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Missionary doctor in Uganda shares life in face of death

KAMPALA, Uganda (BP)–Moaning, horrible enough to stand a dog’s hair on end, erupts from the ward at the end of the hallway.
White jacket shimmering in the dimly lit corridor, missionary doctor Larry Pepper heads toward the mournful sound.
He pushes open the medical ward’s double doors. His gaze sweeps the beds in the room — all occupied — as he walks to the suffering woman’s side.
Pepper, a teaching physician at Mbarara University Teaching Hospital in Uganda, is told the woman arrived the night before. Like so many others, she was brought in by her family as a last-ditch effort to save her life. But it’s too late to do more than ease her pain.
The missionary gives instructions to an intern and moves on to a patient waiting in another room. Diagnosing the man with ulcers, Pepper hands him a treatment filled with hope.
“As part of the prescription for medicine, I write out Scriptures. When they come back the next week, I ask them if they read it,” Pepper explains.
Pepper is not only a physician; he is part of the team seeking to share the gospel with the Banyankore/Bakiga people of southwestern Uganda, the country’s second-largest people group and the tribe of President Yoweri Museveni.
Just last year, the team started the first Baptist churches among this people group of approximately 1.5 million. Their desire to share eternal life with a dying nation has launched several ministries with medical students and other faculty at the hospital.
The 39-year-old doctor’s next stop is another ward across a courtyard.
Pepper doesn’t think Jane, a patient back for a third visit, will make it much longer. She is from the AIDS outpatient clinic he oversees Wednesday afternoons, the first such clinic begun at the hospital.
“We’re doing something [other] AIDS organizations don’t do by dealing with the spiritual aspect,” Pepper says. When Jane dies, Pepper takes comfort in knowing she has become a Christian. His efforts to give hope in the face of death have not gone by the wayside.
Later that morning, the moaning in the wards greets third-year medical students as they follow Pepper on rounds. Monday through Friday, they spend half their days learning at the bedside.
There they practice taking pulses and blood pressure — and thinking critically in order to make correct diagnoses.
But following Pepper on rounds teaches the students more than just medicine. He shows what it means to care — by his gentle touch on a woman’s forehead as he questions her, by the way he looks each patient in the eye with respect, by the way his soft voice soothes a severely burned little girl.
“My job is to teach them by example how to be a Christian physician versus just a physician,” Pepper says. “Death is in evidence every day, so it’s easy for them to say, ‘Oh well, it’s just another sick person,'”
The moaning suddenly stops as they discuss how to deal with a woman injured by a witch doctor who tried to burn a pimple off her face. The resulting infection has spread down her neck. Pepper looks up in time to see a nurse covering the now-quiet woman with a sheet. Regret and remorse chase each other like clouds across his face. He shakes his head, trying not to look desolate as he picks up where he left off.
“You just experience a reality in life and death in Uganda,” he admits later. “I lost more patients in the first month here than in my whole career. Many come in too late, as a last hope. They die of malaria, cholera, things that could have been treated if caught in time.”
It’s a world away from his last practice.
Pepper never faced anything like this back home while living out his dream job as a NASA flight surgeon, raising three children with his wife, Sally, and attending University Baptist Church in Clear Lake, Texas.
That was before God started tugging on the Peppers’ hearts. A sermon series at his church got him thinking about his impact on eternity. Reading through Operation World, a popular mission handbook, got him praying about it.
Then Pepper got a message from God: “You’ve committed everything to me — except your job.”
“That was the turning point,” Pepper says. “I prayed and told God I wanted him to put us where he wanted us to be.”
Pepper and his wife, Sally, talked through the decision. While God prepared her heart and gave her peace about taking three children overseas, he went on a volunteer trip to Goma, Zaire, to work with Rwandan refugees.
That’s where he met missionary Larry Pumpelly, now the International Mission Board’s Richmond-based associate for East Africa. Pumpelly told him about a teaching physician position in Uganda at Mbarara University Teaching Hospital in Uganda. It sounded perfect.
But obeying God’s call and leaving behind everything he had achieved wasn’t easy. After their decision to become missionaries, Pepper was selected as a finalist candidate for astronaut duty in space. God was testing the Peppers’ integrity, they believe, to see if they were really willing to follow him.
The Peppers landed in Uganda on Jan. 2, 1996. Three years later, their desire to share eternal life with a dying nation has launched several ministries — particularly with medical students.
Thursday nights Pepper leads a “guys only” Bible study focusing on issues Ugandan men face. Friday nights both Peppers offer an alternative to the Mbarara bar scene: “TGIF” (“Thank God It’s Friday”) gives students a chance to gather, play games, watch movies and discuss biblical concepts.
On Sunday nights it’s coed Bible study. “Key discipling occurs at that time. We started with about five and now run between 18 and 20,” Pepper says.
The Peppers are praying toward the building of a Baptist student center to give students a place for study, worship and Bible studies.
Pepper’s fellow faculty members meet in his office Tuesdays for a lunchtime Bible study that goes on even if he’s not there.
Sunday morning rolls around. Sally Pepper prepares the prenatal clinic at the hospital for church services and leads children in a Bible study. Pepper checks on his patients before leading the service. Surrounded by gray cement walls adorned with medical “how to” posters, the University Baptist Fellowship congregation listens intently as Pepper expounds on the dangers of compromise.
“Sometimes we compromise by toning down or turning down God’s Word,” the missionary warns in his sermon.
But toning down God’s Word isn’t part of the Peppers’ approach to life. Neither is compromise.
Obedience is.
The team seeking to share the gospel with the Banyankore/Bakiga people group is looking for a second general evangelist to join them. Individuals who feel the Lord may be leading to join the team or to consider other opportunities in East Africa may e-mail [email protected]; write the Initial Contacts Coordinator, International Mission Board, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond VA 23230-0767; or call toll-free 1-888-422-6461.

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  • Heidi Soderstrom