Some of my friends are puzzled about the involvement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in ministries that do not have direct evangelistic components. They are perplexed that the church should make such a significant investment of human and financial resources to programs that do not directly promulgate the gospel. The approach of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) to health programs in the developing world is critically challenged by some who highly value the Adventist health message. They question the consistency of the ADRA approach with the Adventist philosophy of healthful living and health evangelism.
This has become a very personal issue for me. My wife, Yvonne, and I planned early in our marriage that we would enter some type of full-time ministry with the church when our children completed their education. After 30 years in medical family practice, we decided that the time had come. The Lord led me through a circuitous route to a ministry with ADRA.
We sent letters to each world division of the church and each union in the North American Division, telling of our evangelistic aspirations. We received a lot of interesting correspondence, but no calls other than an invitation by the Voice of Prophecy to participate in evangelistic series in Perm, Russia, in 1994. While I gave health lectures, Yvonne worked with the children’s program. Our experience in Perm was really exciting and especially thrilling to see 459 people baptized. While in Russia, we met Paul Kulakov, the Euro-Asia Division ADRA director at the time. He introduced us to the needs of ADRA and followed up with correspondence that led to an invitation to open the ADRA office in Kyrgyzstan. In ADRA health programs, the cherished eight Seventh-day Adventist remedies for health—nutrition, exercise, water, sunlight, temperance, air, rest, and trust in divine power—have applications that are basic and crucial to human health and survival. For example, ADRA’s use of water as a remedy is not by urging intake of eight glasses a day but by provision of a safe water supply to prevent death from cholera or other dysenteries. ADRA health programs are grappling with the causes of some 11 million needless deaths of children in the developing world each year: malaria, malnutrition, vaccine-preventable diseases, diarrhea, pneumonia, and HIV/AIDS.
ADRA would not be true and honest with donors who are not Seventh-day Adventists, especially government agencies, if grant money were used for overt evangelism and proselytizing activities. Christian agencies must, above all, be known for their integrity.
ADRA and Adventist Community Services are corporate counterparts to the commendable involvement of individual Seventh-day Adventist Christians in programs that meet the needs of the poor and suffering. I believe that the church desperately needs these ministries. Here are seven reasons Seventh-day Adventists need ADRA:
1. Work for the suffering and needy gives an understanding of God’s love and mercy we would not have otherwise. “Take away suffering and need, and we should have no way of understanding the mercy and love of God, no way of knowing the compassionate, sympathetic heavenly Father.”1 If the love of Jesus for His materially deprived children melts your heart, go with ADRA workers into mud or bamboo huts in rural Africa, Asia, or South America and meet the wonderful people living under circumstances that some of us would consider intolerable.
2. In meeting the needs of the less fortunate of the world, we are expressing and enhancing our love for Jesus. “Christ regards all acts of mercy, benevolence, and thoughtful consideration for the unfortunate, the blind, the lame, the sick, the widow, and the orphan as done to Himself; and these works are preserved in the heavenly records and will be rewarded.”2
Mother Theresa, when asked why she devoted her life to the poor and destitute of Kolkata (Calcutta), is quoted as saying that there she found “God in a most distressing disguise.” The dirty, listless, malnourished child dying of malaria and pneumonia in a remote village of Zambia is Jesus in disguise. The beggar child pulling on my sleeve in Madagascar is Jesus in disguise. The abused, hungry, and destitute in the inner cities of the United States are Jesus in disguise. The Russian pensioner I saw retrieving cabbage leaves from a garbage dumpster in Kyrgyzstan is Jesus in disguise. How will we respond to Jesus in disguise?
3. Expressing God’s love in practical ways. “The revelation of unselfish love, manifested in acts of disinterested kindness, will make it easier for these suffering ones to believe in the love of Christ.”3 Disinterested is the key word in understanding this ministry. In Kyrgyzstan, ADRA took clothing to a village in which no Seventh-day Adventist presence exists. Distribution was entrusted to an Orthodox priest who agreed to distribute the clothing equitably and only on the basis of people’s needs. He lived in the same poverty as others in the village, but took no personal advantage of his stewardship. In the same village, a church of another denomination distributed clothing to those who came to revival meetings. You can easily guess which distribution had the greater impact.
Jesus healed people on the basis of their need, not according to the potential for their conversion. He healed many that never accepted Him as Savior, but others were drawn to Him because of His unconditional expression of love. Thus, when ADRA operates a child health program it is doing the work of God.
4. It is good for us personally to work for the poor and suffering. Church members are healthier, physically as well as spiritually, when they involve themselves in social ministries. “You who are suffering with poor health, there is a remedy for you. If thou clothe the naked and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house and deal thy bread to the hungry, ‘then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily.’ Doing good is an excellent remedy for disease.”4
5. Ministries that call for us to give of our means and of ourselves are a cure for selfishness and covetousness.“Constant, self-denying benevolence is God’s remedy for the cankering sins of selfishness and covetousness.”5
For me to learn of sacrifices made by church members for ADRA is humbling. I think particularly of a small church in the mid-western part of the United States that gave money to ADRA that they had saved for years for the church building fund. They learned of a need in ADRA child health programs, and they wanted to be of help. I am confident that the Lord blessed them for this. There is real danger in indulgence in fashion and pride to the deprivation of the poor.
6. To work for the poor and suffering is the only thing loving people can do. Such work is not optional. The love of Christ impels us. “Christ came to this earth to walk and work among the poor and suffering. They received the greatest share of His attention. And today, in the person of His children, He visits the poor and needy, relieving woe and alleviating suffering.”6 That a Seventh-day Adventist Christian, whose heart has been softened by the love of Jesus, could learn of the plight of AIDS orphans, of malnourished and starving children, of mothers dying needlessly for want of the most basic obstetric care, and not respond is inconceivable.
7. How we respond to the needs of the poor and suffering is critical, as our cases are considered in the judgment. The judgment hour message is the most unique teaching of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The last of the three judgment parables in Matthew 25 describes activities of ADRA, within the setting of the judgment. The judgment can be understood as finding the answer to two questions: How do we worship? and How do we love? Both questions have to be answered. To worship correctly, on the right day and in the right manner, is not enough. We must actively love people if we are to be privileged to worship someday in the new earth. “When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering.”7
ADRA programs are not expensive add-ons to churches’ “real work.” ADRA health programs are an integral part of our mission. The first point in the ADRA mission statement is that ADRA’s “mission is to reflect the character of God through humanitarian and development activities.” Limitation of church efforts to preaching of the good news of salvation, while not doing what we can to alleviate suffering and privation and prevent needless death, is an incomplete gospel.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View,
CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assoc., 1948), 7:226.
2. Ibid., 3:512, 513.
3. White, Counsels on Health (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c Press
Pub. Assoc., 1957), 388.
4. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub.
Assoc., 1952), 447.
5. Ibid., 370.
6. White, A Call to Medical Evangelism and Health Education
(Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assoc., 1954), 23.
7. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacifi c Press
Pub. Assoc., 1940), 637.