When Stephen and Heather moved from the church, where they’d worshipped for 21 years, to a large city-centre church, they discovered many people in the congregation had been missionaries themselves or had a heart for mission.
Then soon after joining, they attended the first New Word Alive conference in Wales and heard John Piper speak about ‘finishers’ – people in their mid-50s and beyond, who are empty-nesters, still fit and healthy, and who may be able to retire on a good pension.
“He challenged the audience to think about this and we both felt a tingle up our spines and knew that God was speaking to us,” recalls retired GP Stephen.
The couple’s daughter and son-in-law then invited them on a trip to East Africa, to support a mission partner in a hospital, where there was also a hospice.
“The founder of the hospice was very keen to meet Stephen knowing he’d an interest in palliative care,” says Heather.
At the time, Stephen was studying for a distance learning Diploma in Palliative Medicine with Cardiff University, which he subsequently took on to a Masters.
“Little did we know that the hospice founder was already lining us up to help with the rollout of a teaching programme in the area, so we subsequently went for three months at the beginning of 2010,” says Stephen.
A couple of years later, Stephen was working part-time in two hospices, when he got chatting with a colleague, who was excited to learn that not only did the couple have experience of palliative care training in Africa, but that Heather, a former administrator in Christian education, spoke fluent French!
This was the start of the couple’s ministry to equip French-speaking African health care professionals with the skills and confidence to start affordable and appropriate palliative care in their countries.
Today, the couple regularly travel within both East and West Africa, to work with others to improve palliative care services and the production and safe distribution of morphine for pain relief.
“There’s also intentional provision within palliative care for spiritual care and we’re excited by the prospect of helping local Christians to develop their own skills in communication and care, as they come alongside people in the community who are nearing the end of life,” explains Heather.
“It’s also very satisfying to help in a small way in the development of national cancer plans and to see local health professionals begin to train their colleagues within their own settings and culture.
“Each visit confirms to us how important it is for Christians to be involved in this type of care, to bring the light of Christ to those working in this setting, as well as, of course, to those at the end of life.”
However, no matter your experience, there are always challenges to overcome when you’re in your mid-60s.
“We’ve sometimes asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing here?’!” admits Heather. “Then we reflect on a morning visiting patients with colleagues who are providing care without access to the medicines they need to adequately treat their patients’ pain… or we feel moved when after a five-day training with health professionals, we receive the following feedback from a colleague on skills they’ve acquired:
‘I can assess the palliative care patients in our facility’
‘I know how to give bad news’
‘I am not afraid of death any more.’
“It’s a privilege and deeply satisfying to be serving with a supportive SIM team around us of all ages and a number of nationalities and it’s great as a couple to be using the gifts and life experience God has given us together in our retirement,” adds Stephen.
“Even when it’s so hot and humid and everyday life is full of challenges. Even when everything is done so differently in a different culture and in another language. Even when we miss family and friends back home so much, we realise we are in the right place.”
By Kerry Allan
- For the couple’ work to develop a training hub in palliative care will help local health professionals train colleagues throughout West Africa.
- Give thanks for the progress Stephen and Heather have made
- Give thanks that SIM values experience, maturity and spiritual insight and that age is no barrier when you’re following God’s path.