Priests, rabbis, imams, ministers join together to support people in countries recently insulted by Trump

MIDTOWN, Manhattan — African countries have been in the news lately, following comments by President Trump, and not necessarily in the most positive light.

Now, though, thanks to a Jewish philanthropist couple from New York, and their backing of a Christian medical mission that's supported by people from a wide variety of faiths, some African countries are in the news in a positive, remarkable way.

"A life is a life," said Rabbi Erica Gerson. "Whether the patient at the hospitals are Muslim, or irreligious, or Christian, it doesn't even really matter."

She and her husband, businessman and entrepreneur Mark Gerson, founded L'Chaim Prize. It gives $500,000 each year to different Christian medical missions selected by a panel of local and American medical professionals who assess where the money is most badly needed.

"The Torah tells [us] 36 times, more than it tells us anything else, to love the stranger," Mark Gerson said. "So when we think about how can we best live that Torah value, it is with these Christian medical missionaries."

A group of imams, Protestant ministers, rabbis, Catholic priests and other people of faith gathered at a restaurant on Thursday that's about as all-American as it comes -- the New York Yankees' Steakhouse -- to show interfaith support for the cause.

As the rabbi who gave the invocation pointed out, some people in the room identify with no religious faith. He opened the ceremonial luncheon with a moment of reverent silence.

It was followed by the presentation of the prize, to Dr. Russ White, the chief surgeon of Tenwek Hospital in rural Kenya. He's led efforts to fight heart disease across East Africa.

"When we look at how things are, we all know they're not how they ought to be," Dr. White told PIX11 News. "And we can make a difference."

He lives what he speaks, as his chief assistant pointed out.

"We screen about 100 to 200 patients a month," said Dr. Agneta Odera, a surgeon at Tenwek Hospital. "And there's so many we turn away, because we don't have the resources to deal with it, and a lot of them die."

That will no longer be the case, thanks to the prize created by two New Yorkers, aimed at helping people half a world away, in a simple, but wide-reaching way.

Drs. White and Odera are focusing a significant part of their practice to training East African medical providers to treat strep throat. It's among the most important measures in medicine.

"Strep throat can be the cause of rheumatic heart disease," said Dr. White, adding that recovery from strep is virtually guaranteed, if it's treated, as it is in almost all cases in the West.

"If you don't, you could end up being one of the people with damaged heart valves. We can prevent massive amounts of death, and we're doing that," said White.

He received the second annual L'Chaim Prize, bringing the total donations by the Gersons to medical missions in Africa to $1 million and counting. Another organization, Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief organization, announced on Thursday that it is contributing $4 million to Tenwek Hospital, where Drs. Odera and White lead the surgical team.

The support of finances from New York philanthropists, along with moral support from local leaders from a wide array of faiths, was singled out by the leader of Cordoba House, an Islamic center that once made headlines itself, when it met with vocal opposition when it tried to expand at a site near the World Trade Center.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf said that Thursday’s show of interfaith support was “a sign of the times,” that demonstrates that “most people are good.”

“If the news depicted and reported on the amount of good things going on in the world,” said the imam, “it would vastly outnumber the news that is discordant.”

Contributions to the medical mission can be made at https://amhf.kindful.com/?campaign=238194.