The Gerson L’Chaim Prize

AMHF’s Chairman Mark Gerson and Rabbi Erica Gerson announce a new $500,000 award for Outstanding Christian Medical Missionary Service.

Loving the stranger” is one of the most important values of Judaism. Showing goodwill to the alien in our midst is commanded 36 times in the Torah. And it is just as clear how this responsibility should be discharged. In Deuteronomy 5:33, we are told to “Walk in God’s Ways.” And ten verses later, instructions are provided: “For the Lord your God…shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Africa may be a continent composed completely of strangers to us. It is geographically distant, it tends to surface in the media only in times of catastrophe and recedes as quickly. And there is, relative to other regions, less educational and commercial exchange between the West and sub-Saharan Africa.

So we might not focus on the fact that, according to one estimate, more than 50 million Africans are in need of surgery today — with this extraordinary number of people at risk of death or debilitation from problems that have been easily solvable in the West for generations: broken bones, complicated pregnancies, clubfoot, hernias, cataracts, burn scars. We might not realize that only 20% of African women who need a C-section get one, or that birth injuries which result from obstructed labor can be repaired for a few hundred dollars.

This problem is not at all limited to surgery. Access to even basic health services is inadequate, as the accompanying chart demonstrates. Most developed and developing countries — including Russia, Greece, Israel, the United States, Iceland, Portugal, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Finland, Mongolia, Lebanon, and Spain — have a doctor for every 200–400 people. And then there is sub-Saharan Africa. Malawi, Tanzania and Sierra Leone have a single doctor for every 30–50,000 people. Other countries in the region face similarly dire shortages, especially in rural areas.

The consequence of this scarcity is clear. If a child falls and breaks a bone, if a woman is having difficulty in pregnancy or childbirth, if a baby is born with a physical deformity, if a young adult is coughing blood from TB, if a parent is wasting from AIDS — they are unlikely to to see a doctor quickly or at all, and even less likely to see a specialist. The human suffering, the physical pain and the psychological devastation, not to mention the educational and economic side effects — it’s staggering. Imagine not being able to help a child with a curable condition!

Facts of Life and Death

But all is not lost and hope exists, in part because of a group of people who are devoting their lives to the stranger, the sick, and the impoverished. These people are leaving their friends and their non-nuclear families behind for long periods (save for short, intermittent visits home), forsaking the comforts of the West (from dependable electricity to professional advancement to physical safety to retirement security) and immersing themselves in entirely new languages and cultures in order to live their love for the stranger.

The exact numbers are not known, but there are likely fewer than 1,000 long-term Christian medical missionaries serving in Africa — doctors and nurses who sacrifice to provide medical services for everything from AIDS to accidents. Learning from countless different and specific examples about their giving to serve the stranger — and how they do so with such extraordinary effectiveness — is simply (to utilize an otherwise overused word) inspiring, and a stunning example of what it means to live one’s faith through loving the stranger.

Gerson L’Chaim Prize Announcement

We learned about the Christian medical missionary community through our great friend Dr. Jon Fielder, who graduated from the Johns Hopkins medical residency program and determined that his skills as a physician were (because of numbers like those mentioned above) deeply needed in Africa. A devout Christian (who had taken a year off from medical school to volunteer in Calcutta with Mother Theresa), Jon built his career serving the poor in Kenya and Malawi. He was instrumental in expanding one of the largest and most respected HIV treatment programs in Kenya and built two large satellite clinics so that patients could more easily access care. Almost 5,000 HIV-infected individuals now use these facilities. Dr. Fielder also began the largest HIV clinical training program in Kenya, which has now reached over 2,000 health providers caring for hundreds of thousands of patients. In Malawi, Jon initiated an HIV community support program, a TB clinic, and a hospital ward for the sickest patients.

Challenges facing modern African mission hospitals

African Mission Healthcare Foundation is based on Jon’s insight that Christian medical missionaries are doing so much of the valuable health work in Africa — precisely because they spend most of their time, day-in and day-out, providing on-the-ground medical care, immersed in the local culture, language, and institution. The larger world learned something about such efforts when medical missionaries were stricken with Ebola in West Africa. When these health workers leave, for whatever period of time, the people they serve receive less medical treatment (as there are few others to cover in their absence) — and so they stay, and consequently cannot develop the financial relationships essential to grow or even sustain their efforts.

AMHF seeks to be the financial partner of Christian medical missionaries throughout Africa, and provide them with the resources to expand health services without which so many millions of people would not receive quality care.

AMHF supports a clinic near Lake Malawi which treats 14,000 cases of malaria every year — for $8 a piece. Near another lake, this one in Kenya, half a million dollars — less than a liver transplant in the US — was enough to provide the clinic infrastructure for nearly a quarter million patient visits over the ensuing decade. A neonatal intensive care unit in Tanzania can save a sick newborn’s life for $800 — or less than $25 per year of future life.

Also in Kenya, a little over $100 will correct clubfoot and relieve a child of a lifetime of disability where most still make their living through physical labor. In general, only a few hundred to a thousand dollars is needed to address problems ranging from burn scars to broken legs to cervical cancer. Recently AMHF sponsored a team which performed 500 cataract surgeries in South Sudan, the world’s newest and one of its least developed nations — restoring sight at a cost of just $35 per eye.

AMHF has sponsored 15 African nuns to become health workers at a cost of several thousand dollars each. The nuns remain in difficult rural areas, each seeing about 80,000 patients over the course of her career. Higher level investments are required to train African surgeons. One hundred thousand dollars now will yield 10–15,000 career operations.

Christian medical missionaries are the unsung and unheralded heroes of humanity — with inconsistent and insufficient support and without the public recognition that would elicit the resources to help them serve the poorest people in the world. The (hopefully!) change in that circumstance started last year, when New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote a magnificent column with an accompanying web video profile of one of the doctors we support: Dr. Tom Catena, who is the only physician for more than 500,000 people in the war-torn Nuba Mountains of Sudan. At the end of 2015, we announced a match of $100,000 for funds raised to support Tom. Kristof wrote about the match, and the $100,000 challenge was met quickly (with gifts from Gentiles and Jews, from a US Senator to retirees, from all over the world). We continually increased the match, and it was met at every step.

The funds are having a impact: training an entire cohort of medical workers to assist Dr. Catena, including seven physician assistants, a lab technician, a doctor; medications, salaries and supplies enough to run the hospital for two whole months, during which time 7,000 patients are seen and more than 150 surgeries performed; supplies for thousands of refugees driven from their homes by fighting; and anesthesia equipment for safer surgeries.

This response reminded us of the great Jewish truth: “the deeds of the righteous are always done immediately” — for any delay between thought and action are an instance when one might become distracted or forgetful. This experience also taught us that when presented with the opportunity to meaningfully love the stranger — as with Nick Kristof’s profile of Tom Catena — people react with speed and generosity.

So with that background, we had the idea to create the Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson L’Chaim Prize. L’Chaim means “to life” — and it is this gift that the Christian medical missionaries serving in Africa provide to so many with remarkable effectiveness.

To learn about the work of Christian medical missionaries is to enlarge the understanding of what a single human being can accomplish.

These efforts inspire the moral imagination into realizing just how much good can be done with whatever resources one can commit to their work. We confront what it means to live one’s faith through loving the stranger. We have never seen entrepreneurs who deliver as much return on investment as the Christian medical missionaries whose work and clinics AMHF supports.

The Talmud famously says that whoever saves a life — it is as though he has saved an entire world. This truth is made manifest in the work of Christian medical missionaries. When Jon or Tom, or another medical missionary, or one of their African colleagues, or a health worker trained by AMHF, can help a mother with AIDS, several children will have grown up with a parent rather than alone on the streets — and that benefit will be experienced for generations.

Through the Gerson L’Chaim Prize, we are excited to be a part of these efforts by supporting Christian medical missionaries who are devoting their lives to loving the stranger in the most profound and meaningful fashion — and are genuinely humbled to be affiliated with people who are walking in God’s ways so faithfully. We hope and pray that this award will galvanize both attention and support around the work of Christian medical missionaries in general, and the work of the finalists and winner in particular — with results like that which AMHF generated to assist Dr. Catena last year.

The inaugural L’Chaim Prize drew 26 applications from long-term medical missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, in 12 countries. A doctor-couple from Zambia are the only physicians for a region of 300,000. Another missionary’s decades-long efforts have virtually eradicated several infectious diseases from the area. A surgeon in East Africa wants to expand access to life-saving cardiac procedures for the tens of thousands afflicted with rheumatic heart disease. Another desires to increase access to reconstructive surgery for those suffering from burns and deformities.

Projects submitted cover women’s health centers, African doctor training, cancer diagnosis and treatment, pediatric surgery training and care, mobile HIV care, malaria prevention, and ER centers.

The L’Chaim Prize selection committee, composed of experts in African clinical medicine, from within and outside of the Christian community, will select the winner from among four finalists. You may join us in supporting the life-saving work of the finalists and winner by donating through AMHF.

And so we are delighted to announce this award. We give it in gratitude — to Jon Fielder (who taught us, in so many ways, about Christian medical missionaries); to God (for the gift of life, and everything that comes from it); to all of those who made the matching grant to support Dr. Tom Catena such a success; and to the Christian medical missionaries throughout Africa. By coming along side these healers as financial partners — when they enable women to give birth safely, kids to walk, young African health professionals to receive training, HIV-infected adults to obtain treatment, and children to grow up with parents — these missionaries provide all of us with the opportunity to genuinely and meaningfully love the stranger. And for that we say, as deeply as we can, thank you.

Mark Gerson is the Chairman and Co-Founder of African Mission Healthcare Foundation. The full Prize background and policies are available here. Application for the 2016 Gerson L’Chaim Prize in now closed.

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