Mission vespers a powerful experience for Today writer
Corey Fuller, School of Medicine class of 2010, shows a picture of a warrior he met during a mission trip to Papua New Guinea. Mr. Fuller, who made his remarks during the mission vespers on March 1, reported that all the warriors he met were friendly.
It’s a few minutes before 7:00 p.m. the evening of Saturday, March 1, 2008. The air is cold, the sky is gray—it’s been like that all day long—but my heart’s on fire and I’d like to tell you why.
I’ve been covering the 76th Annual Alumni Postgraduate Convention of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine Alumni Association since last night’s Friday evening vespers. I missed the Sabbath morning worship services because I wasn’t feeling well, but attend the annual AIMS meeting and mission symposium earlier this afternoon, as well as the mission vespers at 4:00 p.m. Right now, I just finished editing the photographs I’ve taken so far this weekend and I need to write.
Need is a strong word, but I need to write my impressions of what just happened.
It’s only been an hour and a half since the School of Medicine Alumni Association’s National Auxiliary mission vespers dispersed, but the songs, stories, and images I absorbed during the program are running through my head at 100 miles per hour. To say that all the meetings I have attended so far have been wonderful is an understatement. But to call the mission vespers anything other than a powerful appointment with the Spirit of God would be a travesty. I’ll do my best to explain.
Where to start? Why not at the beginning and in order?
When I walked into the beautiful sanctuary of the Loma Linda University Church of Seventh-day Adventists, I noticed colorfu
One of the most moving moments of the mission vespers occurred at the conclusion of the event when Patsy Sogioka, at the podium, led-out in a consecration prayer. Current and former missionaries in attendance laid their hands on the shoulders of new missionaries soon to leave the United States for mission lands. Ms. Sogioka is mission chair of the School of Medicine Alumni Association’s National Auxiliary.
l flags of several nations surrounding the piano down front where Kevin Balli, MD, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics in the School of Medicine, was playing free-form inspirational music. I also noticed the colorful lights in various shades of blue and purple. Something about the flags seemed to echo the concept of “every kindred, nation, tongue and people.”
A moment later, Judy Hart, RN, mission associate for the National Auxiliary, welcomed everyone, and read the immortal words of Jesus from Matthew 25:40: “Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Then she invoked the presence of God in prayer.
The service was one of the most spiritual and moving worship experiences I have attended in years. It wasn’t because the oratory was the greatest on record—in fact, there wasn’t any—nor because the musicianship was flawlessly perfect, although it arguably was. It had more to do with the fact that the Spirit of God was calling us to hear His voice and respond to the invitation to link our lives with His mission to save the world.
Robert Quigley, a member of the School of Medicine’s class of 2010, stepped to the stage, silver trumpet in hand, and delivered a magnificent rendition of James Curnow’s arrangement of “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” His accompanist, Peter Scheult, interpreted the score with sincerity and feeling. As they played, the impression that the Spirit was orchestrating the whole event was clearly noted.
Henry Lamberton, PsyD, associate dean of student affairs for the School of Medicine, reminded us—during his overview of the student mission elective the School offers its students at the end of their freshman year and again in their senior year—that “mission is the reason for which our School was established.” He went on to point out that in the almost-100 years that the University has been in existence, nearly 14 percent of all graduates have served at least one year in foreign missions.
Dr. Lamberton also highlighted the “explosion in commitment to missions” that is currently shaking the student body and calling young people to embrace the challenge of taking the message of God’s grace as revealed in His Son to every corner of the world. He extolled the enormous impact that student-initiated community service and mission programs are making in struggling, understaffed hospitals and clinics around the world.
Following Dr. Lamberton’s remarks, three members of the class of 2010 stepped to the microphone to describe their experiences in mission projects. Corey Fuller described a mission trip he and his wife, the former Juliana Hayton, made to Papua New Guinea last summer. As he spoke, images of native warriors in colorful regalia flashed on the screen behind him. He talked of being intimidated by the large bush knives on their persons, but admitted to being charmed by the warriors’ warm smiles of friendship. He told of his surprise that the hospital had to ration basic medical supplies, such as sutures, because there are so few resources.
Mr. Fuller also mentioned that patients frequently walk a day’s journey to reach the hospital since there is no other medical care available in New Guinea Highlands. He showed us a picture of a lady with a beautiful smile who, he informed, kept smiling despite the fact that she was in acute pain after an abusive ex-husband ambushed her with a bush knife in a local market.
“She had been cut repeatedly on the forearm and severely on the ankle,” Mr. Fuller said. “Yet she was always smiling. Because of her desire to live, we rallied behind her and did everything we could. We prayed with her for three weeks, yet it seemed hopeless. But finally, after three and a half weeks, there were signs of improvement. It was so exciting to see, because she had become much more than just another patient; she had become a friend to us—a real source of strength, encouragement, and hope.”
Mr. Fuller concluded by expressing his gratitude for the opportunity of experiencing mission first-hand. He said he is looking forward to many more years of service both here and abroad in the future.
Dwayne Gordon described a trip he made with classmate Heidi Shelton to Mwami Adventist Hospital in Zambia last year. He particularly enjoyed the chance to wade in and gain valuable experience in many areas of inpatient and outpatient care, and especially surgery. He showed us a photograph of the hospital’s stash of anesthetics in an old fishing tackle box. In another image, he pointed to a bar of soap and said it was the hospital’s sole sanitary procedure for doctors and nurses to scrub in before performing surgery.
Mr. Gordon apologized for the graphic content of some of the imagery, such as a gory photo of a highly necrotized ankle following a snakebite, but pointed out that mission service isn’t always pretty.
Another image depicted a group of pregnant women sitting on a dirt floor while awaiting care at the hospital. The mosquito netting they should have been sleeping under to prevent the spread of malaria was so dirty that the women refused to use it. He and Heidi went to the market and bought soap—a very precious commodity in that part of Africa—and brought it back as a gift for the women at the hospital. “The ladies were just thrilled to have soap,” he remembers.
He told of entire families riding down the road on a single bicycle. He watched some men carrying an entire couch on another bike. He recounted his joy in interacting with Zambian children. He related a near-death experience when the car he was riding in swerved off the road at the last second to avoid a head-on collision with another vehicle. The automobiles knocked each others’ mirrors off, but “God was with us and saved our lives,” he recalled.
Apparently mission service is not all work and no play. Mr. Gordon showed a photograph of himself bungee jumping off a bridge at Victoria Falls. “It’s the second-highest jump in the world,” he said. “I free-fell for five seconds. I was scared, but
I did it.” He confessed to praying his way through the frightening leap.
Summing things up, Mr. Gordon said the thing that impressed him most during his brief mission to Africa was the people. “They were amazing!” he observed. “We learned a lot about contentment from them, and about need and faith from these amazing people.”
Ashley Hardesty, also from the class of 2010, discussed her involvement with the healthy neighborhoods project in a far-away corner of the mission field known as San Bernardino—as in, right across the 10 freeway from Loma Linda. The project involves 140 LLU volunteers in five programs: Community Kids Connection, or CKC; the CKC Saturday edition; career and English as a second language classes for mothers; HOPE for pregnant teens; and Special Opps for at-risk 9th grade boys.
Ms. Hardesty spoke with a palpable sense of emotion about developing a strong personal relationship with the pregnant teen she mentored in the HOPE program. Ashley later learned that the only day each week when her “mentee” showed up for class was the day she was there. “That really had an impact on me,” she shared.
She talked about going with a group of 9th grade boys, all of whom had been identified as probable dropouts by the schools they attend, for a retreat at Pine Springs Ranch. One boy told her he had never been to the mountains and didn’t realize there were so many trees. “As one who grew up going camping, it seemed hard to believe this boy had never seen the mountains,” she reported. She had a similar reaction when another boy expressed amazement that there were so many stars in the sky. “We work with them, teach them, play sports with them, and encourage them to stay in school,” Ms. Hardesty said. “It’s spiritually inspiring to work with people who are hurting. That is why I came to Loma Linda and went into medicine in the first place.”
Ms. Hardesty concluded her comments by noting that “the encouragement we receive from alumni, faculty and staff has been very important. It is very inspiring to me that the School of Medicine places such a high investment in their students.”
Richard H. Hart, MD, DrPH, the chancellor and president of Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center, strode to the podium and called a group of five students from the School of Medicine to join him for a brief update on the progress of Béré Adventist Hospital in Tchad. He reported that the Tchad hospital has become a “desired rotation site for many of our students” and told the story of how Sarah Appel and her husband James Appel, MD, have turned the hospital’s operating room into the finest surgical facility in all of Tchad, and maybe Central Africa.
Dr. Hart called on Surin Srikureja, MD, to join the group on the platform. Dr. Srikureja will soon join the Appels in Tchad. Then Dr. Hart announced that we were going to get to listen in on a phone call to Denmark—where Sarah and James have gone for a brief furlough—and receive a first-hand report from the Tchadian front lines. At 1:30 a.m. Danish time, the phone in the sanctuary began to ring and in a moment Dr. Hart was asking, “James, are you there?”
The response was both affirmative and overwhelming. As sound technicians quickly lowered the volume on the call to comfortable levels, James fielded questions from Dr. Hart and told us that things are so much better at Béré Adventist Hospital and that they are now making plans to help other hospitals in the region. Dr. Hart encouraged the other members of his entourage to say hello to James and Sarah. James knew each of them from their involvement in Tchad, but Sarah had gone back to sleep and hence, could not say hello.
Dr. Hart concluded his presentation with another display of his inimitable humor.
“I’ve been asked to identify which of these people are single,” he said of the good-looking group of students beside him, “but I’m not going to do that.”
As the laughter subsided, Aimee Hechanova and Kimberly Conley, members of the class of 2009, ascended the stairs to bless us with their musical talents. Aimee’s exquisite violin rendition of Cleland McAfee’s soulful “Near to the Heart of God” brought us very nearly there, as did Kimberly’s wonderful piano accompaniment. The entire performance—more accurately seen as an offering than entertainment —was reverent and uplifting. In Ms. Hechanova’s skilled hands, the violin alternately shimmered and sang out to proclaim God’s desire to draw us near to Himself. The song reverberated with the musicians’ personal passion to serve God through music, medicine, and the total dedication of their lives to service for others.
Donna Hadley, president of the auxiliary, stepped forward at the conclusion of the music to present gifts to representatives of various mission outreach programs of Loma Linda University.
“We are presenting checks today totaling $100,000 to improve health care delivery to Adventist hospitals and clinics around the world,” Ms. Hadley announced. “The first check is in amount of $5,000 for the Healthy Neighborhoods Project in San Bernardino. The second check is for $25,000 to help defray the expenses of the medical student mission elective program at the School of Medicine. And the third check is for $70,000 for Béré Adventist Hospital in Tchad.”
As Ms. Hadley gave the giant checks to representatives of each of the mission programs, she told the crowd, “That’s the first time my husband ever shook my hand in public.” The reason: Roger Hadley, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, reached out to his wife as she gave him the check for the medical student mission elective program. The comment brought an appreciative response from the audience.
At this point, the program had been going for nearly an hour and-a-half, but I was eager for more. My spirit had been challenged by the daunting needs of the underserved people of the world, but I was scarcely prepared for the emotional response the conclusion of the program would elicit.
Patsy Sogioka, the mission chair of the National Auxiliary, called for all the missionaries—past, present, and future—in the audience to come down front and bring a small, battery-powered candle with them. As if on cue, hundreds of people came forward and lit their candles. I had to get up out of my seat and move clear to the back of the huge church in order to capture the huge span of missionaries with a wide-angle lens.
But when Ms. Sogioka invited Dr. Hart to lead us all in singing “So Send I You,” John W. Peterson’s hymn of dedication and devotion that has served as a rallying cry for missionaries of many generations, I had a hard time choking back the tears. I’m not always this emotional, but something about those people tapped into something deep inside of me. They came in all sizes and shapes—some full of the idealism and vitality of youth, others showing the effects of aging—but each bearing eloquent testimony to the power of the Gospel of Jesus to move men and women to lay down their lives in service to the God they love on behalf of those for whom He gave His life.
As the congregational singing came to an end, Andrene Campbell, who will graduate from the School of Medicine in 2010, stepped up to the stage behind them for the closing song. As the refrain of Chuck and Greg Day’s contemporary Christian anthem, “Midnight Cry,” filled the room, I had no idea of the impact this anointed singer’s gift would have on my soul.
I found out soon enough: Then I had to hide behind my camera to mask tears that wanted to burst out like the breaking of a dam. I can’t tell you why; I’m still asking God what it means. All I know is this: I never heard anyone deliver that song with such passion and power in all my life. Ms. Campbell sang the familiar lines about prophecies being fulfilled and God the Father telling the Son to “go get my children” as if she were looking into heaven and seeing the events she was singing about. Andrene was literally shaking with conviction as her voice soared into the climax of the chorus. “At the midnight cry,” she exulted, “we’ll be going home.”
During the song, I studied the faces of the missionaries grouped at the front of the sanctuary. Every last one of them knew from experience the sacrifices that must be made to take Christ’s words about “going into all the world” literally. As I watched them, I could vividly imagine the day when Christ will gather all His warriors around His throne to welcome them into the greatest missionary fellowship of all time. In the meantime, these faithful missionaries spoke to me about the dedication and commitment God inspires in His servants.
As the song reached its resounding conclusion, Ms. Sogioka offered a benedictory prayer of dedication. I snapped pictures as past and former missionaries lay hands on their younger counterparts scheduled to leave soon for the mission field.
When the prayer was over, I sat back in my seat half-dazed. Clearly the Spirit of God had spoken through this powerful meeting. The verbal testimonies, the musical selections, the photographs—everything had flowed together into a potent reminder that God is still calling loud and clear, to everyone who has ears, to take the message of His love, grace, forgiveness, and healing to a lost and suffering world.
Just how we will respond is an individual matter. God was clearly calling some to leave everything behind and follow Him to mission lands. Others heard the Spirit directing them to stay put, yet renew their commitment to sharing the Gospel in service to others right where they are.
What I do know is that the Spirit was among us this afternoon. I’m so glad I attended this remarkable service; I felt that I moved closer today to the heart of Loma Linda University’s mission than ever before. As those missionaries so eloquently testified, it’s all about service!
By James Ponder