A few months ago I purchased a book cheaply in a second hand bookshop, Vietnam Doctor; The Story of Project Concern by Dr James Turpin published in the 1960’s. It had a Baptist church library (USA) stamp in it, I believed it was a Christian book about a Christian medical doctor operating in Vietnam. Every so often I read a book that profoundly impacts me; this was one of those books, but for all the wrong reasons. I decided to write about this for Christian readers in an attempt to pass on what I have learned in reading this book. Also to encourage Christians (myself included) to be wise in our missionary giving.
I realise that what follows will not be a popular view. I should start by saying that the book was extremely engaging and I read it through in a few hours. I was also prompted to research the organisation, Project Concern which is still currently active in some of the original areas, especially in Vietnam. I have no doubt about the sincerity of these people or of the good work they are doing from a humanitarian perspective.
Summary of Book Content
Dr James Turpin states that he was “converted” to Christianity at the age of 12 during a service in his local Methodist church. He describes his “fling” at preaching when he was just 14. Having failed to graduate from medical school, he became a Methodist preacher but constantly struggled with discontentedness and the desire to work in the medical field perhaps as a missionary. He married Mollie who had also had a conversion experience in her teens. As a married couple it seems they struggled to find their “place” in life and in faith. They began making plans to become missionaries more out of a sense of obligation than calling. Unable to fulfill his duties as a preacher Dr Turpin returned to medical school and finally graduated. The family then lived a life of material luxury for several years but Dr Turpin couldn’t shake off his restlessness. Finally, he began work in a slum area not far from their home in the States. He developed a heart for this work and the missionary “calling” which hadn’t been properly resolved reared its head again.
The couple (now with several children) applied to World Vision but were unable in good conscience to sign a statement stating that the Bible was 100% accurate/inspired by God. Not finding an organisation that suited them they founded PCI (Project Concern International.) PCI is a non-profit, humanitarian NGO based in San Diego, California, and is dedicated to preventing disease, improving community health, and promoting sustainable development. PCI reaches nearly 6 million people a year through programs in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (Wikipedia)
Dr Turpin and his wife started medical clinics in Hong Kong and later in Vietnam and other places, living amongst the people in the slums and working in the most needy areas. They worked with locals, handing over the work to them when they had been properly trained. They learned how to work with “sorcerers” to gain the trust of the people and allowed locals to give them “good luck charms” in the form of mirrors that they displayed in their residence.
After the initial struggles to find his place in life and his “dabbling” in Christian work, Dr Turpin makes no further mention of God or of his teenage conversion although he continues to attend church, preaching on occasion. Instead, he throws himself wholeheartedly into medical work making huge personal sacrifices and forcing his family to endure these with him. Although seemingly selfless in his efforts to help others, he acknowledges at times that his ultimate goal is his own personal contentment/fulfillment. He states several times that he believes that medical help can transform lives and communities and he even believed it could end the war in Vietnam!
Help Without Hope
Maybe some of you are reading this and thinking that it sounds like a good cause and wondering what my problem is. Clearly, this couple had a huge heart of compassion and love for the people, this is evident in the book as they struggle to manage the constant demands of those in poverty. Many of those they “helped” died after a few weeks, days, or sometimes just hours, but the staff comforted themselves in the knowledge that they had made the last hours of many lives less painful and more positive. I particularly remember one old man who came to them lonely and emaciated and asked to stay with them as he was neglected by his own family, he died after several weeks, but at least they had seen him smile and he was now at peace...right?
This book was written in the 1960’s and life expectancy in these areas was a little over 40 years. The majority, if not all of the people “helped” by these kind hearted people have now died and where have they gone? Most likely, to a lost eternity without God (unless they miraculously heard the saving message of Jesus via another source.) What benefit now of the treatment that sustained their life for a few days or hours? What of those that continue to be helped practically but who remain in their sin without spiritual hope. How can a former preacher who apparently still has an “active faith” devote his entire life to serving the physical needs of people but miss these kinds of opportunities to make a real difference spiritually?
Dr Turpin proudly states “We call ourselves medical emissaries because we're not theological; we're not trying to convert people to a religion or a way of life other than healthy," He even mentions that several partners were pleased that they had no religious affiliations and the implication is that they wouldn’t have been willing to partner with them otherwise.
Where is Dr Turpin now?
Sadly, Dr Turpin was later divorced from his wife Mollie, he remarried and finally converted to the Bahá'í Faith. (The Bahá'í Faith is a monotheistic religion which emphasizes the spiritual unity of all humankind. Three core principles establish a basis for Bahá'í teachings and doctrine: the unity of God, that there is only one God who is the source of all creation; the unity of religion, that all major religions have the same spiritual source and come from the same God; and the unity of humanity, that all humans have been created equal, and the unity in diversity, that diversity of race and culture are seen as worthy of appreciation and acceptance. According to the Bahá'í Faith's teachings, the human purpose is to learn to know and to love God through such methods as prayer, reflection and being of service to humanity.) (Wikipedia)
He began a law suit in the US after 2 of his children were born blind. The case was called “wrongful life.” Dr Turpin successfully argued that life should’ve been prevented as due to the genetic makeup of the parents the disability could have been predicted...
What Can We Learn
There is a lesson here for all of us as Christians. There are numerous organisations operating throughout the world with a similar set-up to Project Concern. They are staffed by well intentioned, self-sacrificial people with compassionate hearts. Many of these people are Christians. When we learn of the huge needs and humanitarian crises, of course our hearts go out to those involved and those in desperate need. We give generously to help practically but what of the spiritual need. A healthy person with food and clothes will one day die and go to hell if they are not told of the hope they can find in Jesus, prolonging their life is not kind, it is cruel if we don’t also tell them of the ultimate cure, and of hope for eternal life in heaven.
This book had such a profound impact on me as I felt the hopelessness and meaningless of all of this activity without God. The loss of every precious soul that died in that medical clinic without knowing true hope when just a few words in the Holy Spirit’s power would have been sufficient. The frustration of knowing that this couple had professed Christ as teenagers and that Dr Turpin had once been a preacher and claims still to have an active faith. The many local volunteers and those from other countries that also worked with and continue to staff Project Concern without knowing true hope themselves and therefore being unable to offer it to their many patients.
One paragraph towards the end of the book sums up the situation. K’Moung (one of the regular staff) is speaking to Dr Turpin and others;
“I have suspected that there is something inside me that is special….And it would come to me that my mind, my heart, my life could mean something.” This started a discussion amongst the students, Koho and Vietnamese, about a life and what it meant. Each had an opinion to express, a story to tell, an incident to recall. These people swapped their ideas in soft voices and stopped only when the moon was high in the sky.” (Dr Turpin then narrates) I didn’t say another word, for I had nothing constructive to add…..”
What a tragic waste…
As Christians we have a responsibility to steward our finances effectively and support only those organisations and people that share the Gospel as they help people. The Gospel must be the priority and practical help should also be offered where it is possible. The popular quotes “You can show God’s love with a smile” and “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words” are both fundamentally wrong. How can people know it is God’s love we are demonstrating by our smiles unless we tell them? And the second quote has been effectively changed to read “Preach the Gospel, always use words!” as this is the method that God has chosen by which people will be saved.
“Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s DONE FOR CHRIST will last.” – CT Studd
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