Physical therapist, journalist help lead new generation of discipleship
Pastor & writer
Oliver Haumann remembers wondering why so many influential and wealthy Cameroonians visited his patient Jawro after the man’s stroke.
Jawro eventually returned home because Cameroonian medical staff and Oliver, a physical therapist and Converge global worker, had finished his treatment.
Oliver and his wife, Karissa, would visit the man’s neighborhood to continue Jawro’s care. Then they realized Jawro was one of the most important political figures in his traditional culture.
“Everybody in the neighborhood knows us because we came to take care of their ruler,” Oliver explained.
As Oliver continued to help Jawro recover, the physical therapist also treated one of Jawro’s wives, who had a stroke and had similar health issues. Meanwhile, Karissa built relationships with Jawro’s wives and family. Karissa shared Jesus with women in the family.
“That was a real door opener for us into the whole neighborhood,” added Karissa.
She was born and raised in Cameroon, where her parents planted churches. She left for college to study theology, Bible and journalism but returned to Cameroon.
Karissa wants to help Muslims know Christ and empower locals as leaders to trust and obey the Lord of all creation. As she visited with women in Jawro’s village, God worked in the life of a woman related to Jawro’s wife.
“She’s in that camp of people who believe Jesus is the only way,” Karissa said of Jawro’s relative.
“That relationship encapsulates why physical therapy is a good way of building long-term relationships.”
Timothy Fanfon, supervisor of physical therapy services for the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services, worked with Oliver. He knows the Haumanns often discreetly helped impoverished people with food, money and other items. But, he said they never wanted attention for their compassion or the Bible studies they organized for adults and children.
“I observed how he came so close to people, prayed for many patients and their families and made several follow-up trips to homes,” Fanfon said. “Whenever the opportunity came up, he would speak the word of God.”
Offering physical therapy and spiritual transformation
Oliver came to Cameroon because, for most of his life, he wanted to be a physical therapist in Africa. So he applied to many organizations to be a physical therapist to some of the continent’s 1.3 billion people.
The continent’s spirituality includes Christianity, Islam and often a blend of folk religions mixed with Christianity or Islam. Moreover, Karissa said many people have a fatalistic view of their life, that circumstances are determined and therefore unchangeable.
Most missions organizations told Haumann they didn’t need physical therapists on the continent. However, Converge was open for Oliver to join the movement of 1700 churches and about 200 global workers.
So, Oliver arrived in Cameroon in 2003 and began working at a clinic. Over the next 18 years, until they left the country in 2021, Oliver worked to train and support nurses and physical therapists who could holistically care for their neighbors.
Therefore, the clinic he worked at offered the kind of care he now trains Cameroonian physical therapy students to provide. Oliver’s role has shifted from training future physical therapists in person to training them remotely from Germany due to safety concerns in Cameroon. He and Fanfon developed and established a bachelor of physical therapy training program at the CBC Baptist Institute of Health Sciences.
Over time, Oliver saw God use physical therapy to heal bodies and improve families and communities. So, he knows continuing to train indigenous physical therapists is a gospel strategy.
“Our goal is to not only train students who know the whole science of physical therapy,” he explained. “We are trying to train our physical therapy students for medicine that is as holistic as possible. That is the health Cameroonians need.”
Oliver explained that physical therapists can spend extended time with patients, while medical doctors or nurses may have less time for holistic care.
“You can interact with people in their actual needs,” he said. “It’s actually about who they are as a person, their needs, the goals they set themselves and then making sure their everyday life is changed by what we do with them.”
Journalism generates a gospel witness, education on fundamental life needs
Karissa sought the same ends, working in Bible translation projects and journalism since 2010. She collaborated and supported Cameroonians who worked with her at a small FM radio station. Together, the staff produced good programs in the local language.
“My heart was to train these Cameroonians to have some basic journalism skills to make programs in their languages,” she said. “We’re there to proclaim. But how do we do that in a way that engages the hearts of our Muslim listeners?”
That radio station continues under the leadership and skill of the local people.
“It was really important to us that we had trained people to take over our jobs,” she added.
Through them, the radio station offers the gospel and programs on farming, educational shows and compelling personal stories like that of a young boy born with a club foot.
Making Christ relevant in everyday life
Every Tuesday, Oliver’s hospital would host club foot clinics. Nobody knows why babies are born with club feet. Still, the disability is a source of isolation for the child, plus spiritual confusion, shame and fear for the adults.
However, Oliver’s team of medical staff was able to help one family with a child born with a club foot. At first, the family tried to hide the baby from the medical staff because of shame about the disability. They wouldn’t even name the boy for fear of attaching to the child, then losing him.
Oliver and the medical staff earned the family’s trust and began treating the club foot. The treatment is not that complicated, and the family saw weekly progress. When they saw the plaster cast on the foot improved his condition every week, Oliver said the family gradually began to warm up to the boy.
“Finally, they gave him a name and, in the end, even the father was very happy, carrying his firstborn son around,” Oliver said.
Without physical therapy, Oliver noted, he wouldn’t have had the same influence and relationship with the parents and relatives of the boy. But, as they saw their boy’s health improve, they also became more attentive to hearing about Oliver’s faith in Christ and the messages of Scripture.
He had the opportunity to share from John 9, a passage where someone asks Christ who sinned to cause a man to be born blind.
“I had time to share the gospel with them,” Oliver said. “This child is a way for God to be glorified and for the family to receive blessing.”
Cameroon has a favored history but a present fraught with challenges
The nation where the Haumanns lived until 2021 is the size of California. There are more Christians than Muslims, and climates from thornbush savannas to tropical rainforests.
Most people in Cameroon are farmers who live off of the harvests of their small fields. Many foods, including coffee and chocolate, are exported from Cameroon.
“For many, many years, Cameroon has been a peaceful country where it was relatively easy to come and do ministry and have a long-term career and really invest in people,” Oliver said.
Yet civil war and terrorism have destabilized the country so much in the last few years that many global workers have left the country.
“It’s not really a place where it’s easy to have a long-term vision,” he added.
Since the 1980s, Converge has had a long-range plan. It has been working in the country to create a gospel movement among least-reached peoples. Converge partners with the Cameroon Baptist Convention, which manages 10 hospitals and 50 health centers offering care, including physical therapy.
In addition, Oliver now works from Stuttgart, Germany, to train the next generation of Cameroonians in physical therapy. The Haumanns’ work is reaping both spiritual and societal benefits in Cameroon.
“There are so many places where missionaries can’t go anymore,” Oliver said. “But we can train Cameroonians to be professionals and share the gospel with people they interact with.”
The Haumanns joined the Africa Impact Team with John and Karen Ames so they could continue their ministry amid changes in Cameroon.
“That’s a really good fit for us,” Karissa explained. “The impact teams are working with national leaders and national churches to strengthen and build up the workers who are already there.”
Related: Africa Impact teams make Christ known beyond the horizon of established gospel ministries.
Although the Haumanns loved doing direct service among the Cameroonians and may do it again, they submitted to what the Lord has allowed for the country at this time. So, they’re choosing flexibility and embracing a new strategy for ministry in a chaotic moment.
“Right now, the most effective ministry is to empower and strengthen the local church to do this ministry themselves,” she said.
Oliver added that Cameroon’s unreached people groups are in areas where missionaries can’t go.
“This is why we need to find creative approaches,” Karissa said about reaching six unreached, unengaged people groups in northern Cameroon. “We’ve got to change our strategy and think about how we can train professionals with a mission instead of professional missionaries. Professionals can get into places where professional missionaries cannot.”
Karissa and Oliver are committed to the discipleship of professionals, believing that Cameroonians who can read the Scriptures, teach the word and lead local churches will be a powerful force in helping more people follow Christ.
While Karissa worked on Scripture translation projects, she saw people disengaging during the sermon because they didn’t have the Bible in their heart language. Cameroonians would worship during the singing but needed help understanding God’s word.
We’ve got to change our strategy and think about how we can train professionals with a mission instead of professional missionaries. Professionals can get into places where a professional missionary cannot.
“When people did have the opportunity through small group Bible study to read and engage with Scripture, they could really understand what a difference that made,” she said.
There are strong churches in Cameroon made of believers who honor Christ’s command to make disciples who obey him and are baptized. Karissa and Oliver attended such a church, even while staying in the background, so the local people could serve according to their gifts and faith.
Related: How do our brothers and sisters in Christ desire help with discipleship?
Although current challenges have forced global workers out of Cameroon, locals’ faith is the fruit of decades of work by past missionaries. That’s why there’s cause for hope: The strategy of making Christ known among unreached, unengaged people groups continues because the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing through new approaches.
God is at work through the upheaval, as demonstrated in the faith of a woman in Jawro’s extended family. Likewise, trained professionals like the Haumanns bring Christ with them everywhere they go. So, they create spiritual opportunities.
That’s how a woman embraced Christ as Lord through visits from Oliver and Karissa. They went to help a Muslim man of cultural power recover from his injuries. His stroke, prompting medical care from Christians, brought the people of God into a community where many did not know the Son.
Then, the Haumanns could share the gospel while relationships around physical health developed.
“You can see why physical therapy is so important to break all these barriers and make Christ relevant to everyday people in their life,” Oliver said.
Converge is asking God for a gospel movement among every least-reached people group – in our generation. Learn how we are playing a role in accomplishing the Great Commission and how you can be involved.
Ben Greene, Pastor & writer
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.Additional articles by Ben Greene
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