“If you’re going to work with the poor and the disenfranchised, you can’t run this like a 100-yard dash,” said Bas Vanderzalm ’69. “It’s much more like a marathon, and I don’t need to save anything for the end. I want to use it all.”
Those are words of experience from a Calvin grad who has spent 35 years in ministries on behalf of people all over the world who have nothing—and many who have been terrorized by natural or manmade catastrophes.
Vanderzalm is the executive director of Medical Teams International (MTI), a Portland, Ore., nonprofit organization that meets human need by sending medicine, medical equipment and volunteer medical teams around the globe. Founded in 1979 in response to the needs of refugees streaming into Thailand to escape Cambodia’s killing fields, MTI has been on more than 1,500 medical missions, sent more than $1 billion in medical supplies and aid, and partners with 240 in-country organizations in 70 countries.
He’s been at MTI for more than 10 years now, “following a founder,” he noted: Ron Post, the Portland businessman who began the organization, then called Northwest Medical Teams.
Vanderzalm and his wife, Lynn Schrotenboer Vanderzalm ’69, met at Calvin—he from Salt Lake City, Utah, and she from Holland, Mich., both English majors.
“We received our base: that deep, solid worldview at Calvin,” Bas said. “Teachers like Ken Kuiper and Stan Wiersma. And our peers were helpful, too, the blessing of being with gifted, committed people.” They both sang in the Radio Choir and Bas was co-editor of the 1968–69 Chimes.
After Calvin, the Vanderzalms worked in central Boston and then in world relief for the National Association of Evangelicals, based in the Chicago area. Lynn has continued to use her English training, first as a teacher and then as an editor for Tyndale House. These days, she helps develop MTI’s impressive “Real. Life.” exhibit, a multi-sensory, 45-minute walk-and-reflect experience that uses powerfully designed scenes, sights and smells from some of MTI’s mission sites.
The exhibit is housed in MTI’s large warehouse-office building in Tigard, a suburb of Portland. “We call it God’s blessing space,” said Lynn.
Visitors can learn and respond to tragedies in places such as Uganda, Kosovo, Mexico City, Mozambique, Romania, Sri Lanka and New Orleans. Each turn through the exhibit immerses the guest in the challenges MTI faces in these devastated regions; there’s even a floor-to-ceiling facsimile of a tsunami wave so one has a better understanding of that natural disaster.
“Since we opened the exhibit last year, about 17,000 people—many of them young people—have visited the exhibit,” Lynn said. “There are numerous places throughout the site where we encourage written responses to those who are oppressed, and the sincerity and depth of responses are touching. We often send these cards with our medical teams to encourage those we serve.”
Although unabashedly Christian in focus, Lynn said that visitors come from public schools and community groups just as often as from faith-based organizations.
“We developed a strong sense of justice and an awareness of inequities,” said Lynn, “and we want to educate others, especially the young, about what’s going on in our world.”
Graduating from Calvin with a heart for the poor, Bas said he and Lynn didn’t think that vision would lead to working “out of an office in the States.” And the temptation to be discouraged at the enormity of global need is another challenge. Currently, MTI has teams in Kenya and Uganda responding to disasters and others in Honduras, Sri Lanka, Liberia, Cameroon, Vietnam and Peru teaching medical and life-saving skills to persons living in those countries.
“God is engaged in every country and in every difficult situation,” Bas said. “He has asked us to be faithful. It’s not up to us to fix everything. He didn’t call us to save the world; He did that. We’re to embrace the world, to show His love.”
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