Spiritual Oasis in the Middle East

Photo by Martin Zangerl on Unsplash

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

When Drs. Pat and Marian Kennedy first arrived at this Arabian desert oasis in 1960, they confronted a dire situation. Half the children died during childbirth. The maternal mortality rate wasn’t much better: 35 percent. They had no electricity and no air conditioning in this region where temperatures approach 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Yet they persevered to build Oasis Hospital, nothing more than a simple cinder-block structure at first, and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ for a needy people.

Today Al Ain boasts about 550,000 residents in the prosperous United Arab Emirates (UAE). The city is overshadowed by two world-class cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But if not for the faithfulness of the Kennedys and many others who followed them to Oasis Hospital, there might be little Christian witness in these influential cities. Indeed, the story of this spiritual oasis highlights the providential wisdom of God, who works in us and through us to accomplish purposes we can scarcely fathom.

Reservoir of Good Will

I recently visited Al Ain with a team organized by Training Leaders International to teach pastors from the nearly 30 churches that meet on the hospital campus. Our team, including TGC executive director Ben Peays, lectured and led discussion for a diverse group of pastors and laypeople committed to growing in their knowledge of God and his Word. Mindful of objections to Christianity in this part of the world, we talked about the formation of the biblical canon, doctrine of Scripture, Trinity, and the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The promise of jobs both skilled and unskilled in this wealthy nation attracts workers from all over the world, including the Philippines, India, and Pakistan. Many of these immigrants claim at least nominal Christian faith, but it’s no small miracle that the UAE allows them to worship openly. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, officially closed to Christianity, looms large in the region, as does Iran, a short trip away across the gulf. Yet Christians left a good impression on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (right), founding father of the UAE. Though deceased, he continues to hold sway over the nation with his likeness posted on everything from motorcycles to billboards. Sheikh Zayed appreciated the care of a pioneering missionary hospital in Bahrain, so he invited Christians to start a similar work in Al Ain.

Today the country’s leaders can afford to travel anywhere abroad for the finest health care the world offers. Residents benefit from world-class care at home, too, thanks to government subsidies and Western investment. Yet Oasis continues to prosper in part because of this “reservoir of good will” built up over decades, according to David Printy (right), president and CEO of Oasis. Printy joined Oasis, now operated by CURE, after a stint as founding managing director of The Physicians Academy, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT. He’s currently overseeing a new facility for Oasis made possible by the generosity of the UAE’s current rulers, Sheikh Zayed’s sons, one of whom was born at Oasis Hospital in 1961.

Show Up

The entire United Arab Emirates is roughly the size of Maine. But the country claims the sixth-largest oil reserves in the world. So black gold goes a long way toward explaining why not even a Bentley or Rolls-Royce stands out when driving around here. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become world-class beach destinations with hotels and malls where you can buy gold from vending machines. I figured this desire to emulate and surpass America’s lofty standard of consumption explains the tolerance toward Christians.

But another factor appears much more significant for the relative openness. (It’s still illegal to convert someone in the UAE.) Before anyone found oil buried beneath the desert sands, Christians were there. The Kennedys (Dr. Pat Kennedy, right, treats a woman at Oasis Hospital in 1961) did not come seeking wealth. Neither did Printy leave his prestigious position in Boston to get rich in Al Ain. Christians come because of love for Jesus Christ and in obedience to his command to love their neighbors as themselves. They come bearing his good news for sinners, that they can be saved by grace alone.

Staff at Oasis Hospital don’t hide their faith. Every hospital room includes a Bible translated into Arabic. Vice president of patient relations Trey Hulsey and other hospital staff offer to pray for the 18,000 patients treated every month. Doctors view the quality of their care as a testimony to their Christian faith. Perhaps no other mission hospital in the world competes toe-to-toe with the best care oil money and Western investors can buy. But the hospital will not hire doctors unless they also share the hospital’s spiritual aims. The hospital’s lobby relates the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again” (John 4:13-14a).

We’re tempted to view the so-called 10/40 as entirely closed to Christian witness. In reality God has been working through his servants in remarkable ways. Sometimes he honors our simple but costly faithfulness with influence beyond our imagining.

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