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Missionaries answer 'a clear call' to work in rural Kenya

[Episcopal Life] For some, retirement means slowing down. For Dr. William "Gerry" and Nancy Hardison, both in their 70s, it means serving in a hospital and various clinics; running a seminary; fostering a nursing school; and overseeing an orphan-feeding program in a remote area of western Kenya. Known locally as "Professor Nan" and "Professor Gerry," the retired San Diego couple has worked as Episcopal volunteers for mission for seven years in Maseno, a town too small to be on the map.

"We have been privileged in our education and our working lives, and believe we ought to continue to use that education for service," Nancy Hardison wrote in an e-mail interview.

Both had been Fulbright scholars in Albania. She served as a professor of business administration at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, retiring in 1998. Her husband retired a year later from his work as a doctor at Veteran's Hospital in La Jolla, California, and as professor of medicine at the University of California in San Diego.

"We heard about Maseno when we were in Nairobi," Nancy Hardison recalled. Both Episcopalians, they also are affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene (an evangelical Christian denomination rooted in Methodism) and arrived in Kenya in 1999 as Nazarenes in volunteer service. She became deputy vice chancellor of academics of Africa Nazarene University. Her husband practiced and taught medicine at University of Nairobi and Kenyatta National Hospital.

"One of our Kenyan acquaintances asked us to come to Essaba, a village near Maseno, to do clinics three or four times a year," Nancy Hardison said. On several visits, they met Bishop Simon Oketch of the Diocese of Maseno North in the Anglican Church of Kenya.

A call to serve
"When we had been in Nairobi for two years, we decided our work there was done and we would go back to San Diego. That very week, a letter came from Bishop Oketch asking us if we would come to Maseno when we finished our work in Nairobi," she said. "We experienced that as a very clear call."

It was a call to tackle serious challenges at several diocesan ministries collectively known as Maseno Missions. Maseno Anglican Hospital lacked adequate beds, staff, medicines and equipment, Nancy Hardison said.

The adjacent Maseno Mission School of Nursing, founded in 1935, closed intermittently due to lack of services and patients. St. Philip's Theological Seminary, also in Maseno, had just one student. Funding was all but nonexistent.

With her Ph.D., MBA and years of teaching experience, Nancy Hardison became principal of St. Philip's and began planning and pursuing funding for Maseno Missions. Gerry Hardison began to practice medicine at the hospital.

St. Philip's now has 36 students, while the nursing school has stabilized and has 24 students. The hospital has three maternal-child clinics, 160 beds, three doctors and 45 nurses. Besides treating ailments from malaria to tuberculosis to jiggers (a parasitic infection), the hospital administers an AIDS prevention and education program.

The hospital also is involved in the Orphan Health Initiative, part of the feeding program offering free medical care to orphans and caregivers in selected parishes. The Mothers' Union Orphan Feeding Program, begun in 2003, has expanded to 41 parishes that receive loans to begin income generating projects to become self-supporting, Nancy Hardison explained. The program feeds 17,000 children one meal a week.

"We are amazed and delighted at what God has done in this place," the Hardisons wrote in their annual report to their sending parish, All Souls' Episcopal Church in Point Loma, California, which helps provide financial support. "It is a wonderful example of the loaves and the fishes."

Funding challenges
Funding continues to be a challenge. Donor support has been vital, but many donors have cut funding by as much as half because of the global economic crisis, Dianne Smith wrote on her blog (www.heart-to-god.blogspot.com).

A missionary nurse from St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Edgartown, Massachusetts, she works in the hospital with Gerry Hardison. They make rounds twice a day, seven days a week.

The annual operating cost of the hospital was about $360,000 in 2008, and the annual inflation rate is 35 to 50 percent, Gerry Hardison said in an e-mail. Staff includes two Kenyan general practitioners but no surgeon, four to six physician's assistants, 15 RNs and 25 licensed vocational nurses.

Excluding the maternity program, in-patients pay about 25 to 30 percent of their billed amounts, while expatriate donors subsidize those who cannot pay, he said. Still, financial hardship in the community hinders medical treatment, Smith said on her blog. "Some of our patients who can't afford their hospital bills are leaving too soon, against medical advice, in order to be honorable about payment. Many are without food (expensive after last year's inflation) and without means to buy seeds, supplies and fertilizer. Being without rain now means that even those who can plant will bring in a late harvest."

"Perhaps the hardest thing is the volume of stories," she wrote. "They are not just the stories of the children. For every one we know, there are thousands we don't know. Even the adults in the theological school essentially need to beg for tuition."

Often these students "are the hope for the future of the children of western Kenya, but they may be sent away for lack of tuition," she wrote. "The bishop said that their bills must be paid in full before they can graduate from St. Philip's. We are in the process of trying to get a CD made by St. Philip's choir to help raise funds for that purpose, but I don't know if that can happen soon enough."

A guest house raises some money to support the theological college, which offers a few small scholarships, Nancy Hardison said in an e-mail. Tuition costs about $1,700 per year. It is difficult work, she said. The challenges of working in a different culture and of facing extreme poverty "often get us down," she said. To rest, they watch Mel Brooks and Benny Hill comedies on DVD. And their faith sustains them.

"We continue to be more and more aware of God each day," she said. She references Matthew 25:31- 46, which ends with the words, "As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me," as the foundation for their work. "This is our reason for being here," she said.

Looking ahead, "We can't see the future for Maseno Missions," she said. "Certainly we don't plan to expand, and we most certainly don't plan new locations."

But the Hardisons did not expect to be in Maseno seven years, nor did they expect the growth in its programs they've witnessed during that time, she said. "We don't know what God has in store for us, but we are willing and waiting to see."

To learn more about Maseno Missions, visit www.masenomissions.org.

-- Freelance writer Lynn Dean Hunter is a lay leader at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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