At 7 a.m. one recent morning, a nurse and two church workers got out of a van at a morning market here to set up tables, plastic tools and two red canopies.
The trio, all wearing white polo shirts with red trim, set up their booth not to sell produce, meats or trinkets like nearby hawkers, but instead to conduct health screenings sponsored by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
This fulltime ministry, called Hope On Wheels, operates five days a week to offer basic health assessments and comfort to those who may be experiencing a severe health challenge. With obesity on the rise, some are surprised to learn they may have diabetes.
For not selling, the team does a brisk business. Dozens visited their booth over the next three hours as they offered tests for blood pressure, glucose and body mass index. Later, they’ll visit the homes of regular visitors to their booth, checking to see if guests have called their doctor about an issue or adjusted their diet as suggested.
This ministry, launched in February, is an ultra-local operation, one that was made possible by, literally, an extraordinary gift. A multi-million-dollar tithe contributed to the Adventist world church in 2007, dubbed “extraordinary tithe,” established funds to ramp up projects worldwide, especially in the 10/40 Window, a geographical rectangle in the eastern hemisphere between the 10 and 40 northern lines of latitude. It’s estimated that that more than 60 percent of the world’s population lives in the region, less than 2 percent of which is Christian.
Local church leaders here in Malaysia’s peninsula, located within the 10/40 Window, last year came up with the idea of a mobile medical ministry after hearing about similar initiatives in New York City and Sydney. But while some ministries outfit an entire bus and have patrons come on board, Hope On Wheels, operating out of a van, can get into smaller markets, malls and schools.
“We’re trying to create awareness of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” said Leong Fai, president of the Adventist Church’s Peninsular Malaysian Mission, home to about 5,200 Adventists.
The Adventist Church here is little known, even among those familiar with other Protestant denominations. The mission operates in Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital and the nation’s most populous city, with more than 1.2 million people.
Malaysia is an economically strong Southeast Asian nation, a major exporter of energy, palm oil and computer parts. Its official religion is Islam, which includes about 60 percent of the population. About 20 percent of citizens are Buddhist, and Christians make up less than 10 percent of the population.
“Before Hope On Wheels, many people didn’t know about the Adventist Church like they do in Penang,” Fai said of the island 200 miles to the north, home to Penang Adventist Hospital, which owns a bakery. “Adventist” brand bread is found in stores in Kuala Lumpur.
“If [people] know about the Adventist Church, it’s usually because of the bread,” said Sunny Tan, a pastor who serves on the Hope On Wheel’s team. “We’re trying every way we can to reach out to people,” the 30-year-old said.
The team will often coordinate with one of a handful of nearby Adventist churches to hold a monthly cooking demonstration. At markets, team members and volunteers will suggest people visit one of the cooking classes to learn how to make more healthful and appealing meals.
Tan said the team has operated here in the Puchong district for two months. They typically minister to a market once a week for three to six months, setting up at different locations five days a week. He said they sometimes encounter gang members extorting market sellers, but they leave his team alone when learning they are a charity.
When entering a new area, the team admits it’s not above employing some strategy. Tan said they once had a local pastor join them wearing non-descript clothes. Market customers, weary of the sharply dressed crew that can appear like so many direct marketing teams, wondered what they were selling. “They’re not selling anything,” the pastor said to assuage their skepticism. “Step in a get a free health screening.”
“I’ve even had my wife stand around holding our baby and doing the same thing,” Tan admitted.
The team began its planning last September, creating a logo and hiring a designer to detail their van. The inspiration for their name: Pizza Hut’s mobile kitchens.
“They had the popular slogan here, ‘hot on wheels,’ so we chose ‘Hope On Wheels’ because that’s what we offer,” said 24-year-old Christina Joseph, the team’s nurse.
Shortly before 8 a.m., the third member of the team, Bible worker Ronald Longgou, was fanning himself with his clipboard, the temperature already 84 degrees Fahrenheit, typical of the humid, tropical air near the equator. That’s when Sharon Pfeiffer, a 54-year-old Malay, came in for her second weekly visit. It’s not uncommon for people to visit the team’s booth up to six weeks in a row.
“I saw this last week and I liked the setup,” Pfeiffer said. “I was so impressed I called my friend,” she said, pointing to an older Chinese woman nearby.
Pfeiffer said her family has a history of strokes and she wants to learn to mitigate the possibility of having one herself.
At 10 a.m., the team dissembled the booth, packed up, and drove to a nearby home of a regular. The family, of Indian descent, is still grieving the loss of their 19-year-old daughter, who died two months ago from dengue fever. Still, they welcomed the team in with smiles.
Sitting on the couch, Tan joked with a boy at a nearby computer while Joseph, the nurse, met with the parents at the living room table across the room. “OK, auntie,” Joseph said as she applied a blood pressure monitor on the woman.
Nothing of religion was mentioned during the visit. If it ever does come up, it’s not until at least after half a dozen of visits.
“All these people, they never really expect us to come visit,” Joseph said. “But they are happy when we do.”
--visit the Hope On Wheels Facebook page at facebook.com/Hopeonwheels6012