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Health Care to Soul Care in Ecuador: Betty Van Engen’s Career Spans Four Decades

May 13, 2020

Health Care to Soul Care in Ecuador: Betty Van Engen’s Career Spans Four Decades

May 13, 2020
Betty Van Engen, at right, helps pack up groceries and supplies to be delivered to people in Quito, Ecuador. On lockdown since mid-March, Ecuador has endured much loss of life to COVID-19.  Pictured left to right: Geoff Kooistra (HCJB), Jennifer Pinho (Alliance Academy International), Holly Haskins, Samuel Blanco (Pan de Vida), Juan Carlos Blanco (Pan de Vida), Betty Van Engen (HCJB), Pete Emery (Extreme Response)
Betty Van Engen, at right, helps pack up groceries and supplies to be delivered to people in Quito, Ecuador. On lockdown since mid-March, Ecuador has endured much loss of life to COVID-19. Pictured left to right: Geoff Kooistra (HCJB), Jennifer Pinho (Alliance Academy International), Holly Haskins, Samuel Blanco (Pan de Vida), Juan Carlos Blanco (Pan de Vida), Betty Van Engen (HCJB), Pete Emery (Extreme Response)

by Ralph Kurtenbach

She is behind a surgical mask, but stands a head taller than other volunteers helping prepare grocery bags for those who need food during a nationwide lockdown in Ecuador. She is recognizable to those who know her. Nearing retirement, Betty Van Engen could face a tough case of the dread COVID-19 should she contract it—a fact not lost on her. She is, after all, a missionary nurse.

Her volunteer work at Pan de Vida (Bread of Life) in Ecuador goes on nonetheless, not without risk but without thought to self. She hadn’t been a regular volunteer at the neighboring outreach to Quito’s poor, but when a lockdown was imposed, she saw a need. Able-bodied and willing, she takes the necessary precautions and goes to lend a hand.

If you’d mention to her that she’s no spring chicken, she’d receive it in good humor, agreeing she’s no longer a pollito (little chick). Soon enough the Spanish would begin to flow—flawlessly spoken as she learned it as a child of missionaries in Chiapas, Mexico— and before long she’d lapse into laughter. It is a contagious laugh so robust that her eyes water and she needs to catch her breath.

Other than teenage boarding school years followed by college in Illinois and a few career years in the Chicago suburbs, Van Engen has spent her life in Latin America. She has served with Reach Beyond for four decades, now on loan to HCJB-Ecuador.

“At the age of nine years old in a service when my father was preaching, I sensed God saying, ‘Someday you will be like your father.’” Van Engen recounted, adding that her involvement in Christian work continued as she matured. “Then in nursing school I was involved with two short-term mission assignments. During and after these experiences I sensed that God continued to affirm the message I received at the age of nine, saying, ‘I want you to serve me as a nurse giving back to others the great love that I have given you in your heart and life.’” 

 “When I joined World Radio Missionary Fellowship (Reach Beyond) in February 1980, I signed on for a three-year period,” Van Engen related. “As a young person, even that seemed very long. She requested the organization’s approval to visit family in the U.S. mid-term. “At the end of that three-year period, I realized God still had a place for me to serve here in Ecuador. So, I signed up for three more years, and that has repeated itself and now it is 40 years.”

Her earliest assignment was at Hospital Vozandes Quito (HVQ) in Ecuador. Asked about specific challenges, she recalled a period of relationship stress with work colleagues. Discouraged, she reached a point at which she thought of resigning her assignment. “One of my co-workers allowed me to share my struggles and gave me some valuable insight, and recommended I wait with my decision,” Van Engen said. “I found myself seeking help, and some months later things changed for the better.”

Coronavirus isn’t the first dangerous pathogen Van Engen has faced. Sometime after her decision to stay, she founded, with Reach Beyond’s Dr. Roy Ringenberg, an HIV-AIDS clinic. In 1990, the human immunodeficiency in Ecuador was still shrouded in mystery. Stigma surrounded its sufferers and their families.

“I have since come to believe that our enemy, the devil, was trying to get me to abandon my service in order to disrupt the upcoming important work God had prepared,” Van Engen said. “I am very grateful that God’s strength and the help of co-workers made it possible for me to persevere and progress into a new area of service.” She gave workshops, instructed on the counsel to give before a patient’s HIV test and gave seminars to physicians on the topic. Thirty years later, the infectious disease specialists at HVQ continue to attend to clients with HIV-AIDS, even though the clinic has since closed.

These days, Van Engen is working with Radio HCJB, having taken time a few years ago to earn a master’s degree in counseling from Wheaton College in Illinois. Listeners to the station (both online and on FM) call for appointments; others have been recommended by family or friends. 

“Some days are busier than others, but generally I have the counseling schedule full,” she said, adding that she normally has four 90-minute sessions per day. “Right now, with the COVID-19 lockdown, I come to the office (just across the street from the building I live in) and work via e-mail or make phone calls.”  

Additionally, Van Engen is mentoring with Reach Beyond’s program to help equip Latinos for missionary service abroad. “I mentor in the area of spiritual formation,” she said. “and on occasions I also help nurses or healthcare professionals with the course, Saline Solution, which is a program on how to share the good news of Jesus appropriately in the healthcare settings.” 

Van Engen finds that the greatest reward is hearing from those—sometimes years later— whom she has counseled. At times, a counselee has in turn shared with others what was given during a session that helped them grow in their relationship with God and accept Jesus into their heart. “They have gone on to grow and continue to follow Jesus and now help others,” she said. “I had two people do that in just the past few weeks.”