The warmth of her spirit is almost tangible, and she instantly feels like your mother. That is probably because Lori has mothered more than 40 babies.
Lori and her husband Bill have been church-planting missionaries in central Papua New Guinea for over 25 years. But it was Lori’s work at the Goroka Baptist Bible College medical clinic that gave birth to her unique baby ministry.
Lori is a natural-born caregiver who cannot help but help more. Her clinic treats more than 2,000 patients a month, but when she discovered that some babies needed more care than she could offer during her clinic hours, Lori — unaware that God was showing her a unique new ministry to reach families — began to care for these children in her own home.
Over the last 20 years, Lori has taken in 36 sick babies and successfully nursed all but three back to health before returning them to a loving family. Some of the babies Lori cared for were abandoned or orphaned, but most simply had health issues that couldn’t be managed safely in their home village. Regardless of the circumstance, each child and its family can testify to Lori’s loving care.
“This ministry and these babies are an extension of my heart,” Lori said.
When a baby comes to stay with the Smiths, Lori and Bill provide all of their care, food, and clothing at no cost to the family. However, the families are asked to visit the baby at least once a week, giving them an opportunity to get to know their child and giving the Smiths an opportunity to pray with and minister to them.
At around six-to-nine months old, when the baby is eating well on solid foods and using a sippy cup, they are transitioned to their permanent home. But Lori and Bill continue to check-up on the child, and they continue to cultivate the relationship and the spiritual seeds they planted with the family. Over the years, many of these seeds of have taken root — as it did with the mother of a baby named Moses.
“If I’m honest, my favorite baby is the one I am holding, but Moses and his mother hold a special place in my heart,” Lori said.
Moses came into Lori and Bill’s care after his mother, Serah, developed a serious breast infection that inhibited her milk production and caused Moses to become malnourished. He was starving, emaciated, and his lungs were tired from crying.
Moses needed to be bottle-fed, but that requires relentless attention to cleanliness that is hard to accomplish in a village setting. Most babies who are bottle-fed in villages end up with diarrhea, and many die from dehydration. To ensure Moses’ bottles were sanitary and safe, he came to stay with the Smiths when he was one month old.
During the next seven months, Moses’ parents diligently visited him each week. They watched their son grow strong and healthy — and even chubby — under the Smiths’ loving care, and they listened as the Smiths shared the root of that love: Jesus Christ. Slowly, God began to work in Serah’s heart, and as she studied the Bible with Lori, Serah felt the need to put Christ in the center of her life.
“I had grown up in a charismatic church and was a ‘Christian’ person in practice, but I did not know Jesus as my savior,” Serah said.
One day while sitting with Lori, Serah bowed her head in prayer and put her trust in Jesus. Now, Serah, her husband, and Moses attend a church started by Smiths’ but now led by national believer, and recently, Moses’ uncle also put his trust in Christ at the Goroka Baptist Bible College’s youth camp.
“Seeing them all dressed up on their way to church is a blessing of amazing magnitude,” Lori said.
Sadly, not all stories have the same happy ending. At about the same time that Moses came into their lives, another baby — a charming little girl named Esta — had one of the greatest impacts on the Smiths’ ministry and on Lori’s heart.
Esta’s mother came to the clinic for prenatal care in the last two months of her pregnancy, so Lori was unable to do a full anatomy ultrasound of the baby to look for any issues. When it came time for Esta to be born, Lori was surprised to discover a huge mass on the baby’s lower back was impeding her delivery. With some intervention, Esta finally entered the world, and Lori was able to see a mass the size of a large papaya on her tailbone.
With Esta’s abnormal appearance, her village did not see a child in need of medical care; they saw something to be feared and destroyed. The people of PNG continue to be ruled by animism — a belief that the spirits of their ancestors inhabit the world around them, controlling good and evil. They believe good fortune and good health are the result of pleased spirits, but bad health and tumors are the result of angry spirits. They claimed Esta was afflicted by sorcery and would bring a curse on their village. They threatened the life of her mother and father if Esta came into the village, so Lori and Bill brought their 32nd baby into their home.
“She was the happiest, sweetest baby, with a killer smile that still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it,” said Lori. “I loved her so very much.”
Esta did not just have a deformation; she had a Sacral Coccygeal Teratoma, a very rare and very serious issue. This type of tumor grows quickly and becomes malignant rapidly. Removal was urgent, but that is not an easy thing in PNG. The island nation is marked by steep mountains and thick jungles that make travel difficult and the march of progress slow. More than 80 percent of the country’s population lives in rural areas with limited access to basic healthcare.
Lori feverishly looked for a way to get Esta the life-saving surgery she needed. God closed the door for international care as it took too long to get hospital approvals, so the Smiths took her to the best pediatric surgeon in PNG, in the coastal town of Lae. Time was racing and the cancer was coming.
In Lae, the only pediatric cardiac monitor in their surgical theaters had broken, and the surgeon would not operate without it. It would take weeks for a new one to come, so the surgeon recommended the Smiths go back to Goroka. In Goroka, the waiting list was long, but a surgeon let them pay him privately so they could have surgery immediately.
“We would have paid anything, so the several thousand was not even a concern,” said Lori. “We wrote the check.”
The hospital in Goroka did not have a cardiac monitor either so they spent six hours doing the surgery with only a tiny finger oximeter to monitor baby Esta during the long procedure. But God guided the surgeon’s expert hands, and Esta barely lost any blood.
During the weeks of recovery that followed, Lori stayed with her day and night, sleeping on the dirty hospital floors near her bed. The hospital staff and other patients marveled at this woman who loved a child so deeply even though it wasn’t her own.
It was a long recovery, but the threat on Esta’s life finally began to fade. It seemed like she was in the clear until Esta’s and Moses’ mothers came for a visit that changed all their lives.
The women inadvertently brought the Rotavirus to the babies. Moses managed to overcome the virus’ effect on his stomach, but the infection totally shutdown Esta’s intestines and vital organs. Lori admitted Esta at the hospital and tried everything to save her, but she died in Lori’s arms.
“I’ll never forget that amazingly brilliant smile as she saw the face of Jesus,” said Lori. “I mourned deeply and I still mourn for my baby. It ripped my heart out to prepare her body and place her in the tiny wooden coffin box. The nails that closed that box felt like they were being pounded into my heart.”
Not a day goes by that Lori doesn’t think of Esta, whose impact was felt long after her short life. Because of Esta and the deep love Lori had for her, the doctors, nurses and staff at the local hospital know who Lori is. They immediately respond to her and her patients’ needs because they know she is the white woman who loves their babies like her own.
“Each time a new baby comes to us, my brain knows the babies are not mine, but my heart forgets during the months of caring for them,” Lori said. “The hurt of saying goodbye and releasing them from my heart is more painful than words could express, but the eternal fruit is undeniable. The sacrifice of tears is worth it.”
Through this baby ministry, the Smiths have been given an opportunity to care for God’s children, while lovingly ministering to each family and exhibiting Christ’s love to their entire community. It has opened doors for the gospel and many families have been saved through this ministry. Most babies have at least one parent come to Christ, and several families now go to one of Bill and Lori’s church plants. In addition, three church plants and one Bible study have been started as a result of this ministry.
“God has used this ministry in huge ways,” said Lori. “We never could have come up with this idea on our own. This unique church-planting tool was not taught to us in Bible school. God orchestrated it just for us.”