This episode will be available Friday, December 18.
Our final Give Love: Advent 2020 conversation is with Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman, United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries missionaries serving in Kathmandu, Nepal. Mark, a physician, and Deirdre, a nutritionist, care for patients at Patan Hospital and others through community outreach programs.
In this conversation, we talk about their life as a missionary couple, parenting, and how being fully present to patients, students, colleagues, and to God, helps them in their work of sharing the love of Jesus by caring for the physical needs of others.
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- Feeling called to ministry? We have resources to help you explore your call.
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This episode posted on December 18, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Today we conclude our Advent series of missionary conversations as part of the Give Love campaign in partnership with our friends at the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.
My guests today are Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman, a missionary couple serving in Kathmandu, Nepal. As a physician and dietician, they share their love for Jesus by tending to the bodies and the spirits of the people of Nepal.
Joe: Mark and Deirdre, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Deirdre: Thank you.
Mark: Nice to be here, Joe.
Joe: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Tell me about your ministries in Nepal.
Mark: We work as health care professionals here, Joe. So, I came first to Nepal a little more than 30 years ago as an internal medicine doctor. And then some years after that I met Deirdre…well, we actually met through our work because she’s a nutritionist. I needed some help in nutrition. And one thing led to another and now she’s still helping me in nutrition. And she’s been here for a little bit more than 20 years.
I work as a physician now in a place called Patan Hospital, and Deirdre works as a nutritionist both in the hospital and also in a community project.
Joe: Deirdre, tell me about the community project. That sounds interesting.
Deirdre: Yes, so I work with an NGO, or not for profit. And it’s a nutrition NGO, and their goal is to try and tackle malnutrition in women and children in Nepali communities. We do that, our mode of working is by going into particular communities, often rural communities, also urban nowadays, putting staff on the ground there, and working for 3-4 years in behavioral change and education and training, to help people look after their children better.
Joe: And Mark, and you’re also serving as a professor. Is that correct?
Mark: I guess so. I mean, they give me that title. I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t really change much what I do, Joe. So, in medicine if you have young doctors with you—with your right hand you’re taking care of patients, with your left hand you’re teaching the young doctors who are both your colleagues as well as your students. So, my role is both as a healthcare provider but also teacher of the doctors who’re with me.
Joe: Yeah, it sounds like a wonderful work that you get to do, to help train people who will continue the medical work that’s already happening there that you’ve been able to do for the last 30 years.
Mark: Well, I’ve done different things. I’ve done that for the last 4 years on this job. And before that I was in a different role, and before that I was in a completely different role. One of the blessings that I’ve had here has been, you know, God kind of opening another door; when one closes another opens. And not by our plan, but His plan, the next door that opens tends to have been in Nepal. So that’s why we stay here, one year after another and one decade after another; not by our own plans.
Joe: How did it start? You’re originally from Pennsylvania. And Deirdre, you’re originally from Ireland, correct?
Deirdre: That’s right, yes, from Dublin.
Joe: So how did you guys make that decision to wind up doing what you’re doing now?
Deirdre: Well, we made it separately, first of all. In some ways a little bit similar. Both of us had overseas experiences—short-term overseas experiences. Mark during college, and I—mainly once I started working I had a chance to do a short-term overseas missions. Mark’s was not mission work. It was just volunteer work. And that led both of us to wanting to go a bit further.
For Mark, he came here to do 3 month’s volunteer which extended and extended and extended. And for me I made a commitment to come for 3 years initially, having done very short programs before that. And then we met in that first 3 year period.
Both of us actually also got our feet wet in Africa, and certainly I never thought I would spend most of my life in Asia. That was the way God led. So both of us did short-term volunteer work in Africa first.
Joe: Wonderful. And then, as you said, you guys met and became a couple and got married. Are there specific challenges with being a married couple serving in ministry in this way?
Deirdre: You mean being married to an American?
Joe: Maybe that’s what I mean, yeah.
Mark: If you see a specific challenge to the situation you’re in, you’re also become compared to, like the other situations. So a married couple serving in Nepal together, you could compare that to a married couple living in the U.S. together. So, we don’t know that. But then we do know single people working in Nepal together.
For me, I did that for I guess, about 10-12 years. And I have to say it wasn’t gonna last. The 10-11 o’clock nights in the hospital, going home to your apartment, eating breakfast cereal for dinner, I wasn’t gonna sustain much longer on that routine. So, the big difference for me was the balance that being married brings to your life.
And a couple of years after we were married we had our first child. Our boy was born here in Nepal. Both of our boys have been brought up here in Nepal. So, yeah, we frequently have said, you know, we’re not really sure, you know, how we would cope in another country than Nepal.
I’m fairly sure it would be a much bigger challenge for us going back to Ireland or the U.S. then what we’re facing right now. The classic thing is that you’re sacrificing. But that’s not really our experience.
Joe: Yeah, I probably asked that backwards. I probably should have asked what’s the blessing, or what’s the advantage of being a married couple serving together? And you answered that really, really well.
You mentioned that you have 2 sons. How old are they?
Deirdre: So, we have an 18-year-old who, in the middle of this coronavirus pandemic left Nepal to go to the U.S. to start college in Pennsylvania. And we have a 16-year-old at home here with us, who is doing a very lonely, and long 10 months of online schooling.
Joe: Wow. That must be really difficult, the online schooling. I, too, have experienced kids going away to college. But not to another country. And that must be a challenge as well. And is he able to attend classes, or is he doing online in Pennsylvania as well?
Deirdre: He’s on campus, online.
We never would have thought of having to send him away on his own. We expected this summer to be doing home assignment and at least to settling there.
You have to get through the first question of are we going to leave him alone in college, first of all. We decided that it was better for our family to stay in Nepal. But we thought we would at least drop him off, and that didn’t work out. He set off on his own. First time he’s flown on his own despite many years of travel. And that was a huge step.
But we’ve also seen huge blessings in it. He’s done really well, covered by a lot of prayer and lot of support from different people. And it’s been so good for him to get out of lockdown and into something semi-normal even thought it’s online and to start grwoing his experience has really great. So we’re very thankful that a situation that looked very scary was actually really good for him.
Mark: When Deirdre says ‘get out of lockdown,’ in a sense he was in lockdown under us, too. I mean, that’s the main lockdown that he’s out from under. And he’s just…he’s just really thrived. I mean, we didn’t an idea that he would do so well away from us, and it’s made us reflect on our parenting a bit, in a good way and also in a corrective way. You know, he’s flourished out from under our umbrella.
Joe: It’s always good to hear when the kids take off and on their own and are doing well. So, congratulations. That’s a really good feeling.
I’ve heard both of you in your bios and stuff talk about how you see your medical work as an expression of God’s love for the people. Can you tell me a bit more about that? Like, how this is an expression of faith?
Deirdre: Well, I think one thing, and maybe some people tuning in may not fully appreciate, is we’re serving in Nepal—Nepal recently declared itself as a secular country, having been known as a Hindu kingdom for…since its inception. But it is still a very strong Hindu country where more than 90% of people are practicing Hindus, or a mix Hinduism and Buddhism.
There is a very small but very thriving church here. But the government would not allow people into this country under the guise of missionaries or church workers. And it’s not really possible for foreigners to be openly involved in church work. And it’s neither of our calling either. Both of us are health workers.
We feel you know, that God has a holistic view, a holistic desire for people’s wellbeing. And that includes physical wellbeing. It does not exclude spiritual wellbeing. But physical wellbeing is part of that and it’s our privilege to be able to work in that field, whether it’s in Nepal or America or Ireland. That’s our calling for both of us, is to work in health care. And this is where God has asked us to do it, or ‘led us to do it’ because as Mark implied, neither of us ever got a clear writing on the wall, ‘go to Nepal and serve here for 20 years.’ We just took one step after another.
Joe: The next thing, the next extension, the next… That’s right. That’s wonderful. And Deirdre, you talked somewhere about being a kind of ministry of presence, right? This just being here you hope is a witness to the community. Can you say more about that as well?
Deirdre: Yes. I think that maybe evolved a little bit over time. In the past, while it still is true today, I think was especially true in the past when the church in Nepal was more oppressed. Before I came, for decades before that, it was outright persecuted. I would say persecution is too strong a word now. But there…the church was oppressed for many years. It’s still difficult for churches to have legal recognition and registration here. For individual Christians it can be very difficult with their families and in their communities. And part of that ministry of presence was standing with the church in Nepal and saying that churches around the world know about you and want to stand with you in the difficult circumstances you exist in. So I think that was a big part to this.
The church is stronger here now. It’s more recognized, though it still struggles for legal recognition and Christians have to be somewhat careful about their activities and churches about how overt they are at times. But I think we also…both Mark and I also hope that through our service and presence here, as I guess every Christian in the world should be hoping, that even if we don’t open our mouths and say the words Jesus Christ, that something of his presence, is, by his grace, coming from our actions and our behavior.
Joe: Absolutely. Absolutely. I like talking about calls to work and using the gifts that we have to glorify God, that are not the typical, like, church gifts, right? Not being the preacher, not being the musician or whatever that we assume is like ‘oh, that’s a church gift.’ But using those other gifts to glorify God as well. I love having that conversation. So thank you for indulging me for a moment there.
Mark, I wanted to ask you, what’s the most exciting thing that’s happening in the hospital right now? Or what gets you energized about the things that are happening in your work?
Mark: The thing right now, of course, is COVID. That’s exciting in a sense for us having been here a long time. We’ve walked through a number of things with the Nepali people. We haven’t been experiencing to the extent they have because we have more money than the average person here. And if we get into trouble someone will take us back to the U.S. for healthcare. We’re insulated from their hardships.
Nevertheless, we have been here through a revolution, through an earthquake. And now, probably, you know, the most shaking of all…I mean, more shaking than an earthquake, really, is just this pandemic. It continues to shake. It doesn’t stop after a minute of an earthquake or after some months. Everybody’s lives are just shaken by this COVID thing.
So why should that be exciting or how can you do anything positive out of that, you may ask. But the thing is that to be here with the people whom you walk with for this long at a time of crisis, you just say to yourself, well, this is the right place to be. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world. And it’s a great privilege to serve beside people and to serve Nepali people who are coming in with this terrible disease.
Related to that is that I work with a team of young doctors, as I said, whom I teach. But they also teach me a lot. And the one thing, over the last 6 months, that has just been purely inspiring is seeing them be at the front line of the COVID response, perhaps just because the medicine is hierarchical. Perhaps also because COVID tends to take people at the older age. We have our younger guys who are kind more on the front line. And we older guys, you know, make rounds with them, supervise them. But it’s them who really run the COVID ward. So we have about 140 patients with COVID in the hospital at this point, 15 or 18 of them are in the ICU or the sickest ones.
So I guess just to come a long way back to your question, what’s exciting or what’s positive? It’s been the way, perhaps, a soldier will always remember who they’re in the trenches with, I’ll never forget this experience with these young doctors in 2020. And I hope it ends fairly soon. I hope I can say it’s just…you know, that slice of life.
Joe: Yeah, what a privilege to get to walk with these people through this difficult time. Absolutely. Deirdre, anything about in the community center or other places that it’s exciting, that’s happening? What gets you energized about your work?
Deirdre: Well, definitely the work I personally enjoy most is also in the hospital. It’s very one-on-one. Talking about people’s giftedness, some people have the vision and the drive for the much-longer-term work that community work takes. You know just over years to see changes in the communities. I personally very enjoyed the more acute one-on-one care as a dietitian in the hospital.
Some of the patients you get to meet and deal with. Sometimes the fulfillment of making a difference, and sometimes you don’t see the changes you hope, but it’s just very moving to get to be part of people’s lives and see what…I have to say, walk with them to see what they’re experiencing.
Joe: You both really seem to enjoy that connection, one-on-one, with the people around you. And that’s really exciting to hear.
Mark: The thing is, Joe, I mean, like you’re somebody who puts together stories, like you take our story or through us you take the story of somebody else. And you put it out there for mass consumption.
Well, if you’re taking care of patients in Patan Hospital and they’re coming in. You almost saw that so just really wild story. I mean, they didn’t just come from across the street by ambulance. They came through a number of steps, which maybe they were seen by another healthcare worker at a health post. Or maybe they went to a local healer. Maybe they spent huge amounts of their money in a private hospital. Finally they wind up in front of you. And so just being a part of that story is really an exciting thing, whether it’s COVID patients or non- COVID patients. I sometimes feel like we’re walking in a novel with some of these people.
Joe: Yeah, so many steps that led them to being in front of you, throughout all of their lives; not just their illness journey, but just through their entire lives that leads them to you. That’s remarkable. And wonderful that you take the time to kind of get to know what’s happening as best you can in their situations.
The question I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is how do you keep your spirits in shape?
Deirdre: For me, perhaps it’s quite an ordinary thing for a lot of people, but I think over the years I have really become more and more dependent on having a quiet time in the morning before the day gets going. It’s gone from being an aspiration to being something you try and do—you’ve ticked the first box of the day—yes, I did read my Bible. To being something that you really feel like you got off to a bad foot if you didn’t get to it.
We’re fortunate to live in a country where we have huge numbers of hours of sunshine all year ‘round. And I have a spot on our roof…we have flat roofs in the city here where I sit, and each morning can…many mornings enjoy the sunshine, the birdsong and have that quiet time that’s really essential to me.
And I’ve appreciated Mark’s support for that making it a habit. I’ll always remember when we…even when we had newborns and toddlers, he always…in the morning even though he was the one going in to work, he always made sure that I had space from the boys to have a quiet time before he left the house. That’s a habit that really pays back so much if you can work away at it.
Joe: Wonderful. Mark, anything you would add?
Mark: No. I don’t do anything spiritual, Joe. I just look after the kids. [laughter]
She already said that I’d forego all of that stuff.
When I think about it, I’m hearing Deirdre say it and I’m sifting through in my own mind, what are my important spiritual touchstones. I think there are the programmed ones, and then there are the non-programmed ones.
So the programmed ones are, basically quiet time in the morning, which sometimes gets squeezed by other things. But gets done in some way. We take time at the dinner table to read the Bible and pray together. And we pray before we go to bed with the boys between the two of us. And then we have a Bible study which has gone on by Zoom now, which now has people who have left Nepal. Like, it has people in Finland, Scotland, California, and then a few of us here in Nepal who are in this Bible study.
Joe: That’s cool.
Mark: And then, we’re part of the church, the Nepali Christian church here. And the best thing that I have for my spiritual growth in that programmed way is that once a month I do the sermon, which is really preaching to myself because you know, that lets me really dig into something and reflect on something hard for like a week, and then finally I come up with something that I taught myself. So those are the programmed things.
The un-programmed thing that’s happened, Joe, for me in the last…let’s say 3-4 years is that I have had much more of a sense of little nudges from God on my bike, in the hospital, when I’m walking. It’s usually when I’m not doing something programmed. It could be just something beautiful outside. But it’s usually something internal. And so I try to stop on those moments. So I try to actually stop what I’m doing and in a definitive way…. Other people don’t see me stop. You know, I frequently… I look around and I think, did anybody see that? But it always happens at a time when God doesn’t have anybody around me. So the un-programmed moments have been something I’ve really appreciated.
Joe: I love that. And I want to thank you for this time that you have given us. It’s… We’re talking across almost 12 hour time difference. It’s in the evening there. And so I’m just grateful for you taking this extra time to share with us about your ministry, about your work, and about the ways in which you see Jesus working in your lives. And thank you, thank you, thank you for your work and thank you for your time today.
Joe: That was Mark and Deirdre Zimmerman, a missionary couple serving in Kathmandu, Nepal as part of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.
To learn more about them and to support their work go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of our Give Love: Advent 2020 series. We’ve put links on the page where you learn more about Mark and Deirdre’s ministry and there’s a link to the Give Love campaign so you can support their work, or any missionary’s work with a donation.
Thanks for listening. I hope you’ve had a blessed Advent, will have a Merry Christmas, and are looking forward to a wonderful new year. I’ll be in 2021 with more conversations that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.