Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Beyond religion to faithful action. Philanthropist Mark Gerson and his wife Rabbi Erica Gerson have announced the establishment of an annual $500,000 L’Chaim (“To Life”) Prize to be presented for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service – the largest ever such award for clinical patient care. The concept of the prize stems from a special friendship between the Gersons and Dr. Jon Fielder, a Christian missionary living in Kenya.

Mark and Jon met in college where their friendship grew out of common love of history and ideas and, later, a shared concern for impoverished people in Africa. As Jon helped build HIV programs there, Gerson supplied, in Fielder’s words, “intellectual firepower and humbling generosity.” By 2010 they founded the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF) to support Africa’s faith-based healthcare workers which provides an astounding one-third of Africa’s medical care.  

Explaining why a practicing Jewish couple would advance essential healthcare led by Christians, Mark says “In nearly a decade I’ve seen limited resources in this community yield extraordinary return in lives saved and suffering relieved…The Jewish and Christian faiths share sanctity of life as the highest value.  My wife and I are gratified to honor the physicians most effectively employing resources to heal the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.”

The inaugural 2016 Gerson L’Chaim Prize has drawn several applications from long-term medical missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, in 12 countries. Projects submitted cover women’s health centers, African doctor training, cancer diagnosis and treatment, pediatric surgery training and care, heart surgery, mobile HIV care, malaria prevention, and ER centers. The selection committee combines current and former medical missionaries, African healthcare experts, and on-the-ground clinicians. The four finalists for the 2016 inaugural Gerson L’Chaim Prize will be announced in October. The prize itself will be awarded in November 2016. 

I recently had the opportunity to ask Mark and Jon about their friendship and their shared passion.

JWK:  How did this prize come about?
DR. JON FIELDER: African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF) has been supporting medical missionaries and mission hospitals since 2010.  Last year, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times highlighted the work of one of our partners, Dr. Tom Catena of the Nuba Mountains.  Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson, chairman and co-founder of AMHF, offered a matching challenge grant which was also featured by Kristof in the Times—the first target was $100,000, and the Gersons repeatedly raised the goal to $175,000 due to the overwhelming interest.  Following this generous response, Mark and Erica proposed the L’Chaim (“To Life”) Prize for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service to attract attention and support for the other “Doctor Catenas” doing life-saving medical work amidst challenging conditions in Africa.

MARK GERSON: Aristotle wrote of three kinds of friendship — the friendship of pleasure, the friendship of use and the friendship of the good.  Jon has, for 25 years, been for me the quintessential manifestation of the friendship of the good.  From when we met when we were 18 years old, he exemplified moral seriousness — in a commitment to deeply understand and fully devote himself to the principles and practices that would best enable service to the poor and the dispossessed.  This was inspiring to me, and to all others who came to know him well.  We have always been in close and constant contact, and he taught me — through learning about his work and the work of his colleagues — about the extraordinary amount of good that Christian medical missionaries in Africa do, and the lack of institutional and financial support they have in any relation to the benefits they bring to the poorest people in the world.  He is the best kind of friend, and it has been an honor and a privilege to extend that friendship into a partnership in service of the Christian medical missionaries in Africa who do so much for the poor, under such difficult conditions that require unimaginable sacrifice.  The Torah commands us (36 times!) to devote ourselves to the stranger and Jon and his colleagues in the Christian medical missionary world have provided us and others involved with the African Mission Healthcare Foundation with the opportunity to do this so effectively.

We live in a great age, perhaps the Golden Era, of Jewish-Christian fellowship, partnership and affection.  May it last forever!  This friendship — often rooted in the Christian interpretation of and emphasis on Genesis 12:3, and reflected in their love of Torah and of the state of Israel — has been an institutional and religious inspiration just as Jon has been a personal and religious inspiration.  These Christian medical missionaries — through their service to the poor — live and serve at the right hand of God, and we (as Jews, and the same would apply to people of all faiths) are so fortunate to be able to partner with them in their sacred work.
JWK:  Why the particular focus on Christian missionary service?
JF:I have been a medical missionary serving in Kenya and Malawi since 2002.  Medical missionaries provide much of the quality day-to-day, on-the-ground clinical care and medical education, especially in rural settings.  Mission clinics provide about a third of health care in sub-Saharan Africa.  Unfortunately, over time, support for and interest in the work of medical missionaries has declined, even in churches.  Yet the health problems are not going away.  AMHF is trying to close this resource gap so that these qualified and committed servants can assist as many people as possible.
JWK: Can you talk about your friendship and the values that unite Christians and, Jews as  well as, really, all people of goodwill?
MG: What drew me to Jon’s work?  The Torah instructs us (36 times!) to be devoted to the stranger.  Jon and the work of Christian medical missionaries have given us the opportunity to do so with extraordinary effectiveness — as measured by the ROI of a dollar contributed to the Christian mission sector.  There are so many examples of this.  A few are as follows.  And it is important to emphasize that the stunning paucity of doctors (and what they need) in Africa means that without this kind of support the patients in the vicinity would not receive the treatment they need.  There is no one and nowhere else to go to.
JWK: Specifically, where does the money go?
MG: We support a clinic in Malawi that treats malaria for $8 (a) case.
We support a clinic in Malawi that treats HIV patients for $75 (a) year — with so many examples of this enabling mothers to survive and, given today’s medicines, thrive to be able to raise their children.
We support a clinic in Tanzania that for under a thousand dollars enables severely deformed legs and feet, often caused by the fluorine in the water along the Rift Valley, to be treated.  Many of these children have, before the surgery, never walked a step in comfort.  This means that we can enable them to walk normally and comfortably for less than $20 (a) year of doing so.
 We support a program in Uganda that for $3k each, trains nurses — each of whom will see 80,000+ patients throughout her career.
I just got back from Tanzania.  I saw a patient being treated with an X-Ray machine that looked like it was from my childhood.  That was right: it has been there since 1984, and the film was being dried outside.  A modern X-Ray machine costs $65,000.  We know how long it can last — and at a price of well under $3 (per) X-Ray.
We support a clinic in South Sudan — there are 72,000 patient visits (infections, leprosy, TB, malnutrition, maternity, other) — for $6 (per) visit.
JWK: How are we doing in the fight against AIDS in Kenya and other parts of Africa?

JF: African countries have made tremendous strides against HIV and AIDS, in large part because of the America’s PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).  Twelve million people in sub-Saharan Africa are on life-saving HIV medications.  Controlling the virus in the body means people are less infectious, which in turns means fewer new infections.  The prevalence rates amongst those aged 15 to 49 years peaked at 5.8% in 2000 and has since dropped to 4.5%; however, in some countries of east and Southern Africa the rates are still very high, ranging between 10% to 25%.  Thanks to effective interventions, mother-to-child transmission of the virus has reduced dramatically, meaning fewer pediatric infections.

 Despite this progress, Africa—particularly East an Southern Africa—still bear a very heavy burden of the virus.  South Africa, with nearly six million infections, has the largest epidemic in the world.  Kenya has the fourth largest.  Today, of every 30 people who die in the world, one will be a Kenyan and one will be a Malawian, despite the fact that these countries only have a tiny fraction of the world population.
As with other areas of health care, mission hospitals have been leading HIV treatment and training centers.  AMHF sponsors Kenya’s largest hands-on clinical training program in Kenya at three mission hospitals.  We also support one of the largest HIV clinics in Malawi.
JWK: How can people go about nominating a group or organization involved in outstanding missionary work?

Applications for 2015 are closed.  We plan to call for applications again during the Spring of 2017.  Any long-term medical missionary involved in delivering day-to-day clinical care in Africa may apply.  The applicant describes his or her work and proposed uses of the funds.  After a committee selects the winner from a group of four finalists, the resources are awarded in his or her honor to the missionary’s African host institution to accomplish the proposed projects.

JWK: What are your hopes for what the $500,000 can help achieve?

MG: We know that the $500,000 will fund work like that (I’ve) described — with an enormous number of lives being saved and pain ameliorated by a Christian medical missionary selected by such a distinguished panel for his/her capability to deploy it with maximum effectiveness.  And we hope that the Prize will galvanize attention around the genuinely awesome work that Christian medical missionaries in general and the winner in particular do — as literally every dollar will significantly help provide needed healthcare to someone who otherwise would not receive it.  

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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