Dr. John Payne took a winding road to his present job as chief executive officer of Medical Ambassadors International. He attended a private Christian college, served in the military, graduated from medical school and taught family residency programs in Chicago and Modesto before joining MAI.
The Christian nonprofit organization is active in 41 countries, teaching its Community Health Evangelism approach to residents as well as to other organizations. CHE, pronounced “chay,” helps local people set goals and put them into action, and so spreads good nutrition, health clinics, clean wells and other such improvements, along with spiritual lessons.
But the organization almost folded four years ago, when Payne was working for the group in Africa. He took over leadership but credits God with blessing the organization, which is thriving again after several lean years. MAI will hold an open house in its Salida facility Tuesday to show off its expanded office space, new prayer room and supply room.
Payne, 66, was born in New York and grew up in the Chicago area, attending nearby Wheaton College before serving for two years in the military. He then went to Illinois Medical School and did his residency in Stockton.
“Stockton in 1975 was one of the premier residency practices in the country,” he said. “It was my first choice.”
After that, he returned to Chicago, where he taught family medicine at Cook County Hospital for eight years. Then Modesto came knocking.
“In 1986, the family residency here in Modesto asked me to be head of residency here,” he said. He oversaw the program at Stanislaus Medical Center, which moved to Doctors Medical Center in 1997. He retired in 2005, when he joined MAI team full time.
Payne said he and his wife, Madelle, had looked for a couples Bible study program when they moved to the area. They landed in one in which “all the other couples had at least one member working with Medical Ambassadors at that time. They went on short-term mission trips,” Payne said.
On one of those trips, he traveled to a village in Guatemala. Ten years earlier, “there were only three businesses in town; they were all bars. The adult alcoholic rate was 50percent.” But a decade later, he said, the three bars had closed and the villagers had run a “network of spaghetti tubes (carrying water) from the mountains to the fields where they grew potatoes. Their income had quadrupled. They used the money to build a medical clinic, a school and a church. CHE had helped them set their own goals, select their own leaders and put it into play.”
The combination of instilling Christian beliefs, empowering people to improve their communities and helping them reach their goals was a lesson that impressed Payne.
“Clearly, the physical things make the spiritual more attractive, but the spiritual makes the physical more possible,” he said.
‘Miracle’ restores MAI
He joined MAI’s board while still leading the Modesto residency program. After he retired, he and his wife moved to Nairobi, Kenya, for four years. Then, things at MAI hit bottom in late 2008.
One donor, who gave the organization $1 million every year, sold his business to a company that went bankrupt, so his donations dried up. MAI, which had about 40 full-time equivalent positions, cut back to two full-time and four part-time staff members. Their building, on property at Big Valley Grace Community Church, needed to be sold.
Big Valley was interested, but by the end of 2008, the economy had tanked. Should the church buy the $1.5 million property? The church leaders followed a biblical story about Gideon and put out a “fleece” to discern God’s will, Payne said. If they raised the $1.5 million during a single offering Dec. 7 that year, they would take that as a sign that God wanted them to buy the building; otherwise, they would pass on the deal. When the offering was counted, about 1,000 “giving units” (individuals, families, even individual children) had raised $1.5 million plus $800.
“It was nothing less than a miracle,” Payne said.
Big Valley’s senior pastor, Rick Countryman, agreed. He had told his church in advance about the offering, but made his views clear: “We believed this was God’s will for us, but I told people that if we didn’t raise the $1.5 million, we would be sending all of their checks back. We weren’t going to borrow money if we were close, and we weren’t going to use the money for anything else. That weekend, some pastors showed up with gifts from their churches. They had heard about it and wanted to help. I was blown away.
“The next day, I was in (church financial leader John Fraioli’s) office. At some moment, he hit a button and showed me the total: $1.5 million and a little extra. There’s no doubt that God used that to touch lives, both at our church and for Medical Ambassadors.”
Meanwhile, the MAI board needed to find a new chief executive officer. “They had three criteria: someone who was on the board, someone with experience in the field, someone who had retired and was living on retirement income and so didn’t need to be paid,” Payne said. “As far as I know, they had only one name on the list.”
He was named president in March 2009, but he continued living in Kenya until May of that year, when he returned to face the financial challenge. His wife serves as vice president in charge of ministries. Both volunteer their time.
“God has chosen to make the organization work, even though I’m not a great administrator,” Payne said.
In fact, in a surprising outcome, the organization expanded its influence during the tight years when they tapped reserve funding to survive.
“We began teaching other missions how to use CHE rather than just using it ourselves,” Payne said. “We actually increased our impact on the world because we had less money. We spun off two senior leaders, Terry Dalrymple and Stan Rowland, who started a group called the Global CHE Network. It now relates to over 520 different missions and works in 118 countries. We’re sort of the service department for those missions.
“We have reserves again. We’re in a good position financially and significantly increasing what we did even in our heyday. We have six full-time employees and six part-time employees here at the home office. We also have about 20 more expatriates who are missionaries living (overseas), and more than 200 native employees. It’s been very remarkable.”
It all goes back to the CHE approach, he said, a combination of physical and spiritual components.
“We insist on local ownership for everything we do. They choose their own goals, their own people to train, when and where things will happen and how it will be done,” Payne said. “We use a Bible story to introduce spiritual subjects. It makes people much more willing to volunteer to help their neighbors.”
Women, disabled elevated
Projects vary widely.
“There are many projects that relate to sanitation issues,” he said. “Improving sanitation can often reduce infant mortality by as much as 50percent. In addition, there have been many places that are very interested in ways to eliminate poverty. We find if you start with microbusiness loans, it only works for those in the middle of their society. The poorest groups don’t know how to manage money. So we start them with savings and credit associations. It’s a small group of people who form a small bank between themselves.”
There are special-interest programs, such as those for women and the disabled.
“Women tend to be overrepresented among the poorest people of the world,” Payne said. “In a lot of places they’re not allowed to own property, to make decisions, to drive a car. When you start teaching a woman that she is made in God’s image and is a daughter of the king, that’s a very different way than society has taught her to look at herself.”
Similarly, disabled people often have been marginalized.
“I just got back from Ethiopia,” Payne said. “There’s a huge amount of disability in some countries in Africa due to polio, which was late in being eradicated, and due to military misadventures. There’s also a lot of blindness related to eye disease. Reducing the stigma against these disabled individuals and bringing them back into their communities has made a huge difference. It’s been amazing to see communities that once would hide their disabled really honoring them.”
The organization has an annual budget of about $2.5 million a year, most of which goes to other countries. If MAI could raise an extra $1 million for 2014, Payne said, it probably would use the money to open an internship center in east Africa to help train people from MAI and other organizations with hands-on work. MAI already has such programs in the Caribbean; the Philippines; and Ghana, West Africa.
No matter what the future brings, Payne said, “We just feel like we’ve been blessed by God. We think the things we’re doing are things that God wants to happen. We’re convinced that more capable people should be (leading MAI). It’s just God’s grace.”