By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Debbie Woodard's stethoscope caught the beats and palpitations within the bodies of the people she was helping in India, but her own heart heard spiritual needs.
When Woodard, an obstetrician/gynecologist for Quincy Medical Group, her husband, Chris, and their three teenage children served an 11-week mission this winter at mobile medical clinics throughout Andhra Pradesh, India, they also sought to spread Christianity.
All five believe they left their hearts in India.
"Once you form that bond, it's incredibly hard to say goodbye," Debbie said. "You see all the things that you could help with if you stayed and all the things you could be a part of."
Chris, the youth pastor at Life Point Bible Church, believed that to meet the Indian people's spiritual needs, they needed to address their physical needs first.
The family funded the trip and teamed up with Care India, an organization that focuses on combating poverty and social injustice. The Woodards' mobile medical clinics cared for more than 1,000 people during their stay. Debbie deputized Chris as a nurse. He took blood pressures as she treated the crowds for diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV, malnutrition, upper respiratory problems and ear infections.
"Most of them have never seen a doctor," Debbie said.
Their daughters Savannah, 15, and Sierra, 13, manned the pharmacy. They frantically dug through the five bags of supplies from Blessing International as crowds clamored for care. As Indian people swarmed the girls, Chris panicked at first but leaned on his faith for support.
"If God's called us to mission work, one of the things that's no longer on the table is this obsessive American need to go toward safety," Chris said. "Biblically, we're supposed to go to those places that are not safe."
While the family had initially planned the trip as a medical mission, it evolved to focus on the spiritual. The family had ventured into a strong Hindu and Muslim population where only 3 percent of the faith-filled practiced Christianity. Savannah gave testimonies about how she had come to know Jesus Christ. Chris attended pastor conferences and baptized a dozen.
At night, the family stayed at a home for neglected girls, praying devotions with them and seeking to teach about love through simple acts of decency and respect.
"You show them the love of Christ in the way that you love them and care for them," Debbie said.
The humble meals cooked over open fires, the lack of running water and nonexistent electricity didn't bother the Woodard children. They learned to accept the death they saw within their work. The whole family mourned when a man died in a motorcycle accident shortly after his baptism. They prayed when another Indian man they worked with often tested positive for HIV.
"There's not this bubblegum, rainbows and lollipop world," Chris said. "We've seen people die in front of us."
The love of their work overshadowed the meager quality of life and emotional impact it could cause. However, the girls struggled with the community's attitude toward women.
The Care India staff pampered Cameron, Sierra's twin brother who handed out candy to the children and took many of the photos during the mission. They treated him as an equal but often ignored the two sisters.
"It was hard to watch them be less than," Chris said. "It was very difficult to watch a culture define them without knowing them."
Debbie had known what to expect. She had served in India during two shorter mission trips and had hoped to empower the women in the villages.
"Girls are considered a curse," Debbie said. "I'm drawn to that culture just to tell women that Jesus loves you and you are valuable."
Chris worked to push the image of empowered women. The message of equality took hold in a home for neglected boys. While initially reluctant, the young boys included the sisters in sports and conversation. Sierra's speed and athleticism earned her respect, while Savannah garnered their attention with her tae kwon do abilities.
"We may not be able to change India or Andhra Pradesh," Chris said, "but if we can change that perception for 60 boys, who's to say they can't change the state, the village or the nation."
Upon their return, the challenge for the Woodards shifted from fighting medical conditions and conveying religion in a third-world country to preaching those messages in their own communities.
"I've come back to a nice house and all these things that don't really matter," Sierra said. "It's been hard to come back. When we were there, I personally didn't miss anything."
The three teenagers have continued their classes at Quincy Junior High School. Debbie once again sees patients at Quincy Medical Group. Chris returned to his church. They've started the cycle of track meets, soccer games, homework and maintaining friendships.
"Coming back, it felt really dead," Cameron said. "Nobody has changed. Nobody is any different, but the hard part is that I'm not the same person."
As the Woodards long for India and its people, they've clung to one another. They no longer disperse throughout the house at night, instead spending free time enjoying one another's company. They talk about when they can return to Care India and pray about how long they'll stay.
"America's tough," Chris said. "It'll grab you, and it will grab you quick. But it's been over a month, and our draw to India has become greater each day we've been home."