Photo: Twila Schock
Some ELCA pastors, particularly bishops, wear a cross against their clerical shirt. But Pastor Richard Young dons a stethoscope instead.
Serving as pastor of six Lutheran congregations in Guyana, Pastor Richard is also a licensed physician tending simultaneously to the spiritual and medical well-being of people.
But the people of Guyana have tended to focus more on Pastor Richard’s calls as clergy, despite the fact that the need for medical care can be great there.
“I was struck by the fact that the spiritual needs of Guyanese were often placed above their physical ones. Prayer will often be asked first and medicine comes second,” he says.
As a parish pastor, his responsibilities in Guyana are similar to the work of clergy in the United States but with some exceptions and additions.
“I lead worship and preach, supervise Sunday school, men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups, run council meetings, visit homes and hospitals, conduct funerals and weddings, fill out forms and statistical reports,” he says.
But the difference is that Guyanese pastors are “given more responsibility for decision-making in the congregation. They are considered to know the right way to do everything and expected simply to give directions,” says Pastor Richard.
But among his varied responsibilities as clergy, he says his favorite is witnessing “Aha!” moments “when someone comprehends for the first time that the gospel is really for them.”
Originally from Oregon, Pastor Richard came to Guyana in 2001. Before entering Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., in 1997, he was an obstetrician/gynecologist in Elko, Nev.
“I came to Guyana directly out of seminary. Ever since, I have been trying to learn how to live in Guyana, how to be a pastor and practicing physician,” he says, adding that his medical work is practiced at various places of need that he has identified over the years.
“When I travel out to give medical care, I carry my little black bag,” he says. In it there is “a little, black Bible and a supply of medications, which are dispensed free of charge. I am able to purchase medications wholesale in Guyana through funds supplied to me by ELCA World Hunger.”
Pastor Richard regularly treats members of his congregations and holds a monthly clinic. He also serves at community clinics, shelters and homes “for the aged and poor.”
Teaching is also an important part of Pastor Richard’s medical work.
“The medical culture in Guyana can often be paternalistic. People leave hospital clinics with a prescription and a pat on the head but often do not know their diagnosis, how they got it, what the prognosis is, what medicine they have been given, what they can do to help or prevent the problem,” he says. “I was taught in medical school that the word ‘doctor’ means ‘teacher’ not ‘healer.’”
“Since my patients all know that I am a pastor, too, they often request prayer as part of the encounter. I hope they can leave the visit feeling validated as a valued child of God and capable of having a positive effect on their own well-being,” he says.
Despite the differences between life in the United States and Guyana, Pastor Richard says people “are remarkably the same in our response to God’s love and care in Jesus Christ. This is because all of our needs as humans are so much the same, as is our tendency to sin and fail.”
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana and ELCA are members of the Lutheran World Federation, Geneva, and both share a “companion church” relationship. The Lutheran church in Guyana has 5,000 members in 46 congregations in 13 multi-point parishes.