Ministry can be difficult whether one contracts polio as a child or as an adult. Jean Anderson was in the second category, as she was assaulted by the disease early in her second term of service. Through losing the ability to use her legs, God taught her lessons she couldn’t have learned otherwise and gave her a ministry she couldn’t have done otherwise. Her faithfulness to her faithful Lord is a lesson for us all.

Walter McConnell directs OMF International’s Mission Research Department. An American, he has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and theological educator, taught Old Testament at Singapore Bible College where he also directed the Ichthus Centre for Biblical and Theological Research, and served as pastor at the Belfast Chinese Christian Church.

MRT 13.2 Walter McConnell

David and Sue Pickard joined OMF in 1970. He served at Manorom Christian Hospital as hospital administrator and coordinator of evangelism for patient follow-up in village evangelism and church planting. Sue was a medical doctor. He later served as the Thailand Field Director and was OMF’s General Director from 1991-2001. The Pickards returned to the UK in 2002 from where they have continued to engage in international ministry.

pickard-david-and-sue-new-forest

Following in God’s way by Foot or by Chair

Walter McConnell and David Pickard

Mission Round Table Vol 15. No. 2 (May-Aug 2020): 20-24

And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left. (Isa 30:21; KJV)

Jean Anderson had been looking forward to mission service with the China Inland Mission. In late 1950, having completed her nursing training and a further two-years’ preparation at the CIM center in London, she was preparing to sail to China when the reality hit that the door to service in that great country had closed due to the Communist revolution. This Belfast girl now found herself, like many missionaries before and since, wondering what God would have her do now. Would he “open a window” for her to go through or had she run into a brick wall? It would take another two years before Jean knew that her path led to Thailand where she would do medical work with the newly reorganized mission, now called OMF. As stated in the key verse she chose for The Millions when she departed for Asia, “This is the way” would be the way of faith, the way of following her Lord.[1]

In 1953, Jean joined a group of doctors and nurses who had come to do medical work in central and southern Thailand. Some had previously served in hospitals in China, while others had come as “new workers”. Notwithstanding their credentials or expertise, before any of them could practice medicine in Thailand they needed to learn a new language and culture. Many also had to adjust their bodies to the heat of their new tropical home as they adjusted their eyes and ears to new sights and sounds.

As soon as she arrived, Jean threw herself into Thai study at the language center in Bangkok. And even though she could say little, she eagerly joined others distributing tracts in the streets and markets. Little was she aware of the unexpected ways her desire to share the gospel with Thai people would be fulfilled in years to come. After language study, Jean served at an OMF clinic in Inburi, Central Thailand, where she further developed her nursing and language skills and where, as a member of a small church planting team, she gave herself to the prime need of sharing Jesus Christ with Thai people. For Jean, nursing and gospel ministry were inextricably linked. The medical teams that repeatedly visited patients and established clinics to help leprosy patients through the sometimes long—though not impossible—process of treatment, simultaneously explained the good news of Jesus Christ to them as it is the cure of a much more dangerous and deadly disease.

After her one-year home assignment in Belfast, Jean returned to serve the people she had learned to love through nursing and gospel ministry. However, as the calendar turned to 1960, it became clear that leprosy wasn’t the only disease that was widespread in the area and that foreign missionaries weren’t immune. For Jean, a strange headache, steadily-rising temperature, and overall bodily pains made it clear that something was wrong—seriously wrong. She had contracted polio. Albert Gurtler, the doctor in charge of the Inburi clinic, knew something needed to be done quickly to get her to Bangkok where she could receive proper treatment. Prayer, in conjunction with a providential visit by American soldiers from a nearby military base who were looking for someone to lead a church service, resulted in a helicopter evacuation to Bangkok. Initial treatment there was followed by an R.A.F. ambulance flight to England and another flight a few days later back to Belfast accompanied by Dr. Catherine Maddox from Manorom Hospital who was then on home assignment.[2]

Another closed door?

Jean was now paralyzed from the hips down. Had her door to service in Asia closed again? Was the way barred? Instead of treating Thai patients, Jean was forced to endure four years of grueling rehabilitation. Instead of learning advanced nursing skills, she had to adjust to basic life skills performed from a wheelchair and learning to hobble on calipers with crutches. Despite the changes and challenges, she never lost hope that she had been headed in the right direction and that one day she would go back to Thailand to serve the Lord, even though confined to a wheelchair. Her requests to return forced field leadership to deliberate on just how someone who was a complete paraplegic could work under conditions that were difficult for people in the bloom of health. In the end, they opened the door for her to return and serve in a new way—not as a nurse but in the pathology laboratory, doing a job she could perform from a sitting position. So it was that Jean returned to central Thailand in 1964 to work at OMF’s Manorom hospital.[3]

Manorom hospital

When my wife Sue and I (David) arrived in Thailand to work at Manorom Christian Hospital in 1970, it was the year of the great flood when the Chao Praya River overflowed its banks, covering the Central Thailand plain and leaving the hospital in the middle of a sea ten-feet deep. For ten weeks or so we travelled to and from home and hospital by boat. And as both houses and hospital were built on stilts ten feet high, the floodwater never quite reached the ground floor. As we boated our way to the hospital we had to step off the boat straight into the hospital building and the wards. What an exciting beginning to anyone’s new venture for life—that is, so long as you were able bodied.

As a candidate preparing to go to Thailand, I heard many stories of Jean Anderson and of her indefatigable spirit and her powerful witness to the Lord. But with the flood that welcomed our arrival in Manorom, Jean was nowhere to be seen. A wheelchair-bound person could not simply hop in and out of boats. And for this reason, Jean had escaped to the safety of Bangkok before the floods broke. Even so, the impact of her presence was palpable, not only among the missionary and Thai staff, but also among the Thai patients.

Just who was this lady who was already a legend of a missionary? I wanted to meet the person behind the stories and discover for myself what made her tick. Two sets of obstacles and issues that needed to be surmounted became clear in my mind. On the one hand, was her physical and medical condition. On the other hand, were the cultural and religious perceptions of the Buddhist Thai people for whom disability was the evidence of poor karma. How, I wondered, had Jean overcome some of the missionary and cultural prejudices that she had encountered. How had her disability become an advantage or springboard for her testimony to the saving grace of God?

The way through physical and medical disability

To understand the immensity of the physical barriers faced by Jean, you have to imagine Thailand as it was fifty years ago when travel, resources, communications, and living circumstances were very basic. How could she survive in a wheelchair? How would she get around when no public conveyances were adapted for wheelchair disabilities? What would happen if a medical emergency should arise? And how could Jean be involved in the urgently needed work of urban and village evangelism? She had persuaded mission leaders and hospital staff to let her return to Thailand. Could she prove that disability was no drawback to effective living and witnessing for Christ? Could she lend a hand to meet the urgent need for itinerant preaching to the multitudes of unreached Thai who lived in rural villages at the end dusty dirt roads and often inaccessible tracks?

Retrospectively, the answer is amazingly simple. Jean’s strong personality enabled her to be fiercely independent and her position in the hospital opened many doors that otherwise would have remained tightly closed. Though people regularly offered to push her around in her chair, Jean usually refused and wheeled herself around instead. She and her chair were such an institution that some patients who watched her whiz about concluded that she must be terribly rich, as the chair made it unnecessary for her to walk. And though, as we will see, Jean’s access to village life wasn’t totally severed, one can reach Thai village people when they come to you for medical care. The hospital wards thus provided ample opportunities for meeting patients and their relatives. It also made it possible to talk to them at a slower speed and build more measured relationships than could be done by passing through one village with an over-urgent need to get on to the next one. And what better place is there than a hospital where medical care is to hand and where a big support team is available?

Jean’s grit and determination are also seen in her living situation. Though houses in central Thailand are usually built on stilts, Jean needed one that was at ground level as she could not climb stairs. Her house was known as Bahn Tia—short house—because it was only one-story high and not raised on stilts. And though this made life more convenient, the regular floods meant that Jean often had to move elsewhere, if not for the water, then for the snakes that invited themselves in when the floods were high. All single OMF workers at the time had roommates and house help. Jean was no exception, and in her case, it was particularly necessary both for safety’s sake and because there were some things that she couldn’t do for herself. But as Jean was a great organizer, the girls who lived with her needed to be willing to be organized.

The way through misunderstanding and prejudice

While Jean’s polio required a different lifestyle than she had known before, it also freed her to do something that hospital medical personnel were too busy to do. Originally returning to work in Manorom hospital’s laboratory, she ended up serving the hospital as OMF’s “wheelchair evangelist”.[4] Every day she made her rounds of the wards to visit all the new patients. Every time someone showed interest in hearing the gospel she was sure to return and talk to them regularly so that they could better understand what was to them a new message about Jesus and what he had come to earth to do. But her work wasn’t exhausted by ward visits, as she also frequently took part in the regular morning preaching session held in the out-patients’ department. Both foreign and local staff participated in this evangelistic outreach at the hospital, whether by singing, praying, preaching, selling Scriptures and other Christian literature, or simply talking to people where they were. As recorded by Jean, through this team ministry, “A prayer goal of one conversion each week became a reality.”[5]

While Jean’s chair set her apart, it wasn’t the only thing that did so. When Jean first returned to Thailand she waited for one whole month in Bangkok for her Austin Mini—fully equipped with hand controls for a paraplegic driver—to arrive and pass through customs. As the hospital evangelist, Jean needed the car so that she could regularly visit former patients who lived in the surrounding villages. However, as there was always a possibility that something might happen to the car along the way, someone was required to travel with her when she went out. Riders soon learned that since she was a fearless driver, they needed to be equally fearless, as car and driver had gained the renown of Jehu and his chariot.

Former Manorom doctor Grace Pettigrew remembers that when she was new to Thailand she accompanied Jean to a small town about fifteen miles away to visit a Sala church where her more experienced colleague was scheduled to lead the service.[6] The drive in the Mini was a hair-raising experience, as Jean flew down the road, deftly navigated a route across a busy, four-lane highway, and headed down another road where she ran over a light-colored band stretching all the way across the tarmac that proved to be a straying python. No matter the obstacle, Jean kept right on rolling to ensure they would get to the service on time.

The presence and actions of this formidable lady raised a lot of interest among Thai people and thus brings us to a consideration of the cultural obstacles that she faced. From an early age, all Thai know the saying, “Do good get good, do bad get bad.” How did Jean work through the instinctive prejudice exhibited by a worldview that regards suffering in the negative context of bad karma? How would people respond to a woman who had suffered a debilitating illness while pursuing the good of others and continued to serve others in spite of her limitations?

Jean was able to look at and explain things from a totally different perspective, and would tell her listeners that we are not subject to the twists and turns of circumstances so that all that happens to us is the consequences of past deeds. And as she would explain, the cross of Jesus, which is the ultimate example of suffering and indignity, has become the place of greatest victory and triumph. One could hope for no better team member than one who had turned adversity on its head so that it became a springboard for effective living and witnessing for Jesus Christ. This was particularly important in those early days in central Thailand when there was so much to bring discouragement.

The church was small and believers few in number, and Thai people were mainly unresponsive to the gospel. Yet, Jean’s testimony and perspective as to what can be done encouraged many to press on cheerfully and uncomplainingly. The fact that the Lord had not healed Jean was no barrier to her serving him fruitfully. I (David) remember Jean telling me what someone had told her when she contracted polio, “God must have trusted you, Jean, to accept from him this disability and know that he could use you through it.” When I asked Jean, “Do you think what happened to you changed your understanding of God in any way?” she replied: “I have learnt lessons about the Lord that I could not have learnt in any other way.”

And while this was noticed by many Thai, it was particularly clear to the leprosy patients. As people who had been marginalized, ostracized, and feared by society, these patients instinctively knew that Jean’s disability put her in a position where she could identify with them in their disabilities and found that her message gave them dignity. Her disability thus significantly reduced the distance that often exists between the speaker of the gospel and their listeners. Indeed, in a culture that reveres respect, the fact that Jean would, by the very nature of things, not “talk down” to them but “talk to” them at their own level—from her wheelchair to their bedside—provided a very down to earth opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ. As Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). When non-Christians see how Christians love and care for each other, they are moved to want to listen to the gospel more clearly. When Christian love extends to the lowliest and neediest and disabled, it compels many to trust in the God who loved the world so much that he sent his Son to be its Savior.

Thai patients come to Christ and serve the church

The love that Christian medical personnel demonstrated by coming to Thailand to establish hospitals and heal marginalized and forgotten people created a unique church-planting experience which resulted in the first Christians and churches in central Thailand being made up of people with leprosy and their family members. While many Thai would express thanks to the foreign missionaries for bringing education and medicine to their country, they weren’t interested in the foreign religion as they had no sense of sin and, therefore, no understanding that they needed a Savior. Those with leprosy differed from their compatriots because they knew they had great needs and felt unworthy to have anyone do anything for them. Their incredulity that missionaries would come to see them, touch them—especially their deformed feet as that was the most degrading thing in their culture—and heal them, opened the way so that when they heard the gospel, they knew it spoke to them.

People from the leprosy community met in what became known as Sala churches. In Thailand, a Sala is an open-sided thatched shelter. Adopted as a place to hold leprosy clinics, they later served as church buildings for people with leprosy. The term gained currency because it did away with any reference to the dreaded disease. In part, this was due to the fact that a high percentage of “well” people had unreasonable fears about being together with people who had leprosy. When churches were planted for Thai with no connection to leprosy, distinctions were often made between the “Sala church” and the “well church”. This was particularly true in country areas. It took until 1977 before Sala churches and well churches united in worship, a unity that was delayed due to the fears of the “well” Christians and in order to prevent the infection from spreading.

As Thai people with leprosy grew in their faith, they began to minister to their own people.[7] From the very beginning, they helped with evangelistic services held in the Sala clinics. Many returned to their communities to help found churches. In the Manorom church and farther afield, many leprosy patients became church leaders and gained wide respect for their preaching and other gifts. Some excelled as musicians and wrote some of the famous early Thai hymns that have become a wonderful legacy for the Thai Christian church. Their disease gave them the opportunity to hear of Jesus, respond to him, and serve him and their fellow people through gospel ministry. Far from contracting leprosy due to their bad deeds, it came so that “the works of God might be displayed” in them (John 9:3) and that Jesus might give them life to the full (John 10:10).

Who else will walk in this way?

When the door to ministry in China was slammed in her face, Jean Anderson could have given up. When polio performed its most wretched work on her body, she could have packed it all in. But instead, she pressed on, believing that the one who said “This is the way” would see her through and give her strength to light a lamp in the darkness that would attract many Thai to the true God in whom they would believe and serve for their eternal benefit and his supreme glory.

Though Jean retired from overseas ministry in 1986, the needs of the world loom as large as ever. Who else will join the likes of Jean Anderson, the foreign and local staff of Manorom hospital, the patients made well in body and soul, and the many others who have heard the voice of God say, “This is the way, walk in it” (Isa 30:21)? Will you step out in faith, regardless that the Lord might bring along what the previous verse calls the “bread of adversity and … water of affliction” (Isa 30:20; ESV)? Will you reach out to others so that they might learn that he is the way and come to know him? Will you walk this way in faith so that others will have an opportunity to walk this way too?

5 Manorom Church Building drawn by E Frey 1962

A true story based on the journey of faith of a Thai woman who believed in Jesus after getting treated for leprosy at Manorom hospital.

[1] “Booked to Sail for Southeast Asia,” The Millions, British ed. (January 1953): 7.

[2] The outline of this story is in “News from Home and Abroad: Miss Jean Anderson,” China’s Millions, British ed. (April 1960): 37.

[3] The story of the early years of Manorom hospital is told in Catherine Maddox, Paddy Field Hospital (London: CIM, 1961). A memorial of its first fifty years is recorded in the Thai/English publication, Manorom Christian Hospital, 50 ปี โรงพยาบาลคริล่เตืยนมโนรมย์ 1956-2006, 50 Years of Manorom Christian Hospital (Nakhon Sawan, Thailand: Manorom Christian Hospital, 2006).

[4] See the chapter “Wheelchair Evangelist” in Rose Dowsett and Chad Berry, God’s Faithfulness: Stories from the China Inland Mission and OMF (Borough Green: OMF, 2014), 197–203.

[5] 50 Years of Manorom Christian Hospital, 42.

[6] From personal conversation.

[7] Some former leprosy patients found jobs at Manorom hospital where they were healed and found Christ. See Angie Chang, “From Light through Darkness into Hope,” Mission Round Table 11 vol. 2 (May-August 2016): 27–9.

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