East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 1998, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Russian Medical Missions:  Breadth and Depth

David S. Barnes

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, scores of U.S.-based and international Christian mission agencies have sent thousands of short-term volunteers to Russia in various evangelistic, medical, and educational programs. They also have provided tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Two of the largest providers have been CoMission and Josh McDowell Ministry. CoMission raised $40,000,000 and sent 3,300 volunteers to work with 42,000 public school teachers in educational programs in the former Soviet Union. They raised another $18,000,000 worth of medical and relief products, distributed through 60 partners in the former Soviet Union.

Josh McDowell Ministry has dispensed $20,000,000 worth of humanitarian aid in the region, including 54 tons of medicine, vitamins, and medical supplies and equipment. Over 5,000 volunteers have traveled to Russia and other former Soviet republics to participate in these programs.

The underlying rationale for these and other efforts has been multifaceted: to meet spiritual and physical needs of the people, to develop and strengthen local churches, and to promote peace and understanding. This article considers models for the provision of humanitarian aid and medical ministry, sources for medical supplies and equipment, opportunities for medical personnel, and suggestions for coping with Russian customs.

Models for Action
Methods used effectively by various Christian humanitarian and medical agencies have differed considerably. At least three models have emerged. Some agencies have participated in mass distribution of health care items and literature. This approach involves limited personal contact with recipients and limited long-term linkage with local churches. Others have shipped containers of medical supplies and equipment to Russian clinics and hospitals or have funded short-term medical or educational consultations. Again, long-term follow-up is limited. Still others, using what I call a holistic model, have developed long-term relationships with active, nurturing, local churches, involving medical, educational, and humanitarian aid programs.

Various U.S. efforts to assist Novgorod, a city located 100 miles south of St. Petersburg, serve as an example of holistic ministry. First Baptist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas; the Fellowship of Christian Farmers, International; and the Rochester, New York-Novgorod Sister City Connection began networking with this Russian city in 1992. East-West interaction has included regional and city hospitals, Novgorod State University, collective and state farms, the city government, sister-city friendship organizations, and a local evangelical church. This partnership has resulted in extensive medical and university faculty exchanges, shipments of $2,000,000 worth of humanitarian and medical aid, extensive agricultural consultation and seed distribution, Christian literature distribution, and low-profile religious crusades. During the past four years, these U.S. groups have partnered with a growing Protestant congregation, the Temple of Christ, to build a 50,000-square-foot church complex--now 65 percent complete--that will serve as a house of worship, a facility for pastoral training, and a community center. Humanitarian and medical aid programs have been vital to this partnership with the church.

The Novgorod experience suggests that, when practicable, medical and humanitarian aid programs in Russia should be networked with local medical, educational, civic, and church leadership, with the intent of fostering long-term relationships with each of these groups. On a practical basis, this networking may begin with a five- to seven-day exploratory meeting in a chosen Russian city with the goals of a) meeting key medical and city officials; b) identifying a competent, honest physician or medical director committed to coordinating a city's long-term relationship with Western partners; c) working with medical contacts to prepare an official list of needed supplies, equipment, and services; and d) meeting with religious leaders to share ideas of mutual concern. When available, sister-city relationships--there are 114 official U.S.-Russian city partnerships--can greatly facilitate comprehensive medical mission programs.

Directors of medical mission programs in some Russian cities may also find it helpful to maintain contact with Christians who previously participated in short-term ministry in that city, many of whom have continuing interest and valuable contacts. Josh McDowell Ministry, CoMission International, and Book of Life International may be of help in locating people who have participated in their programs. Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries, the Institute for East-West Christian Studies, and many mission agencies can facilitate communication with Russian churches as well as Western ministries.

There is general agreement in East and West that, while the former Soviet Union may have a surplus of physicians and hospital capacity, Russians desperately need drugs, including antibiotics, medical supplies and equipment, technical assistance, medical educational-training programs, and the capacity to network with the U.S. Given present economic conditions in Russia and the lack of a strong medical support infrastructure, the Russian medical community is becoming increasingly dependent upon the West for medical materials and training.

When Western Christians partner with local Russian churches to provide medical assistance, the potential is tremendous. For example, while evangelicals have invested millions in humanitarian aid in the greater Moscow area, only 10 of the 250 evangelical fellowships and churches in this area have their own church buildings and most have little ongoing contact with U.S. Christians and churches.

Sources of Medical Supplies and Equipment
Christian nonprofit organizations such as MAP International, World Medical Relief, Interchurch Medical Assistance, and International Aid receive donations of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and equipment from U.S. firms, and make these available to individuals and mission agencies for a handling fee of approximately 5 to10 percent of wholesale value. For example, MAP International provides travel packs of supplies for hand-carried delivery valued at $5,000 for a handling fee of $375, as well as container-sized shipments for Russian hospitals. Both Worldwide Lab Improvement and Chosen Mission Project provide refurbished equipment, technical assistance, and supplies at low cost. Supplies and equipment are sometimes available from local hospitals without cost.

Other organizations such as Americares, Feed The Children, and Brothers' Brother network with Christian agencies in promoting medical relief. The Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Medical Mission Program donates $850 worth of drugs to physicians traveling to Russia. Most other pharmaceutical firms deal with large church or nonchurch agencies. Individual drug representatives commonly provide significant amounts of pharmaceuticals for short-term mission trips.

Main Street Supply and Logistics, a for-profit business, sells bulk food purchased in Russia and U.S. medical supplies. It can provide for shipment to Russia of materials not necessarily available from nonprofit organizations. Containers of medical supplies and equipment are shipped from the U.S. to Russian ports of entry by licensed and bonded international freight forwarders such as Missionary Expeditors, Inc.

Programs for Medical Personnel
World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan's Purse, is an excellent facilitator of short-term and long-term teaching and clinical trips for physicians, dentists, and other medical personnel. It also provides medical supplies and equipment. Its handbooks, "Christian Medical Mission: Moscow and the Surrounding Areas, Russia" and "Russia Far East Medical Ministries: Provideniya, Russia and Surrounding Areas," provide health care workers with practical, comprehensive orientation to Russian medical missions. Its Christian Medical Mission office in Moscow has extensive experience in facilitating customs clearance and is a key source of much-needed customs information and advice. In addition, the Christian Medical and Dental Society's Commission on International Medical Educational Affairs provides short-term teaching opportunities in Russian medical and dental clinics, typically two to six weeks.

In 1993 World Vision and Azusa Pacific University teamed with the Russian Ministry of Health and Russian nursing colleges for the purpose of reforming nursing curriculum and forming national and regional nursing associations. The project has fostered a new nursing curriculum and the formation of new nursing associations. In another positive development, in 1997 the government adopted new nursing care standards and a nursing code of ethics consistent with a Christian perspective. USAID funded the program with a $230,000 matching grant.

U.S.-based Nazarene Compassionate Ministries is registered in Russia as the National Christian Humanitarian Society, with ministry centers in Moscow and Volgograd. It provides medical services, distributes medical supplies, and networks with local churches. It also works with Zashchita, a Ministry of Health relief agency, to provide shipments of medical supplies.

The Mississippi-based Luke Society expedites the formation of joint ventures with national Christian physicians who operate fee-for-service clinics. Fees fund most of the operating budget of each clinic, which provides services gratis to those unable to pay.

Surviving Russian Customs
Without doubt, clearing Russian customs is the Achilles heel of Russian aid programs. Regulations on container-shipped aid can change daily. For latest developments it is best to consult with Americares or World Medical Mission. Bringing pharmaceuticals in flight luggage can be problematic. 1) Before leaving, prepare an itemized drug list, including expiration dates, which must be at least six months after the date of arrival in Russia. 2) Obtain an official letter of request from the hospital, clinic, city administration, or church for all drugs and medical supplies. 3) Use official stationery as much as possible, with liberal use of Notary Public and other seals and stamps. 4) Obtain letters from a local church, friendship society, sister-city organization, medical society, or mayor's office officially commending this occasion of friendship and peace. 5) Pack aid in less conspicuous duffel bags or mix it with each suitcase of each person in a group. 6) Disperse group members randomly through customs. 7) Be friendly, firm, and confident. Insist on speaking with a supervisor if necessary.

As evident in the examples of medical and health ministry above, a variety of models can be adopted -- and adapted -- to meet the needs of the former Soviet Union. With background research, a willingness to learn, and long-term commitment, medical and health ministries can play a key role in the future of Christian ministry in Russia in flux.

Dr. David S. Barnes is professor of biology at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York.



David S. Barnes, "Russian Medical Missions: Breadth and Depth," East-West Church & Ministry Report 6 (Fall 1998), 4-7.

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1998 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664


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