Monday, August 25, 2014
The ‘idiotic’ call to go
A pair of media blowhards fired off some harsh comments as Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the American medical missionaries who contracted Ebola in West Africa while treating the sick, were being flown to the United States for treatment in recent days.
“Idiotic,” sneered pundit Ann Coulter. What were they doing “slinking off” to a Third World “cesspool” in the first place when we have so many problems at home? It’s pointless, selfish and expensive, Coulter declared. Aren’t there needy people right here? Can’t you serve Christ in America?
If these two missionaries chose to go someplace that dangerous, chimed in rich guy Donald Trump, let them deal with the consequences. Don’t endanger people here by allowing them back into our country with a deadly virus.
So much for centuries of Christian medical missions. So much for a tradition of healing bodies and souls that goes back to Christ Himself. Let ’em die — the sick and the healers.
Others have commented eloquently in defense of the two missionaries and their motivations. I especially appreciate the words of Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “American Christians are not ‘slinking off’ to foreign countries in order to escape the United States; they are going in obedience to the command of Christ. True Gospel missionaries — those faithful to the command of Jesus Christ — are not driven by ‘narcissism,’ to use Ann Coulter’s word, they are indeed heroic. More than heroic, they are simply faithful.”
The good news: A positive witness for Christ has spread far and wide as news organizations have covered the faithfulness of these two missionaries. Millions have been inspired by their commitment.
Many times over the years, however, I’ve heard sincere church folks express essentially the same opinions as Coulter and Trump about cross-cultural missions — perhaps with a softer edge. “Why do we have to send missionaries way over there?” they ask. “We have lost and needy people right here. Times are hard. We need to take care of our own first.”
Hearing those excuses for ignoring Christ’s command to go into all the world, rehashed yet again, reminded me of another medical missionary: Bill Wallace. He never made it home.
Wallace, a young physician from Tennessee, went to China as a Southern Baptist missionary in 1935. Those were hard times, too — maybe harder, since America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Plenty of Tennesseans had little or no medical care, but Wallace up and went about as far away from home as he could go.
Why? The tall, shy Knoxville native wasn’t much for words. If a Depression-era Ann Coulter had challenged him, he probably would have shrugged and grinned.
The son of a doctor, he tagged along with his father on patient rounds. At age 17, while working on a car in the family garage, he heard God’s call to medical missions. He recorded his commitment on the back leaf of his New Testament and never turned back. After college, medical school and a surgical residency at Knoxville's General Hospital, Wallace was appointed a missionary 10 years to the month after he made his garage commitment.
He went to Wuchow (now Wuzhou) in southern China, where overworked missionaries at the Baptist-run Stout Memorial Hospital were praying for a surgeon. Wallace immediately gained a reputation as a quiet and tireless worker, a gifted surgeon and a committed servant of Christ. A colleague once advised that anyone looking for Wallace should seek out the sickest patient in the hospital; Wallace would be there.
War came. Wallace worked through Japanese bombing raids as the stretchers of the wounded lined the halls, once finishing an operation after the hospital took a direct hit. He refused to leave Wuchow as the invading Japanese closed in. To urgent appeals that he flee Wuchow, he responded, “I will stay as long as I am able to serve.” He evacuated the entire hospital in 1944, only a few days ahead of Japanese forces — transporting patients, staff and equipment by boat hundreds of miles upriver. There they tended the sick and suffering of the surrounding countryside until the advancing Japanese army forced them to move again.
Wallace and his band of healers endured incredible hardships, but came back to Wuchow in 1945 when the tide of war turned. He repaired the badly damaged Stout hospital and got back to work. He nearly died from typhoid fever in 1948. After recovering, he worked in Wuchow after the communist defeat of the Nationalist Chinese in 1949, earning even the grudging respect of communist soldiers as he treated their wounds.
But missionaries were no longer welcome in China, and the start of the Korean War in 1950 sparked an intense anti-American propaganda campaign. Wallace was arrested after local authorities “found” a gun under his mattress during a search and accused him of being a spy. “Go on back and take care of the hospital,” he told co-workers after his arrest. “I am ready to give my life if necessary.”
Few believed the official story that the 43-year-old doctor had committed suicide after he was found hanging from a beam in his cell the morning of Feb. 10, 1951. He was quickly buried by friends under the close watch of an armed escort; no religious service was allowed. His remains were not returned to the United States until 1985.
Yes, Bill Wallace “was a martyr,” acknowledged the late Everley Hayes, the missionary nurse who worked with him in his last years and identified his body. “Many think of martyrs as those long-faced people. But I knew a Dr. Wallace who was very much interested in everything around him. He was a martyr not because he died in service but because he so identified with the Chinese people that they considered him one of them. And they loved him.”
After Wallace’s arrest, a commissar summoned many Wuchow citizens to a public meeting and demanded they step forward to denounce the missionary. Not a single person did. The only charge they could make stick, reflected a Roman Catholic missionary who knew Wallace, was that “he went about doing good.” Chinese friends risked punishment to put up a monument on his unmarked grave with these words from the apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ.”
Coulter and Trump might not understand those words — or the reality that God’s love encompasses the world, not just the United States. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol understand. I pray that many more of us will.
(Order “Bill Wallace of China,” the classic biography by Jesse C. Fletcher, at http://www.lifeway.com/Product/bill-wallace-of-china-P005253406)