As I type this, we drive east on Route 50, the sun having just disappeared below a leafless fringe of wooded ridge behind us. We’ve been on the road 13 of the last 15 nights, in two big loops for two big conference events. We’re spent. In a good way, but spent.
The first was the Serge Vision Summit in Florida, an event where our organization invests heavily in extending the same relational and creative energy to our supporters that we expend upon our teams and fields. Rich conversations, stories, music, food. Bridging the gap between the frontline teams and the concerned homefront, people who pray and give. We connected with old friends and made new ones, enjoyed the warm gentle surf of the gulf coast, and soaked in great teaching ourselves. I had never heard Dan Allender before, and resonated with his humble, articulate stories of shame and redemption. Our ED Bob had called Steve Brown the voice of God, and we were mesmerized by that bass-toned wisdom. Scotty Smith was the closer, candid and deliberate. And when you throw in PhilKeaggy as a one-man-wonder on the guitar, seeing for the first time the flying fingers and intricate loops that we first heard in the 70’s when we were teens discovering the first trickles of modern Christian music, well, it was memorable. I (Jennifer) gave a speech for the “Restore” pillar of Serge’s Renew-Reach-Restore mission.
The second loop was west, to Louisville KY and Cincinnati OH. A mega-church in Louisville started an annual Global Mission Health Conference sometime after we left for the field, and it has steadily grown to become THE event of the year for American medical missionaries. We had no idea of the scale until we arrived. It was our first real mega-church experience, the 21rst century cathedral, the medieval fortress translated. Offices, education, a restaurant, chapels, art, music, auditorium. Worship with lights and mist and screens and TV-like cameras. A complex as sprawling as a city block. And completely capable of holding five or six thousand people for this conference. Banners and themes, displays and nametags. A well-oiled machine able to absorb the flocks of students from across the country, the returning missionaries, the organizational recruiters, the residents and program directors. And our favorite student group, the UVA CMDA chapter, included our favorite medical student. Processing the experience with him was an unexpected bonus.
We were given one of the seminar blocks to speak in, and since there were dozens and dozens I had thought we would have sparse attendance. But that’s because I had no idea of the sheer volume of attendees. Our room seated at least 250, maybe 300 and it was packed. We presented for an hour on “The Sparrow and the Kingdom: Integrating curative and preventive health care in missions.” It was a fun topic, one we are passionate about, pulling together examples and stories and evidence to make a case for the synergy of caring for the individual as well as the population.
But the main point of the 3-day conference was for our Serge team, which included Mobilization workers Matt and Joanna as well as fellow medical missionaries Eric, Rachel, Rhett, Derek, Carlan, and even SWill, to interact with young students and trainees, to answer questions, to give our testimonies of God’s grace and encourage them along the way. We’re recruiting for doctors and other professionals to teach Family Medicine residents in Kenya, to do surgery in Burundi, to provide antenatal care and deliveries for refugees in Nairobi, to provide basic public health in South Sudan.
Though we both score on the introverted-side of the scale, I have a strong mix of extroversion, so this kind of thousands-of-people incessant-conversation craziness is exhilarating up to a point. We are also both on the old-side of the scale too, but we still felt inspired by those few whose faithfulness further down the path shines a light back our way. Our favorite speaker was an 85-year-old Australian nurse who had established a TB Sanatorium in Jordan 60 years ago, and still works there. Spunk, humor, and straight talk about sacrifice and joy.
And as great as it is to breathe in the sparks of vision that crackle like static electricity in the sea of globally aware attendees, I go back to the phrase “up to a point”. I suppose I came away with some concern that the conference itself can be the lightening rod that discharges the accumulated tension of wrestling with the needs of the world and the compelling love of Jesus. A tide of interest in global health that most certainly did not exist a few decades ago when we were in school is building. Let us be prayerful and careful that this surge of interest crests and breaks over into majority-world places with scant resources. Let’s not let the two-week annual visit become the norm for medical missions. Short term surgical teams, short term regular relief pitchers for long-term docs, provide essential services. But we still need people who are willing to let go of safety and wealth and prestige, and walk obscure paths among the nearly invisible poor, for years and decades. Please pray this week that those God is stirring to consider lives that go against the grain of the mainstream do not convince themselves that they imagined that call. Pray they would sense the thrill of it, the potential, the significance.
Pray for our mobilizers who now begin pursuing the dozens of contacts we made, helping them discern the trajectory of their story in the big picture of redemption. We can use some help.
Saturday night we drove from Louisville up to Cincinnati, into the waiting graciousness of a couple whose home and hospitality felt like walking into our own parents’ houses 15 years ago. And this morning Scott preached from Psalm 13 at three services, and wedged into that we also led an Adult Education hour sharing our video and answering some pretty tough and insightful questions about how our faith has matured in our years overseas and why the world is as broken as it is. We were embraced by this congregation where Scott grew up. It is not a common story anymore, this village-within-the-city, with its historic homes and excellent public education, where neighbors were schoolmates and went to church together and many never left. We took a nostalgic drive around before heading back east.
So this sabbatical stretches past the quarter-done mark, with 4 of our 7 churches visited, with many reconnections and a variety of speeches for many contexts. And as rich and worthwhile as it has been, we’re looking forward to a couple of weeks to hunker down. I have my recertification exam in 9 days. Yikes.