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Medical mission from Longview serves hundreds in Ethiopia

By Charlotte Stewart cstewart@news-journal.com
April 30, 2011 at 10 p.m.


The president of LeTourneau University is a man on a mission - and part of Dale Lunsford's mission is encouraging students to go on a mission.

Legs crossed, hands clasped and leaning back in his office armchair, Lunsford talked about a mission to Bishanjilba, a small village in Ethiopia, and his desire to teach students to be Gospel-spreading vessels to such places. Unclasping his hands and uncrossing his legs, he planted a hand on each knee and declared: "We want our students to get out there and be the hands of God."

In the spirit of practicing what he preaches, Lunsford accompanied three area doctors during spring break to the village high in the mountains of Ethiopia. Saying each word slowly and deliberately, Lunsford said, "I needed the experience - to see it, smell it, touch it."

And so he did.

The group brought everything it needed for a medical clinic - supplies, equipment, medicine - to Bishanjilba, where in about three and a half days they tended to more than 700 patients.

"So many people suffer from skin ailments, and so many infections that needed to be addressed ... Most of them don't wear shoes, or have shoes, and there were terrible wounds on their feet," Lunsford said.

People suffering maladies ranging from an abscessed tooth to infected wounds converged upon the clinic, hoping for treatment. Staff members were sent out to triage prospective patients, to determine who would or would not get medical attention.

Those who were selected received medical attention in what most Americans would consider deplorable conditions.

"Dr. (John) Ross didn't have his comfortable office he has here - air-conditioned, nice, furnished waiting room, lights, x-ray," Lunsford said. "Think about just how many lights a dentist uses. There wasn't electricity, we didn't have those lights. We had Dale Lunsford holding a (flash)light."

He paused, then added, "I needed to have a sense of that."

And for Lunsford, who has been on many other missions, the sense had to come from Africa.

"You know, there is an expression: I need Africa more than Africa needs me. What that means is, we think we are needed in Africa, and we'll make such a big difference. But we find what was really needed was the way it changes us," he said. "It was an amazing experience."

It was the kind of experience he hopes more LeTourneau students will have.

"We want them to go there and come back with new experiences that will make them better students in any discipline, that will make them better citizens, that will strengthen their faith, their relationship with Christ. … We don't want to point people to LeTourneau. We want Christ to get the honor and glory," he said.

Not every student or missionary needs the Africa experience, though. "There are a lot of hurting people a lot closer to home," Lunsford said.

Once upon a time, potential missionaries went to school specifically toward that purpose, and learned the language and customs of the people to whom they would minister.

"The new model of a missionary is a civil engineer who can help build a road, dig a well, or doctor and nurses who tend to the sick, and while doing it, share Christ," Lunsford said. "And what I found out is that you don't need to be a graduate to be a tremendous help. People who can provide basic medical care (such as) cleaning wounds - that's more than they've got now."

The new model for a missionary was molded by the likes of Drs. Rodney Henry, Mark Wallis and Ross, all on the recent trip. "I was so impressed by the compassion shown by these men, how caring they were," Lunsford said.

Ross is a longtime friend to the university, so when he suggested the mission trip, Lunsford said, he accepted gladly.

The trip was a partnership with Dallas-based Buckner International, a Christian agency dedicated to improving the lives of families and children by meeting their physical, spiritual and emotional needs.

"Buckner is already there in Ethiopia. They've got schools. They're feeding people, clothing them, bringing in medical missionaries (and) sharing Christ," Lunsford said.

Buckner International provides aid through various programs to 69 countries. According to its website, one of the programs is currently recruiting all medical specialties.

Dr. Ross did not need to be recruited. He began his year-long stint as a missionary to Dominica almost immediately after graduating in 1978, pausing to take a crash course in basic medicine before going.

The training proved providential.

"Three weeks into it there was a hurricane," Ross said. "About 60,000 of the 80,000 people there were homeless, and a lot of them were injured, either in the hurricane, or right after it, walking around in the debris, trying to move trees or digging people or possessions out of debris."

As far as he knows, he and a medical doctor who was flown in were the only doctors on the island. "For weeks I did basic (medical) procedures, nothing dental … I'm not bragging. I got to use everything I had learned, including stitching. About a year into it, a woman came in for a dental procedure who had a terrible, just jagged scar. I looked at it, and I asked her what happened. She looked up at me and laughed. She said, 'You ought to know – you're the one who sewed me up.' It didn't look so good, but it looked better than what a gaping wound would have left. It was a good thing I took that basic medical training," he said.

Ross said he tries to go on a mission every year, and that his training as a dentist has been crucial. "It's gotten us into a lot of places that other groups can't get to. We sometimes go in and soften the line so other groups can come in. It gives them a reason to trust us, to see that we're helping them," he said.

Like Lunsford, Ross said he knows not every team member has to be a medical professional.

"The team has a lot of other players besides dental. Frank Chaney for instance, runs my sterilization work. He makes sure all my instruments are clean. He is a great real estate man, but he is over there boiling instruments making sure I am not spreading disease from one person to another," he said.

A job that gets no glory, but that is essential, is crowd control. "The crowd can get riotous. People who've been suffering for years with an abscess or something like that, they are determined to be seen or have a loved one seen. While they're waiting, that's a great opportunity to share the gospel," Ross said.

He also echoed Lunsford's statement about doing missionary work closer to home.

"Not everyone can go to Africa, or Mexico, or Dominica. But everyone can do something, and it is incumbent upon us – Christians - to find out what we can to for the Kingdom and set out to do it."

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