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Dr. Miriam Wheeler, MD

God called me to outpatient village clinic ministry in Ukraine after working for 5 years in a very busy hospital in Togo, West Africa. The villages of these two countries look very similar! But the Ukrainians have to deal with severe winter weather as well. Both countries suffer from lack of access to good health care, lack of clean drinking water, terrible road conditions, and abject poverty. Nineteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the government and economy of Ukraine are still unstable. Vestiges of Communism are evident in the poor work ethic, suspicions of America, and mistrust of any strangers. Walking out of my 10-story grey dreary apartment building in Odessa, I see weary depressed people who do not even respond to a simple “Hello” (in Russian, of course!). It takes a lot of time to develop relationships and build trust. In the mid-90’s, there was great openness to the gospel, but now materialism and secularism have overtaken the cities while despair has sapped the villages. The traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church shape the culture and any religion that is not Orthodox is considered a cult.

 

How does a missionary overcome these barriers to share the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ??  One must learn the language, study the culture, and develop relationships with people. What better way than demonstrating Christ’s love through compassionate medical care! Villagers tend to be isolationist with a small sphere of trusted friends and relatives. The depth of relationship needed for a Ukrainian to listen to someone present the gospel cannot be developed in the few days of a hospital stay. It is necessary to spend time on a regular basis in the villages where they live, to get to know them and show unconditional love. I was the first American doctor to serve in Ukraine full-time. As I looked at the hundreds of villages just in the Odessa oblast which needed medical care, how could I choose where to work? The key in Ukraine is intentional partnerships. God led me to develop partnerships with pastors and church leaders burdened to give their communities the hope of heaven. A vital church preaching the Word of God survived the 70 years of persecution under Communism.  As I met pastors in Odessa, I sought their advice about how and where to start medical ministry. 

 

A senior pastor in the area suggested Krasnosyolka as the first site for a clinic, located just a few miles from Odessa. A church was started there in 1991, as soon as freedom came to Ukraine, but they were struggling to make new contacts. In the 10 years I have been associated with that church, the leadership has developed a vision for evangelism throughout the area. We have started Bible studies through clinic contacts in 4 other villages and have more opportunities than we have time to meet. A number of people have come to know Jesus as personal Savior. In Kubanka, one of my supporting churches in America purchased a house as a center for our ministry of monthly clinics, Bible studies and children’s Sunday School. Pastor Lonya has become intensely involved with the clinics, even helping pastors in other areas of the Odessa oblast. His family has become my “family” in Ukraine.

 

A church in Makarovo, a village of about 400 people, requested help. I started doing monthly clinics there, and had wonderful opportunities to share the gospel with patients as I built relationships with them in ongoing contacts. But I did not see the church leadership become involved in following up these new contacts. When I was able to communicate on my own in Russian, I asked for a meeting with the “brothers” who led the church. I explained my vision of partnering with the church to reach this village for Jesus. A light of understanding flashed in their eyes, and one brother exclaimed, “You want to be OUR partner?!”  YES!  They never got the concept through the translator, but God helped me to communicate this vital principle at last. This ministry is not about Miriam doing medicine, but about the church developing relationships with needy people to show them the love of Jesus. The clinic is the arm of the local church reaching out to their neighbors. The Makarovo church has blossomed since then! They have seen many patients join their fellowship and they have started outreaches through clinics in Berdinovo and Valentinovka and have assisted Sahanskoye.

 

The government-sponsored physician’s assistant in Sahanskoye heard about the clinics in Makarovo, and asked me to come help her. For two years, I saw patients once a month at the government clinic. Styopa and Tanya were the only believers in the village of 600, and had not been able to bring anyone to Christ after several years of sharing. Styopa began coming to each clinic to meet patients with me. This gave him credibility in the eyes of his fellow villagers. As our partnership developed, the Holy Spirit began moving in the hearts of people. In the next two years, at least 10 people came to salvation! Our missionary team purchased a house in the village that became the center of ministry and now has a vital church and Sunday School in addition to the monthly clinics. Styopa is also reaching out to nearby villages through contacts who have come to the clinic in Sahanskoye.

 

I love doing mobile clinics so that I get to see where my patients actually live and better meet the needs of the whole person. As a family physician, I treat their medical illnesses, show them the connection to their spiritual needs and delve into interrelated problems in emotional, mental and social dimensions as well. Returning to the same village every month, I develop relationships with individuals and have opportunities in time to share the glorious good news of eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. A typical way to open the door to talk about spiritual things is sharing with the patient how stress affects their physical health. My clinic assistants and I start each clinic with prayer, and I have been thrilled by the evidence in their prayers of their spiritual growth. This is no longer just a job for them but a ministry to people they love. Some clinic days we begin with an evangelistic preaching service.  I also make home visits, which impact the family members as well as the patients. I often visit homes with the local pastor. In this culture, he would not be welcome in the house as a stranger, but he is accepted when he comes with the doctor. This style of ministry allows me to decide my schedule without being driven by the demands of a permanent facility. I can be involved in teaching seminars and Bible studies as well as practicing medicine.

 

God has given me wonderful partnerships with Ukrainian pastors who have found the clinics to enhance their ministry and broaden their outreach.  I do not start a regular clinic in a village unless there is a pastor willing to assume responsibility for the spiritual follow-up of the patients. Now I am praying for the next phase of ministry to incorporate Ukrainian health care professionals into this village outreach ministry. Ukrainian doctors are involved in evangelistic village clinics in other regions of Ukraine, but are not intentionally partnering with pastors to start regular clinics and build long-term relationships. I believe this is key to developing the Church of Jesus Christ--not a building, but a body of believers serving and sharing their Lord and Savior.