When I first received a call to serve as a health missionary, I knew very little about the program. I had a vision of myself heading into the deep, dark jungle, mounted on a carabao, laden down with an eighteen-month supply of Band-Aids, aspirin, multi-colored fly swatters, rubbing alcohol, shoe-laces, insect repellent, obsolete snake-bite kits, bouillon cubes, and various first-aid manuals collected from MIA and physical education classes.
This dream has been shattered in the months I’ve been serving in the Philippines as a health missionary, but the vision that has taken its place is so beautiful, I don’t miss the carabao at all!
The health missionary program of the Church has been underway for two years now, but still many are asking, “What is a health missionary?” “How do you get called to serve?” “What do you do?”
Contrary to what many of us believed when we first heard of the program, we are not sent out to cure all the diseases on the face of the earth. We are not even called to treat the illnesses of the members of the Church but rather to teach them principles of good health that will help them prevent disease. What a beautiful program!
We are called, as are other missionaries, to serve at our own expense for eighteen months or two years. Our calls come from President Harold B. Lee through our bishops. We go to the Missionary Home in Salt Lake and then spend time in language learning and/or our health program orientation. And then it’s away! We’re off to the islands, or the Lamanites in the Dakotas, or south of the border to Uruguay, or all the way to the Philippines!
This is a unique country. There are many varieties of beautiful plants, trees, flowers, fruits, and sunsets. And some of the most friendly, humble, wonderful people in the world—40,000,000 of them in this country of 7,100 islands. They speak 87 different dialects. They are remarkably gifted, particularly in music and handiwork.
This is also a developing country and a land of many health problems. Manila is a crowded city with many people living in poverty. Thousands of families live on a salary of 50 pesos per month (about $8.00) or less. There are typhoons and floods and flies and garbage. Pneumonia and tuberculosis are serious health problems.
Where and how do we begin to change this trend in the lives of our Church members and have some impact on their basic health? We have the advantage of a perfect organization already established and the direction of the priesthood. What a perfect way to reach the family and the individual—through the Church program, which is already functioning all over the world! We will work with and train leaders who will then share with the members. Under the direction of the district and branch leaders and our mission president, we will help to gather resource material, determine health problems in specific areas, and formulate lessons, programs, and activities that can be adapted to various teaching situations. Because of the way our program will work and the emphasis on health care rather than sick care, we can establish something that will endure long after we’ve gone home.
Happily we have found that active members of the Church are generally in better health than their countrymen. I attribute this to their keeping of the commandments, including the Word of Wisdom, and the purposeful living that comes with activity in the Church. These members already understand that their bodies are temples and must be kept clean and healthy. One humble sister who lost her husband and must work to have enough for herself and her children said to me with tears in her eyes, “Sister, I don’t have enough money to buy what I know my children should eat; but you know, I always express thanks to my Heavenly Father for the food I do have and ask him to bless it to give us health. And that makes all the difference.”
We have opportunities to proselyte along with our work in the health program. There are probably few experiences in life that bring the same quality of joy as that of bearing witness to a family that God lives and that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world. Even if it happens in a humble, two-room home, with mice running around on the floor, the rain coming in on your back, one light globe to light the room, and a big mother pig bursting in in the middle of your testimony, it still can be one of the most beautiful experiences life has to offer.
Some of our proselyting opportunities come in connection with our health work. We’ve had discussions with many interesting and interested people and have placed tracts and copies of the Book of Mormon in such places as the Department of Health, the World Health Organization, the Nutrition Foundation of the Philippines, and with taxi drivers, people on the bus, people at the post office, and even with Sister Ester, a delightful Catholic nun I met on a plane between Manila and Cebu. It was thrilling to see Sister Ester reading Alma.
One of the best things about a health mission is the association with the tremendous young people who serve on regular missions. Part of our work as health missionaries is concerned with keeping all 250 of them healthy. We start with simple things like “boil your water and wash your hands.” Then, somehow, you get the flu, and an elder asks innocently, “Did you forget to boil your water, Sister Edmunds?” We give the missionaries injections of the “gamma goblins” (gamma globulin), and many have laughed about “finally getting the point of the program.” Sometimes we’ll be engrossed in a book on the nutritional value of rice, and a missionary will ask humbly, “Are you sure that’s one of the standard works?”
Hymns begin to have different meanings sometimes when you’re singing them as a health missionary. “Thou flowing water, pure and clear” (no. 4); “With healing in thy wings” (no. 20); “With sleep refresh my feeble frame” (no. 59); “In every condition, in sickness, in health, In poverty’s vale or abounding in wealth” (no. 66); “Feed us with knowledge and daily bread” (no. 43).
Scriptures, too, take on a new meaning. “And ye shall serve the Lord your God, and he shall bless thy bread, and thy water: and I will take sickness away from the midst of thee.” (Ex. 23:25.) “Thou shalt not eat any abominable thing.” (Deut. 14:3.) “I have … drunk strange waters. …” (2 Kgs. 19:24.) “And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land—but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by nature of the climate.” (Alma 46:40.)
You grow a lot on a mission. Your feet grow flat, your leather books grow mold, your clothes grow thin, and your heart grows bigger. You learn a lot of things you didn’t know before, like how to live without milk. You learn to make exotic noises with wet Hush Puppies as you walk down the street. You become better acquainted with Nephites, Israelites, and parasites. And through it all—the study sessions by candlelight, the rain on your bed in the middle of the night—you’re thankful to be here and thrilled at all the things you have to write home about as you try to put into words the best two years of your life.
What or who is a health missionary, then? Someone who’s going to learn and share a lot for a few short months. Someone who will gain much more than he or she will ever be able to give. A health missionary is not necessarily a nurse or a doctor. It is possible for Church members with many different skills to participate in this great, beautiful, inspired program. The potential is exciting.
This is a labor of love and an opportunity to represent the Savior. And he is our greatest example, for truly he was ever concerned with both the physical and spiritual health of all he met.