From Outer space
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 occupies- as he walks to the moaning 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 in 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've read it," Pepper explains.
Pepper is not only a physician; he is part of a team seeking to share the gospel with the Banyankore/Bakiga people of southwestern Uganda, the country's second-largest ethnic group and the tribe of President Yoweri Museveni.
The doctor's next stop is another ward across a courtyard.
"The hospital is set up by wards," he says. "In December, admissions went from 240 to 450 in this ward. There are only 300 beds in the hospital, so most days there are patients lying on the floor."
Beds aren't' the only supplies in demand. One day two boys died because there was no pure oxygen available. The hospital scrambles for enough basic supplies to make it through each day.
Called back to earth
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 flight surgeon for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) raising three children with his wife, Sally, and attending University Baptist Church in Clear Lake, Texas.
At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Pepper took part in the medical selection of astronauts, health care for the astronauts and their families, and more. He traveled to the Kennedy Space Center launch site in Florida with crews, headed up emergency medical teams in case of accidents, returned to Houston to monitor missions, and traveled to landing sites to assist in crew recovery. In his seven years with NASA, Pepper worked more than 15 missions, including the first Hubbell Space Telescope repair mission.
He dreamed of space flight - and almost saw the dream come true. But before that he 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 Zaire, to work with Rwandan refugees.
That's where he met missionary Larry Pumpelly, who told him about the position at Mbarara University Teaching Hospital in Uganda. It sounded perfect.
But obedience to God's call meant leaving behind all he had achieved. After the couple's decision to become missionaries, Pepper was selected as a finalist for astronaut duty in space. God was testing the Peppers' integrity, they believe, to see if they were really willing to follow him.
"People were saying, 'Why in the world would you give up that job?' It was simple obedience to God," Pepper explains.
Obedience sustained the family through financial reversal, missionary training, language study, and an around-the-world move away from their friends and aging parents.
The Peppers landed in Uganda on January 2, 1996.
Life and death in Uganda
On his rounds, Pepper doesn't think Jane, another 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 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 been in vain.
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. They practice taking pulses and blood pressure - and thinking critically in order to make correct diagnoses.
But they learn more than just medicine from Pepper. He shows what it means to care - his gentle touch on a woman's forehead as he questions her, the way he looks each patient in the eye with respect, the way his voice soothes a severely burned little girl.
"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 treat another woman who had a witch doctor try to burn a pimple off her face. The resulting infection had spread down her neck. Pepper looks up and sees a nurse covering the first woman, now quiet, with a sheet. Regret and remorse chase each other like clouds across his face. HE shakes his head and continues the conversation.
"You 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."
The Peppers' desire to give physical and spiritual life to people in Uganda has led them to launch several ministries - especially for 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 co-ed Bible study. "Key discipling occurs at that time," Pepper says. "We started with about five and now run between 18 and 20."
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. 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 observes.
Toning down God's Word isn't part of the Peppers' approach to life. Neither is a compromise. Obedience is.
Reprinted by permission The Commission.