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Honduran missionary becomes urban missionary in Spokane

Once a missionary in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Honduras, Ruth Palnick continues to work with Mission to the Americas.  Now she’s an urban missionary in Spokane.

As one of 300 missionaries supported by Mission to the Americas, a program of the Conservative Baptist Association in Denver, Colo., Ruth serves two days a week as a Hospice of Spokane chaplain, two days as a volunteer at the Women’s Hearth and one day a week speaking and leading retreats and workshops.

Ruth Palnick

Ruth Palnick

Mission to the Americas appoints people “to do what God wants them to do,” Ruth said, telling of finding her niche “outside the box on the front lines of specialized ministries, working beside people” at Tegucigalpa and Roatan in Honduras, in Phoenix and in Spokane.

Believing that God called her to Spokane, where she knew only one person, Ruth’s ministry was full within three weeks of arriving.

At Hospice and the Women’s Hearth, Ruth’s ministry is simply to be with people, to converse with and befriend them.

A member of Hillyard Baptist, she describes herself as an evangelist called to follow Jesus by reaching out to people.

In her work one-to-one with women at the Women’s Hearth, she gives spiritual care, prays with women and leads a knitting and crocheting class. 

Ruth began by teaching these skills on Fridays with six women.  Now the class involves 60 women with 25 usually coming each week.  Sitting in a circle knitting or crocheting is a natural way to initiate conversations.

“Women who come to the Women’s Hearth have many needs.  They love to talk, share and be listened to,” she said.  “The knitting class always needs more volunteers to befriend them.”

For the classes, she relies on donations of knitting needles, yarn, unfinished pieces or funds to buy the needles and yarn.  Sometimes yarn shops donate supplies.  

“We work with what we have.  The women usually make multicolored objects, because they may not have enough yarn in one color.  Necessity breeds creativity,” Ruth said.

A mentally ill woman watched the group knit for 18 months.  One day, she asked if she could learn to crochet.  She was unstoppable once she learned.  Her outlook changed when she sat in the circle and talked with other women.

“Homeless people are usually on the receiving end, but women at the hearth may knit a prayer shawl for a woman with cancer, or make scarves and caps to give away,” she said. 

Ruth said her upbringing in a low-income family of an American Baptist pastor in Salem, Ore., helped her identify with people on the “hard roads of life.” 

“I could not do what I do on my own.  God is the foundation of my life,” she said.

After graduating from Seattle Pacific University in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she was a nurse for 11 years and served on the state certification team in Olympia for five years.

In 1986, she went to Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, earning a master’s degree in 1989 in intercultural ministry—a combination of cultural anthropology and theology.

During her last year of seminary, she lived with a family and worked in a hospital in a poor ghetto in the Dominican Republic.  She helped an ophthalmologist with cataract surgery.

In December 1989, she went to Costa Rica to study Spanish for a year.

The next eight years, she lived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, helping a Honduran doctor run a hospital for people with AIDS in the red-light district, surrounded by 60 brothels.  She was also nurse and chaplain for the clinic and hospice in a village 25 miles from the city.

Early on in the city, when she saw five transvestite prostitutes wearing miniskirts and earrings, she told God it was “a big mistake” for her to be there, because she would have a hard time loving them.  

She asked that God love them through her.  Patients included business people as well as street people, because the clinic was the only place dispensing drugs to treat HIV. 

At first, one businessman was suspicious of the street people.  Even though he was rich, no one else would treat him.  He had no place else to go. 

The doctor put him with an outspoken dying man who loved God, and they became friends.

In Honduras, Ruth also hosted short-term teams from various denominations, visiting and staying in communities, buying and preparing food with local women and helping with local projects.

By 1996, the AIDS clinic was staffed by Honduran nurses, so Ruth was sent to Roatan, an island off the Honduran Coast, to replace a nurse at the clinic who needed to care for her mother.

“When Mission to the Americas’ missionaries train local people to run the programs, the missionaries leave,” she said.

Ruth trained staff and nurses at Roatan for two years until Hurricane Mitch hit.  Although it killed 14,000 Hondurans, no one on Roatan died.  She drove a truck full of people to the other side of the island to weather the storm.  The clinic survived.

Because of hurricane damage and because Ruth’s rheumatoid arthritis began to make it difficult for her to do nursing, another mission crew was sent, and she came home to live in Phoenix.  

There, she continued to work with Mission to the Americas as a Hospice chaplain, serving many Hispanic patients.

After Ruth, who has lived with diabetes for 35 years, learned in 2002 that she also had Parkinson’s disease, her mother commented: “Three strikes and you’re still not out.”

Ruth has also followed the advice of a friend who said, “Let God teach you how to use having Parkinson’s.” 

Missing the Northwest and seeking a dry climate because of her arthritis, she moved in September 2004 to Spokane, where she is “letting God use my Parkinson’s,” serving as president of Spokane’s Parkinson’s Resource Center.

When a woman at the Women’s Hearth said she couldn’t knit, because her hands were too shaky, Ruth told her to watch her knit. 

“My hands were shaking with Parkinson’s,” said Ruth.

As a hospice chaplain, she finds that as she helps dying people face the end of life and reconcile with God and their families, people often ask, “Why me?”

“I wish I had an answer, but I believe God is with us through suffering and pain,” she said.

Ruth also directs Tremble Clefs, a 15-member choir of people with Parkinson’s.  They sing in nursing homes.  Singing, she said, helps loosen their stiff facial muscles and vocal cords.

 In retreats and workshops she leads for church groups, Ruth also deals with why God allows suffering and what people can learn from it.

 “Having a handful of chronic diseases—arthritis, diabetes and Parkinson’s—helps me understand others who experience hard times,” she said.  “God enables me to keep going.”

For information on this story, call 624-1454