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Mission visitors experience God and hope amid pain in Africa

By Mary Stamp

Karlene Arguinchona experienced God’s presence in Africa as she relished a clear starlit evening and a celebration of dancing and song that conveyed hope despite the day-to-day struggles of people, especially those widowed and orphaned by HIV/AIDS and the 2003 genocide of Anuak community and church leaders in Gambella, Ethiopia.

Mary Beth Baker
Mary Beth Baker and Karlene Arguinchona

Karlene, an emergency room doctor at Sacred Heart Medical Center traveled with Mary Beth Baker, who retired as technical director of virology at Pathology Medical Associates Laboratory (PAML) in 2006. 

In February, these two women with medical background joined Joann Dibble, a registered nurse at Deaconess Medical Center, and Sue Mushlitz and Alock Nyigow, who are leaders in the Anuak Meer (Love) Ministry of First Presbyterian Church in Spokane. 

Anuak Meer Ministry Team
Sue Mushlitz, Mary Beth Baker, Karlene Arguinchona, Joann Dibble and Alock Niygow

Karlene and Mary Beth shared their experiences as part of this group in a recent interview with The Fig Tree.

While they could have sent checks to add to the funds First Presbyterian sent last year to help widows start a business and to assist with relief after floods wiped out crops, they returned convinced that relationships are as important as money for both participants in this ministry.

“For the cost of the trip, we could have fed and cared for more orphans, but I’m convinced we also need to build and nurture our relationships by meeting in person,” said Mary Beth.

“We could send a check, but there’s nothing like establishing relationships, hearing their stories, seeing their homes, sharing meals with them,” Karlene said.

Although both are medical professionals, the two women brought different perspectives to their visit.

Growing up in Toronto, the daughter of a Catholic-reared father from India and a Presbyterian- background mother from Scotland, Karlene had little involvement in church life.  After graduating from the University of Washington Medical School in 1985, she came to Sacred Heart.  She and her husband, Henry, an infectious disease specialist, attended First Presbyterian Church for a while, and now have settled at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.

“Coming into the organized church, I find a power in the community and in the rhythm of the liturgy we follow for worship.  We have responsibility for each other as human beings.”

Mary Beth’s grandparents came to Montana at the turn of the century and as a third-generation Montanan, she grew up rooted in the American West.

She grew up in the Presbyterian Church in Whitefish, continuing in the Presbyterian Church through her struggles with questions of faith.

In 1962, she graduated from the University of Montana in Missoula in microbiology.  She met her husband, Dick, in a quantitative chemistry class.

She said that Dick’s 1974 sabbatical in Gothenburg, Sweden, taught them to value community and friendships more than material things.  It also widened their world view.

In 1979, he took a job with Hollister-Stier Laboratories and they moved to Spokane, where Mary Beth supervised the microbiology department in the Sacred Heart Laboratory until 1987. When Sacred Heart bought PAML, she left their microbiology department to establish a virology laboratory at PAML, where she worked until she retired in 2006.

She and Dick have been members of First Presbyterian since they first came to Spokane.  Mary Beth said she has explored her continuing questions of faith within the context of one denomination.

Both Karlene and Mary Beth have had an interest in Africa.

“I’ve been drawn to Africa since childhood from reading National Geographic in my grandmother’s attic.  I’ve also been drawn to other cultures and wanted to find a way to serve,” she said.  “It took 60 years for me to go to Africa.”

Karlene was involved with First Presbyterian when the church welcomed its first Anuak refugees.

About 10 years ago, they were among members who talked with those refugees about how to help the Anuak people in Gambella, Ethiopia. 

In 2006, Mary Beth first went to Atlanta, Ga., for a workshop on rapid diagnosis of HIV, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control.  In 2007, she went to Kampala, Uganda, for a CDC workshop on TB diagnosis.  She hopes to return to Africa to use this training.  She has also participated in First Presbyterian’s mission activities in Tijuana, Mexico, in Costa Rica and after Hurricane Katrina in Bay St. Louis, Miss.

Karlene’s global personal and professional life has taken her on vacations in Mexico and Europe, and to serve at clinics in Mexico and with a micro-enterprise program in Honduras.  Last November, she interviewed Iraqi refugees through a United Nations’ program in Syria.

Mary Beth has many years worked with the Anuak Meer Ministry, which is focusing on Anuak widows and orphans in Gambella.  Leaders of that ministry hope that peace initiatives underway in the Gambella region will encourage the Anuak, Nuer, Highlanders and government officials to move beyond tribal rivalries and work together for the good of all the people in Gambella.

The mission of the trip were to 1) learn how the funds First Presbyterian sent to start a restaurant and provide relief when floods wiped out crops had been used; 2) provide medical care for widows and orphans; 3) learn first-hand about the Minnesota-based Partners in Africa community-based child-sponsorship program, and 4) build relationships with the leaders of the East Gambella Bethel Synod.

“We thought all the funds for the micro-enterprise went for relief, but when we arrived church leaders took us to see they had used some of the money to put up a pole building with blue tarp walls for the restaurant micro-enterprise.

“We were the first paying guests,” Mary Beth said.

“In Gambella, I saw benefits of micro-enterprise programs for widows from the genocide and from AIDS,” said Karlene, who did medical screening at a temporary clinic set up in the shade provided by a shelter attached to the church. 

With help from the whole team, Karlene and Joann provided basic health screening, wound care and hygiene education.

“I saw diseases, like polio, that should have been eradicated,” she said.

In addition to the orphans, many women and children came and waited patiently to see the doctor.

 “It was like treating people in the ER here, where people come desperate and afraid, wanting to be fixed.  Some suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from losing family in the massacre or to a disease.  It’s not diagnosed.  It’s part of life,” she said.

“As a physician, I could only put a band-aid on, but I saw healing in a figurative and literal sense,” said Karlene.

In evaluating the orphan-sponsorship program, they found that the term, “orphan,” includes children who have lost one parent or live with extended family or another villager.

Karlene and Mary Beth said trust and relationships are important as they grow into the future of their mission partnership.

Mary Beth and Alock
Mary Beth Baker meets Alock Nyigow's mother.

We found we can’t just work with the Anuak but need to be open to all the hurting and needy people there,” Mary Beth said.

While Karlene and Joann established relationships with women and children who came to the clinic, Mary Beth and Sue visited homes of the community-based orphans and met with some of the widows to hear their plans for the future. 

Alock helped them all with translation of the language and culture, along with visiting her family.

Mary Beth saw how hard people there work to exist and saw the power of community and family to help people address their physical poverty and hardships.

She experienced hope in the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of relationships.

“The people live in such poverty and have so little in material goods, but they have greater focus on relationships.  Here in the United States our things can stand in the way of our relationships,” she said.

For information, call 599-6396 or visit, select Mission and Anuak Meer Ministry.

June 2008 © The Fig Tree - by Mary Stamp