Jerry Umanos (along with two other physicians) was killed last week, murdered by a police guard in the very hospital where he worked. Dr. Umanos was a pediatrician who served at Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago for many years before he began to divide his time between Lawndale and a CURE hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he not only cared for patients directly but was heavily involved in educating Afghan doctors, nurses, and midwives.
Dr. Umanos’ faith clearly informed the decisions he made about his vocation in ways that are applicable to all believers. His life and death are worthy of discussion not because we should all be teaching medical providers in Afghanistan (though more of us ought to), but because one does not need to be participating in a heroic vocation to be faithful Kingdom witnesses. In an age where followers, clicks, sales, and converts rule even Christian psyches, it is instructive for us to reflect upon a contemporary believer whose ambition was the glory of Christ among the poor and whose service to Christ cost his life.
While inner-city Chicago and Afghanistan are very different places, they are both in need of quality physicians. They also tend to be challenging and risky places for physicians to practice. Medical training in particular tends to make it very hard to commit oneself to a particular place; the intense competition for medical school and residency slots often forces trainees to move every 3 or 4 years as they progress in their education. Yet every institution that Dr. Umanos was involved with along the way spoke of his dedication and service– a clear example of a man making the most of every opportunity along the way to be a part of his formational institutions. Furthermore, though his service was divided between Lawndale and Kabul, his affinity for institutions committed to the empowerment of his neighbors is evident. Lawndale’s work in developing leadership among the urban poor is well-known, and training health providers is a growing field crucial to making inroads against enormous health disparities while advancing the Gospel. Dr. Umanos’ example shows just how powerful the relationships we form in our vocations can be when we are intentional and consistent.
This is not just a principle that is applicable solely to Christians who work in elite professional fields like medicine. Certainly the privileged have opportunities that allow them to produce more visible acts of charity– we might surmise that the man in Jesus’ parable who began with five talents had a greater chance of getting to ten than either of his counterparts. The challenge for every person who claims the name of Christ is relying on the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to produce in us the discipline necessary to be fruitful in hard places. The lesson of Dr. Umanos’ life is not that he was a special Christian who did things no one else could accomplish, but that he chose to faithfully pursue things that few other people were doing in a manner that anyone who trusts in Jesus can.
Secondly, we can see that Dr. Umanos made calculated sacrifices for the sake of following Christ. This Washington Post article details how he asked for a residents’ salary when he started at Lawndale, which meant that he probably gave up about $60,000-100,000 per year that he could have earned working at a less difficult job. Yet he perceived a calling from God and an affinity to a mission that was worth far more than a few thousand dollars. Many other believers have given up far greater sums of money or larger percentages of their income to serve others– but the point is not about the money, but about the willingness to sacrifice for the sake of faithful ministry. This sacrificial spirit is foundational to our faith and should not be limited merely to finances (for some may even be called to make greater sums of money that they can give away or use for some other good purpose.) Rather, we should each reflect on the gifts that each of us have been given and consider how they might bless God and others if we gave of ourselves at a level that is costly.
Dr. Umanos made some intentional sacrifices but he also took some intentional risks. While we should avoid excessively fetishizing suffering or martyrdom, it is crucial to recognize that, as Bonhoeffer said:
“…It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man and his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his won will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.” (from The Cost of Discipleship
Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of Heaven make clear the question of cost: following Him is worth far more than what we have, and in order to follow Him we must surrender all that we have. It is clear that there is a significant cost associated with the further proclamation of God’s Kingdom (masterfully exposited by John Piper):
” ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake . . . filling up that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.’ Christ wills to have a personal presentation of his sufferings to the world. And the way he means to offer himself as a sufferer for the world to the world is through his people who, like him, are willing to suffer for the world. His sufferings are completed in our sufferings because in ours the world sees his, and they have their appointed effect. The suffering love of Christ for sinners is seen in the suffering love of his people for sinners.”
While for some the death that we are called to is primarily spiritual or emotional, we should not take lightly the weight of the testimony of either New Testament witnesses or millions of our worldwide contemporaries suffering physical and material loss for Jesus’ sake. By contrast, it is shallow to suppose that this is a call for all to go to Afghanistan or the inner-city (although, again, there are not nearly enough Christians in Afghanistan to give the peoples there access to God’s Word!) The sacrifice and risks we are called to are unique to each person who has tasted of new life in Jesus. We all must reflect on Christ’s incredible sacrifice for us and not shame ourselves with overwrought explanations for why we are avoiding the cross He calls us to bear with Him.
It is only when our eyes are fixed on Jesus and our hearts satisfied by the delight of His love that we can look upon our very lives as worth risking for the sake of advancing His Kingdom. The only way to do this, of course, is through the slow and steady spiritual formation that takes places when we are learning from and giving to our local institutions, most especially our local churches. The life of Jerry Umanos demonstrates the effects of formation on someone who has been thus shaped, leading him to a place where even the risk of violent death was not enough to discourage him from proclaiming Christ in word and deed.