Heathen medical missions
September 26, 2014 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I am an atheist, and a nurse, and I would like to possibly participate in a medical mission, but all my options seem to be religious in nature.

Not much else to add here. I just think it would be a little disingenuous of me to participate in a religion-based medical mission, but I would really like to do the work, if I can. I know there must be some organizations out there that are secular, but every time I find a seemingly viable candidate, somewhere buried in the fine print is a religious mandate. Help?
posted by doogan nash to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Doctors without Borders?
posted by vacapinta at 9:39 AM on September 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

Or more specific to nurses, Nurses Without Borders!
posted by zizzle at 9:46 AM on September 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

Seconding Doctors Without Borders.

Also, I'm not a fan of organized religion, and wouldn't like to align myself with one. That said, I'm not a fan of most other organizations either, and one or another will get a bad name for some reason at some point... a point you can't predict and likely also won't want on your record.

So what about the greater good? If you are willing to help with a medical mission (and don't have to make a declaration of faith), would it be more hurtful or more helpful in sum?

Tolerance goes both ways, as I see it. So if you can help people, the beliefs of those that make that possible are not your concern (again, unless you need to sign or say something that goes against your own beliefs).

Is there a certain religion that really bothers you? If so, don't do mission work for that type, but be aware that you could be of help if you could be tolerant of the beliefs of the founders/organizers.
posted by whoiam at 9:56 AM on September 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Partners in Health
posted by thefang at 10:19 AM on September 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

MSF and PIH are two of only a few major charities I support and that is because I have carefully analyzed their work and found it to live up to the billing. They are each amazing organizations doing things no one else will do in places few else will go. The bravery of those folks is breathtaking. And they really spend most of their income on providing frontline medical care in some of the most dangerous conditions imaginable to the most oppressed people in the world.

So a lay opinion here, but if you were to work for one of those organizations a lot of people like me would consider you a hero. And both are absolutely, completely, explicitly secular and humanist organizations. Their ranks include many people of faith -- faith being one of the few motivations that can drive people to do that kind of work under such desperate conditions, apparently, I think it's important to acknowledge that there are indeed a lot of faith-based organizations out there doing important stuff and deserving of praise for it. It is also true that many of the oppressed and victimized communities where you are needed most are communities of faith for whom religion is an important part of personal and/or community health or an important framework for understanding and valuing life. It might be valuable to experience that dimension of medicine in its own right -- in an anthropological way. (I'm an anthropologist, and despite personal atheism, I have found belief to be a complex and compelling dimension of the way communities I work with experience the very ideas of "health" and "illness" among other things.)

Where else you are needed, to my sure knowledge, is in Native America, where there are many options for actual employment but also for volunteer work in so many settings. The US Indian Health Service does in fact employ volunteer medical professionals. There are never enough and the needs are so deep. Depending on your specialty especially. I can report the utter lack of any local hospice care, for example, in many Native American communities, forcing elders and their families to choose between painful and poorly managed deaths at home with their families, or better managed deaths at medical facilities far from home, away from their families or with their families only at backbreaking expense. For family-centered and poor people, which is a lot of Native Americans, this is a terrible choice to have to make. I have sat at too many deathbeds of NA elders wishing there was someone there who knew how to administer professional palliative care. But in those situations the ability to at least openly engage in the expression of faith -- praying with families or the dying, especially -- would transform your relationship to the people you were there to help and your experience of the gift you were giving, just to suggest a different way to think about how much you actually need to avoid the religious dimension.

A final thought is that if you work in a major medical center, a lot of doctors (more so than nurses, for reasons of economic necessity -- nurses need to get paid twice what we currently pay them to freaking start off with) also do volunteer mission work and you might well want to inquire locally to get first hand information and possibly increase your effectiveness by partnering with people you already work with over time. Or if you don't, maybe inquire with the nursing director of a nearby medical center.

Thought I'd chime in as the secular son of a hospice nurse who works in places you'd be so very welcomed for your skills. Bravo to you for thinking about this. Nurses are heros even when they aren't working for free. You're doubling down.
posted by spitbull at 10:50 AM on September 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

I created an account just for this question. Yes, I think Doctors Without Borders or Operation Smile are your best choices.

I live in a country that receives many many missionaries (medical, construction, proselytizing etc.) and I would really discourage anyone from participating in one. I know they think they're doing good and they're probably not doing too much harm, but the money they spend on plane tickets, hotels, transportation would be much better used had they just sent it to a local organization, hospital, orphanage. I know they want to help, but even in this very poor, developing country, we have excellent doctors, nurses, construction people, teachers, etc. and the "help" these missionaries bring isn't sustainable at all.

Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and Operation Smile are more stringent as to what kind of volunteers they accept and send them to place where they are actually needed.
posted by Lingasol at 10:56 AM on September 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm not a nurse (yet) but I will be next spring, and I'm also very interested in this. I have been compiling a list of organizations that take volunteers or employees overseas. I haven't vetted any of these and some I am not sure if they take US volunteers but you could check. Some might have a religious basis but I try to stay away from that as well.

- http://www.internationalmedicalcorps.org.uk/
- http://www.nationalnursesunited.org/
- http://www.pih.org/
- http://www.worktheworld.com/tanzania-dar-es-salaam/nursing-internships
- VSO also takes healthcare volunteers abroad and I know they do take US citizens (http://www.vso.org.uk/volunteer/opportunities/health/nurses)

I don't know if you are looking exclusively for volunteer work, but Peace Corps and the state department also hire nurses/nurse practitioners to work overseas caring for the people they place abroad.
posted by queens86 at 10:57 AM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Physicians for Peace
posted by sephira at 11:12 AM on September 26, 2014

Wasn't there some scandal about a Operation Smile recently? Maybe someone can elaborate on this, but I recall an FPP about making people cook meals during the interview to get a job or something slimy like that.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:46 AM on September 26, 2014

Operation Smile job interview FPP.
posted by jaguar at 11:53 AM on September 26, 2014

Seconding Peace Corps! Health officer link.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:12 PM on September 26, 2014

I"ve known two people who worked with Concern America and I have a very favorable impression. They do long term work in the communities they serve in, building up local infrastructure and training while also meeting immediate health needs. One of the main critiques of MSF is they sort of fly in and act like superheros and then leave. Concern has a very different model that is about long-term community engagement and health infratructure building. Their budgets are way smaller thean PHI (which is also great) and MSF, but on the other hand, you might have more programatic influence in a smaller program.
posted by latkes at 3:20 PM on September 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

One of my friends works for MSF (anaesthetist) - she had an amazing time working in some fantastic places (Palestine, S America and I think Indonesia or somewhere like that) and as a secular muslim woman she would absolutely have mentioned any negative religious slant. There were lots of different nationalities and religions working in her teams.
posted by tinkletown at 3:31 PM on September 26, 2014

Beyond the aforementioned ideas, there are almost certainly opportunities in your vicinity. When I lived in Minnesota, there were at least 2 medical groups I knew of that went to Peru and another country, 2-4 times a years. They were both affiliated with a religious mission (most are), but unless you're going with a church Youth Group, people really don't care. The 2 of I knew of were Minnesota Doctors for the Poor (based out of Mankato), and Llama (an acronym for something). Both were for about 1-2 week trips, and performed exactly as you describe. Honestly, I'd just ask people you know locally if they've heard of any such thing.
posted by jmd82 at 6:20 PM on September 26, 2014

Curamericas, if you'd like to work with women.
posted by chainsofreedom at 4:45 AM on September 27, 2014

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