Jim and Jan Dennis

Their malaria mission
by Jo Ann Dollard

Jim and Jan Dennis share a special dream – to see malaria eradicated. The couple, members of both St. John’s Lutheran Church and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Jacksonville, Fla., became involved with the ELCA Malaria Campaign in 2011. On a deep level, their experience has changed their lives and how they see the world.

Jim, a vascular surgeon and professor at the University of Florida at Jacksonville, first became interested in malaria as a medical student. His mother was a nurse, and he loved biology and the study of living organisms.

“I was always a little bit fascinated by the disease,” he said, adding that it has a complex and unique life cycle.

And though malaria has become a disease that is treatable and preventable, it “gnawed” at Jim that every year hundreds of thousands of people — many of them children — died of malaria, unnecessarily.

“I thought it was a medical injustice that people were dying from a disease that we understood well, could diagnose and could treat,” Jim explained. “If you don’t live in the Third World and in poverty, you’re not gonna get this disease. It’s a social and medical injustice.”

And despite the fact that they live in Florida where mosquitoes and standing water are plentiful, as Jan, a pharmaceutical representative, explained, “I’ve never had to worry about mosquitoes biting my children and them getting a disease that would make them die.”

Jan added, “Through my company and my work, I knew there was a worldwide campaign in sub-Saharan Africa to have a concerted effort to fight malaria on a multi-pronged front — [involving] corporations, pharmaceutical companies, different churches, [including] the ELCA.”

When the ELCA first adopted a resolution to launch an anti-malaria campaign in 2011, “It piqued my interest,” Jim said. He thought to himself, “Finally the church is going to do something specific [about] malaria.”

He wrote to the ELCA expressing his desire to help and was invited to become part of the Malaria Campaign’s national leadership team. The campaign funds programs of companion churches and Lutheran partners in education, prevention and treatment of malaria.

In his role, in addition to presenting at three synod assemblies and attending national meetings, Jim has been involved locally, including giving talks about malaria to many local congregations. 

“I really like the fact that the ELCA as an organized church is very involved with and works in dealing with these social issues,” Jim said. “This is a unique disease, but it’s really a part of the social phenomenon of poverty, unsanitary conditions and malnutrition in the Third World. It’s very important that the church be involved.”  

As ELCA Malaria Campaign representatives, Jim and Jan visited Zambia in 2013. Jan said, “We were able to see how the money was really being used to save lives. That’s really what these [mosquito] nets do; that’s really what the education does. It saves lives.”

“The Lutheran members in Zambia we met were so grateful for all the help the ELCA has provided,” Jim added. “It was heartwarming to see how much the campaign was appreciated.” (Read more about Jim and Jan’s trip and St. John’s online at Living Lutheran.)

Noting the success of the program, Jim noted that the campaign, in joining with other global efforts to contain malaria, has helped halve the number of deaths in certain areas.

Jim added, “I think it wasn’t just a bunch of folks over here in the U.S. writing checks and sending money over [to Africa]. It was well-organized through the local African churches where local people were educated and became the administrators of the program. The real workers are local people.”

To date, the ELCA Malaria Campaign has raised $14.9 million dollars and will likely surpass its $15 million goal by the end of 2015.

“People often ask, ‘Why is the church doing this? It’s not really a religious thing, it’s a medical thing,” Jim said. His response is that if you’re sick with a horrible disease like malaria, “Nothing else matters,” adding, “If you want people to understand that you care about them, then how can you ignore what is a huge part of their lives and can be devastating?”

Being involved in the campaign, Jim said, “Truly turned out to be a wonderful thing in our lives that was kind of by chance – asking to be part of it at the right time when they were putting together the team and being able to be part of it. It worked pretty well. We’ve pretty much reached the goal ahead of time, as far as funding is concerned. [And] not just that — the number of lives saved and the reduction of malaria worldwide. It’s all been good.” 

What’s most meaningful to Jim is that “The Lutheran churches in Africa are very involved with the programs to eradicate malaria in their communities.” He added, “This local involvement and commitment to educate parishioners in malaria prevention will last after the ELCA Malaria Campaign is over.”

“[I’ve been] so moved by my fellow ELCA members nationwide and their willingness to open their wallets and their hearts to help end malaria in Africa,” Jan said. “From the synods, churches and individuals, there was a common bond in commitment to this issue. So much love was shown by ELCA members to help families in sub-Saharan Africa stop malaria from affecting their lives and taking their children. [We] saw ‘God's work. Our hands.’ in action.”


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