Answering the Call: The Doctor Who Made Africa His Life: The Remarkable Story of Albert Schweitzer

Answering the Call: The Doctor Who Made Africa His Life: The Remarkable Story of Albert Schweitzer

by Ken Gire


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


Revere life, and give yours away for the sake of servingothers.

As ayoung man, Albert Schweitzer seemed destined for greatness. His immense talentand fortitude propelled him to a place as one of Europe’s most renownedphilosophers, theologians, and musicians in the early twentieth century. YetSchweitzer shocked his contemporaries by forsaking worldly success andembarking on an epic journey into the wildsof French Equatorial Africa, vowing to serve as a lifelong physician to “theleast of these” in a mysterious land rife with famine, sickness, and superstition.

Enduring hardship, conflict, andpersonal struggles, he and his beloved wife, Hélène, became French prisoners of war during WWI, and Hélène later battled persistent illnesses.

Ken Gire’s page-turning,novelesque narrative sheds new light on Schweitzer’s faith-in-action ethic andhis commitment to honor God by celebrating the sacredness of all life.

The legacy of this 1952 NobelPrize honoree endures in the thriving African hospital community that began ina humble chicken coop, in the millions who have drawn inspiration from hisexample, and in the challenge that emanates from his life story into our day.

Albert Schweitzer seemed destined for greatness—and he achieved it bymaking his life his greatest sermon to a world in desperate need of hope andhealing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595550798
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 03/26/2013
Series: Christian Encounters Series
Pages: 186
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Ken Gire is the author of more than 20 books including the bestsellers, The Divine Embrace and Intimate Moments with the Savior. A graduate of Texas Christian University and Dallas Theological Seminary, he lives in Texas.

Read an Excerpt



Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2013 Ken Gire
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59555-392-8

Chapter One

The Tolling of the Bell at Lambaréné

As soon as man does not take his existence for granted, but beholds it as something unfathomably mysterious, thought begins. —Albert Schweitzer

September 5, 1965

At 5:30 on a slow-stirring Sunday morning, the bell at the hospital in Lambaréné tolled. Soon the bell at the leper colony down the road joined it. Then tom-toms from surrounding villages relayed the sad news to the distant reaches of the jungle: "Papa Pour Nous is dead."

The affectionate term was French for the fatherly doctor who had lived among the people of Gabon for the past fifty years, serving them with tireless devotion. Albert Schweitzer, Le Grand Docteur, had died quietly in his bed at 10:30 the night before, surrounded by a small circle of friends and coworkers, among them his daughter, Rhena. Because the hour was late, it was decided to wait until morning to spread the news.

Now it was morning.

And the news spread from village to village until the normally teeming jungle seemed one long, heavy sigh.

Bare trails that crisscrossed and weaved as they branched off between an endless number of villages in West Gabon began to fill with people. Individuals, couples, and families from various tribes, of diverse backgrounds and a great range of ages, made their way toward the small riverside town of Lambaréné.

For some of those who gathered at his grave, their lives had begun at the Schweitzer Hospital; others' lives had been saved—or the life of a parent or child or spouse—through a timely operation and dedicated care. Some had received care for tumors, leprosy, ulcers, or life-threatening wounds. Now they gathered to sing, dance, and express grief in their own way to honor one who had honored them through the tireless devotion he had given for half a century.

They were joined in one purpose: mourning the death of one whose selfless service had helped countless people in their region, the one who had committed to make his life his greatest sermon.

Chapter Two

First Glimpses of a Foreign Shore

The deeper we look into nature the more we recognize that it is full of life, and the more profoundly we know that all life is a secret, and we are all united to all this life. —Albert Schweitzer

March 26, 1913

Bells tolled from the church in the Alsatian village of Günsbach on a spring afternoon. Thirty-eight-year-old Albert Schweitzer and his wife, Hélène, stood in the sun-drenched station, waiting for the train that would take them to their destiny. A crowd of family and friends waited with them.

The bells belonged to the Lutheran church that Albert attended as a child, where his father, Louis, served as pastor, and his mother, Adele Schillinger Schweitzer, served faithfully by his side.

Thirty years ago those same bells rang at the same time of the year, also shortly before Easter. Young Albert and a friend had made slingshots, and the friend enticed him to shoot birds with him. Albert was an unusually sensitive child, and he hated the idea. But he was afraid the friend would laugh at him if he didn't. They approached a leafless tree, filled with birds, and each loaded his slingshot with a pebble. They crouched and took aim. All the while, Albert felt a stab of conscience and vowed to himself to miss. Just then the church bells rang, mingling with the songs of the birds. For Schweitzer, it was "a voice from heaven," calling to him. Immediately he put down the slingshot, shooed away the birds, and ran home.

From that day on, he stopped fearing what other people thought of him, and his inner conviction about the sacredness of all life was fixed. At night, when his mother left the room after tucking him into bed and leading him in his evening prayers, he extended her petitions for people to include all living things—"and protect and bless all beings that breathe, keep all evil from them, and let them sleep in peace." He did his part to be the answer to that prayer, protecting and blessing all living creatures any way he could. And he took that ethic with him to the savage jungles of Africa.

The tolling of those bells on that Lenten day was the first of many mystical experiences that shaped the course of Schweitzer's life. Now those bells fell silent. A gentle breeze brought the fragrances of spring from the Münster valley of Upper Alsace to the train station, where the agricultural smells of earth, grass, and flowers mingled with the industrial smells of steel, grease, and coal.

A whistle blew in the distance, causing everyone to crane their necks. The train rounded the bend, huffing plumes of smoke, its whistle blowing again as it chugged toward them. Brakes squealed as its massive wheels slowed, then stopped, a final whistle expending itself, as if from exhaustion.

While porters hefted their luggage onto the train, villagers stood around awkwardly, hands buried in their pockets, as if mourners at the funeral of someone who had died young, a life of promise denied him. Schweitzer was renowned as a lecturer, a writer, and a musician. People across Europe were still shaking their heads. So much talent, so much education, so much potential. It all seemed a waste. Why would such a gifted individual waste his life in a place that had been dubbed "the white man's graveyard"? Few believed it was even possible for foreigners to survive, much less remain healthy and robust, in the glaring sun and burning heat of Africa. And had he considered the hostility of tribesmen or the diseases that ravaged the jungle—unknown and unnamed, yet widely feared all the same?

A few final handshakes and hugs were exchanged, and more than a few fingers wiped cinders of sudden emotion from their eyes. Albert's father and mother hugged them both, his mother steeling herself against the rending moment.

Boarding the train, the Schweitzers hurried to the last coach for a final glimpse of the village, waving one last time to the life they were forever leaving behind. The train's whistle blew sharply as smoke belched from its stack. The engine strained, its lurch sending a jolt through the couplings between the cars. The Schweitzers steadied themselves on the railing as the train pulled away.

As Albert and Hélène waved good-bye, he blew a kiss to his mother.

It would be the last time he would see her.

Albert Schweitzer had earned three doctorates. The first in philosophy, in 1899. The second in theology, in 1900. The last one in medicine, in 1913. He had become an accomplished organist, a master of organ design and construction, the foremost authority in Europe on Johann Sebastian Bach, and a respected author. He spent the first three decades of his life devoted to philosophy and the arts. Yet at age twenty-one, he made the decision to give his life to the service of humanity once he was thirty. Soon after his thirtieth birthday, he began his medical training, exchanging his post as principal of the St. Thomas Theological College in Strasbourg for a seat as a student. During that time, he met Hélène Bresslau, and the two married on June 18, 1912. While he was in medical school, Hélène attended nursing school so that she could assist him in his work.

In February 1913, he completed his internship and received his MD. His training was over. His career as a humanitarian had begun.

Schweitzer was leaving behind a promising medical career, in Paris perhaps. A promising academic career, teaching at the university in Berlin or at the seminary in Strasbourg. A promising music career, touring Europe to keep the spirit of Bach alive through his organ concerts. And it was a sacrifice that only those closest to him knew how dear he held these talents. But he had other promises to keep. All other possibilities were now dead, taken away by train to be buried in a remote jungle in Africa.

Family, friends, and colleagues expressed their shock, disagreement, and wonder at his decision. Why would such a talented young man, with a promising career ahead and his choice of vocation, choose to leave it all behind? Were there not many others who could commit their lives to the service of mankind?

Perhaps the greater question was not who could but who would. Albert Schweitzer knew he must answer the call. The call that resounded in the hearts of many throughout the centuries. The call from one whose plea gave a haunting warning and an enduring promise: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 16:24–25).

He knew not on what adventures his answer to the call would take him, but for now, he knew where.

But who had even heard of Lambaréné?

As their ship dropped anchor off the shores of western Africa, the Schweitzers were transported to a riverboat named Alembe. The boat was flat and broad, its two paddlewheels slapping the water of the Ogowe River, as if to revive the sluggish currents. The Ogowe was a tangle of wide rivers that unraveled through the Congo, strands of it disappearing into the jungle so imperceptibly that it was difficult to tell where the water ended and the jungle started.

After a long ocean voyage and a terrifying pummeling from three days of an unrelenting storm, the slow waters of the Ogowe were a welcomed relief. As the pilot steered through the shallows, carefully avoiding sandbars, the Schweitzers stood at the railing as if children ferried into a dream more vivid than their schoolbooks could have captured or their childhood imaginations could have contained.

Roots overlapping each other on the banks. Clumps of papyrus. Strands of flowers laced through the brooding lushness. Palm trees standing tall and lean, a burst of green at each top. Giant ferns, fronding in all directions. The glistening back of a hippo breaking the surface of the yellow water, its snorty nostrils breaching for air. A rustling in the branches and a brightly plumed bird taking flight. In other branches, an argument of monkeys.

Late in the day, Schweitzer was talking with a French trader as they approached a clutter of tumbledown huts, the people lethargically moving about, if they moved at all.

"When I came here fifteen years ago," the trader said, "these places were all flourishing villages."

"And why are they no longer?" Schweitzer asked.

"L'alcohol," he said in a low voice.

The Europeans exported alcohol to Africa, along with various diseases that were previously unknown there. Schweitzer mused a moment, then said, "I wonder if the blessings we bring the natives outweigh the evils that go with them."

The trader shrugged his shoulders agnostically.

"What brings a man like you to Africa, educated, cultured? A man doesn't just turn his back on all that. Must be a story there somewhere."

"It's a long story," said Schweitzer, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket.

"It's a long trip."

Schweitzer took off his pith helmet, then wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and blotted his neck. "My sympathy for the plight of the African came in my childhood, listening to my father's sermons. Once a month he spoke about missions. One Sunday he read from the memoirs of Eugene Casalis, a missionary to the Basutos. It made an impression. That was the first time the idea of becoming a missionary came to me. The next time was at Colmar. There was a monument, designed by Bartholdi, the sculptor who designed the Statue of Liberty in New York."

"I've been to Colmar," said the trader. "I know the monument."

"At its base was the sculpture of an African slave, leaning against it, strong and muscular, yet unmistakably sad. The misery of all of Africa was in his face. I felt it. And I never forgot it. Each time our family went back to Colmar, I went back to that man, resting at the base of that monument. And each time I felt the same misery.

"Then, later in my life, a parable of Jesus reached out to me, pressing its finger on my chest, the way that the prophet Nathan pressed his finger in David's chest with the parable he told."

"Which parable?"

"The one of the rich man and Lazarus, the poor beggar who had been dumped outside the rich man's gate. It seemed the parable had been spoken directly to us Europeans who had lived so prosperously, who had learned about diseases and how to treat them, about pain and how to alleviate it. Within our gates we had a wealth of knowledge, of procedures, of medicines. Outside our gates, in the colonies, sat Lazarus, the dark man, living in a dark continent, covered with sores and in agonizing pain. If we stay within our gates, we sin against the poor man who is suffering outside. Or so it seemed to me."

"Why Lambaréné?" the man asked. "It's not even a city. Just swamp and jungle and a bunch of thatch huts. Lots of hardwood and a working mill down the way. A number of trading posts. Small mission with a school. Not much else, though."

"That's another story."

"Good," he said. "It will shorten the trip."

"I came across a magazine, of all things. I remember the day clearly. Morning. An autumn morning. 1904. And a shaft of sun coming in through the window of my room at the college. Falling on a magazine on my writing table. A green-covered magazine from the Paris Missionary Society. Casalis was one of their missionaries, and that is why I subscribed to it. Anyway, I picked it up, randomly opening it to a page that read, 'The Needs of the Congo Mission.' The article was by the president of the mission, Alfred Boegner. In the article he appealed to his readers, that some of them—in his own words—'on whom the Master's eyes already rested' would answer the call for this urgent work. 'Men and women who can reply simply to the Master's call, "Lord, I am coming."' The article concluded with the words, 'those are the people whom the Church needs.'

"When I finished the article, I knew my search was over."

"All very mystical," the trader commented. "With your education, I figured you a rational man."

"God has joined faith and reason together harmoniously. It is man who puts them asunder. The more I understand Jesus, the more I am impressed by the way he combined faith and common sense. In the end, it seemed the most rational thing to do with my life, perhaps the only rational thing." Schweitzer gazed into the Frenchman's eyes. "And you. What brought you here?"

The man pointed to the dock on the river where a few Africans were stacking logs for export. "Timber. A purely rational decision, I assure you. I came for one reason only—to make money. Can't get more rational than that."

* * *

Five hours later, the slopes of Lambaréné slowly rose into view. The steamer blew its whistle, signaling the village to ready itself for the boat's arrival. The village suddenly swarmed with life and movement. Boys scurried into their canoes, paddling toward the boat to off-load its cargo. The boatmen stood, pushing their hollowed-out canoes with long poles.

One long pirogue approached swiftly, pushed along by a group of boys, singing cheerfully. A man stood in the stern of the boat, and he called out, "Good day, Dr. Schweitzer! I'm Mr. Christol from the mission."

Albert and Hélène greeted him, their voices soon drowned by the excited chatter among the boys on the boat.

"They just won the race," Mr. Christol volunteered, "against the older group. There they are, coming now."

Albert noticed another canoe approaching swiftly, a second group of boys paddling toward the ship.

"The prize for winning the race is escorting you to the mission."

A cheer rose from the boys as the couple gingerly lowered themselves into the boat, Albert gesturing to his wife that she sit in front of him to make sure she was safe.

They would have to wait a couple of weeks for the seventy-some crates that held their medical equipment to finally reach the mission. Albert and Hélène took only their personal belongings and a few basic medical items.

"How far is it to the mission?" Albert looked warily at the yellow-tinged water lapping against the boat, which seemed to ride precariously low on the river.

"Andende is only an hour," Mr. Christol replied as the boys took command of the long slender poles and began to push once more. The second boat followed behind with their belongings.


Excerpted from ANSWERING the CALL by KEN GIRE Copyright © 2013 by Ken Gire. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Chronology of Albert Schweitzer's Life xiii

Foreword xix

1 The Tolling of the Bell at Lambaréné 1

2 First Glimpses of a Foreign Shore 5

3 A Home Among the Hills 19

4 The Peaceful Prisoner of War 45

5 Three Sacrifices Returned 71

6 Living in Lambaréné 87

7 Living Between Two Worlds 105

8 Little Miracles in Lambaréné 117

9 A Lamp Lights the Way 129

10 A Good Shepherd's Testimony 149

Afterword: The Mysterious Ripple Effect 157

Acknowledgment 165

Customer Reviews