August 2017 found me experiencing one of the biggest disappointments in my 26 years of life. I had been on a high. I had quit my nursing position of three years and accepted an AFM call to work as a nurse in the jungles of the Philippines—my dream job! I did research, began to learn the language, started mentally preparing for the isolation and arduous hiking and bought the equipment I would need.
Then God added a plot twist. At AFM’s summer training, the leadership asked me to switch from my current dream placement as a jungle nurse to teaching violin in the bustling metropolis of Khon Kaen, Thailand. Talk about a disappointment! My heart was broken, and I didn’t know what God was doing. It felt like the dream I’d had since age 10 had been snatched from my grasp. But God’s invitation was clear: He was asking me to dream a new dream with Him. I decided to accept the invitation in faith.
God worked on my heart, and I became increasingly excited about what He had in store for me in Thailand. I got into the mindset of teaching violin. There was also the possibility of helping with some health projects, but I was prepared for my mission to have very little to do with health or the medical field.
When I arrived in Thailand, I found that God had added yet another plot twist. The violin teacher whose place I had been prepared to fill had decided to extend her stay, so I would have few if any students to teach. At the same time, doors were opening to a new health ministry in Khon Kaen. Diabetes and high blood pressure are on the rise in Thailand, and the health message is desperately needed. But how to begin in this new culture? Kyle Tumberg suggested we spend a week in earnest prayer for God’s guidance. After some time in prayer, we began to get some ideas. Home health coaching visits and a healthful cooking school could teach people the benefits of good nutrition and a better lifestyle.
Let me highlight the challenges we were facing. Besides the missionaries themselves, there were really no health enthusiasts, let alone vegetarians, within our small church congregation. There were actually only two Adventist Thai pastors in all of Thailand who were vegetarian. Meat, eggs, sugar, salt and fried foods are a huge part of the Thai diet, and few people understand how that affects their health. While the gospel of Christ has slowly taken root in this country, the health message is quite literally a new frontier.
Against this backdrop, we began to move forward with some of our initial ideas to see how the Lord would bless. Kyle drove me to church members’ homes to teach them about health. I met with a few members who were in the medical field to discuss ideas. I tried to gauge interest in healthful cooking. However, there seemed to be little interest and not much member involvement.
But God was at work. Not coincidentally, a few weeks before I arrived in Thailand, our Thai pastor had attended a health retreat led by the founder of a health sanitarium in South Korea. He had experienced a spiritual and physical health transformation and came back excited about the health message. He subsequently invited the church members to participate in a three-day sample of what he had experienced. Several of us missionaries and a few church members took him up on the offer in October 2017 and were blessed. The pastor continued to advance the health message, and soon we were invited to do two free health checks in conjunction with evangelistic meetings in neighboring villages. The success we had at those events sparked the interest of church members in reaching people for Christ through health.
In January 2018, God opened the doors for several church members and me to attend another health seminar in Muak Lek, exactly like the one that had helped our pastor. The Lord blessed, and the members came back excited about the health message, but interest in healthful cooking still lagged. I began to pray for specific guidance in this area, and God impressed me with a thought: If they don’t want to learn from you, why don’t you try learning from them?
Phii Joon, one of our newest members, is a phenomenal cook, so I asked him to teach me how to make Thai food in the traditional way, but vegetarian. He readily agreed, and we began Thai cooking lessons once a week.
Our church personal ministries director, Phii Nok, and one of our STMs, Miriam Feese, made a plan to do a brief survey in public places to assess community needs. We decided to combine our efforts and offer free health checks along with the surveys. Our first combined outreach was staffed by only four of us. However, after we brought back a positive report, several more church members joined us, including several of our Filipino members. As I observed the Filipinos in action, I was impressed by their abilities and recognized untapped missionary resources. We have a number of Filipino nurses, pharmacists and physical therapists working as English teachers in Thailand, and I felt impressed to begin building them into a strong medical health team. A few more members joined us for a larger health check in a nearby village. There were many stories from these health events, but the thing that most surprised me was how little the Thai people generally knew about their health and how little access they had to information about high blood pressure and diabetes.
Back in October, seeing the high rate of diabetes in Thailand, Kyle and I had discussed creating Thai-language overdubs of the Diabetes Undone video program by Dr. Wes Youngberg. We thought it would be an excellent resource for lay members wanting to teach about health. It would be breakthrough information for much of Thailand and even for Laos since the two languages are similar. I received permission, and translation of the more than 40 video scripts began with the help of a local Thai Christian translator. (Side note: The translator became convicted by these videos and ended up implementing the health principles and sharing them with her family.) By the end of March 2018, we had finished the translations and began the editing process. The next big step was to find a male and a female voice to record the scripts. This proved challenging.
For the next four months, God took me through a period of painfully slow progress. Many discouraging days I wondered if God was accomplishing anything through our efforts. But important things were happening—namely, relationship building. I continued meeting weekly with Phii Joon to cook, and we began to build a solid friendship. Also, I focused on building closer friendships with my Thai and Filipino brothers and sisters. In the process of getting to know them and their stories, I was learning how we could empower them.
By August, we began to see some movement. Phii Joon and a group of Filipino and Thai members were ready to be trained and equipped for larger-scale health expos. That month, we were able to hold our first-ever health team training and health expo at a local water park with more than 15 team members assisting. Fewer than 20 people came through the health expo, but I praised the Lord for the opportunity for the team members to get experience and build confidence in their roles.
In September, the Thailand Mission had caught wind of the fact that a health team was forming in Khon Kaen, and they called us to help with a health outreach to a nearby village. Our team members were excited, and their fire for outreach was fueled.
My year of service was up, but I felt impressed that God wanted me to mature the health ministry a little more before passing the torch. So I extended my stay until April 2019 after a brief visit back home.
Before I left, Phii Joon asked that, when I returned, we swap roles so I could teach him how to cook more healthfully. He also proposed that we start a weekly community health club where we would teach how to prepare delicious and healthy dishes. I praised God for this gift of encouragement. Instead of coming from us, now the ideas were coming from Phii Joon! I could only bow to God in adoration and awe.
Over the next three months we did a lot of planning and groundwork for future health club meetings. We held our first two trial health clubs in December and got great feedback. In order to connect health and spiritual ministry, God blessed with the idea of having a health-evangelism cycle that continued throughout the year. We decided on a six-week cycle that would include a health expo and four health club meetings and end with a special visitor-focused health Sabbath. The health team got to work brainstorming.
By January, we were ready to start our first health cycle, which we kicked off with a health expo in the nearby village of Baan Sri Taan. We saw close to 50 people, and the whole team did a great job. Part of our vision for the health expos was to put us in contact with people interested in changing their health through lifestyle. Then our team would follow up with them on a weekly basis in their homes, guiding them in making better lifestyle choices. Besides Phii Joon, we had a few other Thai church members at the expo assisting us with translation as well as a nurse named Phii Waan, our health ministry leader, who was willing to do simple health counseling with the participants. Phii Waan was interested in health ministry, but her family and work commitments prevented her from being very involved. I prayed that her involvement in the health expos would give her more passion for the work so that she would make more time in her schedule for it. I was excited to see Phii Waan enjoying the experience and beginning to recognize her own talents for health outreach.
Our second health expo put us in contact with Uncle Subaan and Ms. Chalita, two people who were tired of taking medications for their chronic health problems and wanted to give lifestyle change a try. In February we began in-home visits with them both. Phii Joon was my translator and accompanied me faithfully on each visit. He now also was developing a passion for this ministry and has an amazing testimony of how God has blessed his own health journey. (Watch his testimony on our Khon Kaen Church YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTAjhcRk0_Q.)
As we counseled these patients and built solid friendships with them, we saw many blessings come from these visits. Uncle Subaan began coming to church every Sabbath and bringing friends. Ms. Chalita began to join us occasionally at our health club meetings on Sabbath afternoons, taking notes and implementing our recommendations diligently. An additional blessing was that, as Phii Joon translated, he was absorbing the information and being discipled into health ministry. As he became convicted that he should help me more with the health ministry, he offered to be the male voice for the Diabetes Undone video project. Thus, finally, we began recording the translated series just two months before my scheduled departure for the States. By March, God also provided a female voice. Joy, one of our church members, was able to find time in her busy schedule to assist us. God’s timing is always impeccable!
Many visitors came to our first health Sabbath in March, mainly people we had contacted through the health expos and cooking clubs. With the support of our growing health team, we began our second health-evangelism cycle and did another health expo in the same village as our first one with the goal of establishing more friendships and connections. We made two more contacts who wanted in-home visits. I was blown away by how efficiently and smoothly our team was working together. As I prepared to leave Thailand, I praised God as I watched the team members step up to the plate and eagerly take on their roles. If I had left six months earlier as previously planned, I believe they wouldn’t have felt ready to take on the responsibility, but now it was beautiful to see their blossoming confidence in the gifts God had given them.
April was a flurry of activity as I prepared to depart on the 21st. During my last weekend in Thailand, God graciously tied up various loose ends to give me peace about leaving. Three days before I left, we finished the last recording for the Diabetes Undone project. One day before I left, we held the health-emphasis Sabbath completing our second health-evangelism cycle. On that Sabbath, Uncle Subaan gave a testimony of how God had been working in his life through the home visits and coming to church.
On May 12, the Khon Kaen health team held their first health expo coordinated and led by the team with the guidance of Kyle and Phii Joon. They saw 61 clients, and 17 new contacts requested follow-up and in-home visits. Praise God! They are continuing to move forward with the health-evangelism cycles and increase their health knowledge. God has even provided a Thai nurse, Cherry, to lead this growing ministry. Pray that God will provide even more workers and move powerfully on the hearts of the people of Khon Kaen so that our mission will be accomplished quickly!
Looking back on all that God accomplished during my time in Khon Kaen, I see that He did far beyond what I expected. His hand was in everything. I can’t even imagine serving anywhere else. Isn’t that just like God? He knew where I needed to be, He appointed the time and place, His dream for me became mine, and I saw it unfold before my eyes. Disappointment into appointment indeed!