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Americares President and CEO Michael J. Nyenhuis leads a health-focused relief and development organization that saves lives and improves health for people affected by poverty or disaster.
Years ago, I sat at the bedside of a patient at a Christian mission hospital in the remote north of Côte d’Ivoire, in West Africa. He needed immediate treatment and had traveled for many hours to the hospital by foot, on the back of a motorbike and by other means. On the way, he had passed two government hospitals.
“Why did you pass by those other hospitals to come all the way here?” I asked.
“I knew they would care for me here,” I remember him saying.
Magdalene Gbatoe, Americares Liberia community liaison officer and registered nurse at our maternal and child health clinic in Zondo (left); Magdalene at Sunday service.
Care. As we continued our conversation, it was clear he meant that in two ways: first, that he would get the quality medical attention he needed; second, he understood that, at this faith-based hospital, he would be treated with respect and dignity by people who would care about him as a person.
When people of faith put that faith into practice serving others, great things happen. I have seen that over and over again as I have traveled through some of the most remote or troubled parts of the world, witnessing the work of people of faith, including health workers. In many places, if it were not for faith-based hospitals, clinics and volunteer medical teams, health care would not exist.
I am thinking about that this week as two of the world’s major religions, Christianity and Judaism, observe some of the most important days in their annual calendar. For Christians, like myself, this is Holy Week leading to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. My Jewish friends celebrate Passover beginning Friday.
At their best, religions teach us about selflessness — that we are not the center of everything. They call us to higher ideals that help us focus less on satisfying ourselves and more on serving others, in particular those who are hurting, left out or oppressed. The Christian scriptures include more than 2,000 verses on issues of poverty and justice. At the heart of the Jewish Passover celebration is the idea that we have a special obligation to care for the stranger among us. For Hindus, “Dana,” or giving to family, society and the world, is an essential part of one’s religious duties. One of the five pillars of Islam is to give to charity.
Americares responded to the massive earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015 and devastated the country and extensively damaged the health care system./Photo by Matthew McDermott
I recognize that when religion is wielded as an instrument of power, it can become a divisive and even destructive force. We have far too many examples of that in the historical record and even today. But religion is really the man-made institution we have wrapped around our expressions of faith in God and, therefore, is corruptible. Jesus himself railed against religious leaders and religious oppression.
Faith, however, isn’t about power. It is about laying oneself down. Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
It is that “love your neighbor as yourself” — in whatever form a religion teaches it — that powers the work of faith-based people to serve those who are in need in our communities and across the world. My organization works with government health systems, secular and faith-based organizations. Those motivated by their faith include groups like Faith in Practice and e3 Partnersthat organize medical missions to provide care for children and adults around the world and clinics all across the U.S. like The Good Samaritan Health Center in Atlanta and Grace Medical Home in Orlando providing compassionate care every day to low-income and uninsured patients.
I was in Guatemala recently, visiting residential programs for girls and elderly patients with dementia operated by an order of nuns. The sisters run a tight ship at these homes — both were impressive operations. But what stood out to me most was the love, warmth and compassion they showed to those under their care that was an outflow of their faith.
Americares supports the girls and elderly of Hogar San José (Guatemala) with supplies and essentials.