Modern Medical Missionaries

Modern Medical Missionaries

One of the characteristics that has always impressed me about highly committed servants of Jesus Christ is that they continue to actively serve Him to the very end of their lives. Long after others have retired from their vocations and various forms of Christian service, these deeply dedicated Christian servants continue right on actively ministering for the Lord in whatever ways they are able. For them there is no such concept as retiring from the Lord’s work. They may not be able to serve Christ as actively or in all the ways they did in younger years. But they continue to serve Him to the full extent of their physical strength and other capacities (even as those are diminishing) to the end of life.

Dr. Carl Becker (1894-1990), who some say was the most outstanding medical missionary ever to serve in Africa, was a definite example of ongoing active service of Christ in the latter years of life. (See my May 2, 2016 blog, “Dr. Carl K. Becker – Africa’s Greatest Medical Missionary,” for a summary of his remarkable ministry career.) In 1964, after serving in Belgian Congo (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) for thirty-five years, Becker was forced to flee his medical missionary compound at Oicha and the country in order to escape Simba rebels who were intent on capturing and executing him. Though seventy years of age at the time, he did not entertain thoughts of returning to the United States to retire. Instead he spent fifteen months serving at two medical missionary stations in neighboring Uganda, while awaiting the opportunity to return to Congo.

Dr. Carl K. BeckerAt the end of 1965 Becker was the first doctor to return to the vast area of northeast Congo. Following the recent violent uprising, the spiritual and medical needs throughout the entire region were enormous. In addition to rebuilding the work at Oicha, Becker desired to fulfill a longtime dream of founding an inter-mission medical training center at Nyankunde. While taking the lead in establishing that training center, Becker also regularly returned to Oicha and other mission stations to help promote their medical mission endeavors.

Then in the middle of 1966, Becker fell by a Congo roadside after suffering three heart seizures in one day. For two hours he lay quietly, completely helpless. But gradually his strength revived and he returned to Nyankunde. After a good night of rest, he appeared at the hospital early the next morning and insisted on resuming his normal medical routines.

“Why, Dr. Becker, you should be ashamed of yourself,” a nurse reprimanded him. “You shouldn’t be working like this after suffering three heart attacks yesterday. You should be resting in bed!” To which Becker responded softly, “If this is to be my last day on earth, I certainly don’t want to spend it in bed.” After which he promptly returned to his medical duties.

By the end of that year the Inter-Mission Evangelical Medical Training Center was opened at Nyankunde, with four mission boards cooperating in the shared venture. The center soon had six doctors and thirty African students receiving advanced medical training. As many as 1,500 people per day came to the Nyankunde hospital for treatment. The Nyankunde Center supervised and assisted hospitals at Oicha, Rethy and Aba as well as many smaller dispensaries. The doctors made monthly visits to those three remote hospitals, performing twenty to twenty-five operations per visit.

Another Hand on MineBecker’s responsibilities included supervising the Nyankunde Center, maintaining oversight of the Oicha hospital and visiting three other outlying dispensaries each month. He continued his active medical missionary work until he was eighty-three years of age. He then returned to the United States, having served as a medical missionary for forty-seven years.

Like Dr. Carl Becker, may each of us who follow Jesus Christ, faithfully and actively serve Him through all the years of life He entrusts to us. Much more inspiration may be gained from Becker’s outstanding example of lifelong Christian service by reading William Petersen’s excellent biography, Another Hand on Mine, The Story of Dr. Carl K. Becker of Africa Inland Mission.

Dr. Carl K. BeckerAfrica has been blessed with a long line of outstanding Christian medical missionaries. Such remarkable individuals as David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer and Helen Roseveare come readily to mind.  “But if one medical missionary to Africa were to be singled out,” states missiologist Ruth Tucker, “for his length of service combined with his extraordinary dedication to saving the lives and improving the health standards of the African people, it would surely be Carl Becker, the great munganga [doctor] of the Congo.”

Carl Becker (1894-1990) was born and raised in Manheim, Pennsylvania. After receiving his medical training at Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, he successfully practiced medicine in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, for seven years. In 1929 Becker and his wife, Marie, left Boyertown to go to the Belgian Congo (modern Democratic Republic of the Congo) under the Africa Inland Mission. In doing so, Becker exchanged an annual income of $10,000-plus for a missionary’s salary of $720 per year.

Five years later Becker moved with his wife and two children to the tiny mission station of Oicha in the dense Ituri forest to work among the Pygmies and other jungle tribes. In that unlikely spot, among towering mahogany trees, Becker and his associates built a highly effective medical compound. With no long-range plan and no budget for expansion, rooms and buildings were added as they became necessary, and were often paid for out of Becker’s personal salary of just sixty dollars a month.

A Leper's Hands

A Leper’s Hands

Becker’s weekends were devoted to itinerant evangelistic ministry in the surrounding villages. Mass evangelism was carried out to the hundreds of Africans who came to Oicha each day for medical treatment. Young Christian patients being treated at the hospital were also helped to grow in their faith.

Medical ministry brought about the fruitful evangelization of two area people groups which had long been intensely discriminated against, Pygmies and lepers. As a result of the care and love they received from Becker and his Christian staff, thousands of them were drawn to faith in Christ.

With Becker being the only resident medical doctor at Oicha, an astounding total of more than 3,000 operations were performed each year and some 500 babies were delivered annually. While treating all variety of injuries and diseases, Becker did extensive research and specialized in the treatment of leprosy. By the early 1950s he was treating some 4,000 resident patients at his 1,100-acre leprosy village. The results were so impressive that medical missionaries and leprologists from all over the world visited Oicha to learn from Becker.

From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, 1983 editionHe also treated patients with mental illness, including some individuals who were so severely disturbed that their relatives thought they were demon possessed. Becker established a mental ward and a psychiatric clinic at Oicha. However, according to Becker’s biographer, William Petersen, the doctor “remained convinced that simple Christianity was the soundest general therapy for the mentally upset, that the Gospel of love and hope alone can banish superstition and fear.”

Becker narrowly escaped from the Congo in 1964 when it became known that Simba rebels, rapidly closing in on Oicha, were intent on capturing and executing him. Some might have thought that the good doctor, then seventy years of age, would consider retiring at that point. But a year later he was back in Oicha, rebuilding the ministry that Simba guerrillas had destroyed the previous year. And his active missionary service in Africa stretched out for another dozen years beyond that.

Art Buchwald, the prominent American newspaper columnist, once penned this remarkable tribute: “In all of Congo, the man who made the greatest impression on us was an American missionary doctor named Carl K. Becker. … We couldn’t help thinking as we left Oicha that America had its own Dr. Schweitzer in Congo.”

Another Hand on MineBut Ruth Tucker seems correct in suggesting that the greatest tribute ever paid to Becker may have been this one made by one of his African medical trainees: “Many missionaries had preached Jesus Christ to me, and many missionaries had taught Jesus Christ to me, but in the munganga I have seen Jesus Christ.”

Much profit may be gained by reading William Petersen’s excellent biography, Another Hand on Mine, The Story of Dr. Carl K. Becker of Africa Inland Mission. Ruth Tucker’s outstanding work, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, A Biographical History of Christian Missions, contains a helpful summary of Becker’s life (pages 339-342).

Copyright 2016 by Vance E. Christie