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Faith and service

"Faith and service" Continued...

Cases of malaria—once the No. 1 killer at Macha—have dropped by 98 percent, with only one or two deaths a year, said Thuma, 63, who used to see two or three children die daily from malaria.

Such widespread testing was successful, the doctors said, because their longtime presence in the community earned them an important thing: Trust.

Thuma and Spurrier aren’t just white-coated professionals who see patients; they are community members who—with their wives—live and go to church alongside the local Zambians, speak their tribal Tonga language and forge personal friendships.

Thuma’s roots go down deep into the African soil. He was 4 years old when his father, Dr. Alvan Thuma arrived in Macha in 1954 as a missionary doctor—the first and only doctor in a 40-mile radius. The elder Thuma drew up plans for the Macha Mission Hospital and, after seeing patients in the morning, worked alongside the local Zambians, firing bricks to build the hospital that would bring them good medical care.

Now, years later, Phil Thuma is most gratified that the Macha Research Trust he founded offers steady work to nearly 70 local Zambians who might otherwise be struggling to make a living from subsistence farming.

The research trust, in partnership with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Public School of Health, operates a molecular biology lab where some stunning discoveries have been made. In 2007, they were the first to discover that malaria could be detected from saliva rather than just blood.

“A lot of people predicted we couldn’t run a lab like this out in the bush, 40 miles from the nearest town, but I’m stubborn enough that I love to prove people wrong,” said Thuma, who also does research on HIV and tuberculosis.

Although their work has attracted international attention, the doctors say their greatest joy comes in serving God through serving the people of Macha.

“God put the children of Africa on my heart. I feel responsible to see that kids in Africa, particularly Macha, have a chance to grow up, regardless of measles, malaria or HIV,” said Thuma, who formerly worked as a pediatrician at Hershey Medical Center and volunteers in pediatrics at Macha Mission Hospital.

His wife, Elaine, who grew up in Dillsburg with her parents Walter and Thelma Nell, became a registered nurse but saw her most important work as supporting and encouraging her husband.

“I never imagined myself, a girl from the small town of Dillsburg, visiting anywhere in Africa—let alone living there,” she said. “We often quote Psalm 115:1 as our theme song; ‘Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.’”

When people ask why they serve, It’s easy for them to quote the words of Matthew 25:40—”Truly, I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”—as the impetus for their work.

However, they say, what people may not realize is that in blessing others, there is great blessing.

“People are so grateful for whatever we can do. They give us chickens and peanuts and name their kids after us.’” John Spurrier said. “It’s so gratifying to look around and be able to say, ‘People’s lives were changed here because of what I did.’”

“The relationships and friendships we have built with people in the community and the larger church have nourished and encouraged us,” Esther Spurrier added. “Some of these people we have lived and worked with now for decades, and the love runs deep and strong.”

Unfortunately, the doctors said, there is no one standing in line to take their place. Doctors come for short-term work, but none has committed to staying. Spurrier is currently the only Brethren in Christ missionary doctor engaged in AIDS work.

A person doesn’t need to be perfect—or even be an evangelist—to be a missionary, the doctors said.

“Our philosophy of missions is that God gifts people in the Kingdom of God in different ways,” Spurrier said. “We have a holistic view—that God is interested in our minds and our bodies. We think good research and making people well makes God happy as much as preaching to them about Jesus.”

The doctors wish that they could convince other American doctors that practicing medicine in Africa offers a richness not found in money or material things.

“To see a 1-year-old child go from almost dead with malnutrition and tuberculosis to a smiling, healthy child within a year; you couldn’t pay me enough to see that happiness,” Phil Thuma said.

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