A hospital or medical van may not be the whole of the gospel, but to an Indian peasant it conveys an image of Christ.

Visitors to india claim they could recognize the country even if led off a plane blindfolded, just by its smell. I think I have identified it. To my Western nose, it seems to comprise relatively equal parts of incense/stale urine/sandalwood/cow dung/flowers/dieselfumes/dust/camphor tree. Mix all those together and you have the redolence of the great nation of India.

I visited India last fall, first attending a conference of Christian physicians in Bangalore, then accompanying Dr. Paul Brand, my coauthor on recent projects, to his former home near Vellore. In many respects, medicine in India differs little from that in the U.S. and Europe; the doctors are, after all, often trained at the same schools. You can find CAT scanners and other technological wizardry scattered across the subcontinent. But out beyond the cities, in India’s half-million villages, everything changes. What does an Indian doctor do to rehydrate cholera victims if no sterile water is available? Why, hang a fresh coconut on the IV stand: the glucose mixture is as sterile and almost as nutritious as what comes from the medical supply house. Still, it is a bit jarring to see a long rubber tube snaking up from a patient’s arm to a shiny green coconut.

At the conference in Bangalore, discussion centered around a new frontier in Christian medical missions (actually an old frontier, revived). It seems the well-intentioned desire of Western supporters to make medical missions more indigenous is backfiring. As the West cuts off funds for mission hospitals to encourage them to rely on self-support, the hospitals can only respond by increasing specialized ...

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