I met Dr. Steiner recently in Jersey when we were both attending a special reunion for people who had participated in some 100 overseas projects organized by Jersey Overseas Aid for nearly four decades and organized by Jean Le Maistre, who had been a local Christian politician for some 33 years. (I went on one of those trips in 1976 to the Maua Methodist Hospital in Kenya, to help build a new dining room and kitchen for them.)
David then agreed to share with me his extraordinary story and I began by asking him to give some background on his life.
“I was born in Jersey in 1948, to parents who had both lived through the German occupation of the island,” he said. “My father was Swiss and my mum the daughter of a farmer who was also the Connétable [mayor]of St. Brelade, one of the island parishes. She is still alive and well at almost 92 and was a primary school teacher who never trained as such because she was stuck in Jersey from the age of 19 to 25.
My dad was a trained teacher who died many years ago, a mathematician and enthusiastic musician and chess player. He arrived in Jersey in 1936 and taught languages, although he never lost his own Germanic accent. He met my mum during the time the Germans required him to teach German to island school teachers. When I was 10 and my next brother Vik was 9, the two of us were sent to live for a year in a small children’s home in the Alps in order to learn how to be ‘proper Swiss boys.’
Of course my mum was horrified, but we actually enjoyed it, especially skiing to school in the winter. Coming home again, I had to be taught English in order to pass my 11+ exam. I then went to the local boy’s grammar school which I now realize was quite exceptional, having been set up just after the war with a staff substantially made up of conscientious objectors, many of whom were Quakers. We were taught to think, question and look outwards, and I started to find the outside world very exciting.”
Dr. Steiner went on to say that when he aged 14, he spent a summer in Lausanne to learn to speak French fluently and he says that he clearly remembers being very impressed by visiting the Red Cross and UN buildings in Geneva.
“I was living with a Christian family there and much influenced by them and Billy Graham,” he continued. “My parents were Methodists and I had grown up going to Sunday school, but this was now the ‘real thing.’ Going on to university in Liverpool to study Medicine, I joined the Christian Union and enjoyed living as a Christian, although I was always disappointed by how introverted and shallow many Christians I met seemed to be, and living out their faith only on Sundays.
After finishing training in 1972, the very first thing that happened was that I accepted an offer from Jean le Maistre to be part of the very first Jersey Overseas Aid/Tearfund work project team which went to the EMMS (Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society) hospital in Nazareth. This was my first trip outside Europe, a major turning point in my life and a real eye-opener. Working in a Christian hospital helping Arabs and being laughed at for doing so by local Jewish young people was very challenging! Returning to the UK, I went straight into my first house job working as a very junior doctor at Ormskirk Hospital in Lancashire. There I met my wife who was a student nurse; later I worked at Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool (almost overlapping there with Francis Omaswa), and then much to my surprise, was invited to join a General Practitioner (GP) practice back in the island of Jersey.
I really enjoyed being a GP, especially getting to know families and helping them with their problems, medical and social. Delivering babies was both wonderful and terrifying, and during my 18 years there I managed to deliver a couple of the next generation to mums I had also delivered.”
I then asked him how he met his wife and he replied, “Lynda and I met over a broken leg in Ormskirk [which is just outside of Liverpool]. I had asked her to give the wrong dose of painkilling injection to a patient and she told me off with such a disarming smile that I was hooked. She says she was attracted to me because I talked about my trip to Israel which was much more interesting than most of her previous boyfriends!
Her family ran the local village shop and were Methodists too, and we got married in the church they attended in Mawdesley [Lancashire] in 1974. Jean Le Maistre was my best man. We honeymooned in Istanbul and the Turkish coast, which seemed very daring those days. I then joined the GP practice in Jersey and Lynda did some nursing although in those days wives were expected to be around to answer the phone at lunchtime, evenings, nights and weekends when necessary.
Joanna our eldest was born in 1976, the Katie in 1978 and Martyn in 1986. In 1982 we adopted Kip, a sickly local boy who we had fostered from babyhood and also Oliver then 3 who came from a children’s home in the Philippines. We have also fostered a number of children over the years, including one who is now 44, happily married to an Argentinean Scot and living with him and her 2 children in Switzerland.”
David then spoke about his Christian faith and how it began.
“My Christian faith started properly when I was 14 but I have to admit it has been up and down,” he said. “Although I have never lost my faith, I have often found it very difficult to understand and cope with suffering, particularly the death of young children on a huge scale when we were living in Zambia. I find I must ‘trust and obey,’ and accept there are many things I will never understand. Also, that God works to a different plan and time-scale to man. I tried in general practice to make myself treat people as if I was treating Jesus, and tried to act as he would want me to act. The same is true in my work today, but I often feel I fall short.”
I asked David to talk about some of the highlights of his overseas trips when he was still in Jersey.
“From 1974 to 1981 I gave medical advice to volunteers going away on Jersey Overseas Aid projects, and gave many hundreds of immunizations,” he said. “I organized and led a project team to Dagoretti Children’s Centre near Nairobi in November 1975 (my first trip to Africa) where we built a toilet block.
In April 1976 our eldest daughter Joanna was born and I found it quite challenging to realize how different a life she had before her compared to the children of Dagoretti.
In 1981 I led a team to northern Zambia to build a teachers house. This was a very memorable time, not least when we were walking back to our accommodation at the school after church on Sunday and I was asked to look at a sick child, the eight-year-old daughter of the school’s odd-job man. Elisabeth was obviously desperately ill in a dark thatched hut, her worried mum next to her. She was very feverish with staring eyes and neck stiffness, and had been vomiting profusely.
I wanted to help but had no real idea where to start. I persuaded the parents to allow us to carry her to a small room adjacent to our dormitory where we could keep an eye on her. I told the group that I would set up an IV with our own supplies but that I would need volunteers to sit up with her through the night to ensure the drip did not tissue. All 23 members of my team volunteered immediately – I was very proud of them! I learnt that Elisabeth had been to hospital but had not been admitted because they had no bed, and had not been treated because they had no medicine. Although unable to do any tests, I surmised she had either meningitis or cerebral malaria and started her on injections of penicillin, and also quinine.
She actually stabilized rather well and looked much better rehydrated. But the following day when the drip ran out, she passed peacefully away. We were all devastated. Worst of all, her mum just got on with the task of laying her out – she knew what to do because two of her children had previously died. I was angry but unsure where to direct my anger. It spurred me on though to try to help more suffering children.”
Dr. Steiner has now left Jersey and has begun HANDS AROUND THE WORLD in Monmouth, which is in South Wales. So I asked him what had been the turning point for him to do this.
“From 1978 to 1992 I worked with Jersey Overseas Aid finding projects and volunteers and preparing them for their experience,” he told me. “The numerous jabs sessions continued too! Naturally I met some of the overseas partners when they came through, and James and Faith Cairns from St Francis Hospital, Katete in Zambia responded positively when I told them that Lynda and I felt called to take our family abroad where I could work and we could all experience life in a mission hospital.
This was a big step and involved taking five children out of school, two of them reluctant teenage girls, to an uncertain future starting with a year ‘in the bush’. It was the best year of our lives.”
He went on to say, “As a family, we spent a year at St. Francis Hospital in the early nineties. I was working as a medical officer, both in the hospital and one day a week in the community, under the watchful eye of James Cairns (revered as ‘Macairnsi’ locally) the medical superintendent.
It was a fantastic experience for all the family, and also brought us much closer to one another. It was hard too – I felt very out of my depth after swapping General Practice for hospital medicine in the tropics.
Our five children were aged between 6 and 16; the younger boys having daily lessons with mum, the older two girls learning about life by looking after some orphaned babies living temporarily in a little room off Bethlehem, the maternity ward. (I have included Katie’s very moving ‘All I have left is the Sunset’ about the death of one of her charges, herewith.)
I could never cope with children dying, and it was this experience which eventually led to the founding of ‘HANDS AROUND THE WORLD.’
Between Christmas and Easter the rainy season brought a huge influx of toddlers, many of them moribund often for a variety of frustratingly preventable reasons. A particularly poignant statement on the protocol for treating small children, which will always stay with me, was that those with a hemoglobin reading of more than 2gm/100ml should not be transfused unless they were in overt cardiac failure, as the potential risk of giving HIV+ blood was greater than their risk of death with a hemoglobin which should really have been 10gm or more!
One mother brought me to tears one evening as she thanked me for helping her infant who had then just died, wrapped his little body in her chitenge cloth, tied him to the carrier of her bicycle and walked off sobbing.
Then on another evening I was walking home from the children’s ward very angry with God. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I asked aloud, and immediately, and much to my surprise, I got the answer ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And that is the moment when HATW changed from being an idea and a dream, into a very specific vital and urgent attempt to make a real difference to the lives of children in need.”
David explained that the mission statement of Hands Around the World is: “HANDS AROUND THE WORLD seeks to help vulnerable children around the world, encouraging enthusiastic and well-prepared volunteers to offer practical help, skill-sharing, support and friendship.”
I then asked him to talk about someone who has deeply impacted his life since he began HANDS AROUND THE WORLD.
He said that one person who impacted him, was Father Hans Burgman from Kenya, who had asked him to go for a walk.
David said “You wouldn’t think an innocent question like that could induce panic, but it did!
Father Hans Burgman. the questioner, is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. But when he says walk, beware! He walks at least 25 miles in the hot sun for relaxation and team building exercise. He walked from Mombasa to Kisumu to commemorate the first White Fathers arriving in Kenya (1500 miles).
Once when I met him, aged 76, with one hip replaced and the other painful and awaiting surgery, he told me how over a recent sabbatical he had walked from 6am to 1pm each day, staying at night with the local parish priest, from the Netherlands through France to Santiago de Compostella in Spain and then back again through the French Alps and Germany.
As a Dutch priest, one day in his fifties he found himself talking to God in his office, saying ‘This is not what You called me to do.’ At the time he was the world head of the White Fathers, and when God suggested he resign, move to Kenya and live with the poor, he might have been expected to demur. But he didn’t. He took a rucksack and went to Kisumu where he ministered to the poor, sleeping in whichever shanty-town house he was offered a space. After two years, he had met a number of street kids who lived under a nearby bridge and constantly sniffed solvents from a small plastic bottle.
Thus started a wonderful project to help these children back home, with support, or into a caring home if there was no other option. Informal schooling, art therapy, carpentry workshop and other initiatives soon followed, and the work continues to this day, with a very dedicated team.
Father Hans in now about 86 and still in Kisumu. And he still likes to go for a walk.”
Dr. Steiner says that he has no plans at present to work in other countries. “We are keen to maintain the quality of the links we have with our overseas partners, in effect seeking to deepen rather than broaden our work,” he said.
When asked why he had returned to Jersey for the weekend reunion, he said, “I came back because Jersey Overseas Aid has been so big a part in my life and I have many friends through it. It was wonderful to meet up again with so many people that I have not seen for many years, amongst them Pierre and Marlene Genee who felt with me the pain of losing Elisabeth Sayeeli in Zambia, Bob le Sueur one of my former inspirational school teachers, Francis Omaswa whose health work in developing countries I have long admired, John Maitland who started Uganda Development Services, and others too numerous to mention. I was particularly inspired by the Tearfund Service on Sunday morning at St. Marks Church in St. Helier.”
[David and I did the Bible readings for the service and then Andy and Jenny Flanagan from Tearfund sang and spoke about the worldwide needs that Christians should be address.]
Why is it important for Christians to reach out around the world and participate in overseas projects?
“I can’t speak for others, but for me it is important to respond to God’s challenges to us, knowing that he will not ask us to do the impossible, and be with us through it,” said David. “Jesus showed us the way. I believe that we who have such a privileged life style need to share, support the weak and suffering, help those in need. Doing so makes us all better people.”
To get more information on what HANDS AROUND THE WORLD are doing, please go to their website, www.hatw.org.uk, and click on “What’s New” and then “Update.”
David concluded our interview by saying, “Our hands around the world may get grubby and blistered, they may need to hold a sick child or comfort a grieving parent, they may sometimes be asked simply to hold the hand of another, but there is always more to these hands than practical help alone.”
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