Review: Healing Hands

Healing Hands: Touching the Suffering through Medical Missions, by Peggy Johnson Knutti. Springfield, MO: Access Group, 2010.

It seems to be a common assumption in some quarters that, about 100 years ago, there occurred in American Protestantism a division between those who truly believe and those who truly care. The former (evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals) became the standard-bearers of orthodoxy, while the latter (mainline Protestants) sought to perfect society instead of saving souls, embracing a “Social Gospel” that set out to apply Christian ethics to social ills. If one listened only to contemporary politicized rhetoric (e.g., Glenn Beck’s condemnation of churches that embrace “social justice”), it might seem like concern for the eternal and the temporal are mutually exclusive. However, a careful examination of history demonstrates a more complex story.

In her new book, Healing Hands: Touching the Suffering through Medical Missions, Peggy Johnson Knutti documents efforts within one Pentecostal denomination to share both compassion and the message of Christ. This history of HealthCare Ministries sheds light on why the Assemblies of God has come to view compassion as an essential part of its mission, and how medical missions are being utilizing to achieve this goal.

The first chapter provides an overview of humanitarian work in Assemblies of God missions prior to the 1980s. Some of these stories are worth recounting here. Marie Stephany and Nettie Nichols began orphanages in China in the early 1920s. Anna Tomaseck opened a children’s home near the Nepali border in northern India, which led to the formation of the Pentecostal work in Nepal. Lillian Trasher’s famous orphanage in Assiout, Egypt, gave credibility to the Assemblies of God in that Muslim nation. Florence Steidel, a missionary nurse, arrived in Liberia in 1935 and committed herself to working with lepers — those who had been abandoned by the rest of society. Mark and Huldah Buntain opened the six-story, 120-bed AG Hospital and Research Center in Calcutta, India, in 1977. In 1963, El Salvador missionary John Bueno started Latin America ChildCare, which is now the largest private school system in the world and has served over seven hundred thousand students. Knutti’s account demonstrates that compassion has been a very visible aspect of Assemblies of God missions since the earliest years of the denomination. When the Assemblies of God, at its 2009 General Council, added compassion as its fourth reason for being (in addition to worship, evangelism, and discipleship), this was an affirmation of an existing tradition within the Fellowship of helping the suffering.

The Assemblies of God did not sponsor a systematic attempt to support medical missions until 1983, when the Assemblies of God Foreign Missions Board approved the Medical Missions Program. The name HealthCare Ministries was adopted in 1984. Chapters two through six recount the story of the early years of HealthCare Ministries and its founder, Paul R. Williams. Knutti does not shy away from sharing the struggles of trying to establish a medical missions program in a denomination that often harbored suspicion of  efforts that seemed to resemble the so-called Social Gospel movement in liberal mainline denominations. The balance of the book shares the testimonies of HealthCare Ministries directors and missionaries, including: Joe and Eloise Judah, JoAnnn Butrin, Peggy Johnson Knutti, Terry and Diana Dwelle, Bob and Twyla McGurty, Deborah Highfill, and many others.

Healing Hands is a valuable contribution to the understanding of how the Assemblies of God has come to embrace medical missions as an important way to share the love and message of Christ around the world. Importantly, this volume will challenge the assumptions of two audiences: outsiders unfamiliar with Pentecostal social concern who incorrectly think that Pentecostals don’t care; and Pentecostals who may conflate compassion with a dilution of the church’s charge to share the gospel. Healing Hands is an engaging read and will be warmly welcomed by those who care about Assemblies of God medical missions, those who appreciate missionary stories, and those who wish to better understand the role of compassion in Pentecostal churches.

Reviewed by Darrin J. Rodgers

Softcover, 184 pages, illustrated. $15.00 postpaid on U.S. orders. Order from HealthCare Ministries by phone: (417) 866-6311.

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