Jewish entrepreneur, wife donate millions for Christian medical missions in Africa

Mark and Erica Gerson talk with children at The Plaster House in Tanzania in September 2018. | African Mission Healthcare

A Jewish entrepreneur and his rabbi wife have become one of the largest private supporters of Christian medical missionaries in Africa as they have donated millions to support vital health care needs in some of the most impoverished communities in the world. 

Mark Gerson and his wife, Erica, have donated well over $10 million to assist Christian medical missions in Africa over the years as they have felt the call from their Jewish faith to “love the stranger” in a region of the world where access to health care is extremely limited. 

Gerson, an investor, businessman and philanthropist who co-founded the Gerson Lehrman Group, told The Christian Post in a recent interview that he began giving to
Christian medical missions in Africa thanks to a friend he met at Williams College in Massachusetts in the 1990s.

That friend, Dr. Jon Fielder, traveled to Africa in the early 2000s to serve those impacted by the AIDS pandemic. 

“He said, ‘I could be doctor No. 700,000 in the U.S. … or become an indispensable source of care for people dying of AIDS in Africa,’” Gerson recalled Fielder telling him in a conversation they had after finishing his residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. 

“Probably the biggest humanitarian problem in the world … is a lack of access to doctors to almost anybody in Africa.”

Fielder, a Baylor University School of Medicine graduate, moved to Kenya in 2002 to work with World Medical Mission and Africa Inland Mission at Kijabe Hospital. Fielder focused on caring for HIV patients and the training of Kenyan health care providers. 

Gerson, his brother, and some of their friends supported Fielder’s work in Kenya because they saw how dire the need was for trained medical professionals in Africa and understood the value of Christian medical missionaries and mission hospitals there. 

“Many African countries will have one doctor for anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 people,” Gerson, who said. “That is not a specialist. That is just one doctor. The availability of treatment is just unavailable for so many people.”

Gerson’s funding of Fielder’s ministry continued after the Fielders moved to Malawi in southern Africa in 2009.  

In 2010, Gerson and Fielder launched African Mission Healthcare, a nonprofit devoted to strengthening mission hospitals to aid those in greatest need, after noticing a lack of consistent financial support for medical missionaries serving on the continent. 

Dr. John Fielder (L) and Mark Gerson (R) | African Mission Healthcare

Support from the Western church has ‘weakened’

“Support for missionaries from the Western church has really weakened in the last few decades for a whole variety of sociological reasons,” Gerson, who serves as AMH’s board chair, explained. “One of which is that denominations used to be prevalent and powerful. So the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Baptists, they could effectively tax the churches and denominations and use some of that tax to send missionaries.”

Gerson, who also co-founded the Jerusalem-based volunteer medical services organization United Hatzalah, said there were “some great and legendary missionary hospitals set up by the denominations from 100 years ago up until about 30 years ago.”

“As denominations became weaker and Christianity went into more nondenominational evangelical, it is possible, but it is highly unlikely that one church is going to be able to support a hospital in Africa and the missionaries,” the philanthropist explained. “When they pull their resources into the denominations, it is possible.”

Because missionary doctors work for years on end without coming home, the Yale Law School graduate stressed that they don’t have the time they need to build relationships with people and institutions in the West that can financially support their work. 

“They come home after maybe four years and would go on a speaking tour of sorts, get a few churches lined up maybe over the summer and they get a couple of thousand dollars for each one or something,” Gerson explained. “It was an inefficient and ineffective mechanism to raise absolutely needed support.”

“In 2010, we said, ‘What can we do to really be the place that missionaries can turn to for the support they need and people can turn to support the missionaries?” he added. 

According to the AMH co-founder, AMH provides support for three key areas: clinical care, infrastructure and training. 

The organization invests in a wide range of infrastructure projects that range from constructing surgical theaters, building housing for medical professionals, spaces for clinical care as well as procuring and installing expensive medical equipment.  

AMH has invested over $26.5 million at 47 hospitals across 18 African countries. AMH estimates that its efforts will make possible over 10.7 million patient visits. 

Training is “core to all that AMH does” as the organization has a variety of programs for surgeons, doctors, nurses, anesthetists and nurse anesthetists. 

Dr. Jason Fader lectures at Kibuye Hope Hospital in Burundi. | African Mission Healthcare

Through 2019, AMH has trained 3,736 medical professionals. Through June 2020, the organization has invested over $15.9 million in direct clinical care and sponsored over 18,619 surgical and corrective procedures with an average cost of $360. Additionally, the organization estimates that it has enabled 611,000 direct clinical visits over the years. 

AMH also works to provide mission hospitals with better infrastructure. AMH has done 85 projects across 15 different countries, with an investment of about $7 million, according to Gerson. 

For example, he said that some hospitals can spend 40% of their budget on electricity. To alleviate that, AMH has helped construct solar panels at some hospitals to reduce the amount those hospitals spend on power each month from as high as 40% to single-digit percentages. 

Housing is another significant problem for medical missionaries looking to serve in rural areas where there is no private housing market available. 

“The most valuable resource in the African health care setting is personnel. You get this extremely valuable resource of a person who wants to come train at a mission hospital in Africa but the very last step is no housing for them and nowhere for them to stay. So they don‘t come,” Gerson said.  

“We construct housing and it can cost $15,000 to $20,000 per room. A three-bedroom house we can put up for about $50,000 to $60,000. That house will fund itself forever because it will be owned by the hospital and the rent of whoever stays there will be deducted from his or her pay.”

While AMH has become one of the leading organizational supporters of medical missions in Africa, the Gerson family has also doled out much of their own money to fund what's needed. 

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