The Road to Montellano Leads Straight Through My Heart

The road to Montellano, Guatemala started in a small, dingy-gray room on the 11th floor of Roanoke Memorial Hospital on April 2nd, 2009. It was there around 5:00 AM that I held my mother’s head in my hands and shouted words of love and farewell over her as she drew her last breath in this life.

You don’t travel into the Valley of the Shadow with someone and then back out again without being changed forever. The Reaper’s sickle passes so close to your own skin that you feel its wind. It cuts, and if you’re standing near enough, you bleed.

But after the worst of grief passes (and this can take months), your senses are sharpened and your vision more acute. Gradually, you start to see things differently, even some things that you’ve never seen before.

I had never felt “The Call” to be a missionary. I had always supported such work in one form or another, even sending members of my family on trips while I minded the fort at home. I strongly believed that my “mission” here in Huntsville–being the best husband, father, doctor, professor and writer that I can be–was as important as any, and I still do.

But during the months following my mother’s death, as I tended to the difficult drudgery of caring for and resolving her estate and watched the house I grew up in auctioned off on a overcast, muggy morning last August, an idea began to take shape, its outline slowly becoming more distinct through the misty veil of tears that clung to me like summer sweat.

My mother had been one of a kind, and my father a gentle soul who had left his mark on me despite his death in 1980 at the young age of 47.  By September, I knew that I wanted to take a portion of the proceeds from the estate and do something special–“out of the box” as I wrote in my last post–to honor my father and mother.

You won’t see the phrase on the Health Talents International (HTI) website or in any of their literature, but the Harold and Christine Brown Memorial Eye Care Mission was born.

The past week that our family spent working at Clinica Ezell was one of those defining, crossroads moments that led us down a road less traveled, a path filled with lush, green leaves and coffee-brown faces full of faith, hope and love.

Worldviews were changed. Peripheral vision was enlarged. The Spirit, once dimmed by middle age angst, professional burnout and political/church wars hardly worth fighting, now glows like sacred fire.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I don’t think I would have believed it: people of all ages and backgrounds–doctors, nurses, technicians and students (Go Lipscomb Bisons! Roll Tide!)–fusing as one in such a short period of time and making it fly. It is certainly a tribute to the full time professionals and staff of HTI who brought us all together and pointed us in the right direction.

Moreover, it is a sign of the Spirit who superintends all things. Like they say on the ward at Clinica Ezell during morning rounds as the patches come off and those who were once blind now see–Gloria a Dios!

There are so many individual stories to tell, and God willing, I will eventually get to many of them. But for now, I need to speak a word for the moment, perhaps as important as any that I have written on this blog or anywhere else.

One of the more surreal moments of the trip came when we touched down back in Miami. After getting pulled from the Customs and Immigration line for a “second inspection” (that story alone is worthy of its own blog post), we made our way to the gate for our flight to Atlanta. It was there that I saw something that I had not missed one bit during the previous week–cable TV news.

I looked up at the monitor and saw a red-faced someone screaming her lungs out, holding a sign which read, “No Government Health Care!” The thought occurred to me that this person most likely would call herself a Christian, and I scarce could take it in. I literally held my arm straight out, my palm facing the TV, and said aloud, “Tell it to the hand.”

You see, I had just returned from a land where people appreciate any basic health care they can get; where they sit in a sweltering waiting room with nary a complaint, all day if necessary, to see me; where even if I can’t help them, they thank me anyway and bless me before going on their way.

They are a hearty people, steely calm and seemingly happy in the face of so much illness and death, and we. . . .we are fat, spoiled, and whiny.

Forgive me, please, if my threshold for empathy has been raised a notch or two. I hope you understand why I can’t quite wrap my mind around the televised images of people in a land of plenty who are so caught up in political battles that they can’t see the Imago Dei in the face of their neighbor.

I say all that knowing full well that honorable people of good intent can disagree with each other over pragmatic politics. For Pete’s sake, not everyone on my own team last week would agree over the way health care in the United States should be reformed, if at all.

I respect those differences of opinion, even while I hold my own. What I don’t respect are histrionics, fear-mongering and demagoguery. Such antics have no place in the lives of those who wear the name of Christ.

Last night, an acquaintance of mine asked me what it felt like “coming home to health care here” in the United States and what I thought of “Obama’s plan.” I hesitated at first, realizing that in these days filled with white-hot passion that one word could ignite a fire, that we could easily be “All aboard!” a runaway Train to Crazy Town in no time flat.

I thought for a moment, and then I replied:

Well, I haven’t read all of it (Can you say “eyestrain”?), but I like many of its basic elements. It’s far from perfect, but being the pragmatist that I am, I don’t think perfection is a requirement in order to move forward and attempt to make something better.

More importantly, I believe that when Jesus said “Be not afraid” He meant what He said and that we should obey, regardless of our political stripe or persuasion.

I really don’t mind “coming home to health care here.” I’ll do it here, or there (Guatemala), or anywhere for as long as I have breath to serve. I am content in all things.

And I am. I’m not afraid of health care reform, or for that matter, anything else. You see, the most profound reform of all has already occurred–in the depths of my soul.

The Road to Montellano may have started in a death chamber, but as I trod down its path, I received new life and my second wind. It led me to high places, to a land of lush, green leaves and coffee-brown faces full of faith, hope and love.

Now it leads straight through my heart, and I’m already counting the days until I circle back and walk its ways again.

  1. ME

    Each time I have returned home from a developing country (particularly Haiti) I appreciate ever more the blessings of living in this country.And I covet the medical skills of people like you are your willingness to share them with others.

  2. eirenetheou

    This is another fine piece of work, and an example of a consciousness making connections — the beginning of a transformed life.i have several friends who have worked as translators and “gofers ” in the HTI medical mission in Guatemala. All of them have found it a transformative experience, and they return again and again.God’s Peace to you.d

  3. Kristi Sweeney

    I often run into people that are Americans of some political ilk first, and Christians at some later point on the list. I imagine that most of the people that fall into that category have never looked into the faces of people who have no health care in any form, who have minimal anything in any form. Thank you for using the skill set you have to bless people who need it so desperately. May we never forget that the poor and under-served are here too, not just in foreign lands.

  4. Charlie

    Amen Mike.  I’ve been looking forward to your post mission post and you didn’t disappoint.  Glad you’re back better than ever.  Think about us Saturday in the McKay Hollow run.

  5. Mike the Eyeguy

    Thanks to all for your comments (and to those who responded privately). I appreciate your encouragement.

    Charlie, I’m sitting here on my couch, sipping Guatemalan coffee, thinking about you and the rest of “Team Wannabe” out on the trails of McKay Hollow this morning. I hope y’all tear it up.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that our crew also consisted of Harding Bisons, Texas Tech Red Raiders, LSU Tigers, Vanderbilt Commodores, Ole Miss Rebels, Ohio State Buckeyes and Arkansas Razorbacks (and I probably left out a few even at that). It was a true intercollegiate effort.

    Oh, and one Duke Blue Devil. Go Duke! Let’s beat those B’ars!

  6. JRB

    Amen and amen. (Sorry to be late to the commenting, especially on something of this import.)

    We have some dear friends in our church who these days who seem to be quite afraid, afraid of the change, afoot, the “culture,” the Other and even afraid of the spiritual princes and principalities that may still be roaming over the earth.

    Recently, in class I said, “You know. Jesus won. His victory and resurrection, his life and incarnation, give hope and love, which vanquish fear. I imagine this is why angels always introduce themselves by saying, “Fear not!”  (Also, they are very scary.)

    Thank you again for your words, brother. The Spirit dwells with you and your family, and y’all are giving glory in manifest ways.

  7. Mike the Eyeguy

    It’s been an interesting week in our country and in our churches.

    This past Sunday, I heard a man pray a public prayer that lasted nearly 15 minutes. Apparently the “The 5-Minute Rule” didn’t apply to him. Among the things that he asked God for (he covered a lot of turf, after all) was that “we” would “return to the first principles of our Constitution.”

    That’s funny, I thought, I didn’t know the Church of Christ even had a “Constitution.” You know, other than the Bible, that is.

    It was a different kind of “Restoration plea” to be sure. That’s what fear does: It drives us to say inappropriate things in public when we would be better off holding our tongues; so much presumption (as if we were all praying for that).

    Thanks for your encouragement. Speaking of which, be sure to give heaping helpings of it (along with our greetings) to HTI stalwarts Carlos and Silvia when they visit Grace Pointe soon. Pax.

  8. Mike the Eyeguy

    Oh JRB, by the way, I love your Bible class comment. We must continue to stir the pot.

  9. Jennifer Baker

    I feel a deep kindred spirit with HTI and the HTI folks.  We have been in two congregations that are central to it, and when I was a deacon in Mississippi, I actually helped organize a congregational mission trip to Clinica Ezell.  Despite all that, we have never been, but I hope to remedy that someday.  I run a clinic, you know. 

  10. Mike the Eyeguy


    I’m betting y’all knew Dr. Quinton Dickerson and/or Dr. Roy Kellum in Jackson, both HTI board members.

    I’m curious if you ever ran into my ophthalmologist compadre Dr. Lee Coleman and his wife Amy during your time there. He would have been in residency in Jackson from about 1999-2003.

    We have been affiliated with HTI since the early days at Cahaba Valley CoC in the 80s (Eyegal was their accountant for 20+ years), but we just now “found the time” to finally go. Your time will come too.

  11. JRB

    Yikes, the previous comment from JDB was actually from me, JRB.  Mistakes were made.  Yes, we know all those folks.  They’re heroic. 

  12. Mike the Eyeguy

    “And the two shall become one,” right?

    All these intersections remind me our our “CoC Mafia” discussion we had a few years back.

Comments are closed.