Let me take you back to the mission field. I was a young physician, called by ADRA to work as a volunteer doctor with one the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities in Albania – Roma travellers. It was my first day in a slum, a community of travellers who had made their dwelling in makeshift tents and sheds from cardboard and plywood, carpets and curtains. It also turned out to be my first encounter with a mother who mixed the milk preparation for her new-born with spoonfuls of sugar, believing it would prevent parasitic infection. I listened to her life story and learned that this “recipe” had been handed to her through her community, and it was only the tip of the iceberg of misunderstanding and misinformation. I tried to explain to her (in my then broken Albanian) that babies should never eat any sugar, and that sugar was not a treatment against parasites! She was surprised because this common belief was deeply ingrained in her community.
On that same afternoon I witnessed many other strange cases: A young girl who was “treated” for her headaches with her grandmother’s blood pressure medication. A man who was nearly blind, because when he was a child, his parents had treated a simple eye infection with lemon juice and salt. This afternoon turned out not as I had planned – I had planned to see the sick, treat them, hand out medication, and wrap up. Instead, I spent more than two hours talking, teaching and explaining. This afternoon turned into a very large health education project a few years later. I could have simply done my job. Treat the sick – that is the traditional calling of a physician – but I soon realised that I could never make a difference, never truly heal, if I did not also educate and teach. That’s when I realised God’s call – a call to exercise duty of care.
My favourite Spirit of Prophecy book is The Ministry of Healing. Among several priceless paragraphs, this one provided a firm foundation for my mission statement as a medical missionary: “The true physician is an educator. He recognizes his responsibility, not only to the sick who are under his direct care, but also to the community in which he lives. He stands as a guardian of both physical and moral health. It is his endeavour not only to teach right methods for the treatment of the sick, but to encourage right habits of living, and to spread a knowledge of right principles” (p. 125). I can attest how these words came true for me time and again throughout my years of service.
I have come a long way since that first day. My patients have changed. The content of my teaching has changed. However, the principle of my work as physician has always remained the same: In order to prevent disease, treatment is not enough, education is the key. In order to truly heal, I need to truly care.
This is not an article about vaccination. Information abounds and our world church headquarters have regularly provided helpful, scripture-based guidance throughout the pandemic (the latest article by Dr Moskala can be found here: Vaccination: Biblical-Theological Reflection). In this context, I am proud in the Lord to belong to a church that follows Health Principles as outlined in the bible and Spirit of Prophecy; I am proud to call Adventist doctors, nurses, public health professionals, and other health workers around the globe my esteemed colleagues and my cherished brothers and sisters. I am even prouder to belong to a church that believes in education and prevention as well as treatment of disease. I am proud to belong to a church that truly exercises duty of care.
Cambridge Dictionary defines duty of care as “the moral or legal responsibility not to allow someone to be harmed.” In the context of what we have been through together in the past 20 months, we as a church and as individuals have the moral responsibility to keep each other safe, to protect the vulnerable, to respect, cherish and love our brothers and sisters. What Ellen White wrote above outlines the principles of duty of care for Seventh-day Adventists worldwide: First and foremost, duty of care involves listening and learning, recognising responsibility for the community as a whole – responsibility for health disparities, poverty, discrimination and misinformation. Duty of care involves accepting the role as guardian for both physical and moral health – guarding individuals’ physical health through teaching the right methods for treatment and encouraging right habits of living, and guarding individuals’ moral health through spreading knowledge of right principles. Finally, duty of care involves keeping others safe, encouraging and building each other up. This echoes what the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the saints in Rome: “Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, leading to edification.” (Rom. 15:2, NKJV).
Ultimately, all of us are called to keep each other safe and to prevent disease and grief. All of us are called to lift each other up and to support and to pray for each other. All of us are called to stand united in these times and be a beacon of faith, hope and love in our communities. All of us have received the call to exercise duty of care.