The Community Vacuum
We called it the community vacuum, although I never wanted to know what it sucked up off the floor. Our vacuum cleaned the floors of drug dealers, single mothers, elderly women and the bedrooms of men and their prostitutes. It was never our intent to live in the city, yet after several job losses we found ourselves relocating to the inner city of Columbia, South Carolina and living among the poor and underserved. It was in this neighborhood, lit by twinkling Christmas lights that spelled “Weed Sold Here”, that we learned to live intentionally.
Tim and Tabitha, with whom we shared a wall, taught us life in the city: how to read the signs of drug deals, to speak and understand Southern Ebonics (a skill that seemed to disappear each time I returned home and closed the door behind me), and to understand the reality of domestic violence as it was screamed through our walls. Tim and Tabitha only used our vacuum once, after a friend had been shot and killed when Tabitha wanted to “take her mind off things.” I baked cookies after school with the neighborhood girls when I realized a homeless man was the only babysitter their mother could afford. Once a month Haley, an elderly woman who worked the night shift, would use our vacuum. She returned the favor by leaving leftovers of olives, bread and eggs on our doorstep. Mr. Willy in his bare feet and torn blue jeans never used our vacuum because he couldn’t afford electricity, but he always made sure to stop by to use our phone or eat a popsicle on his way to find yard work.
I always enjoyed spending time with Mr. Willy, but it was Sunday afternoons that led me to call this community home. Every Sunday we would sit outside on the cement steps with our neighbors and watch our children dance to the thumping of the car radios while we waited for the ice cream truck. While eating ice cream we learned that Tim and I shared a birthday and that he enjoyed fishing. We learned that the neighborhood ‘cat-lady’ was an undiscovered artist with a house full of paintings; and we met Mimi, an older black woman who became our grandma in the city.
I have stumbled through drug deals, watched drugs pass between teenage hands while looking out my front window and cowered in my living room at the sound of a car backfiring for fear of a gunshot. I have been called to the hard places and it was out of this small community that I was called into medicine.
INTENTIONAL LIVING: HERE AND NOW
I had grown to love our community, but I was tired. I was thankful to be accepted into the medical school at Virginia Tech and thankful to have a break from the city. As we prepared to move, our neighbors were evicted and a new family moved in. I continued packing my own boxes and did not help them move in. I did not even learn their names. During this time of transition I was reading through the book of Acts and I came to Chapter 18 Verses 9-11:
“One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city. So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.”
When I considered the amount of time that Paul spent teaching the word in Corinth, I was extremely convicted. God was calling to me, “wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). In only eighteen months a church was born and a city transformed. How many opportunities did I miss by packing my own boxes rather than unpacking my unnamed new neighbors? How many lives could have been touched while I busied myself with leaving the city?
As a medical student there is a sense that we are being trained for something greater. It is a time of preparation. However, I could not spend seven to ten years in preparation for a medical career of service to the poor, I must keep on speaking. I must share life with those around me here and now.
INTENTIONAL LIVING: INVESTED LIVES
In Acts 3, Peter and John went to the temple to pray and worship at the time of the evening sacrifice, as was the Jewish custom. At the temple Peter addressed his “fellow Israelites” (Acts 3:12-17) and spoke to them about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He referred to the God of our fathers and traced the theme of the Messiah through the Old Testament. Peter concluded his appeal to the Jewish audience by sharing the Gospel and boldly calling the people to repentance. As a Jew, Peter was able to understand and speak to the Jewish people and in Acts 4 we learn that many who heard the message believed, and the number who believed grew to five thousand!
Just as God was at work in Peter [a Jew] to be an apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2:8), I came to realize that as a medical student I could speak into the lives of students in a way that was unparalleled. I began to share my life, the struggles, challenges and joys with medical students around me and I saw the Lord begin to move on our campus.
Maria, while on a medical mission, came to understand that she was truly loved for the first time and turned her life over to Christ while sitting with me in the back of a school bus. Stephanie, after seeing God work miracles, could no longer deny His existence and turned to Christ. Shaniqua turned her life over to the Lord during the summer months, came back inspired to share her story, and was baptized in the river several months later.
The Lord led me to share with Tabitha, a student who I knew only as my flag football teammate and one I knew never to cross. Questioning her purpose in life and with tears flowing down her cheeks, she came to the Lord in the middle of our medical school cafeteria. Surrounded by a room full of students, she now describes the experience as “the clouds opening up so God could rescue her”.
Antonio began to see that something was different in the lives of believers and was intrigued. The wife of a medical student shared Christ with another student’s wife. She came to know the Lord and soon her entire family were living for the Lord. I sat with Sharon as she questioned God’s love for her father when he was diagnosed with cancer, and I prayed with Liz between classes when she learned of her father’s accident. New believers began to pray for each other, dig deep into the word; and I was able to read scripture again for the first time through the eyes of new believers who were not ashamed.
Just as Peter knew the culture, language and truth that his fellow Jews needed to hear in order to repent, I have walked where they have walked. My vacuum holds my dirt and theirs.
No one can speak into the life of a medical student in the same way as another medical student. No one can touch a resident in the same way as another resident. And no one can share the love of Christ with a physician in the same way as another physician.
INTENTIONAL LIVING: GOD'S INTENTIONS
Around our Thanksgiving table used to sit drunks, drug addicts and dealers, homeless men, prostitutes and single mothers. For now it is medical students, family residents, surgeons and obstetricians-gynecologists. It is a shift I never could have anticipated, but I am confident that God is at work. Richard Wurmbrand, founder of the Voice of the Martyrs, once said, “We must win rulers; political, economic, scientific, artistic personalities. They are the engineers of souls. They mould the souls of men. Winning them, you win the people they lead and influence.”
In the same way, we must win physicians and health care providers for as they depart from being desperately lost and turn to the light of Christ, as one future physician shared with me, “generations will be changed.”
God is calling us to intentional living. We cannot merely hang pictures on our walls to display mission trips or go home to have dinner with our family. Rather, with unwearied perseverance and zeal, we must be infectious in our clinics, in our classrooms and in our neighborhoods. Whether it is setting up a dirt basketball court or asking a colleague how you can pray for them God has gifted us to be a power of community to meet the needs around us. Living intentionally is no longer waiting for God to put His call in our lives, but instead realizing it is already there. It requires us to live with purpose, His purpose, and to “walk in the way of love, making the most of every opportunity.” (Ephesians 5:2,15).
As I consider why God placed me within the field of medicine, I am reminded of the story of Esther. In the book of Esther, a decree was sent out to destroy, kill and annihilate the Jews. Esther, Queen of Persia and also a Jew, was initially hesitant to plead their case before the king for fear of being put to death. When Esther’s words were reported to her uncle Mordecai, he sent back this answer: “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:13-14
As I remember our community in the city I will always wonder about the opportunities we missed when I packed my boxes too early. I am convinced that I will one day return to the city; however, I cannot spend a decade in preparation to live and serve among the poor and lose my vision for sharing life with the lost. As it says in II Corinthians 6:2, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” God is moving and if we remain silent, deliverance will arise from another place. Whether we are in training, a practicing physician or the head of administration, let us join God in his work. We must venture forward on the path set before us, for who knows but that we have come to this royal position for such a time as this?
Kelly Holder, DO is doing her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at East Carolina University Medical Center in Greenville, NC. She and her husband, Paul, recently founded, Doc to Doc, a non-profit organization designed to encourage health care professionals to reach their colleagues for Christ and to live intentionally.