Mark Ottenweller: ‘Are you willing?’

Working for the poor means risk, hard work and sacrifice. It means walking like Jesus, says Dr. Mark Ottenweller, global HIV/AIDS coordinator for HOPE worldwide.

Dr. Mark Ottenweller is the global HIV/AIDS coordinator for HOPE worldwide, a faith-based international charity organization that provides health, education, job training and other services to poor and needy people in the U.S. and around the world. Affiliated with the International Churches of Christ, the organization began in 1991 with three small programs and today operates on every inhabited continent, serving more than one million people annually.

A graduate of Louisiana State University Medical School, Ottenweller was an internist in private practice in Baton Rouge, La., and Atlanta until 1989, when he and his family moved to the Ivory Coast and established one of the first HIV/AIDS clinics in West Africa. A veteran of 18 years in Africa with HOPE worldwide, Ottenweller has since served in more than 200 communities in 15 countries across Africa, organizing scores of support and disease prevention programs and developing and sustaining hospital- and clinic-based initiatives.

In an interview with Faith & Leadership editor Sally Hicks in September 2008, Dr. Ottenweller talks about his work with HOPE worldwide, the challenges of getting Christians involved in helping the poor, and the role of faith in leadership.

Q: Dr. Ottenweller, tell me about how your faith affects your work as part of the senior leadership of HOPE worldwide.

Many people go out with good intentions and either get burned out because it’s frustrating and difficult, there are a lot of challenges. I think faith keeps you inspired, it keeps you encouraged, it gives you a hidden sort of strength that a lot of people don’t have to do what you need to do to face obstacles and challenges, certainly to face crises and other things that will come up in any kind of work like this.

Q: You’ve referred to the organization as “faith-based, not faith-biased,” which is a great phrase, but I’m curious what you mean by that.

We work all around the world; we work with people from many different cultures, many different religious backgrounds, many different social contexts. So we help people in an unbiased way, we help people all over the world in very different situations. However, our faith is definitely an integral part of inspiring and encouraging us to continue doing the work that we’ve done.

Q: As a Christian working for a Christian organization, what kinds of challenges or conflicts do you ever face with working with people of different faiths and backgrounds?

Well I think there’s always a certain tension. People come from a certain bias and expect this or that to happen and I think we’ve found that as long as you respect people, respect people’s background, respect people’s faith, respect people’s challenges that they’ve faced and how they do things, you learn a lot. You learn that some of the things we don’t do very well and they do much better than we do in many places. In countries that I’ve been in with certain religious faiths the streets are deserted, completely deserted on the day of worship. You don’t find that in the United States. That’s an example.

Q: You mentioned earlier the challenge of getting people including Christians to work for the poor, to help the poor, to help the sick. Talk a little bit about that.

Obviously people in America are comfortable, they have a comfortable lifestyle. Sometimes the church group that they go to is comfortable and they go because it’s down the street.

Working for the poor, working in challenging situations requires some risk, requires some hard work, requires some sacrifice. So we spend a lot of time motivating, encouraging church leaders to be personally involved with the poor, not sending money but actually doing something physically for the poor, and helping them to help their congregations to help their churches to get each person involved with the poor in some way. I think that’s what Jesus did.

He reached out and touched the leper. He didn’t send him money. He reached out and had compassion on him, and the leper said “Are you willing?” and Jesus said, “I am willing,” and reached out and touched him. And I think that’s what we try to do around the world, is motivate and encourage church leaders and church members to get physically involved in helping the poor in some way.

Q: And is that of particular importance to Christians versus any other Americans?

Well I think it’s important for everybody. I think it’s important if you claim to be a Christian to walk as Jesus did, to actually do what he did day to day and week to week, and kind of look at your schedule, look at his schedule and say, “What do I need to change to walk as he did?”

I think for people that don’t even believe in God, I think it’s clear that helping other people refreshes the soul. “He who refreshes others will be refreshed:” All those principles are still true, so that perhaps if we get more people involved with helping the poor, they’ll turn to God because they’ll see the importance of that, and the importance of helping people and getting God’s help to do that.

Q: So you see it kind of as a two-way street?

I think it helps people to help other people. I went through a number of tragedies this last year, and I know we’ve just met, but my wife passed away at the end of October after 31 years of marriage.

Then my father passed away in June, and my father-in-law about a week ago. And so we’ve had kind of a hard year. And one of the things I do is just go out and help somebody. And I feel much better, and being with the lilies of the field and birds of the air and being with little children -- all that stuff really helps. It’s a very practical thing.

So I think Americans, religious or not, can benefit a lot from doing these very basic biblical things. I think those things will turn them to God because they’ll see that indeed, if I’m helping people or involved with little children, or enjoying the lilies of the field or the birds of the air or building my house on a rock, that those things actually help me. They’re not just theoretical. They really do help.

Q: One thing that you do obviously is the on-the-ground work. But I know that you’ve recently moved back to the states after being based in Africa for many years. In terms of leadership and leading as a Christian shall we say in a faith-based organization, how does that inform the work that you do with the people for example just in your office?

Well I think typically we’d begin a meeting with a prayer. We’d try to make it a spiritual sort of get together where -- even though there are challenges in any organization -- that we have a spiritual background and mindset when we are at work.

One of the fellows at work puts a little yellow Post-it notes with little Scriptures on my desk frequently, so that encourages me, and my children send little text messages to me that are Scriptures: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” That helps me day to day. I think sometimes when there are challenges we have to say, “Okay, what did the Bible say about resolving conflicts?” We try to do that a biblical way.

I think it just creates an atmosphere of inspiration and encouragement, despite challenges. I love visiting our projects. I used to go to these big AIDS conferences, and 10 years ago for three or four days it would be bad, bad and worse news. I mean it was terrible. People were dying everywhere and certainly a lot of people we knew were dying. Typically out in Africa or somewhere I’d go to these meetings and it would be terrible -- very burdensome and oppressive and difficult. And then that evening go to a church service with music and drums, and rhythm and excitement and encouragement. It was like night and day, really. I think being with people that believe in God, getting a hug, getting encouragement all helps a lot in the work we do as well.

Q: I know you’ve met Nelson Mandela and I believe you’ve met Oprah Winfrey, am I right about that?

She knows me -- no she doesn’t know me, I know her. Nelson Mandela invited us for coffee in September before I left South Africa. So it was a pleasure to meet with him. The most interesting part of that is that we met celebrities -- we’ve had Colin Powell and Bill Clinton come out a few times and Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela, different people like that.

But the most encouraging thing that happened to me in September before I left is I went to the meeting of another nongovernmental organization. Another group invited me for breakfast because they knew I was leaving, we’d helped them develop their programs. And the leader of the organization -- I went over for breakfast, didn’t know the agenda, didn’t know what it was about, this was early in the morning -- she stood up and opened the meeting.

She read Isaiah 61: About the spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor and to bind up the broken-hearted and bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair and they shall be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. Obviously I know that Scripture, obviously she had learned that or heard that at some meeting that she had been to with us. It’s what we based our work on. And she stood up and read that because she had learned that from us. That was critical to her group, that they focus on binding up the broken-hearted and meeting the needs of others.

And so rather than meeting the Nelson Mandelas or Oprah Winfrey, by far that was the most inspiring thing that happened to me when I left Africa, was just seeing the impact that we had had on other organizations developing similar values and being inspired by the things that we were inspired by.

Q: Do you ever have a hard time bridging these two worlds, the celebrities and then yet the poorest, neediest people on earth?

It’s a challenge. I think you sort of see both sides of the ocean, both sides of the pond so to speak. Perhaps we need more people to come back to the States and help people to get engaged, to get involved, but I certainly miss Africa. I wish I was there today. I’d like to be continuing what I’ve been doing.

But I think there is a need in the United States to help people develop these values and to get involved personally and to see the benefits and joys of getting more directly involved in helping those people that are poor.

We’ve seen really a surge of young people. I think they’ve sort of seen through the materialism and the media and all the different pressures that are facing them and look to more serious things that they think will be of value. There’s a whole group of college students around the States now that are rising up to support orphans in Africa, for example.

I think there are some encouraging things going on, certainly the PEPFAR initiative by the U.S. government to help people with AIDS, extending and expanding that is important. There are certainly people in political circles that have these same values, and certainly we’re seeing more partnerships between church groups in the U.S. and church groups in Africa around things like orphans.

But the need’s enormous. We’re certainly going to have 20 million orphans due to AIDS in Africa by 2010, projected to go beyond that. So there’s been a lot of progress in antiretroviral care, there’s been a lot progress in care and treatment, there’s been a lot of progress in a number of areas.

But from where we see it, the AIDS epidemic is going to continue to rage on for a while and the number of orphans is going to continue to grow. So in Africa, everyone will need to help an orphan physically. Twenty million orphans. Schoolteachers are already taking people in, nurses, church leaders, church members, a number of our staff have taken people into their homes, children into their homes. So I think we’re going to see that more and more in Africa, but it would be great to see church groups, schools, civil society get involved in a big way. Rotary Club has gotten involved in a big way. Other groups in civil society to make a commitment to bridge this gap.

My job is to really build bridges from the U.S. to Africa and help people to get involved and see the great benefits of that.

Q: I know you have a really active youth program that you just mentioned. And I think bringing up and developing young leaders is an issue for the church generally. Do you have any advice, or does your model for young people offer any kind of insight for bringing up young leaders more generally?

Sure we feel like again it’s great to start people when they’re young. We send 30, 40 students out to spend a couple weeks working in Africa and around the world -- Southeast Asia, Latin America -- helping the poor. These are people that when I'm dead and gone will continue the work. These are people that will now commit their lives to meeting the needs of the poor in some way. So the youth is a very powerful tool or weapon against the fight in poverty, because you can change people’s lives forever.

I think we see young people rising up to do incredible things in medical care, nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers, that will be now linked to the developing world and the problems of the developing world. They’re really the future of what we do.

Q: You also do work in the U.S., correct? Or your organization does?

HOPE worldwide is a faith-based organization. It’s affiliated with the Church of Christ. We have domestic and international programs. Most of our domestic programs in the past involved immunizations and childhood illnesses in the inner city.

Recently we developed a partnership with the Red Cross, to work with the Red Cross on disaster relief, on fire prevention, a number of domestic issues. So we have a number of partners in the U.S., primarily working in either inner-city needy areas of the U.S. or in disaster relief. So we’ve done a tremendous amount of work in New Orleans, in Louisiana and Mississippi, around Katrina relief.

I was down there on the Fourth of July working in New Orleans. My daughter’s been there four or five times working in New Orleans with Habitat for Humanity. You can kind of see the impact of that on the lives of young people. Our family was even affected – I’m from Louisiana.

Q: Right. You’re from Baton Rouge, right?

I was from Lake Charles originally, and went to school in New Orleans, practiced medicine in Baton Rouge. My brother-in-law lost his house, lost everything. His house went 6 to 7 feet under water in Katrina. My brother lost the second floor of his house. My in-laws, two trees fell on their house. We had a lot of damage. So HOPE worldwide actually helped us. So we were not only the workers, we were the recipients of help.

Q: I was going to ask you if you had anything you wanted to add, particularly thinking of this audience of leaders of Christian organizations and institutions?

I would say, No. 1, that the Bible’s real, that the things we read about work, that it’s not just theory, that the Scriptures are really true.

They will help me personally; the people I’m around, but also inspire others to get involved with the poor. And if people get involved with the poor and meeting the needs of others, they’ll have a renewed interest in what Christianity’s all about.

It was Mahatma Gandhi that said, “There’d be more Christians except for Christians.” And around the world, we’re seen as kind of lewd and opulent and worldly, because we’re not involved in some of these basic issues on a personal basis. I do believe that God has anointed us to preach the good news to the poor and to bind up the broken-hearted. They’ll rise up to become oaks of righteousness, a plant of the Lord for the display of his splendor. That’ll really happen.

Q: Now that you live in the U.S. again do you find it harder to live that life that you aspire to?

I think there are incredible challenges, pressures, time, busy-ness, and people running all around. I’m learning things. I’ve observed things, I’m learning things, I’m trying not to be judgmental or self-righteous in any way, but to try to help people apply or reapply these basic principles. They’ll still work. They’ll work in Bangladesh, they’ll work in Zimbabwe and they’ll work in Philadelphia or Durham, North Carolina. They’ll still work.