When mission comes in unexpected guises

One missionary’s internal struggles about what ‘true’ mission is

“Well, if you haven’t found anybody else to go, I’ll be willing to go,” newly minted medical specialist Barbara Martin wrote when asked to fill in at a mission hospital in South Korea 58 years ago.

“Famous last words” is the expression! And they were, indeed. Barbara had just sat her Gynaecology and Obstetrics examination in England, in the full knowledge that God had called her to the mission field. She just wasn’t sure where exactly. But South Korea had not been in her consideration.

Barbara Martin had been approached to fill in for a doctor who was going on furlough back to Australia from the Australian Presbyterian Mission Hospital in Pusan, South Korea. In her reply, Barbara opened the door a crack and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.

Eternity’s interview with Dr Martin so many years later led her to do some soul searching about that time in Pusan at the Il Sin Hospital. She reiterated in the conversation that she had only planned to be there short term because she felt God was calling her to evangelistic mission.

“The missionary call came first, the medicine came second.” – Barbara Martin

Barbara’s initial conviction about becoming a missionary came when she attended a Baptist girls’ camp as a 15-year-old. She was inspired by listening to a woman missionary on furlough from India, talking about becoming “fishers of men”.

“And I felt God was just speaking to me directly, whether I would be challenged about going as a missionary,” Barbara explained.

“So the missionary call came first, the medicine came second. When I finished my course, everything was to prepare to go out into the mission field. Obstetrics as a student was my first love because it was the first time you actually ever did anything – put your hand on a patient and actually did something!

“And I loved it. And then as a woman, I thought, ‘Well, I will need to know some obstetrics and I need some paediatrics.’”

But Barbara still didn’t know what God was calling her to. She spent two years at the Queen Vic Hospital in Melbourne, a women’s hospital, and feeling a little impatient with God, reflected that she was “getting awfully old” by this stage. After another year of gynaecology, she was encouraged to do her membership exams for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in England.

In her final preparation for these exams, Barbara met Catherine Mackenzie, the matron of the Il Sin Hospital in South Korea and sister of Helen Mackenzie, the medical superintendent. Cath was on furlough and on the lookout for a replacement for her sister, who was taking a 15-month break the following year. Barbara seemed a good candidate!

The only problem was Barbara felt her calling was to “proper” missionary work in Nepal – telling people about Jesus, not delivering babies and caring for women’s health full-time. That is not what she had in mind as her main gig. So when she responded to the letter that she would be willing to go, in her mind it was only temporary.

But she loved the work. She loved the people. She loved South Korea, after adjusting to the noise! The noise was unbelievable. And it went day and night.

“People selling their wares outside the hospital. The blind masseur who would go with his carer up and down, knocking two bits of wood together advertising the massage. The main train line which was just a couple of hundred metres from the hospital.

“And then there was a branch line which went through the market. The market was on both sides of this branch line and when the train wasn’t there, the storekeepers would put their stalls out on the train line. Then the train came and it would blow its whistle and blow its whistle until everybody had cleared their stalls then the stall owners would put them back again … So much noise in Pusan!”

“I didn’t think that the mission was spiritual enough, evangelistic enough, true mission.” – Barbara Martin

The questions for this story led Barbara to think more about her initial decision and why she seemed a bit fixated on its being only temporary, despite the joy she was experiencing. She couldn’t let it go. It had opened up something she had possibly buried all those years ago. And she came back wanting to articulate something she had suppressed.

“I’m embarrassed, ashamed to say that I think the real reason at the beginning was that I didn’t think that the mission was spiritual enough, evangelistic enough, true mission,” Barbara said in a recorded message.

“I think I had been more interested in the interdenominational missions, working in Nepal, these ‘faith missions’, although I think all missions are by faith.

“I was sure this was the time to go to Korea. I remember earlier on in the piece, being not quite so happy with that decision. It was just a feeling, but I would think, ‘It’s okay, you are only going to be here a short time and then you will be going on to some ‘true’ work’.

“My thought of a medical missionary (this is before I went there) would be the doctor would also be involved in evangelistic work. I remember before going there, when I went to Nepal on my way to England, I met one of the doctors out in Nepal and I remember saying that I was hoping to continue some of my theological studies while I was in Korea and she said: “I’ll eat my hat if you can do that”.

“And I thought ‘Ohhh’, and I understood fully when I got to Korea that medical work was the mission work. It just fully occupied your time. So I had quite a radical change accepting what is medical mission work.”

“I think probably one of the reasons for staying on in Korea is as I look back I could see God’s leading in all my training. That I fitted into the work at the Il Sin, we mutually fitted into each other and that was the final decision that yes, this is where God was leading me.”

“I had quite a radical change accepting what is medical mission work.” – Barbara Martin

The hospital was just 11 years old when Barbara arrived, having been established in 1952 in the kindergarten in the church hall the Mackenzie sisters had attended as children. Her role was to teach the local doctors and midwives how to deliver babies and care for infants. She would only get involved in the more complex deliveries.

Her temporary placement turned into 30-plus years! Barbara remained at Il Sin Hospital until 1995. In her last ten years, she moved out of the hospital compound and into the community. She was the only expat on staff during that last decade and she felt content. She also knew that God was calling her to another career, this time in palliative care.

And so Barbara returned to Australia from South Korea aged 62, moving to Newcastle to undertake palliative care training which became a very full-time late-career change role for a further ten years.

As Barbara reflects on her time as a very busy doctor in South Korea, she acknowledges she didn’t have much time to attend Bible study classes, but she has no doubt that she was in God’s hands and heart every single day.

As with any job, there were hard times, disagreements, decisions she didn’t like, and people who had a different understanding of their faith to her own. Barbara has returned to South Korea on a few occasions since retiring. However, a little piece of her heart remains there, with the people of Pusan.