How do you pull people from poverty, uplift downtrodden people and confront horrors like human trafficking? To these Rockford missionaries, it begins with some Good News.
Christians around the world understand Jesus’ Great Commission as a call to connect with people who don’t know the Good News. For those in the mission field, it’s also a call to take the Gospel to some of the most remote and impoverished corners of the globe.
Dr. John Koehler knows firsthand how this outreach changes lives. He saw it growing up, the son of missionaries serving in South Sudan. And, for more than 20 years he’s used his background in emergency medicine to treat people physically and spiritually in some of the world’s poorest nations.
As a supporter and volunteer with Circle of Love, a Rockford-based nonprofit, Koehler regularly joins a group of physicians, dentists, pharmacists and others in bringing free medical clinics to places like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. There, they serve people who live in places so remote that sometimes bicycles and footpaths are the only way in or out.
These are places where people are desperately poor and face many hardships – not just the ravages of poverty and hard labor but also the horrors of human trafficking, which often involves selling one’s children under false promises of returned wages.
“I’ve networked with human trafficking-type ministries that address the issue, and my conclusion was that we have to go to the villages with the Gospel,” says Koehler. “If folks come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they are more likely to resist selling their children.”
For Westerners like Koehler to drop into these remote villages can sometimes be a dangerous proposition. Hostile governments and skepticism from villagers or local government officials can make it challenging for Christian missionaries. So, Koehler and Circle of Love work in safer locations where people will cross borders for care.
The physicians conduct a thorough physical exam and treat a range of illnesses and injuries, including bullet fragments, wood splinters, orthopedic injuries and maybe even residual injuries from the Vietnam War. Yet the people recognize they’re in good care.
“These people are mild-mannered, meek individuals,” says Koehler. “They are such wonderful people. They are so appreciative. They are under duress. Their lives are very hard, but they’re wonderful people. We love them and care for them and give them free medication. It’s very gratifying.”
And it’s gratifying to people who would otherwise pay, upfront, for care they can’t afford at a local hospital.
“Free is unheard of. Free is nonexistent to these people,” he says. “The value of human compassion just isn’t in some of these countries, so this is a unique experience, and many of them come to know Jesus Christ through our work.”
It’s a culture shock in many ways.
“The patients can be intimidated. We’re highly educated, we’re from America, we look different,” says Koehler. “Some of them have never seen a white person. I’m white-skinned and have blue eyes. They’ve never seen blue eyes. It’s just so different for them.”
So, he smiles and puts them at ease as the translator – often a Thai pastor – asks how they can help. “I find a smile is a universal language,” he adds.
Circle of Love started as the outgrowth of a dream in 1996. Rockford surgeon Dr. Helen Laib had long dreamed of mission work, particularly after her Vietnamese college roommate showed her a love for the country. Since starting Circle of Love, Laib has sponsored regular trips to places like Cambodia, Laos, Guatemala, India, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria and Ukraine while also supporting international pastors and missionaries, feeding programs, educational grants and scholarships, and 488 widows in Laos who receive $3 a month to sustain themselves. Some of these widows even buy chickens to help them earn more income.
“Jesus gave us a commission to go and make disciples and to spread his word and to act justly,” says Laib. “To be able to actually carry it out is such a wonderful privilege. I think a lot of people acknowledge that God has a plan for us, but a lot of people never get around to figuring out what it is.”
Like Laib, Koehler had long held a desire to work in the mission field. The founder of Physicians Immediate Care, Koehler holds fond memories of his childhood in the mission field, not just seeing water buffaloes run through a village or picking off army ants, or his father shooting a man-eating crocodile on the Nile River.
“It was a family thing when I was growing up,” he says. “We prayed for missionaries by name at the dinner table.”
The dream of returning to mission work became a reality in his 40s when his wife encouraged him to connect with Laib.
“I realized at the time that I’m never going to do this if I don’t take the time now,” he recalls. “There’s never a good time to take two weeks from your job to go and do free medical care for poor folks in another country. And so, I went to Dr. Laib and said, ‘This is destiny,’ and I went on my first trip.”
In his travels to faraway places, Koehler was horrified to learn about the impact of human trafficking on the people he served. It hit a nerve to the father of eight, who now shares 14 grandchildren with his wife, Dena. He says the recent movie “Sound of Freedom” reflects the same experiences he hears from missionaries and his international patients.
“There’s trafficking taking place all over the world, and what happens is these people come with false promises and literally coerce the parents with money and false promises of wages returning to the family,” says Koehler. “They take the children away and the children are never seen again.”
In the southeast Asian nations where he works, some children are sold as brides, some are sold into prostitution, and some are sold for slavery, hard labor, telescamming, pornography – or much worse, he says.
“The other ones that are leftover are sold for their organs. Let that sink in,” he says.
Elsewhere in the world, Mahendra Singh, a missionary partner of Circle of Love, oversees the Crossroads KZN mission in South Africa. There, the biggest threat of trafficking comes from “sugar daddies” – often older men – who force families into selling their daughters for sexual favors and other purposes. Singh and his team try to counteract these sugar daddies by offering families a better path. It starts with relationships and the message of Christ.
“In one way, we demonstrate the love of Christ, and at the same time we speak the Gospel,” says Singh. “It’s all based in relationships.”
Among his projects, Singh and his supporters connect with South Africa’s remote villages, teach families gardening and farming, help families to build cinder block homes, and run schools for children. These missionaries don’t just introduce the message of Christ. They reinforce the notion of hope and value, with messages of affirmation. It’s truly radical to people who’ve never known their fathers, lost loved ones to HIV/AIDS, lived on the fringes of the world, and felt the abuse of others. These are people who are just eking out a living.
“They’re trying to find food or clothing, and they don’t feel any worth,” says Singh. “Our staff comes along and these people who have hopelessness find this affirmation – not just the word we say but introducing them to a heavenly father, a God who loves and cares for them and finds them special because he created them. In this child’s mind, they go from no affirmation to finding out there’s a God who not only affirms them but sacrificed his life for them. That’s mind-blowing.”
In order to spread God’s Word, missionaries can’t always rely on a standard-language Bible. Many of these people can’t read, or their language is still unwritten. So, the nonprofit Faith Comes by Hearing helps to share the Bible through other means.
For decades, the Albuquerque, N.M., nonprofit has been working with mission-minded partners to produce audio recordings of the Bible, first on cassette tapes and now on solar-charged devices and digital formats. As of August 2023, Faith Comes by Hearing had recorded the scriptures in audio in 1,843 languages and in video in 1,335 languages. This represents about 6.7 billion people across 190 countries. By 2033, the nonprofit aims to have recorded, in partnership, the world’s estimated 3,600 remaining languages.
The Oral Bible Translation Project is one part of this mission to spread the Gospel. Since 2016, Faith Comes by Hearing and its field partners have used this project to reach people who lack a written language.
The project works like this: Translators find a bilingual interpreter who understands a common language, like Spanish, and an indigenous language or dialect like Quechuan, which exists primarily in the Peruvian Andes. Teams of native-speakers orally translate scripture that goes through rigorous reviews by Bible scholars before it’s recorded and provided to the community.
“Instead of years and years of translating, it might take months,” says Deana Day, communications coordinator at Faith Comes by Hearing.
Completed audio recordings are post-produced and loaded onto solar-charged playback devices called Proclaimers at the Albuquerque headquarters. Gospel Films are edited and uploaded to projectors called Acclaimers. The devices are usually requested by missionaries or Bible societies and funded by mission-minded donors like Koehler.
To learn about these ministries or support them, Koehler recommends contacting him at [email protected], or visiting circleoflovefoundation.net and faithcomesbyhearing.com.
When people experience these devices, their first reaction is curiosity and joy at hearing their heart language, says Day. It quickly turns to intrigue as people form Bible listening or watching groups. Pretty soon, the message is transforming lives and changing cultures.
“When men hear the Gospel message and call out to Christ, their lives start changing,” Koehler says. “They don’t drink, they don’t beat their wives, they don’t do drugs. They start going to a listening group. They might form a church and go with their family. They start eating meals with their family. It’s very positive in every way.”
For missionaries like Singh, Laib and Koehler, it’s the spiritual-level change that is truly world-changing.
“When you realize the value of human life and you look at your children and view them through the lens of God Almighty, you see love and compassion,” says Koehler. “You realize they’re wonderfully and uniquely created by God, just like you are.”