A young, muslim mother of an 18-month-old toddler shuffles into a run-down clinic in Ethiopia. Her face is taut with pain because her inwardly curled eyelids force her eyelashes to scratch her corneas every time she opens her eyes. She has come to this clinic, clinging to the hope that someone can relieve the pain that she experiences every time she tries to look at the ground below her, the food in front of her, her husband, and even her baby.
She lies down on a table, only half-understanding what surgery she is about to endure, willing to do whatever it takes to find relief. When the anesthesia doesn’t curb the pain of the surgeon cutting into her eyelid, she grits her teeth and squeezes tight the hand that was offered for her to hold. This outreached hand belonged to Lori (Longenecker) Kempen ’92. It was during the Kempens’ visit to this clinic that the calling was confirmed—God wanted Lori, her husband, John, and their three children to establish a Christian eye care and training center in Ethiopia.
Lori attended Cairn University from 1988–1992, studying music education and Bible. She was an active student on campus, singing in Chorale and participating in the Student Body Government. After graduation, Lori worked as a music teacher for a local school district. With a heart open to teaching internationally, Lori found a job with Quality Schools International (QSI) in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 1998. It was during her time there that Lori began praying, for the first time, about God possibly finding her a husband. God brought a young man to her mind, a godly ophthalmologist whom her sister-in-law in Baltimore had been inviting to various events in the hopes that “something” might happen. Lori prayed, that if it be God’s will, she would find a husband, and he would find a wife.
While home for summer break in 1999, God brought them together, and they were married in September of 2000. Lori then moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to start their life together. Their early years of marriage were their own version of the American Dream. John was an assistant professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University, working on his PhD in epidemiology. Lori was a music teacher at Baltimore Christian School. Together, they were very active in their church. They regularly hosted a small group in their home, directed the missions committee, and participated on InterVarsity’s international student ministry leadership team by leading Bible studies for international students. But while they loved the life they were living, they both were continually reminded of what they offered the Lord the night of their engagement.
Only hours after John proposed, they flipped through a World Vision magazine, wondering about where God would lead them. Both open to the possibility of international mission work, they offered a “blank check” to God that He could write on as He chose. They did not know what that blank check would cost them, but they intentionally dedicated their lives and work to the Lord.
With all of their thriving ministries, it seemed that God’s will was for them to stay in Baltimore. They concluded that John’s specialty—the treatment of uveitis—would most likely displace a national ophthalmologist if they moved overseas, which they believed would be unethical. John’s gifts seemed to best suit ministry in a western culture. This blank check seemed to be written for ministry at home.
Five years into marriage, they moved to Philadelphia so John could begin his work at the University of Pennsylvania. They began attending Tenth Presbyterian Church, and Lori was sure that God would have them continue work in international student ministry. When John and Lori discussed their future, Lori talked about Tenth’s international ministry, but John talked about international public health. The more they discussed, the more it became apparent that John felt the Lord calling him to overseas medical ministry. Lori’s blank check required a dying to self. She had to let go of her own desires and trust the Lord in her submission to her husband’s growing passion for overseas ministry. And while it was not easy to do, Lori found peace and clarity as she began to support her husband’s calling.
To start this process, John began to make a name for himself in the international public health ophthalmic scene. By paying for his own travel, John got himself invited to present his research. After three years of traveling, the Kempens began to see that John’s stature as an ophthalmologist and epidemiologist had grown significantly. If they did choose to move overseas, he would not run the risk of displacing anyone because of the value he would add to any medical institution, especially a developing one. The idea of establishing a Christian eye care center and training institution began to take root.
John and Lori turned their attention to the needs in Ethiopia. In addition to the young, Muslim mother Lori met, 41 million people worldwide suffer from trachoma. It is the leading infectious cause of blindness in the world, and Ethiopia is home to 30% of all African cases. Although this disease can be remedied with a low-risk, low-cost surgery, it often is untreated and can lead to irreversible blindness at a young age. Most trachoma cases start in childhood. The need in this country is great, as there is approximately one eye doctor for every one million people on the continent. John’s unique eye care skills equip him to restore the sight of the afflicted Ethiopian people.
The Kempens prayed that if Ethiopia was the place for them, John would be able to find a Christian ophthalmologist to partner with. It was at a meeting for the College of Ophthalmology of Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa that John met Dr. Demissie Tadesse, a Christian ophthalmologist. God also brought Dr. Scott Lawrence, a glaucoma specialist. The three men founded Sight for Souls and established it as a 501(c)3, not-for-profit corporation, of which John is president. The mission is, “Sight for Souls is a Christian nonprofit organization transforming lives and communities in the Global South through the gift of sight for the body and soul.” With the goal of having multiple eye care centers throughout the Global South, the three men began to work on the establishment of the first clinic.
John, Scott, and their families moved to Ethiopia in 2015 to establish the Discovery Eye Institute (DEI). The establishment of the DEI is the organization’s first step in their Kingdom mission. The goal of the DEI is multifaceted. Its primary goal is to “provide world-class clinical care” for those living with blindness in Ethiopia. Its subsequent goal is to “serve as a leader in advanced training for doctors and eye care personnel in Africa.” The DEI serves to both heal and equip the people of Ethiopia. The DEI officially opened in November of 2016 after a long period of fundraising and navigating complicated bureaucracies. The eye unit is located in the Myungsung Christian Medical Center in Addis Ababa. The nation’s capital is home to six million people, and the DEI welcomes patients daily for life-changing eye care while training other doctors in specialized treatments.
A doctor’s visit is offered to patients for less than $8, which most people can afford to pay. A cataract surgery costs about $50, which can be out of reach for some individuals, but the DEI is supported by multiple churches and organizations to provide the surgeries for little or no cost. Additionally, they hope to subsidize surgeries to the poor by providing phaco surgeries—a much more in-depth cataract procedure—to wealthy Ethiopians.
And the Sight for Souls mission is not just about physical sight. Through the process of restoring physical sight, they pray for God to restore the spiritual sight of their patients as well. About 45% of Ethiopians are Ethiopian Orthodox, and 33% are Muslim. Given the nature of the clinic, which provides short outpatient visits, their time to share the Gospel is often times brief. The DEI works with the hospital chaplains to find engaging ways to minister to their patients. The doctors pray with all patients before surgery, unless they ask not to be prayed for. While Ethiopia has a Christian majority population, there is a focus on outward holiness, without understanding the need for grace and a changed heart. The Sight for Souls leadership believes that God will work through their ministry in the way that He intends, despite the complicated circumstances and limited time they have to pour into their patients’ spiritual lives.
A year and a half after the clinic’s inception, the DEI has served over 10,000 patients, and their numbers continue to grow. The clinic’s patient population has grown 30% per month with over 50 patients seen each day. With the steady growth the clinic has seen so far, the goal of Sight for Souls is to have a 100 person average each day. To double their appointments per day would allow the clinic to be financially self-sustaining and provide more educational opportunities to fellows and, in the future, to residents.
The work of the Kempens and the rest of the Sight for Souls and DEI leadership exhibits what it means to serve Christ as biblically minded, well-educated, and professionally competent men and women of character. Faith in Jesus is the pillar for the mission. John mentioned that his faith is “the only reason why I’m doing this work.” While eye care provides physical healing, the mission and motivation are nothing without the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. With a mission to restore physical and spiritual sight, the Kempens’ blank check has been made out to God’s glory in a service to His people. You can learn more about their ministry by visiting sightforsouls.org.
Lydia Hill is the Communications Associate at Cairn. She can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.