In 2010 a surprising new documentary appeared on the screen: The Adventists. From independent filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, director of such films as Albert Schweitzer: Called to Africa and BONHOEFFER, it explored the Adventist church’s contribution to the field of health. Now, Doblmeir has just released a sequel for broadcast on American public television. The Adventists 2 is an intriguing, inspiring, and well-rounded portrait of how faith educates, motivates, and transforms lives around the world. It more than justifies its focus on Adventists and their work, while its “outsiders’ take” on the faith makes for genuine insight rather than propaganda.
The sequel grew out of the response to his earlier film, and a desire to take a more global look at Adventist medical work. Though not himself an Adventist, Doblmeier aims to tell stories of “faith alive in the world today,” and in the Adventist church’s global outreach, he found compelling stories waiting to be told.
Noting how so many faith traditions, particularly the Bible, emphasize how we treat “the stranger,” for this film Doblmeier found “story after story of going out and meeting the stranger . . . And not just meeting them but actually holding them, healing them, and seeing within that person the presence of God.” America has become a nation of “300 million strangers,” he says, and with this film he hoped to speak to that.
The Adventists 2 opens with a montage of Adventist work around the world. It takes us first to Haiti, where the Adventist hospital in the capital of Port au Prince treated thousands in the wake of 2010’s cataclysmic earthquake. It compares the work of “first responders” arriving 24-48 hours after the quake with Hopital Adventiste d’Haiti treating the first victims within five minutes.
We’re introduced to Scott Nelson, a volunteer surgeon from California’s Loma Linda University Medical Center, who operated on injured patients night and day and stayed for six months after the earthquake. Nelson continues to return to Haiti every six months, performing up to 40 operations in a week’s time. We meet three young Haitian boys being treated for deformities affecting their ability to walk, with surgery footage that’s not for the squeamish.
In such an environment, the majority of patients cannot afford to pay. Richard Hart, President of Adventist Health International, explains one way they make ends meet. The hospital is expanding with an “upscale wing,” treating insurance patients, international charity workers, and other VIPs. “We can charge them considerably more than the other patients,” says Hart, “and use that income to subsidize the rest of the operations. It’s a Robin Hood sort of scheme, but it works very well in these hospitals.”
Noting the number of mission groups he sees visiting Haiti regularly, Hart ponders, “How do you convert short-term band-aid help to long-term sustainable development? That’s the challenge.” The narrator notes how the hospital is taking a long-term approach, expanding the orthopedic department, building a new rehab center, creating prosthetic program, and partnering with other organizations.
We next visit the Amazon river region in Brazil, where “the highways are the river”—and the river is residents’ bathtub, sink, and backyard. In such remote areas most have no access to healthcare, especially dentistry. Enter the Amazon Lifesavers ministry, which partners with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) to staff a fleet of a dozen boats providing healthcare to remote villages. Their work builds on the ministry of twentieth century Adventist missionaries Leo and Jessie Halliwell.
A nurse describes the value of treating children, who understand and apply what she teaches them more readily than adults, and go home to teach their families. We meet a sixteen-year-old girl, eleven weeks into her first pregnancy. When a nurse tells her the importance of a healthy diet during pregnancy, the girl says she doesn’t like fruits and vegetables. “Well you’re going to be a mother now,” the nurse responds, “and so your kid’s not going to like them, and they’re going to look at you . . .”
We visit the jungle city of Manaus, Brazil (population 2 million), home to Hospital Adventista de Manuas. It’s less than 20 miles from the jungle, the narration tells us, “yet it has state-of-the-art equipment and a staff of skilled technicians. A number of them volunteer for the boat project.”
The Adventists 2 reaches beyond Adventism for a broader perspective on faith-based medicine. Retired World Health Organization official Ted Karpf recounts that Buddhists established the first hospices. Amy Oden of Wesley Seminary describes the Christian roots of what would become modern medicine, of how Christian hospitality evolved into the first hospitals. Dana Robert of Boston University reflects how, a century ago, a third of medical missionaries were women, and their work elevated the status of women around the world.
A visit to Africa takes us to Malamulo Hospital in Malawi, and gives a new perspective on the cultural impact of missionaries. Today Malamulo (which has an adjacent medical school, the only one in the region) is largely staffed by national workers. Hospital CEO Edward Martin describes “trying to find a way of integrating healthcare into culture, because culture is a very real part. You don’t want to get rid of the culture, what you want to do is make sure that some of the healthcare practices that are introduced complement the culture in a way that produces healthy lives.”
A brief clip with celebrated Adventist physician Ben Carson reflects on the positive potential of medical outreach. Says Carson, “If you instill within the peoples of any nation not only the tools that they need to develop their intellect, but also a sense of humanity, and responsibility to their fellow man. . . you have truly educated them.” He describes the Adventist ethos of treating the body as a temple of God, for which church members take “personal responsibility.”
Perhaps the most revealing segment is on Sir Run Run Shaw Hospital in China. The hospital’s unique partnership is thanks to the legacy of 20th century Adventist missionary Harry Miller. Miller not only brought western medicine to China, he brought the health benefits of soy back home with him, developing soy milk to combat malnutrition.
Media mogul Sir Run Run Shaw’s mother was cared for by Miller, so when, in the 1990s, he donated money for a hospital, he looked to Adventists to lead it, partnering with Loma Linda Medical Center. Today the hospital combines Chinese traditional medicine, such as acupuncture and cupping, with modern scientific medicine. A doctor describes her use of herbs and other traditional methods alongside advanced technology like MRI machines. “There is no replacement for western medicine,” she says, “but it can work together with TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] for the best results.”
Gerald Winslow of LLUMC notes the compatibility between China’s tradition of whole person care and Adventism’s emphasis on treating body, mind, and spirit. The documentary notes the influence of Adventist pioneer and visionary Ellen White, who encouraged early missionaries to take the church’s health message global. Adventist academic Charles Scriven notes the tension between service and proselytizing, and how the church recognized the value in healing regardless of whether people joined the church.
In the final segment we travel with a bleary-eyed medical mission team to rural Dominican Republic to serve patients who never see physicians, including six-year-old Darling, who needed surgery to separate three fingers fused together on each hand. The volunteers prioritize what they can do on a short-term trip based on the patient’s age, how much follow-up they’d require, and how much their injury or condition affects their ability to work.
A doctor describes how the golden rule motivates them. “If I were in their shoes, riding their motorcycle, and needed something done, in a poor village, I hope somebody would come do it for me.”
In the DVD’s bonus features, Charles Scriven gets to the heart of the matter, how Adventism’s belief that the body and soul are “a single entity,” “a fundamental unity” shapes the church’s approach to health. Says Scriven, “The most sacred decisions and feelings that we have are not somehow located outside the body, or in some extraneous reality, they are bound up with the body, and this makes the body ever more sacred the more you think about it.”
Tompaul Wheeler is a writer and independent filmmaker who has created such documentaries as Leap of Faith: The Ultimate Workout Story. He is based in Nashville, Tennessee.
Read a Spectrum interview with Martin Doblmeier about The Adventists 2 here.