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What Motivates Extraordinary Christian Physicians?

Denis Mukwege, Juan Gilabert-Jofre, and Paul Farmer

The future of medicine is not bright as it once was. As of 2022, one in five physicians are leaving medicine, a field many considered more than just a job. Now, the sense of calling seems dim. In fact, national studies show that fifty percent of medical providers are experiencing burnout. Furthermore, more physicians—as well as those in training—are opening up about the harsh realities that hinder them from providing the most compassionate, optimal care. This is the reality of a healthcare system that privileges the ability to pay over patient needs and suffers from perpetually increasing costs, socioeconomic and racial inequities, and lack of access to advanced therapies. These larger dehumanizing forces that exist outside of the average medical provider’s control are what the Balbonis call “hostile powers” in their book Hostility to Hospitality: Spirituality and Professional Socialization within Medicine. The question of going beyond the call of duty as Christian physicians may seem naïve, too idealistic, and even irrelevant. In fact, those that learn of exceptional and extraordinary moments in Christian history often consider it impossible to replicate in their own context, dismissing the principal actors as virtually unattainable moral heroes. 

However, Jesus’ exhortation to “go and do likewise” in radical acts of mercy and compassion remains timeless, reverberating clearly in the ears of all believers (Luke 10:38). Hence, throughout history, there have been many Christians who took Jesus’ exhortation to heart and achieved extraordinary deeds of Christian faith and practice. In this essay, I examine three of those Christian exemplars—Denis Mukwege, Juan Gilabert-Jofré, and Paul Farmer—who, propelled by their respective theological motivations, turned ordinary medical care into a calling to heal. 

A Neighbor and Advocate

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, is a modern exemplar of a physician who radically lives out his theological motivations. As the medical director of Panzi Hospital in eastern Congo for more than two decades, he has treated thousands of women and girls who have been horrifically mutilated from being subjected to rape as a weapon of war. In addition to his professional work, since conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo began more than two decades ago, Denis Mukwege has been advocating for the mothers, grandmothers, wives, and daughters all around the world who have been victims of sexual violence. Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, Mukwege shared that the prize will have real meaning “only if it helps mobilize people to change the situation for victims of armed conflict.” Upon being asked about his motivations in a 2019 interview, Mukwege shared that the commandment to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself continues to deeply impress him. If Christians are called to love their neighbors, then “how can the church ignore such barbarity. . . especially when every human is made in the image of God?” It is precisely this love for his neighbors that impels him to continue the long-term fight against what he calls “stubborn adversaries”—discrimination, ignorance, and indifference.

Mukwege understands that there is no commandment greater than to love the Lord and to love one's neighbors (Mark 12:31). These two commandments have a bearing on his life that drives him beyond living for his own pleasure and happiness. “You have a mission. You are here for others. You are here to give a testimony of God who is in you,” he shares. In other words, this love calls for action. 

A Selfless Defender

Born in 1350 AD, Juan Gilabert-Jofré founded the first psychiatric hospital in Europe. Jofré is another exceptional model of Christian faith and practice. He understood holiness as a call to radical acts of love for the troubled and abandoned in Valencia, Spain. Jofré was a Mercedarian Friar, a priest devoted to the ransom of impoverished Christians who were captured and taken to North Africa by Muslim armies. Mercedarians would beg for money in the streets, travel into foreign territories to locate enslaved and imprisoned Christians, and negotiate for their freedom—an act that frequently required arranging a ransom with the money collected in their homeland. In fact, according to the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, every member vowed to give everything, including his life, “for the redemption of the captive and oppressed.” If all else failed, this vow meant that the Mercedarian would offer himself in exchange for the captive. Jofré, too, devoted his life to this calling of radical hospitality in 1409 during the season of Lent, when he witnessed a group of adolescent young men armed with stones assaulting and mocking a cognitively impaired man. Moved with compassion and righteous anger, Jofré stepped in. Miguel Romero’s translated words of the oldest Valencian account paint the scene as Jofré “placed himself between the persecutor and the persecuted; he calmed the madman’s insanity; he embraced the man with profound tenderness so that the abused man would not hurt others and so he could not be subjected to any further abuse.” Finally, he “carried the man to the convent so that the friars could attend to his wounds.”

When Jofré eventually made it to the city cathedral where he was scheduled to preach, he called for the liberation and care of the disenfranchised mentally ill through the establishment of a hospital where they would be welcomed and cared for. In Romero’s translation, Jofré called this task a “holy thing, a very holy undertaking.” Jofré’s understanding of holiness as faithfully responding to the call to “go and do likewise” not only propelled his daily work as a Mercedarian Friar but also prompted the establishment of a new kind of hospital in Western Europe. 

A Seeker of Justice

Paul Farmer, the recently deceased infectious disease physician, global health pioneer, and renowned humanitarian, was one of the few individuals to truly embrace justice as a way of life. As the co-founder of Partners in Health, he established a model for healthcare delivery in under-resourced communities worldwide—something other world leaders were quick to dismiss as “not cost-effective, not feasible, not sustainable, not reasonable.” As an anthropologist, Farmer constantly engaged in critical thinking when grappling with global challenges. His dedication to asking the “whys” and “why nots” led to his refusal to accept global health policy principles “born of constraint,” often packaged euphemistically as “cost-effectiveness,” “prevention before cure,” or “resource allocation.” He went on to build a hospital in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake, fight multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in Peru, tackle Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and battle emerging health threats in other under-resourced countries. While others have criticized him for being unrealistic, he called himself a realist, stating, “we can, because it’s been done before.” He refused to accept that the same drugs available to those in, say, the Boston area could not be made available for people in a developing nation. Raised Catholic, his religious upbringing taught Farmer that one must make a preferential option for the poor, a point made by liberation theologians who note the pattern through the scripture of God and the faithful siding with the least and the last. 

Farmer drew his inspiration from the work of Peruvian philosopher and Catholic liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who focused on the ‘nonperson,’ “the human being who is not considered human by the present social order—the exploited classes, marginalized ethnic groups, and despised cultures.” This led Farmer to the conclusion that the gospel shows God’s preferential option for the poor. Not only does God demand care for the sick, the poor, the stranger, and the prisoner, but he goes as far as to identify himself with the “least of these” (Matt. 25:31-46). In this way, the gospel functions to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Farmer’s work for justice also included “a quality of soul and deep spirituality.” He understood from Gutierrez that spirituality was not just some immaterial realm pertaining to the soul and not the body, but rather a “comprehensive way of living out one’s faith,” integrating justice-driven healing into individual and communal life. Thus, Farmer championed what Roberto Goizueta calls “accompaniment” at all levels—practical, spiritual, and intellectual—while fighting against the greatest threat: becoming “anesthetized” to the poverty, powerlessness, and untreated disease of the vulnerable and forgotten. This toleration of poverty and inequality was precisely what Farmer called “hell on earth.”

The Ordinary in the Extraordinary

Figures like Denis Mukwege, Juan Gilabert-Jofré, and Paul Farmer strove to follow the example set by Jesus throughout his ministry by going and doing likewise. But these values begin much earlier in the scriptures. In Abraham Heschel’s words, justice was not simply “an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern,” for every person holds intrinsic value in being created in imago Dei. This belief and understanding even led Heschel to call medical healing the “highest form of imitation Dei,” as it involves attending to the sick and the needy in such an intimate way. Therefore, understanding holiness as caring for the sick, the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan was not only a key theme throughout the Old Testament, but it was also central to the identity of God’s people (Deut. 10:17-19). They could not worship God without equally accepting his call to seek justice for the vulnerable.

God appointed prophets throughout the history of Israel to awaken his nation from desensitization and to soften hearts to the suffering of the marginalized within their communities. The prophetic voices served a crucial role to remind God’s citizens of their duty to actively seek justice and live ethically. Prophets frequently intoned the same song to those that mistook participation in religious sacrifices, offerings, tithes, and festivals as being tantamount to authentic faith, for, in reality, “religious fixation, masquerading as orthodoxy” are false substitutes for justice. The songs of all God’s prophets can be summed up in Micah’s plea to Israel: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you? To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). What does Micah mean when he counsels to “do justly?” Isaiah would answer, “Cease to do evil, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, and plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:10-17). Again, God makes it clear that he wants “right” more than “rite.”

As professional, prophetic healers in their respective contexts, Mukwege, Jofré, and Farmer were driven by the call to love one’s neighbor. They were propelled by the understanding of holiness as radical actions of love and mercy and inspired by Jesus’ preferential option for the poor. However, while the work of these three is extraordinary and exceptional, it would be a mistake to presume that the principal actors themselves were extraordinary and exceptional persons, for this may give the impression that such tasks are unfeasible for ordinary Christians. 

The extraordinary endeavor that became the first psychiatric hospital in Europe did not begin on February 24, 1409, the day that Juan Gilabert-Jofré saved the cognitively impaired man and gave his compelling sermon on the steps of the city cathedral. Denis Mukwege’s exceptional advocacy for victims of sexual violence did not begin with the establishment of the Panzi Foundation. Nor did the creation of Partners in Health occur as a result of Paul Farmer’s transformative encounter with the poor and sick of Haiti in 1983. These extraordinary and innovative Christian endeavors began with mundane, unexceptional, and ordinary practical commitments nurtured in the years and decades preceding these spectacular moments of history. 

Juan Gilabert-Jofré’s commitment to freeing and redeeming forgotten captives as a friar in the Mercedarian order shaped his moral vision. Denis Mukwege’s dedication was cultivated throughout his childhood years of accompanying his father, a Pentecostal pastor, to visit and pray for sick parishioners. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health came after many nights of reading liberation theology and studying scripture. Before making larger changes in the field of global health, Farmer allowed himself to be moved by the toil of Haitian migrant workers and responded to the injustices of the US immigration policies that turned away Haitian refugees. 

According to Miguel Romero, grand moments of history are conditioned and shaped by a “lifetime of habits, of friendships, of sleepless nights, of commitments, of loves, of honest doubts and earnest prayers.” He goes on to say that history-transforming change does not come from an isolated instant where a historical crisis “provokes moral catharsis in a heroic figurehead,” but rather through small decisions “built from a lifetime of seemingly insignificant lessons and hardly noteworthy choices.” Many members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church live out their Christian faith by responding to the needs of their neighbors, both near and far. For example, Scott Nelson, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, received the 2014 American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons Humanitarian Award for his work providing care to those with limited resources in developing countries. 



Nelson joins Mukege, Jofré, and Farmer in a shared commitment to what Gilbert Meilaender calls, “making space in life for the needs and claims of others.” That call continues for all today. Combining an awareness of need, a sense of biblical justice, and professional healing skills continues the work of Jesus today. Just as it was neither the Priest nor the Levite, but a Samaritan who was the embodiment of Christ, so can we, ordinary Christians and Christian physicians, go beyond the call of duty to represent Jesus in caring for the poor, the sick, and the destitute within our communities. After all, there is no extraordinary without the ordinary


A 2018 graduate of Southern Adventist University, Yuna Han is in the dual MA-MD program at Loma Linda University. She wrote a longer version of this article for the Masters in Religion and Society program earlier this year. She received that MA at LLU graduation this spring along with membership in the 2023 Gold Humanism Honor Society and The President’s Award, the university’s highest honor, given by the School of Religion. Yuna was recognized for her academic excellence, compassion, service to her community, and thirst for knowledge. 

Title image by Spectrum. Photos by Claude Truong-Ngoc under CC BY-SA 3.0 license, 19Tarrestnom65 under CC BY-SA 4.0 license, and the Skoll Foundation under CC BY 2.0 license.

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