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ASI Abroad

Canvasback Missions

Sterling Spence

08/30/2015

Being an Adventist business person isn’t an easy task, nor should we expect it to be. After all, at its finest, what we do in the world is the continuation of God’s mission. That means we must be missionaries, navigating the line between secular business practice and a commitment to the gospel.

We’ve all seen promotional videos for charitable organizations that open with sad music and soft focus on barefoot children playing around garbage, or perhaps they start with a black background and white words, listing statistics of disease rates in a country across the sea. The people served are shown as needy and sad. The message is that all of this could be turned around with our help. The music shifts to being a little bit more upbeat. The narrator says something like, “We’re making a difference. For a small donation you can give a kid a smile. Won’t you give?”

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It’s a tried and true fundraising formula. It works for animal rescues, inner-city after-school programs, and especially overseas aid work. It works because it pulls on our heartstrings, but it also plays on a sense of superiority. There is, perhaps, something about this formula that misses a Christian notion of human dignity. The child is presented not as a person but as a problem. The defining feature is her need, or his disease. Yet, that isn’t the way God has called us to see each other. Christian business people are committed to seeing those they serve as God sees them.

Adventists are a Christ-oriented people. At the heart of our belief is the idea that the infinite, triune God found us to be valuable and thought that humanity was worthwhile. So the divine came in the Advent, incarnated in human form, and entered into this small, broken world by bringing wholeness. In this act, God has affirmed our humanity and said that creation has value.

I work for Canvasback Missions, and this is an idea we’ve been wrestling with for a long time. How do we portray people as God sees them? Canvasback has been in the Micronesian Islands for more than 30 years. We provide specialty medical care for hospitals, as well as run a full-time wellness center on the island of Majuro that strives to reverse an epidemic of type 2 diabetes through diet, exercise, and agriculture. Like all organizations, we’ve learned some things in that time.

One of my favorite stories comes from the early days of the mission, back in the late 80s. In the beginning, Canvasback was bringing doctors to remote islands by ship. American doctors would fly out, board the ship, and off we’d go. They’d get seasick and spend the voyage vomiting over the side. As we neared our destination, they’d look up with hazy eyes and see lines of people waiting on the coconut tree-lined beaches to see them. In one of these crowds, on the island of Namonuito, stood Kiki Always, the health assistant.

Some of the outer islands were equipped with a small dispensary, a building with a health assistant who had gone through a few months training after high school, a radio to contact the main island, and some pills. It would have been so easy to dismiss this whole operation. To our foreign eyes, it looked like an island of half-naked folks, with an under-trained health official just waiting for Canvasback to save them. But that was before we really knew Kiki.

As he worked with us, we began to see his tireless dedication in clinics and through stories others told us. When a baby was stillborn, Kiki wouldn’t give up. Once, after over half an hour of breathing into a newborn’s lungs, the infant began to breathe on his own.

In the middle of a typhoon, our team was waiting out the storm on the island of Weno when we saw the figure of Kiki in a canoe with an outboard motor coming across the ocean to find us. He had heard over the radio that Canvasback was there and traveled 165 miles across the rolling ocean because his people needed supplies that we could provide. He was fearless and dedicated. We began to see Kiki as a hero.

Kiki and the people he served were not helpless. They were not defined by their problems, but rather by their humanity. The love and sacrifice Kiki embodied was profoundly Christ-like, and showed us that our doctors were not the only heroes in these stories. We learned what dedication meant from a health assistant on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that doesn’t even show up on most maps. We were, and still are, blessed to be partners with some of the most amazing people we could imagine.

When we call ourselves Christian business people, we commit ourselves to trying to get past our biases and see people as Jesus would see them. It’s true that many are struggling with health problems, poverty, or addictions, but each individual has a story of joy as well as sadness, beauty as well as pain—humor, intelligence, and insight. We are dedicated to first seeing the dignity within. When I sit down to create a brochure or write a story about the islands, I challenge myself to help my audience see beauty and dignity. I challenge my fellow Adventist business folk to try and do the same.