After Daddy died, Mama attended a missions workshop in 1986 and learned about medical missions. She asked Janice Bingham, the speaker, if there was work to do for a grandmother. The answer came back, “Older people are very respected in the mission field.” She took a two week survey trip to Haiti to “test the waters” in Feb. 1987.
Martin Stephens Johnson was born out in the country, near Tompkinsville, Kentucky in a little place called Turkey Neck Bend on the Cumberland River. Daddy used to joke that she lived so far back that you had to swing in on a vine. She never dreamed she would travel to Haiti and Africa to use her nursing skills with God’s help to heal the sick and poor.
Her own words:
There were times I asked myself, ‘Martin, what are you doing here? You can’t handle this.” By the end of the day the answer was obvious. Christ was not there to touch and heal, but he had given me a talent and I could relieve some of the pain. I could touch them, let them know others cared, and tell them of God’s love through the gospel.
The good work I found being done [in Cap Haitian, Haiti] left me determined to go back for a longer stay. So in October, 1987, I was granted a six month leave of absence from my job [at the Weakley County Health Dept.] and returned to take up a life in a tropical climate with people speaking in a strange tongue.
A clinic sponsored by the African Christian Hospitals Foundation had been built in Cap Haitian, a city on the north side of the island of Haiti. Mother did not have funds to cover her travel and living expenses while in Haiti, so she wrote letters to many of the churches where Daddy had served as minister. She talked to friends and family to find other supporters, and was able to raise the funds she needed for Haiti.
At the time Mama moved to Haiti for six months, only one of her children had ever traveled outside of the US. Steve and his wife took Freed-Hardeman students nearly every summer to Scotland to teach Vacation Bible School in small churches. Many years later I went with her back to West Africa for a visit; it was then I realized she really stepped out in faith to make her journeys. She was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.
The work conditions were not easy. The director of the clinic, Jerry Myhan (now a teacher at Harding University) and Mama treated 60-75 patients a day. The days were unending, hot and muggy. Early mornings found the clinic crowded, some lying motionless on the concrete floors or benches. The sick were groaning, some with large sores or abscesses; dehydrated children and babies cried with fever or lay listless, unresponsive in their mothers’ arms.
Her first adventure soon after she arrived, in her own words.
My second week in Haiti, Jerry had planned an immunization clinic at the little village of Duty. The group from the clinic took all the necessary items for such a trip – always water and food. The plan was to immunize the children after worship service on Sunday.
The day was hot for everyone else, almost unbearable for me. The little building had a dirt floor, thatched roof, straw mats for the sides. It was decorated inside with banners of toilet paper from the ceiling.
The crowd was slim so we thought we would finish right away; we decided not to eat first but immunize right after worship.
But first, Debbie and I needed a restroom! We finally were able to make our wishes known. One of the Haitian guys told a lady. She motioned for us to follow her; we were taken to a mud hut next to the church building. She pointed us to one of the two rooms and directed us to a bucket! And that is how relief is spelled in Haiti.
We began immunizations expecting to be through in 30 minutes. The first lesson to learn in Haiti is to be flexible. The second lesson and the third and fourth lessons? Be flexible!
Mothers came from all directions bringing their children and babies. We gave 75-100 injections. By the time we finished we were so hot and tired, nobody wanted to eat.
So we loaded up, went back home and ate lunch about 2:30. I later told Jerry I neglected to inform him that my Sunday afternoons are always reserved for a nap! His reaction? Tough!
I am so thankful my mother lived for 66 years. She taught me so many things.
- her courage to leave a comfortable home to live and serve in Haiti
- her sense of humor throughout difficult circumstances
- her childhood experiences with outhouses and only 2 dresses
- her willingness to try new food, new forms of travel, new friendships