“I’m sorry, your permission to work here has been denied.” That was the word to us on Friday afternoon at 4:30 PM before our team was to depart the next morning for Ecuador. The government office that grants clearance to visiting medical teams now requires several new steps that neither we nor our Ecuadorian coordinator knew about. We had been planning last week’s Fall Break Tambo, Ecuador trip for months and thought we had everything in place. Our plan was to continue to build bridges and relationships in several unchurched communities by offering free medical clinics while our instructors taught pastors and others furthered construction on our teaching center.
The teaching went beautifully as our team taught twenty Quichua leaders church history, the personal spiritual discipline of meditation on the Word, and pastoral administration. The construction team provided the windows for the center, put down the floor planks for the library, and began on dorm rooms for instructors and students. Marco, our Ecuadorian “maestro” led our men wonderfully in the fine art and backbreaking labor of installing tongue in groove flooring over eucalyptus beams.
On our last trip to Tambo several months ago, we were able to send evangelistic teams to share the gospel and work with young people in some closed, gospel-hostile communities. We announced then that we would be returning in October to do more of the same but also to bring a multifaceted medical team to minister to their physical needs, just as we were ministering to their spiritual needs. Word spread like wildfire and both interest and need was great. The medical team’s credentials were notarized and recognized by both governments, the medicines were purchased, the bags were packed . . . and then the hard news of denial came. I made the decision that we would not work without permission or break the law in any way. To their credit the medical team came on as planned, trusting that the Lord had a plan for it all, with the intention to join in any area of the week’s work where they could help.
Ironically, I had discussed many times with Reaching & Teaching’s medical director, Dr. Jeff Love, how so many mission teams blast into an area and give out ten days of vitamins, some anti-amoeba or parasite medicine, and maybe a few aspirins. A few days after the team leaves the vitamins run out, they people drink untreated water again, and their condition is the same as it was before the team arrived. We have felt frustrated at the traditional medical mission trip approach and longed for a more holistic health program for communities rather than the short-term Band-Aid to long-term problems.
When we arrived in Ecuador we learned that the communities expecting the medical care would not take the disappointment easily. One of the students in our pastoral training center had recently moved to one of the harder communities to start a church. He was particularly nervous about being called a liar and even suffering physical persecution from the villagers. He was attacked and almost killed a few years ago by an anti-evangelical mob wielding sticks and rocks, and the memory is still traumatic to him and his family. We decided that the best plan would be to go to the community and explain what happened, take some food and juice for a light meal, and hope to appease them.
As I prayed the night before we went, I felt great peace as I realized that God had actually stepped in to intervene, bringing about the kind of medical ministry we had wanted all along. If we had received the government clearance, the week would probably have offered a ministry that resembled what we had wanted to avoid. That kind of ministry was not possible now. I decided to go and explain to them that we preferred a long-term relationship with them. We wanted to get to know them and their needs before we just blasted in with a carryon filled with antibiotics and parasite meds, only to leave them in the same condition we found them, with only a hazy memory of a visit from gringo doctors.
You could cut the tension with a knife as we all gathered in the community schoolroom. I shared my thoughts about the best way to minister among them, and they exchanged hard glances as they realized no medicines would be forthcoming. I shared the Gospel as their greatest need, Ecuadorian missionary Joselito Orellana voiced his agreement, and the local church planter Francisco concurred, but the chill in the air continued. We passed out the refreshments and spent about five hours sharing food and learning their names, ages, medical conditions and needs. We began to laugh and trust and hope together. Some of the team went out and played futbol and basketball with men and women of the community, mixing team members, laughing, encouraging, and genuinely liking each other. Soon the community members were agreeing that multiple return trips to teach them how to prevent disease by improving hygiene, eating well, and monitoring their health was much better than a one-and-done medical mission trip. We promised to return, and we will do everything we can to ensure that we do so.
I began to envision a healthy evangelical church thriving in that community. I envisioned the fruit of our Reaching & Teaching training center pastoring that church, and through that church starting many others throughout the traditionally Gospel-hostile communities of the Andes. Through the needs we witnessed in this single day, I also began to see the human need for many doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, a hand surgeon, and the funds necessary to carry this out. God led us to a young nurse who lives in the community but works a couple of hours away. Since she is the only medically trained person anywhere near the community, it was a great blessing that she agreed to be our onsite coordinator and to communicate special needs as we prepare for future trips.
The pastoral training was a blessing as always, and made so smooth by one of the best teams I have ever led. I believe that God is stirring some among them to be Reaching & Teaching missionaries and others who came to be short-term team leaders for future trips. The training center is almost at the point where we can house and feed our teams there as well as teach, cutting down on time spent commuting to and from the hostal and teaching center. God is doing an amazing work in, to, through, and with Reaching & Teaching. If all this were not enough, we also had a team working in the Dominican Republic and Haiti during the same week. I marvel to think what all God has in store for us, and the part you will play. Come join us!