Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Mertens’

FINAL SALUTE TO A GOOD MAN

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Doctor David Abdulai, a hero to me, went home to the Father last night. He died of stage four thyroid cancer after a life of public service in his native Ghana and years of medically treating the poorest of the poor and the most destitute in his two free clinics in Tamale, Ghana. I grieve his loss today deeply. Those readers who had children confirmed by me this year know that I devoted my homily to this good man in the hopes of striking a chord in the hearts of the young for service to the poor.

Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, Christopher Mertens and I last Christmas.

Myself, Doctor David Abdulai, his wife, and Christopher Mertens last Christmas.

David Abdulai was born a Muslim in northeast Ghana almost seven decades ago. His father had died of Hansen’s disease (leprosy) when David was still a young boy and most of his eight siblings also suffered from the disease. Irish missionaries saw intelligence and fire in the young boy and approached his single mother asking her permission to allow David to attend a Catholic boarding/elementary school in the small city of Tamale. She agreed and David started a Catholic education in the first grade that would accompany him until secondary school graduation. He was bright, exceedingly bright and an outstanding student.

After winning a scholarship to and graduating with highest honors from the University of Ghana in Accra, he chose medicine as his profession, specializing in surgery. He won a fellowship in surgery to a Medical College in Liverpool, England and came home with a wife and family and practiced his calling in Accra, the capital city.

As an adult, having been surrounded by Christianity and Catholicism in his formative years, he decided to become a Catholic and entered the Church with baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist on the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord. He recounted to me that moment last Christmas when I met and visited with him for what for me, sadly, would be my first and last time, that the readings that day from the Old Testament offered this line: “Comfort my people O Lord, comfort my people.” It would serve to drive his ambitions and desires for the rest of his life.

With his children largely grown, he returned to Tamale and served as the Minister of Health for that Ghana province. But soon he would make a life-changing decision, give all his fame and fortune up and open a clinic for the nation’s poorest of the poor. With acreage given to him by a tribal chief, he built and opened the first of what today are two Shekinah clinics. Here he treated all who came and who could not access, for whatever reason, the government health care system. And they came, for over twenty years.

He would arrange his daily schedule so that he could see 120 patients each day, ninety new cases and thirty follow-up cases. He erected an operating theatre where he would perform some minor surgeries, like hernia repairs.

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The operating room at the clinic.

He scrounged and managed to stock a pharmacy. He built wards for the surgical patients to recover and huts for the lepers in which to live.

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Wards and residences for patients and Hansen’s disease residents.

Through volunteers with gifts of food (Catholic Relief Services through US AID for many years provided food) he served all who came to the clinic, those who lived there and those who were simply overnight residents.

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The kitchen and cooks at the Shekinah Clinic.

Several times the government tried to shut his clinic down but they never succeeded because everyone knew of the work of this great man, his wife and his volunteers.

So magnetic was his personality and deep his devotion that he assembled a team of volunteers who assisted him 24/7/365. No one was paid. Not even the doctor who lived off what he had saved from his earlier practice of medicine. He opened a second clinic, as people would cross the border from Burkina Faso to see him. When confronted with a patient with such a serious disease that he could not treat them, he would have them wait for him to finish his daily work and then would drive them in his jeep to the local government hospital and insist that they be cared for, not leaving until it was done.

Every Christmas he and his wife would feed Christmas dinner to the poor of the region at their home, a total numbering in excess of 3200 last Christmas. On the 27th, the day I arrived, he had a second Christmas dinner for the blind, deaf, lame, widowed and leprous who for physical reasons could not come on Christmas. Talk about feeding the 5000. My task that day was to simply give them a Christmas present of one super large bar of shea butter soap (from the region) and a new dishtowel plus some candy (all donated).

They called Dr. Abdulai “the male Mother Theresa of West Africa”. To watch him work and interact with people lacking in hope was life changing. His energy level far exceeded anything I could give. His love of his Catholic faith and the joy that Pope Francis brought to him was palpable. In both clinics there is to be found a small mosque at the entrance, a chapel where Mass is celebrated at times throughout the week, and a Star of David is painted on the wall of the examining room – his desire to show and share that all are welcome regardless of faith.

How did I come to know him? That is a story in itself but I will make it short. One summer two seminarians at that time, brothers, and one sophomore at Notre Dame talked to me about spending the summer working in Africa. I called my beloved Catholic Relief Services knowing that they had such a program, and they arranged for the three to spend ten weeks in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. The Notre Dame student, Christopher Mertens, an Eagle Scout, the St. Petersburg Times male scholar athlete of the year in his senior year at Palm Harbor University High School, a member of the Diocesan Youth Council and son of an elementary school teacher at Guardian Angels school in Clearwater, was sent to the Clinic in Tamale and spent the summer with the Doctor.

His emails home to his parents and to myself radiated a respect for Dr Abdulai that spanned the ocean. Then Chris came down with malaria. Doctor Abdulai rushed to his side and prescribed the necessary medicines. Chris could have come home because of the malaria but he stayed. He lived in the clinic at bare subsistence level, but every new day brought new patients to the clinic and he helped as best he could. The love that the staff and the doctor had for Chris was abundantly evident when Chris took me to Tamale and to the doctor on Christmas day last year.

I’m off to my chapel to offer Mass today for this great man, thankful to God for having had the opportunity to meet him and see where and how he performed the works of mercy. I am thankful to Catholic Relief Services for their help to the clinic in the past and I am grateful to Christopher Mertens for unwittingly and unknowingly being the catalyst for allowing me one of the great moments of my adult lifetime. Dr. David Abdulai and the clinic staff welcomed us on December 27th and he was proud that his young American was then in his fourth semester of Medical School at Tulane in New Orleans. God takes and God gives. It happens all the time and we just don’t seem to want to notice it.

Rest now in the peace of the Lord you servant, good doctor to the poor, and may the Divine Physician embrace you for your life lived on earth.

+RNL

MY NOMINEE FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Christopher Mertens with Dr. Abdulai and his wife at the Shekhinah Clinic in Tamale, Ghana

Christopher Mertens is a junior at Notre Dame University in pre-med. [In the interest of full disclosure, his older sister Maria is our new WebMaster at the Diocese of St. Petersburg and assists with the mounting and presentation of these blog entries after I have finished writing them.] The Mertens family attends Light of Christ Catholic Church in Clearwater. Christopher, through the kindness and support of Catholic Relief Services, had an opportunity this past summer to work at a clinic in Tamale, Ghana (northern section of the country) with a man whom, if I were on the nominating committee for the Nobel Peace Prize, would be my nominee and remain such until he received it.

Doctor David Abdulai has now founded two clinics in Tamale which treat the indigent, the mentally challenged, and lepers. The last is little wonder since the doctor’s own parents had Hanson’s disease (leprosy). After medical school, Dr. Abdulai practiced medicine in the government hospitals of Ghana and created a comfortable living for himself and his family. Born a Muslim, the doctor became a Roman Catholic as an adult, but his practice of medicine is open to and extremely sensitive to all the major religions of his area.  At some point, feeling that his family had enough to live on, he left the more lucrative practice of medicine (understanding that in Ghana “lucrative” probably means a lot less than in the United States) and decided to devote his life to treating the poor.

His first clinic he named the Shekhinah Clinic and opened its doors to those so poor they were refused treatment in the government hospitals of the Tamale region. Using ground he procured for the purpose, he opened examining rooms and an operating theatre. Then he built small huts since most of his patients came long distances and needed a place to stay before and after seeing the doctor and following surgery. He charges them nothing, either for his medical services or room and board while at the clinic. Because he treats the mentally ill, he is sometimes referred to as “the crazy doctor,” but to his nation and to his region, he is the male Mother Theresa of Calcutta who sees the face of God in every poor person in need of his help.

The whole operation is run on the principle of Deus Providebit or “God will provide.” He now has two of these clinics in different parts of Tamale among which he splits his time and receives sufficient food gifts and medicine to care for the indigent yet hope-filled people he sees. There are obvious human and professional limitations on how many he can see. At the Shekhinah Clinic where Christopher spent the summer, three days a week, sixty people are scheduled for examination. Dr. Abdulai readily admits that he could take more, but they would not then receive the careful, personal attention from him which they need. Patient beyond belief with his patients, there is no more concerned person in Ghana than this doctor sitting opposite his patient.

Not fully satisfied that the two clinics were doing enough for the region’s poor, Dr. Abdulai also started a nutrition and feeding program for the mentally ill on the streets who are completely alone and have no one else to care for them. For many years, Catholic Relief Services was able to assist in providing food from US-AID and the UN World Food Program to the clinics and to the poor but our government in its wisdom has largely dried up that source. It matters not to Dr. Abdulai because God will provide and God still does. God even now provides doctors from Germany, Canada, Scotland and England and occasionally from the United States who come to the clinics and assist the doctor for a few weeks each year precisely because they admire him, his mission and his work. God help the visiting doctors if they do not give each poor patient in front of them the same time, care and attention as does the clinic’s founder but word is spreading through the world medical community that this man is for real, a genuine article interested only in helping humanity. Very shy by nature, the doctor does not seek the limelight and will only attend things which will benefit the clinics and the food outreach program, not to glorify himself.

Recently the doctor was singled out in his own country and given an award which was followed up by a piece on his work on the national television network of Ghana. If you have taken the time to read this blog entry to this point, then I ask you to take fifteen more minutes and watch this television footage of the doctor and his mission. You may watch the two parts below. Please listen carefully, because although in English, you need a good ear for the accents.

(If the videos are not appearing, please try refreshing your Internet browser.)

Part One:

Part Two:

Christopher Mertens himself became a patient of Dr. Abdulai and the Shekhinah Clinic when one Sunday morning he became violently ill. The doctor rushed from his home, took a quick blood test and confirmed that he had malaria. It was short-lived and Chris continued his work of assisting the volunteers at the Clinic in many ways, feeding the patients, dispensing medicine as prescribed, occasionally going into the operating theatre to watch the doctor in surgery. He went out of the city into the countryside to deliver food to the leper colonies and in ten weeks lost thirty-five pounds due to the malaria and the change in diet. On the morning he left on the six a.m. bus for Accra and his return to the United States, his colleagues and co-workers came to the bus station to see him off. There are reported to have been many tears for this young white man from the United States quickly known for his smile, kindness, and witness to faith. Dr. Abdulai wrote to me about Christopher and I quote him here: “Yes, Chris has told us that he hopes to become a medical doctor. He will surely make a fine physician of both body and soul, seeing his spiritual approach to everything in the clinic. He does not talk much. He teaches by example, and I am personally touched by his love for God and neighbor. It will certainly be well demonstrated in his medical practice. And through this he may draw many of his patients to a closer relationship with Christ.” This quote tells you and I more about the good doctor than about Christopher.

I hope to meet Dr. David Abdulai before I meet the Lord to thank him for the witness of his life, faith and medical profession. Having spent a number of occasions with Blessed Mother Theresa, I see many of the same qualities of love for the poor and forgotten and while the doctor, as I too would  personally claim to be no saint, he would easily like her in 1979 deserve the Nobel Peace Prize precisely for the witness of his life.

+RNL

The website for the clinic is: http://www.shekhinah-clinic.com/Shekhinah_Clinic/shekhinah_clinic.html. The website is run and monitored by a group of Germans who previously volunteered at the clinic.

OUT OF AFRICA – 2

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

Robert Angel, First Theology, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary and currently a summer intern with Catholic Relief Services, Sierra Leone

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, there are two seminarians and a junior attending Notre Dame University who have been sponsored by the diocese to spend eight weeks this summer as an intern with Catholic Relief Services in Africa. Bob Angel is already on post in Makene, Sierra Leone, about 100 miles northeast of the capital of Freetown. His brother Dan who is a senior at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami leaves next Tuesday for eight weeks in Liberia and Christophers Mertens, the junior pre-med student from Notre Dame has just arrived in his eight week posting in Tamale, Ghana. Bob and Dan have established a blog site and it can be reached by clicking here http://african-angels.blogspot.com. Bob’s early postings reveal the challenges of an American spending any time, much less two months in a strange culture, challenging climate, and without the support systems which often sustain us in manners and ways unknown to us when we take them for granted. It is a superb blog and I strongly recommend that you add it to your regular reading for the next few weeks.

Christopher sends me a long e-mail which I convert to a Word file and which I will edit and present here from time to time. I am sure that Walter, my cyberspace guardian angel will find a way to make it accessible so that I do not have to add the full text to this blog spot each time but will share with you his experiences as well. He will be assisting in a clinic and working with a physician who treats a lot of HIV-AIDS cases and other diseases which affect people in that part of the African continent. Needless to say, none of these men are enjoying anything near the “lap of luxury” but rather are experiencing the desperate poverty and living standard of most of the world in which we live.

I hope you enjoy their reports back as much as I am enjoying hearing of their experiences coming from “Out of Africa.” I am very grateful to the staff of Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore and in the host countries and regions of those countries who are welcoming these men and guaranteeing their experiences.

What follows now is Christopher’s first two impressions of Ghana.

Accra, Ghana, greeted me as the sun rose on our plane and we prepared to land after a ten hour flight across the Atlantic. I didn’t get much sleep on the overnight flight, a result of what I believe was a combination of restless anxiousness to arrive and the bright flickering movie screens on the bulkhead of the plane playing various romantic comedies in succession. The thing that struck me the most as I peered at the landscape while stretching my neck to see around those sitting in the window seats was that most of the roads were not paved for the city where we landed. I know this shouldn’t be a shock to me, but it did drive home the reality that I was truly someplace far removed from Tampa and South Bend, my two homes.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) had a driver awaiting me as I cleared customs at the airport, a process that was also surprisingly painless and quick, at least in my case. The heat and humidity that greeted me outside is a close family member of the climate of Tampa, and the sweat that immediately appeared on my face and arms confirmed this observation. The 7-8 mile drive to the CRS offices took nearly 45 minutes thanks to the narrow roads of Accra and the explosion of car ownership in the city that far outpaced the road capability. As we crept along the streets, various venders would hold their wares up to the window. I have been told that it is possible to leave your house here in Accra with just the clothes that you are wearing, and you would be able to purchase almost anything you could possibly need to take on vacation somewhere.

At the CRS office, I was warmly welcomed and introduced, and then briefed on not only my stay, but also on the major programs that were being run within Ghana. CRS is involved in many programs, most of which are focused on the 3 northern regions of Ghana (Upper East, Upper West, and the Northern regions), and dealt with issues ranging from pre-natal care and early childhood care, HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention, and education, and agricultural programs aimed at assisting small villages and farmers that struggle to live even on a subsistence basis from the farms they live and work upon. Although I will be primarily stationed at the Shekhinah Clinic in Tamale, it is planned that hopefully I will be able to travel out to some of these program sites while in Tamale so that I may more fully see the scope of the work and good that CRS is doing.

After waiting out the 2-hour downpour that is beginning to signal the start of the rainy season in the southern part of Ghana, I left the office and arrived at my lodgings in a guesthouse for the night. After a much welcomed 3 hour nap, I arose and headed to the small 4 table restaurant downstairs to catch some dinner. After hearing the options, I decided that I would forego the familiar food from home (such as spaghetti) and try a local dish that came with tilapia. Now, being from Florida, and a fan of seafood, I thought it would be great to see what they used as spices for it. When the plate came, it seemed I did “catch” some dinner, as the fish was present in whole on my plate, eyes gleaming, and mouth and teeth open in an eternal grin. The waitress, smiling, told me that usually it is customary to eat this meal without utensils, and I took that as a challenge to be accepted. Unfortunately, I didn’t foresee dinner being such an entertaining event, and left my camera locked in my room, so I will let you imagine the rest of the dinner, as I tried to delicately remove the skin of the fish and scrape out the tasty meat and seasoning while trying to avoid any guts, bones, or brains on the fish.

Today I fly up to Tamale where I will be greeted by the CRS office there, and then after a little time to orient myself there, I hope to be off to the Shekhinah clinic with Dr. Abdulai in a day or two. I was fortunate to have a great internet connection this past night, but I believe it will be a bit more sporadic for the weeks ahead, yet I will still try to jot down notes, observations, and experiences on paper so that I may commit them to type to send out. The graciousness and generosity of those that I have met so far has truly been a blessing, and I hope that God will help me to remain open to meeting and getting to know people here on my stay.

 

Christopher Mertens and myself outside of Corby Hall on the Notre Dame campus in October 2010

There are two major reasons why I think our local Church will benefit from young women and men having opportunities such as this. First and foremost, we are a universal Church and although we share the same doctrines and disciplines throughout the world, every local Church is different. The Diocese of St. Petersburg is different from the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, for example. To have priests and lay people who have first-hand experience of the Church Universal will broaden our own horizons and make the universal nature of our faith better known. The second reasons is the profound love which I hold for Catholic Relief Services. They do incredibly good work in incredibly difficult working circumstances. They make we Catholics in the United States look good by their presence in over 110 countries throughout the world. I want these two men studying for the priesthood and the one studying for a possible lifetime as a doctor to share their experience with CRS and their sense of its presence and effectiveness throughout this diocese. I also hope that more young women and men will choose CRS for a life’s profession. All of this is possible with “apostles” of CRS spreading out throughout the diocese and country and telling its amazing story.

I am leaving in a few moments for Chicago and the final meeting of the Search Committee seeking a new President and CEO for Catholic Relief Services. It is the least I can so and sharing with the organization some of our women and men and allowing them to tell their amazing stories of their experience is a part of my DNA.

+RNL

 

 

 

 

 

 

OUT OF AFRICA (EIGHT WEEKS FROM NOW)

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Daniel Angel, Christopher Mertens, Robert Angel - Off to Africa With CRS

One of the greatest delights of my life as  both a priest and a bishop has been a long association with Catholic Relief Services. For twelve years I served on the Board of Directors of our Church’s overseas development and relief agency and for the last six I was privileged to be its Chairman of the Board and for a time, its President. During all those years I came to deeply appreciate CRS’s work throughout the globe to the poor, disadvantaged and ignored. Its staff, U.S. and international, are both committed and extremely competent. At the present moment I serve on a Search Committee seeking a replacement for Kenneth Hackett who is retiring after eighteen years at the helm of this agency which will approach one billion dollars in program services in the coming year. I was also on the Search Committee when chose Mr. Hackett. So my history, knowledge of and love for CRS runs very deep and is in my DNA.

Two years ago I invited a college Junior at what was then Loyola Baltimore and a graduate of St. Jude the Apostle elementary school and Jesuit High School to consider a summer internship with CRS. At the time I thought he would likely be assigned to Africa or South America, but instead the agency sent him to India for eight weeks. Brendan J. Stack who on Saturday graduated from Loyola Maryland had a great summer watching the Church work in an environment which was not easy and he came away with a deep respect for the work of CRS and a personal commitment to serve the poor as long as he might. This August he leaves for Idaho to spend a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps work with the homeless and undocumented in Boise, Idaho.

This summer I have invited two seminarians and one junior at Notre Dame University to take advantage of a similar opportunity and they leave shortly for their eight week assignments on the African Continent. Bob Angel is a graduate of Holy Family elementary in St. Petersburg and Northeast High School where he was a competitive swimmer. After graduating from the University of Florida he worked for one year as a fireman with the Tampa Fire Department where we won an award as the most spirit-filled recruit the department had in 2009. However, he heard the voice of the Lord suggesting to him that he might wish to try priesthood and he has spent the last two years in the pre-theology program at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and will enter St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach for his theology studies this August. Bob has been assigned to Sierra Leone where he will be involved in peace-building efforts in which CRS is engaged in a country that has recently seen the end to a long and bloody civil war. He will also work with children in a Catholic parish.

One year after Bob entered the seminary in Miami, his younger brother Dan who was halfway through  his college studies at the University of Central Florida decided to do the same and he joined his older sibling last Fall and finished his junior year a few weeks ago. Dan, like Bob, attended Holy Family Catholic School and Northeast High School where he also was a competitive swimmer. While attending UCF, Dan worked as a watchman and “friend” of Shamu at Sea World in Orlando. Dan has been assigned to a parish in Liberia, 100 miles outside of Monrovia, the capital. Liberia is also in the midst of reunification of purpose and people following a deadly and long civil war.

If it seems like all the CRS interns this year have swimming in their background, it is true but merely an accident. Christopher Mertens will be a junior in pre-med at Notre Dame University this fall as well as a student manager to the football and other varsity sports. He was the St. Petersburg Times “Male Scholar-Athlete” for Pinellas County in 2009, was captain for two years of the Palm Harbor University Swim Team, held a couple of school records and led his team to successful post-season competition in regional and state swimming meets. At Notre Dame, Christopher is one of the leaders in  his dorm’s commitment to Dismas House, a halfway house for convicted felons who have served their prison sentences, have been released and are looking for employment and some future better than what they have just left. Christopher has been assigned to Ghana and will work with a Doctor in an AIDS clinic in the northern small city of Tamale for eight weeks as a medical assistant.

If these three men have a great experience in the universal Church and a new appreciation of the role of Catholic Relief Services, then as long as CRS accepts young people in its program, I will be open to offering the opportunity to other young women and men who might wish to be sent to any where on the globe where there are people in need and suffering. Remember, however, it could be tough like Haiti and all the assignments have a certain amount of low risk and major inconvenience to the standard of living to which we are accustomed.

The Angel brothers are blogging their experiences this summer on http://african-angels.blogspot.com/ The first installment is up and ready for your viewing and I shall throughout the summer be posting from all three things I think you will be interested in reading and/or learning about our “three ambassadors to Africa” from the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

+CRS