I started my life as a Christian missionary when I was nineteen years old. In fact, I took a hiatus from my nursing school education to go out of the country and spread the gospel. In that year I spent away from college I learned a lot about life, human nature, but also myself. And somewhere in all of it God told me I wasn’t meant to be a traditional missionary hiking through the jungle in search of unreached people groups. Nope, I was gonna be a tentmaker like Paul, and while I worked for money I’d also work for God’s kingdom.
Away from the stress of nursing school I felt like that was my calling. So I returned on a large plane at the end of my time abroad and I enrolled in a nursing program with renewed vigor for where God was leading me.
Turns out my path was a convoluted one, and though I blame many of the detours on my own misjudgment, I still feel like God used it for His good overall. My odd trajectory towards my nursing degree led me to a career in the United States Navy, and at 23 years of age I found myself serving in the medical field at a large Naval hospital outside of Washington, D.C.
I can recall the second time I got called into my lieutenant’s office to answer for my actions. The first time had been when I announced my plans to marry another service member. He had called me into his office to ask if I was pregnant. I guess most young folks, active duty got married for that reason rather than love. I always was a square peg. I had gotten married for love, and I had gotten in trouble a second time for love, per se, as well.
I remember there being an announcement that morning that the annual Christmas party would from there forward be titled a Holiday party so as not to offend others. While I’ve certainly matured since then, and I now try and speak in a more compassionate manner that makes those different than myself comfortable in my acceptance and love for them, at the time I was a naive twenty-something still fresh from the mission field. So I had sighed in exasperation at his announcement and had muttered out loud, “it’s Christmas!”
As I sat in his office being reprimanded for my comment it truly struck me for the first time that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Ok. Mississippi. But I think you know what I mean. The small town Southern girl who grew up in a place with a population of maybe 250, but three churches serving that same population, finally realized she was out of her element. I was in the big world, and there were a lot of different people with different belief systems. Instead of friends praying to Jesus before lunch I had Muslim friends who fasted until sunset. Christmas became the holiday season, and spiritual support of your patient was asking them if there was someone you could call to assist them. I didn’t pray with my patients. Once I was in the civilian world, I actually feared that might garner a complaint that could get me fired. Too risky.
Recently I was at the bedside, in my rural, Southern hospital, with another member of the patient’s healthcare team, and that person asked the patient, “may I pray with you?” She eagerly accepted and we all joined hands, bowed our heads, and enjoyed a prayer together. After we said amen it occurred to me for about the billionth time that I was where my heart needed to be.
I never minded people who believed different than myself. On the mission field when I was nineteen I remember sitting on a log with a Muslim man my age discussing the differences in why we believed the things we both did. In the military, once I recognized my own tendency to be prideful and feel justified in being right, I had no issue serving with joy and acceptance among my fellow man, no matter their belief system, or lack thereof. To me, we were all loved by Jesus. Even if some didn’t know it yet.
But when I came back to Mississippi after a decade away I realized how much of a privilege it was to work and serve the community as a nurse while also being amongst fellow Christians. It wasn’t that I served nonbelievers any differently, or even that I held a disdainful opinion of those who were not followers of Jesus. I prayed for them all the same, just some only inside my head. I tried to show the love of Jesus through action, I just couldn’t always term it as such. I guess the best way to describe it was like coming home. Just like you felt more at peace in your own bedroom, I felt a contentment in my spirit to be surrounded by people who loved the Lord like I did.
Then when I realized it was normal to speak His name? Even better. I can recall starting a position in a locally owned Hospice company. My first day we all sat down and the pastor on staff opened us with prayer. My jaw dropped, but my heart leapt. It felt like home. I liked it. A lot. I had missed it. More than I realized.
The prayer moment at bedside I experienced this past week is status quo for the Bible Belt, and while many people in this area speak of broadening their horizons and moving away from “the hypocrite church folks” I wonder if they truly know how different it can be outside of places like Mississippi. Personally? I’m glad I went all over the world. I’m glad I experienced other cultures, other mindsets, and other belief systems beyond my own. For me, it made me appreciate the feeling of community experienced amongst fellow believers in Christ. I suppose I had taken it for granted before.
In my element I am more free to not just serve with compassion and the light of Jesus, but also to have more liberty to practice my faith in action. I feel able to fulfill the calling God gave me so many years ago, and here in the South I feel like my spiritual care of my patients is easier for me to provide. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been practicing it all along, but I’ve found it has blossomed into a beautiful thing in the medium the Bible Belt provides. Now I am able to mend my patients’ physical wounds, but also to lead them towards healing of their emotional pain. I am able to help the broken, love the unloved, and shine God’s light in a dark and hurting world.