Ask people around Bangalore, India, what a Christian looks like and many would describe Dr. Rebekah Naylor, the Southern Baptist missionary surgeon who has labored at Bangalore Baptist Hospital for the past thirty years.
Some have seen Dr. Naylor, the cool, precise, professional medical doctor who has performed countless surgeries and other medical procedures. She has saved lives, delivered babies, and relieved suffering for thousands of people over the years.
But others know her through her soft-spoken but persistent sharing of the gospel, her training and encouragement of Indian Baptists in how to witness and plant churches. In this role she has helped bring eternal life to thousands of people and relieved the spiritual suffering known by many here who fear Hinduism's vengeful gods.
For Naylor, the missionary calling and the drive to become physician were one calling.
"I experienced a call to missions specifically when I was thirteen years old," she says. "God spoke to me very clearly about personal involvement in foreign missions service," she says. That calling combined with her interest in medicine.
"My ambition in medicine was basically to use it as an avenue to share my faith in Jesus Christ," she says, summing up in her typically precise way a vision for her life she pursued with steadfast devotion over the following decades. Already she had plowed new ground; few women became physicians, much less surgeons, in the 1960s.
By the time she arrived in India as newly-appointed missionary in 1974, she had managed to get through university, medical school, and related training. From a comfortable home in Fort Worth, Texas, the medical and missionary newbie found herself stepping through India's poor who slept on sidewalks for want of homes.
Bare Field Beginning
She arrived to Bangalore Baptist Hospital when it had been open for just six months. The building sat then on a bare, fifteen-acre site outside the city. Anxious though she was, the Indian staff and the twelve patients present welcomed the American warmly.
"The foreign doctors were supposed to know something more than others, so they came hoping that they would find excellent care. They did find excellent care, but they also found people who really cared about them," she says.
As years passed, the city grew out to surround the hospital compound and the hospital also grew, from eighty beds to 160. The hospital began to help educate doctors and train Indians to become X-ray and lab technicians.
Today, the hospital delivers 1,500 babies a year (average of about four a day), treats more than 100,000 patients a year and impacts five times that many for the gospel.
Naylor served in several key roles at the hospital, including administrator, coming to be accepted more as family than foreign staffer. She also became honorary "auntie" to hundreds and hundreds of Indian young people and children.
From its inception the hospital maintained pastoral ministry and outreach. "Its reason to exist was to tell people about Jesus Christ," Naylor says.
Today, Indian Baptists point to a map of Bangalore that is dotted with Baptist churches, most the result of the hospital's outreach. When workers went to one community a couple of miles from the hospital years ago, there were no Christians and no churches. Within a year there were twenty baptized believers. Today, Trinity Baptist Church is a thriving congregation that has started eighteen other churches and is working in many other communities to start more.
When a man died at Baptist Hospital some years ago, the staff presented the man's wife and family a Bible. Though they grieved, they began reading this strange book they had never seen before.
It was only years later that the hospital staff learned the family had turned to Christ and that all the children had become ministers.
Naylor has a treasury of such stories.
One family she ministered to was that of Mutes Khan, a Muslim social worker and community leader. Naylor got to know the Khan family when his first wife developed breast cancer. After his wife died and he remarried, Naylor delivered his new son.
As Baptist Hospital was looking to extend its medical care to villages outside Bangalore, Khan was wanting someone else to take over a small medical clinic he had developed. Because he had come to know and trust the hospital through Naylor, he donated the clinic to the hospital in 2003.
Although Khan remains Muslim, he has heard the gospel from Naylor and works to maintain good relations between the two faiths. That's important in India, where militant Hindus, Indian Muslims, and Christians have often clashed in recent years.
A New Vision
Despite a career most missionaries and physicians would envy, in recent years Naylor has realized that even the many churches started through the hospital's ministry will never be enough to reach all of India. In Karnataka state alone, 52 million people represent 300 language/cultural groups. Missionaries have learned that when a group begins to respond to the gospel and start new churches, the growth stays within the group and only rarely crosses into another.
To reach the lost people in this one state, Christians must deliver the gospel in 300 different languages and in 33,000 villages, towns, and cities linked by few roads.
"I think this gives you just a small picture of one part of India as to how difficult it is and challenging it is to access all these different communities and people groups and languages and to communicate effectively," Naylor says.
Beyond the people group divisions, she says, India's social castes create still more barriers. "It is difficult for a person of one caste to reach into another, but I firmly believe that this can happen," she says.
Her experience has made Naylor into a cheerleader for the whole nation and its peoples. "When we think of all of India, our vision is that we would like to see at least 1,000 workers come into India," she says. Southern Baptist workers have identified fifty mega cities (with populations over 1 million) and 1,100 unreached people groups in South Asia, most in India.
"In order to engage them with the gospel, I think it's evident that many, many, many workers are needed," she pleads.
India's millions are open to the gospel, Naylor insists, and they constitute an open door.
"They are waiting to hear. They are ready to respond."
Mike Creswell was an overseas correspondent for the International Mission Board.