How Is This Unknown Man Drawing Attention To Jesus And Why Is The NYTimes Paying Attention?

MAF-Angola-2010-0903-13-cropNicholas Kristof, opinion columnist for the New York Times, makes it clear that he’s not a Christian and shares little in common with Christians often finding himself on the opposite side of most discussions and debates. But people like Dr. Stephen Foster keep him from dismissing Christianity entirely and in fact even garner Christians a measured amount of public praise and respect.

Such was the case in his March 28 column where Kristof found himself defending evangelical Christians against the misrepresentations and open mockery of people who share his worldview. What causes Nicholas Kristoff to come to the defense of Christians even though he doesn’t agree with much of what they believe? People like Dr. Stephen Foster.

Here’s an excerpt from Saturday’s column…

“On a recent trip to Angolathe country with the highest child mortality rate in the world, I came across a rural hospital run by Dr. Stephen Foster, 65, a white-haired missionary surgeon who has lived there for 37 years — much of that in a period when the Angolan regime was Marxist and hostile to Christians.

“We were granted visas,” he said, “by the very people who would tell us publicly, ‘your churches are going to disappear in 20 years,’ but privately, ‘you are the only ones we know willing to serve in the midst of the fire.’ ”

Foster, the son and grandson of missionaries, has survived tangles with a 6-foot cobra and angry soldiers. He has had to make do with rudimentary supplies: Once, he said, he turned the tube for a vehicle’s windshield-washing fluid into a catheter to drain a patient’s engorged bladder.

Armed soldiers once tried to kidnap 25 of his male nurses, and when Foster ordered the gunmen off the property, he said, they fired Ak-47 rounds near his feet. He held firm, and they eventually retreated without the nurses.

Oh, by the way, this is where Dr. Foster raised his family.

One son contracted polio; a daughter survived cerebral malaria; and the family nearly starved when the area was besieged during war and Dr. Foster insisted on sharing the family rations with 100 famished villagers. This created family tensions at times, but today the kids speak glowingly of their dad.

“For a while, I blamed my dad and his high-risk dedication to others,” said Rob Foster, the son with polio. “Today, I no longer feel like that; I am no longer bitter or resentful.

“If me getting polio meant that thousands of lives were either saved or immeasurably improved by my father’s work, then so be it.”

Several other evangelical Christians work as doctors and nurses at the hospital, the Centro Evangélico de Medicina do Lubango, or CEML, along with a vast number of Angolan Christians. The foreigners, Dr. Foster included, receive a paltry stipend of $35,000 a year if they are married, or $17,500 a year for those who are single.

Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours, than the nonreligious, according to polls. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.

The next time you hear someone at a cocktail party mock evangelicals, think of Dr. Foster and those like him. These are folks who don’t so much proclaim the gospel as live it. They deserve better.”

This is not new. In the pages of both the Old and New Testaments God calls believers to make great personal sacrifices to care for the hurting, look out for widows and orphans, welcome the person who is different, and work for justice. Church history gives ample evidence that when Christians’ lives match their words, the church has flourished.

I guess that makes sense given Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:16 “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

While I would never want to discourage someone from going to another country to serve Christ, I do want to point out that you don’t have to leave your community. In your neighborhood or your family, at your school or office, there are lots of way to make sacrifices to serve others and point them to Jesus. Your efforts may not be noticed by Mr. Kristof or written up in the Times but they won’t escape the notice of Jesus.

If you want to learn more about what Dr. Foster and his team is doing in Angola, watch this short video. It’s pretty cool stuff.

4 Comments

  1. Turner Bond said:

    Yes and this is the paradox of Christianity: We are called to do it often invisibly for the Lord, so you rarely hear about it.

    We live in odd times, where the things the culture labels as good – “natural” good as it were — really doesn’t have a lot of overlap with Judeo Christian values. J-C people start with focusing on the 10 commandments, PC people focus on managing our perceptions of differences. J-C people avoid curse words that lower us to a focus on bodily functions. they seek to avoid a focus on the animal self that the Apostle Paul warned us about and that Darwin defined. PC people swear freely with a new-found freedom and vehemence, but fastidiously avoid the new curse words: anything that reflects an awareness of difference.

    The one thing that both agree on about modern culture is that pastor Martin Luther King did a good thing… even though it is fashionable in a few circles now to refer to Christians as “bigots.”

    The ironic thing is that one of the unseen works of the people of faith is the elimination of slavery. The first treatise against slavery was written by Samuel Sewell in 1700 after seeing the first 400 slaves arrive in Boston. Noting that they seemed uneasy, he wrote a biblical argument against slavery using the story of Joseph and other biblical passages. During the French revolution thousands of Priests and Nuns were drowned alive in the river. On the other hand, I continue to be amazed at the depth of Christian thought and reference that went into forming the American nation. Almost all of the slaves that were shipped to the new world arrived in tiny French Colonies in the Caribbean. These vast machines of breakneck sugar cane production became a voracious killing field that consumed millions of African bodies like a bear gorging on salmon. The American colonies, based on the shipping records that slave ships left behind, consumed a few hundred thousand and then quit. Any new slaves came from the survival and growth of the existing slaves. In the mid-1800’s it was the stories of Stanley Livingston, a Christian doctor who was concerned about the savagery of Arab slave traders in Africa and the need to bring modernity to Africa, that he gave his life as did his wife to bring trade routes and civilization into Africa. His stories of Arab slave traders making kidnapped slaves carry out ivory and the stories of exhausted tribes people being tied to trees when they could no longer walk, to be left behind and eaten alive by hyenas awakened Europeans to many of the horrors of the slave trade and the passage out of Africa. And we all know the story of the slave/slave trader/Christian who helped turn the British Parliament against slave trading and wrote Amazing Grace.

    While slavery is shocking to us now, it was common then. Arabs took Africans and Europeans as slaves. Indian tribes took each other as slaves and sometimes kidnapped white settlers as slaves. Some of the slaves that escaped the Caribbean during the many violent fights with the French, came here only to bring or buy their own slaves.

    One thing that helped break the cycle where the annoying Christian fundamentalists who said that despite what was going on in the culture, slavery was wrong, because the Bible says so, and people should do without slaves. As a boy Abraham Lincoln attended one of these annoying fundamentalist Baptist churches in Kentucky. And many if not most of the abolitionists were Christians. What really made a difference, however, was the annoying Christian practice of manumission. Freeing slaves. Many of our European forefathers came over as indentured servants, owned by a master until they worked off the cost of their passage over a period that was often seven years. This of course is in accordance with the Judeo-Christian practice of releasing slaves, no matter what, after a maximum of seven years. A few fundamentalist Christians, however took this to the point of saying you couldn’t hold African slaves more than seven years either. By the time of the civil war roughly ten percent of the African Americans in the slave states were residing there as freemen due to this practice. As such the number of free African Americans was approximately equal in the North and the South.

    While this might seem like a small, bitter shard of compassion, it was an important one. If you read the introduction to the Autobiography of Frederick Douglas, you’ll hear the abolitionists using the example of free Africans as proof that African slaves would do fine on their own. They also mention the ragged broken nature of Europeans taken as slaves by Arabs as proof that slavery demeans a person to the point that you might not think they could survive on their own. These few slaves freed by the Christian insistence on manumission were an important example. By the time of the civil war, manumission was against the law in all but two states (one of which was Missouri).

    When the war came, an awful lot of people from rural areas gave their lives for this cause. While New York City journalists railed against Lincoln and the efforts to free the slaves, and NYC thrived on the cotton trade and tried to join the south in succeeding from the union, simple rural New Yorkers helped Lincoln win a second term. Nowadays it’s fashionable in some circles to pretend that we are more compassionate than Abraham Lincoln was and that he was a racist with no care for the slaves. If you read the history of the times you know nothing could be further from the truth. The slave holding states seceded immediately when Lincoln was elected. They knew what was coming and what it was about.

    Time and again the Bible played a quiet and critical role in this struggle. Mohammed owned slaves and the Koran says slaves are a gift from God. The historical work of ending the ancient practice of slavery feel to the Jews and Christians and you will see their quiet hand on this movement from Sewell to John Jay, to Lincoln to King and thousands in between.

    So while you will sometimes read a prejudice printed today that slavery was started by Christians or Southern Baptism specifically, nothing could be further from the truth. It only takes a bit of digging to see the role that Christianity played in overcoming slavery. Oftentimes people will try to blame slavery on Christianity in order to make an argument as to why the Bible is probably wrong about gay sex. In fact, the truth runs the other way: If the culture was wrong about slavery and the Bible was right, should we be dismissing it so easily about sexual matters today?

  2. Turner Bond said:

    Correction: Indentured servitude for Europeans in the New world could be as short as 5 years though in the Caribbean the contract could renew so often they sometimes never gained their freedom.

  3. Turner Bond said:

    Historical Note:
    In this century, it rings strange that someone would need to make the point that freed slaves would do fine on their own. If, however, you read the debate swirling around Samuel Sewell’s biblically-based anti-slavery piece “The Selling of Joseph: A Memorial” you see this raised as an issue. On the other hand it is thought that Sewell wrote this to chastise a judge who had reneged on his agreement to release an African Slave (Adam) and his wife after seven years. It is thought that Sewell wrote the piece to support a petition circulating in Boston that Adam be now released. So, clearly, the idea of free men who originated from Africa but participated in general society was in some fashion a familiar one even in 1700. Freed slaves in the slave states tended to build enclaves away from the plantations, though we can also read cases of cases in Texas where freed slaves stayed in the same communities, used the same areas of commerce and prospered as cattlemen or ranchers.

  4. Turner Bond said:

    Ok, this is kind of beating a dead horse to death all over again, but, with respect to Lincoln, my suggestion about the role of rural folks isn’t really accurate with respect to how the election turned out in the end. He did work hard to appeal to rural folks and even purchased some German language newsletters to get his message around some of the English speaking press, and appeal to bible believing, non-slave-holding German immigrants, but in rereading my sources, I see that the main factor was that his competitors pulled out at the last minute in order to let him beat McClellan and ensure the completion of the civil war. After they pulled out, the only large areas against Lincoln and completing the civil war where the areas surrounding New York City, Los Angeles and (ironically) southern Illinois. Most of the rest of the country was behind him after the withdrawals of other candidates, and Missouri was very solidly behind him.

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