By Janie Yoo ’06
Lusaka, Zambia, June 2017. The engine of the Emirates Airbus roared to life once all the exit doors were secured shut. The muffled voice of the captain indicated we were about to take off. It was hard to believe that we were finally leaving Zambia after six amazing, life-changing, but arduous years in the trenches of the mission field. A seven-hour flight to Dubai, followed by another grueling 17-hour flight to Los Angeles, with three small children under age 5 in tow, we made our way back to life as we thought we had known it in the United States. Those hours suspended in the air allowed for space, a comma, a bookend, a time for reflection and reconciliation. Why did we even go into the mission field? What did we accomplish during our six years of service? And was our time there served in vain?
Memories flooded my mind of the times I sat in church at the Loma Linda Korean Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was just a child. We had many guest speakers, visitors, and mission stories shared in that church.
Some guests were eccentric, but others were fervent, passionate about spreading the gospel. Some were even missionaries. Stories would be told of the mission field: Africa, Asia, remote places of which I had never heard. And that is when the fire in my heart was kindled. Even at a tender young age, I knew I was being called to become a medical missionary.
I eventually married my husband, Paul SD’08, and together we went on countless short-term mission trips to various places throughout the world. But when the time finally came for us to serve long term, we did not quite know what to expect. We were heading to the capital city of Lusaka, Zambia, an urban city with over two million people in a developing country, a number of paved roads, somewhat reliable electricity, and running water. Paul and I were called to serve as dentist and ophthalmologist of our respective institutions. But this picture of missions was starkly different from the mission stories of Africa that I had grown up listening to. How could we be missionaries when we were simply working within our medical professions in the capital city of a developing country?
As the years unfolded, in our moments of joy in service and in our darkest and trying hours, we slowly came to understand how the Lord would use us in His service. Some of our greatest joys came from our outreach endeavors to the remote parts of Zambia and its neighboring countries. Every month we would host or embark on an outreach camp; we traveled to Mwami Adventist Hospital to the east, Yuka Adventist Hospital to the west, and many other remote areas throughout the country. Even Kanye Adventist Hospital in Botswana became a consistent site where we conducted annual eye camps to help the poverty-stricken, blind patients in the Kanye village region. These camps helped me realize that being part of an established “base” site in the mission field was an amazing opportunity to serve the underserved; it was so much less costly to source local consumables and move with ground transportation than to source consumables from the United States and fly them across oceans to these remote villages.
I remember one patient, a 46-year-old male, who had traveled more than 250 miles to the hospital where we were hosting an eye camp. He was the last patient of 102 cataract patients I had just operated on, and he remarked to the staff in my hearing, “Please tell me when my doctor is coming. I want to see my doctor’s face because I could not see her before the surgery.” Being a part of this kind of healing ministry has been an incredible blessing in my life; to see the indescribable joy that patients experience upon removing the bandages from their eyes after cataract surgery is a pleasure that not even gold can buy.
Short-term mission trips are frowned upon by some, as is the idea of westerners traveling to a less developed country to deliver heroic measures, only to leave the area just as destitute. The reality is that there is a real need for medical and spiritual services in many areas. Short-term mission trips also benefit the missionaries, especially when volunteers are young and in their formative years of life. But there can be a true danger in relying solely on short-term mission trips to accomplish goals without appropriate training and long-term follow-up.
This is why I have now come to appreciate the power of “short-on-long-term missions,” allowing the long-term mission site to be a launching pad for more frequent short-term trips. The reality is that the model of missions is changing as the trends in urbanization are changing worldwide. With the mass movement of people to cities in search of jobs and opportunities, people ultimately prefer to live in big urban centers rather than in rural areas. With this trend comes a need for more health care providers in the cities as well as a higher standard of care; no longer are ill-equipped facilities and substandard procedures and protocols acceptable. There is a marked need for subspecialized care and a high standard within our health care institutions. And from these centers of influence in the urban areas, short-term trips can be launched successfully to service the underserved in more remote regions. In our setting this was an incredibly powerful tool. Our institutions in Zambia were reputable, self-sustaining centers in the city that were able to generate the capital needed to support these kinds of short-term, charitable missions.
I also began to realize that our greatest mission field was closer than I thought. It was the people that we interacted with day in and day out: our staff! The hats we wore as leaders were not just as doctors, but also in the areas of administration, business/finance, human relations, and public relations. On a spiritual level, it was humbling to see some of our employees embrace the healing ministry of Christ. And what a blessing it was to see the lives of our staff slowly being transformed professionally and spiritually.
As we approached the end of our time in Zambia, we were able to reflect on some of our successes and failures, battles won, and others clearly lost. At times, our shortcomings seemed to overshadow our efforts, despite our best intentions of providing hope and healing to those we served. But by God’s grace, I believe we accomplished what we had set out to do: to leave our institutions better than how we had found them, to raise the standard of care, to serve the most needy and vulnerable, and to then pass on the torch, knowing that a self-sustaining model is truly a sustainable model. We were there to support our health care institutions as centers of excellence and of influence, that they may be beacons of light to the surrounding communities.
Through our experiences serving abroad, we have come to appreciate and understand the global work of which many of us are a part. This work is not for the faint of heart, but it is a work that changes hearts, especially our own. The memories created during our time in Africa are ones we will always cherish. We continue to pray for the medical mission work that is going on in Zambia and throughout the world, and we ask that you do the same. And if the Lord is calling you to serve in missions in some capacity, we encourage you to accept that calling. The island of Kauai is our present home and mission field, where Paul and I both continue to serve in lay ministry. But we do yearn for the day, after our kids have grown a few years older, when we can once again follow our passion to serve in short-on-long-term missions. For, “Once a missionary, always a missionary.”