JASPER — Diana Brown has seen her share of bad teeth, poor eyes, and upset stomachs. Fortunately, those concerns were eliminated through the generosity of Georgia Baptists.
For just a handful of months short of two decades, the soft-spoken woman from the mountains has traveled the state from her scenic locale down to the plains of South Georgia, over to the coast and back up to Middle Georgia.
Wherever uninsured or under-insured people needed free healthcare. Regardless if they were migrants – legal or not – providing vegetables for the state’s dinner tables, or if they were just Americans down on their luck looking for a break in life.
Without concern as to who they were or how they got there, Brown wore whatever hat was needed to meet needs and serve Christ while serving the underserved.
For the past 17 years, the former labor/delivery nurse has served as the first administrator for the Baptist Mobile Health Ministry. She and husband Charles have driven each of the four mobile units and she has offered her medical skills when needed. The outreach is a cooperative ministry of the Baptist Medical-Dental Fellowship and the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
On Dec. 31, Brown retired to take it easy with Charles and become more active with their church, Mt. Zion in Canton. But she still plans to stay involved, especially in the short term, as she mentors successor Ted Kandler.
Early days in ministry
Diana and Charles began to volunteer with the ministry in its early days, getting in on the ground floor as it found its footing. Charles served as a driver/coordinator for the unit and she as a unit coordinator, meaning she oversaw the unit for the days it was assigned to a church, helped sterilize instruments, being sure the dentist has the tools he needs, scheduling patients, and assisting the church in its evangelistic outreach.
The couple began with the ministry when it had only one used mobile unit, saw the expansion to two custom built state-of-the-art units, and remembers well the original unit that caught fire on the side of the road enroute to Ringgold and was deemed a total loss. That was the fall of ’98, just five months after the couple joined the team. Through donations from ministry board members, ministry supporters and Georgia Baptist Convention, another unit was built, purchased and on the road again by March of 1999.
Each of the units are equipped with three dental chairs and supplemental equipment and supplies to enable professional volunteers to provide dental care. The units also carry medical screening supplies and equipment for use by the church and its medical volunteers. The Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation has provided funding the two units that are now in use – the first in 2007 and its largest unit to date in 2013.
Changes over the years
Brown explains that the units never roll out to minister on their own; they serve by invitation of local churches who host the units and provide medical volunteers from their congregation or community.
“We joined in 1998 for the love of missions and because it fit my medical background so well, and because it was a good match for Charles with his 41 years of military administrative and mechanical experience,” She notes. “It was Charles and I and three volunteer couples at first until God called the other couples into other ministries, leaving us and the Lord to travel the state.”
Due to the fast growth of the ministry, she became volunteer administrative assistant in 2000 and, in 2007, advanced to a part-time employee. Along the way she served on the ministry’s Foundation which raised funds for the outreach.
“I can’t tell you all the changes I have seen in the past 20 years,” she says as she packed up books and materials in her office. “Changes beginning with how God has grown our work from that first converted Bluebird bus to two units that stay booked most of the year, bringing quality free health care to the uninsured and underinsured in Georgia while presenting the gospel message.”
Today the staff has increased from the original four couples to a volunteer staff of 15 driver/coordinators and unit coordinators. The Mission Board will be adding more part-time staff this year.
When she begins to reflect back on the blessings she has received she pauses a moment and begins to slowly detail the lengthy history.
“They have been innumerable. Seeing people who have been hindered from getting a job because their teeth were so bad they were not comfortable smiling. It sounds strange to us with nice dental care and a beautiful smile, but how would you like to be waited on in a store or restaurant with a person with several decayed or broken teeth?
“A smile is something we take for granted, but these folks have not had the opportunity to access dental care. We have given them back their smiles and they cannot contain their joy,” she adds.
‘Reaching the lost through health care’
More than a thousand have come to faith during her years at the ministry, something she does not take credit for but rejoices in the small part she played.
“Our purpose is not health care but reaching the lost through health care. We use it as a window into the lives of hurting people. You cannot go to work or school if you have an abscessed tooth or chronic medical condition. Because of the financial and spiritual faithfulness of Georgia Baptists, we can remove that psychological and physical pain and minister to the spiritual dimension,” she explains.
In the months leading up to her retirement, Brown was recognized by the Georgia Baptist College of Nursing Alumni Association for her accomplishments. A graduate of what was then the Georgia Baptist Hospital School of Nursing, in October she was inducted into the Half Century Club recognizing former students with 50 years of nursing.
She also received the coveted Edna Earle Teal Award signifying service to God and humanity. The award is named after the school’s graduate who was the first nurse to be commissioned as a missionary by the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board and served in China.
As she continues to reflect back on her blessings, she has no problem identifying her most meaningful experience – God presenting a vision and seeing how He worked to bring it to fruition. Since 2006, the ministry has traveled in June to Bainbridge at the request of Bowen Baptist Association to provide dental care in migrant camps for a week as its churches partner with the Georgia Farmworker Program and the Emory University Physician Assistant Program in providing medical care and evangelistic outreach to the migrant population.
The next week, the students moved on to the Valdosta area to continue serving in the migrant camps there.
“Three years ago, the students asked us to join them for the second so that this migrant population could receive dental care as well. The ministry saw this as an opportunity to spread the Gospel, but we had no church sponsorship to provide the evangelistic outreach,” Brown says in pausing from packing another cardboard box in her office.
The ministry prayed for two years for God’s guidance in this matter and last year, Brown and two other staff members began praying intentionally for God to give them an answer. At the suggestion of two persons, she approached Jay Watkins, pastor of Redlands Baptist Church in Valdosta.
“After explaining what we thought was God’s vision, Pastor Jay said four words which I will always remember as the answer to prayer for reaching those hard-working men and women: “We are your church” to sponsor an ongoing presence in the greater Valdosta area.”
The first night the dental/medical unit arrived on site, Watkins and several church members who spoke Spanish served as interpreters and presented the Gospel; 6 individuals accepted Christ.
The congregation has committed to sponsoring the ministry to the Valdosta area and its extensive migrant workers; the mobile unit and staff will return this June.
Now that January is coming to a close and her mentoring is well underway with Kandler, Brown is looking forward to taking it slightly easier … when she is not needed by the ministry. She will not miss the 90-minute commute that frequently stretched out to two hours on a bad day. However, she will not miss the ministry because she will still be involved, just on a smaller level serving with the ministry’s Foundation in seeking funds for the outreach.
And her love of bringing spiritual healing, as well as medical/dental healing, will remain just as strong for the Kingdom.