Gratiela and Joel Sabangan

Gratiela and Joel Sabangan, MD, operate a private practice in Oklahoma. Dr. Sabangan is board-certified in pulmonary, sleep, and lifestyle medicine and Gratiela is the office manager. Their son Adam is a pre-med student at Weimar University.

A Mission Trip to My Homeland

in Summer 2022   |
Published on 07/01/2022   |
11 min | <<|>>

AMEN leader Steve Chang, DDS, and Alan Parker, DTh, from the department of religion at Southern Adventist University, announced plans for a medical-dental mission trip to Romania to care for refugees on one of the Outpost Centers International (OCI) Ukraine video updates. When I saw it, I felt a growing desire in my heart to go.

I was born in communist Romania at a time when people desiring political or religious freedom risked their lives to escape the clutches of tyranny. My parents were among those who fled, and a few weeks after their escape they held a bittersweet celebration to mark my second birthday by drinking a special juice. The only problem was, I wasn’t there. My refugee parents had left my three sisters and I in the care of our grandparents. God worked mightily and eventually we were allowed to join them as refugees in Italy and then in America.

Fast forward almost 50 years. Stories of fleeing refugees brought back vividly to mind my own family story. Only now the refugees were not fleeing from Romania but escaping into Romania to avoid the horrors of war and the attacks of another tyrant. Initially, up to 7,000 persons were arriving each day. Though the numbers are less now than at first, new refugees continue to arrive daily. Displaced and desperate, these individuals have found empathy and open doors in the surrounding countries, yet they continue to experience unimaginable challenges and loss.

My husband and I and our son decided to join the group of about 50 AMEN volunteers and 20 students from Southern Adventist University for the second half of a two-week mission trip to Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

The free clinic was set up outside under a tent on the grounds of a medical clinic owned by the local Seventh-day Adventist conference, while the pharmacy, stocked with donated medications, and the dental clinic, were housed in the basement.

My husband Joel, a pulmonologist and sleep specialist, was one of several physicians who provided medical care to the Ukrainian refugees. The dentists and hygienists on the team performed cleanings, extractions and fillings; they never lacked for patients and worked past the closing time each day. Others on the team, including myself, offered dietary, lifestyle, and mental counseling.

Hundreds came seeking medical and dental care and stood in line in thunderstorms or sunshine. Nurses and students registered and triaged each one and were instrumental in ensuring the flow was smooth and that each person saw the provider they needed. Translators were always in high demand. Sometimes two translators would be required: one to translate from English into Romanian, and another to translate from Romanian to Ukrainian or Russian. We even had some patients offer to come back after being treated to help translate. Everyone who came through the clinic was offered literature and prayer.

Repeatedly we heard the patients express deep appreciation for the care they received and not a few had tears rolling down their cheeks after the prayers ended. It was truly inspiring to meet so many Adventist health professionals and volunteers from many different backgrounds united with a common desire to serve. Regardless of our certifications, abilities, or education, there was something that each could do. “To all who shall serve Him He has appointed a work. He bids us interest ourselves in every case of suffering or need that shall come to our knowledge” (Christian Service, p.161).

The varied talents needed to successfully orchestrate this trip included the AMEN leaders who shared the need and the vision, organizers who planned the details, local church members who cooked, translated, and provided transportation, volunteers who enlisted, and many others who could not go but donated funds and prayed earnestly throughout our trip. Most importantly, it was God who gave to each their gifts and skills, provided divine appointments and wisdom to meet them, and shielded us from dangers both known and unknown.

At times while counseling I would pray for wisdom and God would bring to mind just what I should share to meet the need of the individual at that moment. “Put your talents into the work, ask God for wisdom, and it will be given you” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 146). We felt humbled that God would use us—frail, faulty human beings—to touch another person’s life and point them to Jesus. It does not require huge heroic acts in order to do that; it could be as simple as “speaking sympathizing words and doing kindly deeds” that we may let “the light of Christ shine to brighten the lives darkened by many shadows” (1 Selected Messages, p. 87).

The people we served on this trip have certainly had their lives darkened by shadows. We found them to be wide open for spiritual discussions and counsel. It strengthened my desire to grow stronger in my faith each day so that I can in turn assist others and offer them the balm that only the gospel can bring. It also reinforced the conviction that we need a better balance in our own work schedule at home to prevent burnout, so that our work, both in ministry and temporal affairs, at home or abroad, can be energetic, cheerful, and efficient, and we can represent Christ better.

This trip reminded us of the great needs and suffering that exist in the world. In my son’s words, “It’s valuable to be able to see firsthand the people affected by this crisis. Seeing individuals instead of just reading about the group as a whole gives you a greater desire to help them.”

Are you ever tempted to buy things you don’t need? I can tell you that going on a mission trip is an excellent motivator to reign in spending so that we can give more. “A cent seems like a trifle, but a hundred cents make a dollar, and rightly spent may be the means of saving a soul from death” (Christian Service, p. 290).

The connections we made with individuals, both Ukrainian and Romanian, will remain in our hearts forever. We had the opportunity to visit refugee centers during our time there and to offer consultations while other members of the group continued the clinic at our base. At the centers I made it a point to spend some time with the children. Many of these children and youth are separated from one or both of their parents, and some have even lost their parents. One of these visits happened to be on my birthday, and it was the highlight of my trip to be able to talk with them, teach them simple games, and deliver the small gifts and hand-signed cards we had brought for them with the help of patients, friends, and a group of VBS kids back home.

While in Romania, I celebrated my birthday, 48 years to the day after my refugee parents wept as they celebrated my second birthday without me. They had no rest in their newfound freedom until they secured our freedom as well.

Today Jesus is longing to be reunited with His children. Although He lives in the majesty and glory of heaven, His joy is not complete since His people are still subjected to the assaults of the worst tyrant of all. All heaven is focused on bringing salvation and freedom from sin to as many people as possible and reuniting the family on earth with the family in heaven. Is that my focus too?

Lord, forgive us for years of pursuing our own interests more than Yours, for allowing the love of the world to eclipse our faith and devotion. Help us to realign our priorities with Yours. Release us from the bondage of sin and selfishness and give us sacrificial hearts that are willing to spend and be spent for Your cause. Someday soon the redeemed from every nation will sit down for the supper of the Lamb and—what a thought!—the Lord will gird Himself and serve those He has redeemed with His own blood. With rejoicing He will once again partake of the fruit of the vine new with us. That is a celebration I definitely do not want to miss.

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