CBF Field Personnel / General CBF

Ministry of Commitment

CBF field personnel and Florida church partner to reach remote island nation

By Greg Warner

At an IHOP restaurant in Tampa, Fla., a waitress finishes her shift and heads home, where she stashes the day’s cash tips in a safe place. Each week she deposits the money in her bank and writes an equivalent check to Bayshore Baptist Church. Those funds are combined with other gifts — from Sunday school classes, individual members, a special Christmas offering, etc. — and deposited into a special account.

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CBF field personnel Karen Alford (first row, far right), serves on the Mentawai islands of Indonesia, using her skills as a Registered Nurse alongside non-governmental organizations to support long-term, sustainable community development.

Halfway around the world, on the tiny Indonesian island of North Pagai, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Karen Alford needs to swipe her debit card at the only bank on this primitive island to retrieve the waitress’s gift and other donations from Bayshore Baptist. With her small withdrawal, Alford can walk to the nearby open-air market and buy fish and vegetables for the next few days.

That scenario or something very similar has been happening regularly for the past eight-plus years, illustrating not only the depth of the waitress’s commitment, but the way modern technology can shrink the distance between Cooperative Baptists and their field personnel, even in the most remote corners of the globe.

The waitress, who is not even a Bayshore member but the daughter of one, never met Alford but — like many in the church — was touched by her story.

As a newly-minted wildlife biologist from Oregon, Alford served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote national park in Morocco. The experience convinced her that, instead of biology, she would pursue a career in medicine, with the intent of returning to serve as a doctor among the country’s legendary Berber tribe.

She moved to Tampa to enroll in medical school but decided that, in the developing world, she could accomplish just as much as a nurse practitioner. She began a grueling eight-year journey — working three jobs, going to nursing school at the University of Tampa, becoming a registered nurse, working in a hospital ER and training under a midwife.

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Alford travels to island villages to train residents on simple medical care, prevention and hygiene. She also trains local women to serve as midwives in their villages to reduce infant and maternal deaths during childbirth. 

“I was delivering babies all night, then trying to go to school during the day and work my ER shifts,” Alford recalled.

With her nose to the grindstone and eye on the goal, the arduous journey at times seemed like a blur to her. “There are whole chunks of time that I barely remember,” she admits. Nonetheless, Alford knew she wanted to go to a church somewhere.

Along the way, she found a refuge at Bayshore Baptist Church, an anchor in historic South Tampa, where her aunt and uncle were members. Having grown up in churches of various denominations, Alford said, “I didn’t care what denomination it was. I just wanted to find a good church, preferably one with a gospel choir.” But she was taken aback when her aunt and uncle asked, “Why don’t you come to this Baptist church?”

“I thought, ‘Really…Baptist?’” Her only knowledge of Baptists was as a stereotype
of being extremely conservative, a bit out-of-touch with the world and “odd.” But her aunt and uncle “were very cool,” so she said, “Okay, it can’t be that bad… then I walked in the door and just knew this was going to be my home church.”

And members of Bayshore Baptist, especially those in the choir, fell in love with this personable and passionate young woman with a dream of changing the world.

“The choir was my anchor for eight years,” she said. “They knew what I wanted to do. They knew that I was doing this so I could go back [to Morocco].”

Church and choir members soon picked up on the young woman’s tender heart and deep devotion to the world’s neglected people. They started telling her about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and its philosophy of ministering to “the least of these” in far-flung places. They convinced her she could find a home with CBF Global Missions.

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Wednesday evening Bible study and prayer time is held in people’s homes on a regular basis. Here, the group meets in Alford’s home, which like other traditional homes in North Pagai, does not have furniture, so participants sit on the floor.

“Again, I thought, ‘Oh no. Really…Baptist missionary?’ It’s bad enough that I’m going to a Baptist church!

“But a lot of people I knew at Bayshore had been part of CBF,” she continued. “They were the kind of people I wanted to be like. They were my spiritual giants. So maybe it wasn’t that bad.”

She attended an exploratory conference for people curious about serving as CBF field personnel. “You know how sometimes you meet someone and know immediately that you really like them?” she said. “Everyone I met, all the staff who were there, were like that.  They were just so interesting and dynamic. I thought, these are the kinds of people I want to be around. So I went with it. I went with CBF.”

But there was a roadblock — the first of several actually. CBF Global Missions was changing its funding model and now would require field personnel to raise their own personal financial support — a policy which was recently changed.

“It was a deal breaker,” Alford recalled sadly. “I’ve never asked anybody in my life
for money.”

Since leaving home after high school, she had paid her own way — through college, Peace Corps, nursing school. Her plan all along was to work for a non-governmental organization — a non-profit relief agency, UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders or other group that would pay her a salary.

Alford hates public speaking and detests anything that feels like self-promotion.

“That’s creepy. You think about raising money for a project. It’s exciting to raise money for a clinic or to buy medical supplies. But to raise money for my living expenses so I can go buy Cheetos or whatever? That’s just…No.”

But her Bayshore friends had a different reaction. They would raise her support — all of it.

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Part of the training that Alford provides includes teaching the Mentawai people to be creative in emergency care situations. Here, villagers are practicing the use of natural materials to create splints and bandages. 

Gloria Scarle, who has been friends with her since Alford first moved to Tampa, is the point person for all of Bayshore’s assistance for Alford. She handles her bank accounts, insurance, retirement plan and other bills — things that would be hard to do long distance, especially from an island essentially cut off from the world.

“I’m in charge of fundraising, but I’m the world’s worst fundraiser,” Scarle said. But it turned out she was pretty successful. In the past eight years, the church has provided more than $254,000 in financial support for Alford and her work. And until recently the church was Alford’s sole financial support.

“It requires very little effort because everybody loves her,” Scarle said. Alford’s passion and personality “make what I do so much easier,” she added. “There are a lot of people who love her and love what she does.”

Bayshore decided to support Alford with designated gifts and special offerings. It was the first — and only — time Bayshore has funded a specific missionary directly.

Bayshore is designated as Alford’s Encourager Church, a congregation that links up with a specific CBF field personnel or team to provide assistance in four areas — funding, prayer, administration and short-term mission engagement.

In 2007, with her funding dilemma resolved, Alford was ready to return to her beloved Morocco. But visa problems forced a change of direction — like 8,000 miles to the southeast. Alford joined a CBF medical ministry in Sumatra, traveling on a boat that provided free medical care to villagers along Indonesia’s Musi River.

“I absolutely loved the boat ministry. I was so happy doing that. It was an amazing experience!”

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The island of North Pagai, where Alford ministers, is accessible only by boat. All supplies come on this boat once each week, and a 14-hour ferry to the mainland is available when it leaves.

Three years later, on October 25, 2010, an earthquake off Sumatra’s western coast triggered a tsunami that killed 500 people on the small island chain of Mentawai
(MEN-ta-why), 400 miles away from Alford’s location. The need was urgent.

Meanwhile, funding was running out for the boat ministry and Alford was looking for options. A friend invited Alford to join a relief effort in Mentawai led by an Indonesian Christian group, CFK, which was funded by Baptist World Aid Australia among others.

The four islands of Mentawai sit on a major fault line that is part of the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire.

Mentawai’s earthquake was a 7.7-magnitude earthquake only 100 miles offshore in the Indian Ocean and produced a 15-20 foot tsunami that wiped out 20 villages. In a strange coincidence, the very next day, the Mt. Merapi volcano erupted 1,000 miles to the southeast on the giant Indonesian island of Java.

“The volcano was horrible,” Alford recalled. “It impacted more people than the tsunami did. [Non-governmental organizations] that had come to help in Mentawai literally picked up and moved to the volcano. It was unfortunate for Mentawai because they got maybe 12 hours in the limelight. Then that was it.”

When CBF transferred Alford in early 2011 to North Pagai, where the Mentawai Islands relief effort was set up, she initially gave medical assistance to tsunami victims. But it was obvious the islands’ medical needs were more profound than that.

“The living conditions on the island were so bad before the tsunami that it really wasn’t about getting them back on their feet,” Alford explained. “They had really never been on their feet.”

“The longer we were there, the more we realized they don’t just need recovery,” she recalled. “They need a complete overhaul. They need long-term community development.”

The island of North Pagai has three medical clinics — run by Protestants, Catholics and the Indonesian government. Alford works at the two Christian clinics, neither of which has a doctor. The government clinic has a doctor about half the time, she said.

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Alford travels around the island of North Pagai on a motorcycle, which is the local form of transportation. Without many accessible roads, Alford uses the beaches to travel between villages on the east coast, with hopes that the tide doesn’t block her return. 

Other NGOs on the island do some health education but without any trained healthcare staff, she said. “They ask me sometimes to come in and consult and give them ideas or provide the materials for a health program they want to do.”

And she travels to inland villages to train residents in simple medical care, prevention and hygiene. She also trains local women to serve as midwives in their villages, in order to reduce infant and maternal deaths during childbirth, especially in rural areas.

In the port village of Sikakap, where Alford lives, supplies arrive on the once-a-week boat from the mainland. If it’s not on the boat, you don’t get it for another week. If you’re not on that boat when it leaves, you won’t go anywhere for another week.

Ninety miles to the east of Mentawai is the mainland of Sumatra, the largest of the 18,000 islands that comprise Indonesia. But treacherous currents and reefs historically have kept Mentawai isolated from the mainland, allowing its people to retain much of their starkly primitive culture — marked by deep spirituality, tattooing and other body art, including a custom of sharpening their teeth to enhance their beauty.

Life on the islands is as simple as it gets, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Residents live much as they did hundreds of years ago. There is, however, electricity in Sikakap — some days — but the gas-fueled generator is subject to fuel shortages and the whim of local administrators.

The islands’ isolation means the people of Mentawai are used to being ignored. So Alford and other CFK workers help residents lobby to receive government funds for schools, infrastructure, medical care and other basic services.

The Mentawai people live a peaceful existence, with acceptance and deep respect for people of other faiths, Alford said. Like others along Sumatra’s Indian Ocean coastline, they were historically animistic but became largely “Christianized” by the Dutch during colonial rule, which lasted until World War II.

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The main church on North Pagai received its official recognition from the Indonesian government after 97 years. Church choirs from different villages gather here to lead in worship before an official ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration of the recognition. 

“Most of them have converted to Christianity, although in a lot of places Christianity has grown on top of the animism,” she said. “Some of their beliefs are mixed, but they don’t really know the difference. The newer generation thinks it’s all one and the same.”

Like the rest of Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world, a significant portion of the Mentawai Islands’ populous remains Muslim, but it’s a much less strident version than the Islam that dominates Sumatra. Residents of Mentawai respect all faiths and encourage all believers to be faithful to their religion, Alford said.

When Alford made the transition to Mentawai from the boat ministry, Bayshore Baptist Church continued to support her without missing a beat, although Alford is seldom able to return to her supporting church. Even her communication is limited by the remoteness of Mentawai, where internet access is almost non-existent and electricity is sporadic. Despite these challenges, Alford’s low expenses and the loyalty of Bayshore members have kept her on the field for eight-plus years.

A lot can be accomplished in Indonesia with a modest amount of money, especially when one lives as simply and frugally as Alford does, said Scarle.

For instance, with $10,000 Bayshore paid Indonesian workers to build Alford a small wood-frame house built with a simple earthquake-resistant design that mirrors the simplicity of local housing. Alford boasts she now has “indoor plumbing,” but that consists of a hole in the ground that empties into a small septic tank, and a drain in the floor that drains the water used from stand-up bathing, Scarle said. A local church that donated the land will take ownership of the hut when Alford leaves the area.

It’s a lot easier for CBF to support personnel like Alford because “she lives in a remote area and lives like the locals,” said Jim Smith, CBF director of global networks and development. “Karen is one of those who can live with the heat and the bugs and sleep on a mat resting on concrete.”

Richard Phillips, interim pastor of Bayshore Baptist, knew Alford before he joined the church and always has found her work “fascinating and amazing,” he said. “For a young single woman to take on such a challenging ministry in such a difficult situation shows unusual, even unique, commitment.”

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When Alford works with women during healthcare training, she also gives them opportunities to present their thoughts to the group and practice their skills in public speaking. 

This year, Alford and Bayshore got some outside funding help from a foundation grant. Since the money is designated specifically for medical work, Alford fit the bill. It will cover almost all of her funding needs for 2016 and is renewable for future years, but not guaranteed.

So what about Bayshore Baptist’s funding? It keeps coming. Even though few Bayshore members could even find this tropical island on a map, Alford’s supporters are not willing to quit giving to support their hometown mission worker.

“I told them, ‘You guys don’t have to do this anymore — stop!’” Alford explained. “Even when I try to get them to stop giving me money they’re so loyal, so supportive — almost insanely generous!”

So this year Bayshore’s money will be used to help the midwives that Alford trains to deliver babies more safely. An American doctor and her husband, a solar engineer, have developed an economical, portable power unit that uses small solar panels to provide electricity in remote areas for midwives delivering babies in those locations, particularly at night.

Called a Solar Suitcase, the unit’s panels charge a battery that powers LED medical lighting, a Doppler fetal heart-rate monitor, 12-volt power outlets for laptops and small medical devices, and battery chargers for a cell phone and AAA and AA batteries.

Donors at Bayshore Baptist are buying eight Solar Suitcases, which cost about $1,645 each that Alford will provide to villages on North Pagai where she has trained midwives.

Bayshore members clearly have been inspired by watching Alford’s determination — eight years of hard preparation and now eight years of hard work under tough conditions halfway around the world.

Alford went to Indonesia as part of a disaster-relief effort, but what keeps her there, long after other relief workers have left, is her love of the people, her determination to fight systemic poverty and the dedication of Bayshore Baptist members.

And a waitress.

 

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