Being Here: Treating Souls, as Well as Bodies

In 1989, Dr. William Becknell saw a series of television news stories about postcommunist Russia's problems. As he watched the reports, with their pictures of undernourished children in desperate need of medical attention, Becknell started to cry.

"For reasons I didn't understand, when I saw programs about Russia I would get tears," said Becknell.

"I was never a Russophile. I was raised in the late '50s early '60s, when it was better to be dead than red. But all of a sudden, I had this huge unexplainable empathy for the people. It was as if there was an emotional burden placed on me by God. I knew he wanted me to come here."

Three years later, following brief stops in Kenya and Somalia, Becknell, 51, a pediatrician from eastern Kentucky, is running a children's medical clinic in Moscow and a medical outreach program for Russia's rural areas as part of the Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism, a group of doctors dedicated to healing physical and spiritual problems.

As often as once a month, Becknell straps on a 50-pound bag filled with medicine and travels by train to rural regions where he conducts clinics. His work is done in areas where there are no hospitals and at prisons and orphanages where medical care is lacking. Becknell also procures supplies and offers local doctors' advice on how to improve their medical systems.

"It's amazing what these people do without," he said. "I think I spend as much time treating the systems as I do treating patients."

Through his job with the mission, Becknell said he also tries to treat souls, bridging evangelism and medicine.

"As a doctor, I can't separate the spiritual from the physical," said Becknell, who attends a nondenominational church in Moscow. "People need to be confronted. Often times, a physical problem is just the manifestation of something wrong with the soul. As a missionary and a doctor, it's my job to help both."

At a time when the presence of foreign missionaries in Russia is under criticism, Becknell said he has not encountered any hostility.

He added that he combines medicine with evangelism by listening. Working with the missionary group, which provides for all his expenses and pays him a small stipend, Becknell said he has the freedom to really hear his patients.

Becknell's experience in Appalachia, one of America's poorest areas, where more than half of the population is on government assistance, prepared him well for his relief work in Russia, he said. Many of the problems he saw in Kentucky's mountains are similar to problems in Russia. Lifestyle-oriented illnesses, such as hypertension, alcoholism, emphysema and obesity are common.

"When I was in Appalachia, I treated a man for stomach problems," Becknell said. "He came back to me time and time again, and this man was too young for as many problems as he had.

"What I ended up finding out was this man had so many family problems that he just kept getting ill. As a doctor, I've found there is usually a lot more to an illness than the physical manifestation says. As a Christian, I try to find out what the spiritual root for that problem may be and offer Christ's word as a way of solving the problem."