to cover that expense. He cued me in to an organization of which I had never heard; it was called Project MedSend. I checked out the website at www.medsend.org and found that a Christian organization existed whose sole purpose was to make the student loan payments for medical professionals while they are in the mission field. It seemed too good to be true, but I inquired anyway. As I communicated with Dr. David Topazian and Debbie Gaboriault, it became clear to me that MedSend was for real and they had been given a tremendous call and burden to get medical and dental missionaries to the field ASAP. I applied for one of their repayment grants and I was approved. They funded the grant and, "POOF!" my student loan payments were covered for the next four years. After this tremendous blessing, we were ready to go to the field.
All we had to do next was sell the house. In our neighborhood, the houses sold, on average, in three weeks or less. We were about to learn a lesson in patience. All missionaries, with whom I have since communicated, have experienced a "waiting period." It seems there is always a lag-time between the call and actual entry into the mission field. I thought that surely we would be gone in a matter of weeks. I sent notice to my patients that I was leaving the country, we sold everything in our house with the exception of our bed, dresser, TV, computer, and a popcorn maker. We were ready to hit the road. For the next ELEVEN MONTHS that is all we had as we waited on God. One tenet of the call is that it will lead to a crisis of belief (read Experiencing God by Henry Blackaby for a great explanation of this). We had decided to follow the call and, to some, it just did not look right. We had people suggesting to us that perhaps we were not called since the house was not selling. Some were even a bit put off, since they had paid nearly a year ago and we were still in Kentucky. We continually re- examined the direction we were headed and it was very clear, to us, that we were still to go to Honduras. At long last, a buyer came along who wanted our house. Living by faith paid off as God brought the right buyer at the right time. There had been some hidden expenses, in Honduras, for which we had not planned. We had gone on the premise we had all the money we needed for the next two years. The truth of the matter was we did not actually become fully funded until the very month the buyer made his offer on our house. God knows what He is doing! The buyer was motivated and he paid for the house with a check, the closing only took a week! We were outta here!!!
We went straight to Copan Ruinas, Honduras where we had intensive language training. Speaking Spanish was critical to being an effective practitioner. Marty, who speaks five languages, was already pretty well versed in Spanish through classes and self-instruction. I, on the other hand, only had high school and college Spanish, which had long ago faded into the deepest levels of the grey matter. Retrieval of that information was difficult. At the end of the five weeks of INTENSE language school, my brain had trouble recalling my name, but by golly I could get by with my Spanish now. Marty served as interpreter for the first couple of months, however, as I needed a little more time to become proficient enough to communicate effectively.
We officially started working in our clinic without much fan fare. We had to wait for word of mouth to get out that we were working. We started by extracting a few teeth from our neighbors in the village. It then took approximately three hours for news of our arrival to spread to surrounding communities. I had no idea that word of mouth in the back of pick-up trucks could move at speeds that would make the fastest DSL internet connection jealous. Within a week we were at full capacity, there was only one problem. I am a dentist and only about ten percent of the patients were coming for dental treatment.
The fact that I was a dentist did not seem to matter to anyone. They expected me to do everything. Our clinic was the first, or last, stop (depending on your perspective and the direction you are walking) for medical and dental care before heading into one of the most remote regions I have ever seen. It was the only stop for the people we were there to serve. We charged a very nominal fee for a consultation, as giving away the treatment and medications is nearly universally recognized as the wrong way to go about it. This fee was far cheaper than the closest public clinic and this made healthcare accessible to anyone that wanted it. A family of seven could be seen for the same fee as just an exam for one person at the nearest public clinic.
I did not know so much diarrhea existed in this world until I started treating patients in the medical part of our ministry. We were also faced with many conditions that stretched us far beyond my dental training. Before it was all over, we saw parasitic infestations, all shapes and sizes. The most common of which were intestinal worms and botfly maggots in the skin. The botfly larva almost always brings a secondary skin infection along with it and I & D was the order of the day with most of them. Bacterial, viral, and fungal infections presented with the most unappetizing of appearances. We removed foreign bodies from skin, noses, and ears (including the infamous cockroach in the ear). More trauma came through the doors than I would have ever expected. At least every other day machete wounds, of accidental and intentional origin, were in need of suturing. The machete wound repair even extended to putting a horse’s behind back together after the poor creature got put in the middle of a dispute that was settled with machetes. A couple of gunshot wounds came through and on and on it went.
This list would be incomplete without mentioning the babies. Fertility is generally not a problem in rural Honduras. I delivered my first baby thinking that it would be a rare event. Praise the Lord that a wonderful Ob/Gyn in Lexington had taken me to the hospital in which she worked to give me the most basic of instruction on catching kids. She spent quite a bit of time in short-term and extended missions and knew what I was going to be facing. What I expected to be a rare event started becoming quite the common treatment. Knocks on our door began coming in the wee hours of the morning as moms in labor started flooding in. We experienced quite the range of emotions with the obstetrical portion of our experience in Honduras. We were faced with many difficult situations, including a leg first presentation in the back of a pick-up truck, and a transverse presentation, which led to a 37-hour ordeal, as we tried to get to a hospital for a c-section. Both of those resulted in still-born babies. These babies would have been fine in the US, but because of lack of transportation, training, personnel, and facilities, they never took their first breath.
On the dental side of things, we saw great progress in the year and a half we ran the clinic. In the beginning, our practice was 100% extractions. With time and education, we were able to change that to about 20% extractions with the remaining therapies being endodontics, periodontics, and restorative dentistry. Oral hygiene was improving and we were able to put smiles back to beautiful again.
The dental patient that made my day the most was a young lady of seventeen years of age. She came to the clinic with many broken down teeth. She was very self-conscious of her appearance and wanted to go to school to be a lab tech for a hospital a couple of hours back toward civilization. We performed five root canals and restored her teeth (a total of 21 teeth). She improved her home care and in three weeks, we had her up to snuff. A couple of weeks after that, we were riding in the back of a truck (called a jalón, it can be described as a rural taxi) and we were standing next to this young lady’s older brother. Being the only bald, white guy around, everyone knew who I was. The brother then told us that his sister had saved up enough money to go to a dentist in the closest town to get her teeth fixed. When she heard we had opened shop, she came to see us, and we restored her mouth instead. The fee we charged was so low, he explained, that she was able to get all the work completed and have money left over. Unbeknownst to us, the girl had made up her mind to spend the money she had to get her teeth fixed, regardless. The money, however, was not enough to cover both the cost of her teeth and the lab tech school she wanted to attend. The school said they would not accept her with the appearance she had prior to her dental restoration. We were able to provide the service and she still had enough money to go to school. The brother told us he was grateful and that everyone in his church was praying for us to stay forever. You never know how your work will touch someone else’s life. Commit your work to the Lord and watch what He does with it.
It is easy to focus on the medical and dental aspects of mission work. The proper focus, however, must be kept in mind, as medicine and dentistry are not the important components of service to our Lord. Medicine and Dentistry are only tools to be used to spread the love of Christ and His Gospel to the world. We are able to draw a crowd because of medicine and dentistry, but we must use these tools in the name of Jesus Christ if we are truly to make an impact on this world. It does no good to save the body if the soul still heads for an eternity in Hell.
God used us as tools as we began to see what God-sized really means. The human tendency is to put God into a little box and keep Him under some kind of manageable control. What we must get through our minds, however, is that God is MUCH bigger than that. He wants us to commit to serve Him through faithful obedience as he unleashes His full power through us. We got a taste of how God works when we developed an unlikely relationship with the Honduran Army.
We had recently had a medical team come through our mission and one of their day clinics was held on an army base about an hour and a half from our village. This base was in place to provide security for El Cajón dam. The team treated soldiers and civilians from the surrounding community. The colonel commanding this base invited us to come and meet with him a few weeks after this team left. I went with a visiting physician, named Dr. George Ralph, and we learned that the base commander was a Christian. A dedicated Gideon, he had a stack of Gideon New Testaments and he gave them to the soldiers under his command. He spoke of the need that the Honduran people had. The suffering of people, too poor to change anything about their existence, weighed heavy on his conscience. He told us how grateful he was for us coming and using the base to treat the people that lived nearby. He also thanked us for helping to strengthen the Christian witness to his soldiers as we came in the name of Christ.
After spending the day with the colonel, he invited George and I to go with him to San Pedro Sula the next week. There was a new military hospital that he wanted to show us and there were other people that he said we needed to meet. George and I accepted the invitation and we picked him up the next Friday. As we arrived at the 105 Brigade in San Pedro, We had no idea what to expect. We were escorted into the main office of the base and we waited patiently for our turn to do whatever it was we were supposed to do there. After about ten minutes, we were ushered into the office of the Brigade commander. He warmly welcomed us and sat us down on a couch, while Col. Calderón was standing next to his desk. The Brigade Commander began telling us about his base and the different military operations in progress around the country. Drug interdiction efforts, anti- crime activities, national defense issues, etc. Col. Calderón informed the Commander that George and I were Christian missionaries and we had worked on his base. The Commander then changed the direction of his conversation. He asked us to wait a moment. He called the secretary and asked her to send in some people. Five other officers entered the room and stood next to Col. Calderón. The door shut and the Commander proceeded to inform us that these were his highest-ranking officers and they were all Christians. He said that they had a desire to use the military to assist their country in the name of Christ and take advantage of the position God had given them to spread the Gospel. He told us that they were all at our disposal if we needed their help. One colonel in charge of army logistics for the brigade told us that "when we lift up the poor of Honduras, we lift up the whole of Honduras." They offered transportation assistance and security, whatever we needed to make us, and them, more effective in spreading the gospel.
I must have looked pretty stupid with my jaw sitting on the floor. Here I was in the presence of the command structure of a Latin American military. All my preconceived notions of corruption and officials, "on the take" to drug lords, completely shattered. I could not believe my ears, and it began to dawn on me that God had worked this out. There was no other explanation. God had worked through the careers, of all in the room, to end up with us all together in the same place at the same time talking about how to spread His word and give Him the glory.
The Brigade commander was eager to show us his newest creation. He took George and I to a library. On the stereo, mounted in the ceiling and playing softly, was contemporary Christian music. On the walls were sparsely stocked shelves. Some of the books were titles and authors that I recognized, many Bibles, Franklin Graham’s Rebel Without a Cause, and others were in Spanish and sitting there waiting to be checked out. The commander told us that he just opened up the library and he was trying to get a good variety of titles and subjects covered. He said that he wanted this to be a place where his soldiers could come and learn about Christ to a deeper level. He had created a discipleship resource center!
We then toured the rest of the base, ate lunch, and bade the base commander farewell. Prior to our leaving, we were introduced to another individual. His name was Luis Medina. Luis was an administrator of the new military hospital on the base. He took over as our tour guide as the rest of the officers went back to work, with the hopes of working together again in the future.
Luis quickly made it known that he too was a Christian. He said one of his goals was to use the hospital as a means of outreach to the community. It’s doors were open to the public as well as the soldiers, and he wanted to take every opportunity to share the gospel to any and all that came seeking treatment there. We ended up having a very good relationship with Luis and his wife. Marty and I became close personal friends with them over the time we were there.
Something that grew out of the relationship that God designed, through many circumstances so complex they can only be divine in origin, is that we were granted access to two public hospitals in San Pedro Sula, the Leonardo Martinez and the Catarino Rivas. We were also given carte blanche to use the military hospital for our medical and dental teams. Between the three hospitals, counting their outpatient clinics, there are over 2 million patient visits per year. All the hospital directors gave permission to use their hospitals and, the most important point, they gave permission and their blessings to use any clinics as opportunities for evangelistic outreach to the patients.
The breakdown on what this means is that God called Marty and I, we thought, to serve in a clinic designed to treat people from about twelve villages with a population base of only a few thousand people, in the middle of nowhere Honduras. He then arranged things to where our village, which was not even on a map, became a household name to some of the highest-ranking military officials in the country. The Minister of Defense and the Minister of Security ordered that soldiers, and later police, be stationed in that village to protect us. We were given military credentials to cut the red tape that so often plagues anyone trying to work in the third world. We were given unrestricted access to a patient base over one million people, with the ability to share the gospel to each one of them, if only we had the human resources to do it.
What did we do the make this happen? Not a thing. This is so God-sized, I don’t even know how to describe it. For the purpose of brevity, the story of these relationships is severely shortened. God is in the details and there are so many details and "coincidences" that a complete book would be necessary to even scratch the surface. God did it all and He gets the glory!
One other facet of missionary work was one we never even considered. We began attending the International Christian Fellowship (www.internationalchristianfellowship.com) in San Pedro Sula. This is a group of English speakers, mostly missionaries and expatriates, that meet each Sunday in the Copantl Hotel. We found this to be such a wonderful group of people and the collective work they are doing is unbelievable. There were prison ministries, medical ministries, foster home ministries, orphanages, and the list goes on and on. We befriended many of these terrific people, as they became our in-country church family. I was enlightened to something that I had never before considered. The average time in the field for each person/family was around 10 years. In that time, very few of them were able to go to the dentist or see their physician for routine care. Missionaries live on such little cash that is generated from whatever support sources they have, "elective" expenses such as taking all the kids to the dentist or the doctor while on furlough was simply out of the question. Nobody was serving the servants! God shows His will by showing us the need. There was a need here and we were able to fill it.
We made plans and loaded up my mobile dental clinic in our 4-runner and I made my first dental house call. We set up the clinic and were able to provide dental care for three missionary families.
We were called back to the US in October of 2002. Marty and I are currently working with a few dedicated medical and dental professionals to form a new mission, La Cima World Missions (www.lacimaworldmissions.org). We are taking the lessons learned and the misconceptions dispelled to continue to use medicine and dentistry as tools to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Can it be scary? Are there things that can go "wrong?" Will we be pushed out of our comfort zone? Is it dangerous? You bet. A close friend of mine was killed March 29 of 2003. He died in a hail of bullets from bandits while in Guatemala. He knew the potential cost over the 15 years he lived in Honduras, but he was willing to pay it and he proved it. His name was Todd Fields. He and his wife Lynnell were a tremendous inspiration to us while we worked in Honduras. Lynnell continues to serve God and walks on faith as she raises her girls on the mission field by herself. Some of you reading this today may have spent time working on one of their medical teams. God did NOT say it would not be dangerous. He did NOT say that it would be without risk. He DID say that he would be with us till the very end. Any time God calls you to action it will be dangerous. But there is far more danger, however, to sit on the sidelines while others bear the Cross. Choose this day whom you will serve….the decision is yours and yours alone. Everything is at stake.
Is it safe to go on a mission trip?
Going with God is NEVER safe. Go to the Dangerous Faith page first before reading on.
That said, since God gave us brains, we use them.
Safety concerns are at the forefront of many people's minds when considering a mission trip to the third world. We have taken every precaution to reduce risk as much as possible for our teams. The hotels where we reside, during our time in- country, are staffed with armed security. The hospitals have strong security forces. The restaurants all have their own private security guards. When working with the military, or at the military hospital, we have military support and security. Also included in the trip fee is emergency medical/air ambulance evacuation insurance. This insurance covers medical emergencies and air ambulance charges, up to $100,000, should a problem present itself.
No matter what we do, however, all risk cannot be removed. There are certain dangers inherent to international travel, particularly by United States citizens. We have taken all the steps at our disposal to reduce the risk as much as possible. In Honduras, there is a significant amount of gang related crime and violence. In the hospitals, we will probably spend quite a bit of our time treating injuries related to this type of violence (depending on the make-up of the team of course). This behavior and these problems are precisely the reason we are working. Those involved in the crime and violence are the people who need to hear our message the most. The answer to these problems is to spread the love of Jesus Christ. There are no secular answers to the societal problems found in the world today. Once the true answer, of Jesus, is presented and accepted, positive change will occur.
It is dangerous to go where God is working. It is far more dangerous, however, not to go. It is simply a matter of determining, through prayer and seeking, whether or not God has called you to spend some of your time on foreign shores. If He has, then the answer is: GO! If He has not, do whatever it is He has told you to do instead. It is that simple. He did not promise to remove the risks when serving Him, He did promise to be with us wherever He sends us.
"If God is for us, who can be against us?"