by Jack Hoehn

By Jack Hoehn, January 29, 2014

In 1836 young David Livingston’s heart was captured by a few words from veteran missionary Robert Moffat about what he had seen in Africa. “I have sometimes seen, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages where no one has ever heard the name of Christ.”

Those words were passed on down to me by my father, Gus, and my mother, Olive Hoehn, who accepted an appointment as Medical Missionaries to Kendu Bay Adventist Mission Hospital (near where President Obama’s father came from) in Kenya. And as a 5-year-old child, I smelled the sweet odor of cow dung fires from some of those villages. My contact was brief, but although you can take a child out of Africa, it is very hard to take Africa out of a child.

So I grew up wanting to be a jungle doctor and go back to the mother continent. I am very white by culture and genes—Scottish, English, with a little Cree from my Hudson Bay Canadian ancestors, and very German from my father’s Canadian immigrant family. I did not see a person of color on my Vancouver Island homeland until I took a train ride on the CNR with a black porter after age 2. But to prepare me for Africa, my mother got me books by Paul Hamilton Hume White, an Australian physician with his own brief experience in Tanzania that he grew into a series of 20 Jungle Doctor books for children that I still have on my library shelves.

Jungle Doctor Goes to Africa, Jungle Doctor Fights Witchcraft, Jungle Doctor and the Leopard, each 100-page book published by the Paternoster Press fed my young imagination with a white doctor and black assistants ministering to the exciting physical and the touching spiritual needs of Africans. As I grew up in Southern California after my father was repatriated from Africa quadriplegic from polio, I still dreamed of Africa—my tall, young playmate with large plugs stretching his earlobes, the 3 foot lizard on a tin roof of a mission house, the sudden throb of Plasmodium falciparum parasites exploding in my brain, and sometimes, in the morning sun, I remembered the smoke of a thousand villages where no one had heard the name of Christ.

When I met a beautiful, kind, intelligent, and cheerful red-headed nursing student from Paradise (zip code 95969, look it up), I let her know fairly early on that life with this Loma Linda University medical student would lead to Africa. For some wonderful reason that did not put an immediate end to our relationship.

After choosing the generalist specialty of Family Practice (because Jungle Doctors needed to be generalists) and hanging around friendly surgeons a lot during my University Teaching Hospital residency in Calgary, Deanne and I were sent by all of you Adventists to Africa.

A godly machine.

So let me stop here to tell you why I love Adventism in specific and organized religion in general. Organized religion does things we could never do by ourselves.

God-lovers—no matter how sincere and how wonderful their solitary walks in the woods with Jesus or their spiritual encounters with God himself while climbing mountains—don’t build schools, don’t build hospitals, don’t train nurses and doctors, don’t run orphanages, don’t print books, don’t educate President Obama’s father by their sincere spiritual solitary selves. Churches do that.

Ellen White, and St. Paul, and Harvard University would all be impossible without a church structure to support and empower them. Jesus didn’t come to have 100 solitary sheep; he went out and risked all to bring that one lonely sheep back to the fold! He came, God bless us, to build a church! Religion is not something imposed on Jesus; Christianity is something Jesus has imposed on us.“On this Rock will I build my ecclesia and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

Adventism is a very organized church.

We have pay scales between 80 and 140%. We have Departments with Secretaries. We have Missions with Directors. We have Unions with Presidents, and we have Dorcas Societies, all of course, for Heaven’s sake. We have children who give one egg out of every 10 that their hen lays to the church, and Radiologists who give all their fees for Sabbath work to the church, and giant manufacturers of garbage trucks who tithe and double tithe before they pay their taxes. And it used to be, because we didn’t have enough ourselves, we went every year to our neighbors and asked them to give us more in Harvest Ingathering.

So this godly machine called a church does together what none of us individual believers alone could ever do. An Adventist congregation does things in a community together that we could not do alone. We collect money for fighting abuse of street women; we gather supplies for the Ronald McDonald house next to our hospital; we have a program of organized religious education for all our children; we may have a school or support schools in places we cannot even pronounce like Teyateyaneng (been there, seen that).

Adventist conferences and unions can have high schools and colleges, and hospitals. Divisions can have universities and media centers. And the General Conference can send elderly males all over the world keeping it running (if they have any time left over from promoting their opinions on a 144-hour creation week and the sanctity of male headship).

Why I still love it.

Frankly, I’m very glad for this godly Adventist machine, feeble and defective as it may be, for it trained me as a child in righteousness; it gave me a place in my youth to be out of Los Angeles in the mountains at summer camps; it later brought 750 beautiful young women to Pacific Union College to give me the pick of the pack; it taught me to be a fully qualified physician with faith, integrity, and skill; it exposed me to theologians like Maxwell, Heppenstahl, Provonsha, Robert Olson, Leslie Harding, Leo Van Dolson, Gordon Hyde, and Hans Heinz to nourish my soul. It taught me German in an Adventist school in Austria. It flew me to Lesotho, and then to Zambia. It let me stand under the same trees that David Livingstone camped under from where now I could again see, in the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages.

For 13 years Adventism made me the richest physician in the world—I was so rich I could afford to treat anyone I wanted for nothing or next to nothing, because I was working for the Adventist church! Your 10th egg, your Sabbath profit, your tithe by the thousands or millions put together into the hands of men and a few women on committees, wasting time on policy books, and home deposits, and conference offices, still let me rescue over 500 women of obstructed pregnancies with surgeries at no cost to them. It let me drive four-wheel trucks through rivers to get to little clinics where everyone wore a blanket due to the high mountain African cold. It let me ride a boat through swamps where no one even owned a blanket. Organized religion let me build hospital wards for sick children suffering the same malaria crises I remember from my Kenya childhood. Church let me train and graduate Nurses and Medical Assistants who would go out into the bush and jungle and run little clinics that were lights in the darkness, and teach in SDA schools that would graduate people like the Obamas and Nelson Mandela’s children.

My own son, Jonathan, was born in your Maluti Adventist Hospital, where mothers and babies slept in the same beds, and when crowded, on the floor on mattresses under the beds. You built a nursing school at Mwami Adventist Hospital. You allowed dozens of young medical doctors to come and shadow me, learning things about medicine and mission that Loma Linda could not teach them. You paid for wonderful friends like Hurlows and Rogers and Ashleys and Shepherds and Stahlneckers and Collins and Reimches and Courtneys and Schmidts to come and work with me, giving us round-trip tickets, a place to sleep, food to eat, and a small home base deposit to come back to. Adventists at your hospital in Zambia ministered to the Wesleyan Methodists, the Instrumental and the Non-Instrumental-Churches-of-Christ, the Southern Baptists, and the Fathers from the Catholic Kachaberi Mission. You gave guest rooms to the U.S. Ambassadors to these countries, and a place for Canadian, German, Norwegian, and American governmental funds to join to your own offerings in making bad things better, and good things safer.

Who could not love Adventism for what an organized church can do that no one individual could ever think of doing by themselves? All Christian churches, fallen and unfallen, have done more good in this world than any skeptic club or Sunday Assembly of atheists playing church has yet dreamed of doing. Even bad churches still do good works; even TV Evangelists and Popes can surprise us by acting like Christians. The Christian God came and built an organized church. And Hell? Hell No! Hell can not prevail against it.

Adventism shines in the darkness.

I’ve been in Walla Walla now nearly twice as long as I was in Africa, and even here in the USA the strength and beauty of organized religion gives a beautiful newly remodeled Hospital and a top class Adventist University to our community. The Adventist grade school is a model; the Adventist academy has been remarkably personal and loving to our children. These things don’t happen without organized religion.

But in North America where society was largely founded on Protestant Biblical principles, sometimes the beauty of Adventism is not appreciated as much as it should be, especially by our children who have known nothing else. So ten times I have gone with or taken back groups of students to Africa to see, in the light of the morning sun, the smoke of a thousand villages.

There are many reasons why I strongly support spending a little filthy lucre on short-term as well as long-term mission trips. I can explain to you the very real benefits both to the missionaries (especially young ones) and to the recipient mission fields. I’ve heard the remarks around the table about “Christian tourism,” “Jesus junkets,” and “Don’t we have enough problems here?” I have felt the sting like Mary did when I hear again, “Shouldn’t this money have been spent on our poor.”

Yet here is why I always support students who ask me for a donation for a “mission trip”: Because I long for them to see Adventism at its purest and finest.

I want them to see what a positive and uplifting force for good their religion is. I want them to glimpse what happens in an African village with smoke rising from a thousand huts; with blood flowing from a thousand wars; with women suffering from a thousand subordinations; with men suffering from a thousand pots of beer; with babies suffering from diarrhea; with all suffering from a deep dark fear of spirits and demons and ghosts. I want them to see with their own eyes that “where sin abounds, there grace abounds much more.” I want them to know how gracious and beautiful basic Adventism is in those villages with smoke rising on a thousand green hills.

I’d walk with them through the streets of Mangochi in Malawi, where before David Livingstone arrived was a major slaving center. (Organized Christianity alone stopped that.) But now in 2014 about 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning, we’d still go past piles of rubbish next to dirty, half-naked children with runny noses. At the edge of town we would still see women cooking over campfires, and men recovering from last night’s Chibuku. We’d see skinny dogs sniffing at human excrement, and broken, empty houses, whose owners were missing from HIV/AIDs, but then surrounded by dark green mango trees we’d come to a little Adventist church. Already you’d notice the ground under the mangoes swept clean by simple brooms. And inside the simple brick-walled church, you’d see very rough benches smoothed not by machines but by Sabbath after Sabbath of human bodies crowding happily together on those benches. Those bodies would all be bathed by a Sabbath bath. Their clothes would be neater and cleaner than any you had seen walking to the church. No tobacco smoke, no hangovers in this crowd. And a lot of optimism. Adventists are a happy people; they are glad to see each other; they love to teach and to challenge the teacher. Heaven offers a lot to people from Mangochi. Most of them have been to school, some to university. It is true that 20 years ago women only taught in the Kindergarten out in the yard under the trees, but that is not true now. Adventism changes things. Adventism is a movement that moves people up. A nicely dressed young woman with a university education might be teaching your Sabbath School lesson today. And the choir would be full of young enthusiastic voices, likely complete with body swing and hand motions. And there would be cell phones and texting.

The happiest, cleanest, best educated, most optimistic, kindest people you could find in Mangochi on a Saturday morning are gathered in the local Adventist Church. Eating Kosher; avoiding alcohol and tobacco; paying attention to the education of both boys and girls; going to school and weekly to Sabbath school; believing that the dead die and don’t hang around to bother the living; hoping that we near the end of human history and their corrupt governments, and expecting the Kingdom of Heaven at the door; knowing from childhood that Jesus loves me—this I know—these are good things, these are powerful things, these are Adventist things.

Sometimes, in the morning, I have seen the smoke of a thousand villages, and I see that the best of these villages are those that have a little Adventist church, and a little Adventist school, or a little Adventist clinic in them. At the core, basic Adventism does good things to hurting people and their needy communities. The world needs things done that none of us can do by ourselves in splendid spiritual isolation, in freedom from congregation, in standing outside the church criticizing its many failings. It is worth fighting from inside the church to refresh, recover, revive, and restore the best parts of Adventism—to put the move-forward back into the Advent Movement.