A Broad Definition of Neighbor

Posted on March 16th, 2010 by

Written by Megan Gode ’10

David Johnson '84 recipient of the Arnold E. Carlson Award for Christian ethics at Gustavus. (Photo by Amy McMullan '10)

Ophthalmologist and fourth generation Gustie David Johnson ’84 is the most recent recipient of the College’s Arnold E. Carlson Award.  Created by former president Edgar Carlson in honor of his brother, the award is given to an individual who has made significant contributions related to Christian theology and ethics.

Just prior to receiving the award in November 2009, Johnson gave a homily in Christ Chapel where he emphasized that we are all called to a life of service. “A vocation is more than what we do to earn money,” Johnson says.  “The goal of the Gustavus student is not to get a paycheck.  It’s more that each student will find their calling.”

Johnson’s own calling comes in the form of his mission trips to Tanzania.  Using his health expertise, in the summer of 2008 Johnson led a medical team of nine to Ilula Lutheran hospital.  His team conducted an astounding 700 screenings, gave out hundreds of eyeglasses, and performed 62 cataract surgeries.

“It’s easy to see medicine as a ministry,” Johnson says in regard to how faith can form your service.  Before the mission trip, Johnson visited Tanzania through his church, Easter Lutheran.  During his stay, he was able to recognize how he could use his talents as an ophthalmologist to better serve his community of faith.

In knowing that this trip was indeed his calling, Johnson looked to organize the endeavor through his church’s connection with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, and their personal connection with “Shoulder to Shoulder,” a program that works to upgrade the Lutheran medical facilities in the Iringa district of Tanzania.

“He was a person who took quite a bit of initiative,” says Darrell Jodock, a professor of religion at Gustavus and member of the award selection committee.  Jodock says the committee was immensely impressed with Johnson’s efforts to put together the mission trip.

Johnson himself explains the three integral parts that went into his trip: (1) a means to go, (2) the ability to teach others, and (3) the belief that the people you have taught will be able to continue to perform and teach after you leave.  The third part is extremely crucial, as there is currently only one ophthalmologist per every one million people in Africa. The need for eye care in Tanzania is dire.

Although Johnson’s work is miraculous, he’s not the type to take credit.  “It’s not about me.  The blessing is to go and do it,” he says.  In fact, Johnson attributes  Gustavus with having a large impact on his outlook toward his vocation.  “Gustavus shaped who I am and how I do things,” says Johnson.  He didn’t learn to be a better doctor at Gustavus, but he did learn how to be an excellent communicator and community member.

“I learned more about people in college.  The science of medicine comes later.” And people are exactly what Johnson wants the focus to be on, as it’s the person that matters.  His patients — whether they are in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul or Tanzania — they are all “his neighbors.”   And, according to Johnson, “You make your life count by loving your neighbors.”


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