I have been working on an update and revision of two books I wrote with Dr. Paul Brand, a world-renowned leprosy expert who died in 2003.  Dr. Brand influenced me more than any other person, and we spent most of a decade collaborating on writing projects.  Last week I came across this memory from his life:

In the 1950s I visited a nun, Dr. Ruth Pfau, outside of Karachi, Pakistan, amid the worst human squalor I have ever encountered.  As the taxi neared her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils, a smell you could almost lean on.  Soon I saw an immense garbage dump by the sea, the city’s accumulated refuse that had been stagnating and rotting for many months.  The air was humming with flies.  At last I could make out human figures—people covered with sores—crawling over the mounds of garbage.  They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump.  Sheets of corrugated iron gave them a bit of shelter, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water.

There, beside this awful place, I found a neat wooden clinic in which I found Dr. Pfau.  She proudly showed me her orderly shelves and files of meticulous records on each patient in the dump.  The stark contrast between the horrible scene outside and the oasis of love and concern inside her tidy clinic seared deep into my mind.  Dr. Pfau was daily exhibiting these properties: beauty, sensitivity to needs, compassion, and the steady, fearless application of divine love through human touch.  All over the world people like her are fulfilling Christ’s command to fill the earth with God’s presence.

My curiosity piqued, I searched the internet to learn more about Dr. Pfau, and pieced together her remarkable story from such diverse sources as The New York Times, Al Jazeera, the BBC, Pakistani newspapers, and Christianity Today.  In a time when terrorist acts make the headlines, and Muslim-Christian relations are strained, this nun’s extraordinary career in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan deserves our attention.

Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929, just as the stock market collapse rocked the financial world.  As a child she saw the rise of Nazism, the disappearance of her Jewish schoolmates, and then the outbreak of World War II.  Allied bombers destroyed her family home, and she barely survived.  At the end of the war, the Soviets occupied half of Germany, separating her from members of her family.  Now a teenager, with a teddy bear tucked under her arm, she set off alone to join her father in West Germany.  For two days she walked through forests and fields, hiding behind barns at night, to cross the “no man’s land” between the partitioned East and West.

Traumatized, but safe at last, she finished high school and enrolled in university to study philosophy.  There, she met a Dutch Christian woman who had survived a German concentration camp and yet had learned to forgive her captors and had dedicated her life to spreading the message of “love and forgiveness.”  For Ruth, it proved a life-changing encounter.  She got baptized as an Evangelical Protestant at 22, then converted to Roman Catholicism two years later.  Believing she had been called to a life of service, she rejected a marriage proposal, studied for a medical degree, and joined a Catholic order.  “When you receive such a calling, you cannot turn it down, for it is not you who has made the choice… God has chosen you for himself,” she explained to her dubious parents.

Although the order sent her to southern India, a visa foul-up left her stranded in Karachi, Pakistan.  By chance, she visited a leprosy colony there, where she met one of the million Pakistanis afflicted with the disease.  She later described the scene to the BBC: “He must have been my age — I was at this time not yet 30 — and he crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog.”

The experience stunned her.  “I could not believe that humans could live in such conditions,” she said. “That one visit, the sights I saw during it, made me make a key life decision.”  That was when she moved to the little hut by the garbage dump, to care for leprosy patients.  A few years later she trained at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, where Dr. Brand was devising new surgical treatments for leprosy patients.

Dr. Ruth Pfau with child patient

In the following decades, Dr. Pfau helped establish 157 leprosy clinics across Pakistan.  She crisscrossed remote mountain ranges, performing surgeries in primitive conditions in 100̊ heat.  The number of active leprosy cases plummeted to 531.  Primarily due to her efforts, in 1996 the World Health Organization declared Pakistan the first country in Asia to have controlled leprosy.  The German consulate in Karachi declared, “It was due to her endless struggle that Pakistan defeated leprosy.”  Undaunted, she expanded her clinics to treat tuberculosis, blindness, and disabilities caused by land mines.

Throughout, Dr. Pfau lived in a single room, rising at 5 a.m. to pray and worship before tending to patients and dealing with government bureaucrats.  She mobilized her clinics to treat victims of a drought, an earthquake in Kashmir, and a devastating flood.  A grateful nation granted her Pakistani citizenship and heaped awards on her.  On her 70th birthday, Muslims and Christians alike filled Karachi’s main cathedral to attend a service in her honor.

When asked about her retirement, Dr. Pfau responded, “I don’t use the word ‘retirement.’  “It sounds as if you had completed everything, as if life was over and the world was in order.”  She would spend seventeen more years serving the needy in Pakistan.

Just two months ago, in August, Dr. Pfau died at the age of 87 in the country she had come to love.  Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said, “Dr Ruth Pfau may have been born in Germany, [but] her heart was always in Pakistan.”  He added that, “she came here at the dawn of a young nation looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in doing so, found herself a home.  We will remember her for her courage, her loyalty, her service to the eradication of leprosy, and most of all, her patriotism.”

Then the prime minister announced that a state funeral would be held for her, the first Christian woman to receive such an honor.  Huge crowds of mourners, including the nation’s president, lined the streets of Karachi as a military guard carried her coffin to the city’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  The state television broadcast the funeral service live as politicians, military officials, and dignitaries paid tribute to the woman who had become known as “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa.”  Flags across the nation were flown at half-mast in her honor.  The government renamed its largest teaching hospital The Dr. Ruth K. M. Pfau Hospital.

I never met Dr. Pfau, but as a journalist I have met dozens of dedicated servants across the world who bring healing, compassion, and mercy to some of the most neglected and needy people on earth.  They rarely get the same press coverage as lone wolf terrorists or Islamic extremists.  Yet they offer lasting proof that even in this dark world, light shines out.
(Note: If you know of other “servant heroes,” please tell us about them in the Comment space below.)






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44 responses to “Pakistan’s Mother Teresa”

  1. nadine assaf says:

    Thanking God for Mr Yancey, his family, and RBC who made the special on the Brand family and their work and loving witness, we feel so blessed, privileged and inspired to know and love you, from Andrew and Nadine in Melbourne Australia xxxxxxxx

  2. Rodney Otto says:

    My roommate from Concordia College, St. Paul, MN. was a Bible translator in New Guinea. But he was more a friend and adopted father to the Ippili people he served and gifted the Ippili NT as he culminated 43 years in New Guinea. They were his family and countryman. He often said he was not comfortable in the US any longer even though he had a loving family and friends in South Dakota in a rural parish outside of Aberdeen. He buried his wife of cancer, remarried to serve some more in NG, finally dying himself of cancer.
    1200 Ippili folk gathered in a stadium in his last days as he landed in a helicopter with the first copy of this precious Scripture gift.
    He and I had signed up for India…visa closed last year of sem…he went to NG. I buried my regrets that I was “stuck” in the USA at his graveside and thanked the Lord for knowing him and people like Mother Theresa, Dr. Pfau, Philip Yancey and Paul Brandt. God has blessed the poorest of the poor with our hands and feet. I tried to imulate their examples here in the states!

  3. Maha Guirguis says:

    Overwhelmed, challenged
    Being focused is so important.
    Thank you for sharing.I attended a meeting where you spoke several years ago in Cairo, Egypt.

  4. April says:

    Beautiful article! Have you heard of Mama Maggie? She is a Coptic Christian devoted to helping those living in the garbage dumps of Egypt. There is a wonderful book about her called “Mama Maggie: The Untold Story of One Woman’s Mission to Love the Forgotten Children of Egypt’s Garbage Slums,” by Marty Makary and Ellen Vaughn.

  5. Virginia Ferrer-Calvin says:

    Hi Mr. Philip Yancey,


    I don’t know if you have heard of Care Channels in Asia (carechannels.org). The founder is Yeoh SengEng- a Malaysian Singaporean. He is 55 years old with a wife who is a medical doctor and 2 grown children . He is an amazing man (but I’d rather call him SUPERMAN). He started the work in Manila, Philippines catering to the poorest of the poor, organised an NGO doing Medical missions, giving scholarships to the poor and sustainable livelihood. Now Care Channels is also in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Timor Leste, Malaysia. It’s work is also being started in Thailand and Tajikistan.

    He is an HR consultant for huge companies like Singapore Airlines, BOSCH, GE etc. but gives half of his month (expertise, time, money) organising for the poor in the above-mentioned countries. Whenever he is in Pakistan (where I partner with him), he is full of energy, love and wisdom on how to reach-out the poor with lasting effects. In fact in Pakistan, several churches, livelihood (agriculture too), schools were established from the work he is doing.

    His wife (reminded me of William Carey’s) suffered depression probably because of his long absences and overloaded house in Singapore with all sorts of guests (pastors, scholars, poor people, etc). Being friends with the wife, I judged this man before, dreaded to see him at times. For the past 20 years, I debated, said nasty things to him but I am always pulled back to continue the work in Pakistan (of course to serve God) because of his unstoppable passion to serve the master through the serving the poor. I will be seeing him again next week as I fly from Manila to Pakistan again.

    I think his life as a missionary (and his ministry) is worth telling the world. I truly believe that his method of helping can set an excellent model of how christians can help (even when hurting) to ‘properly’ help the poor as a whole person.

    Thank you for your time. May the good Lord continue to bless your endeavours.

    Mrs. Virginia Calvin

  6. Georgia Wessling says:

    I have read all 3 of the books with Dr. Brand. I loved reading about Granny Brand. She served and raised a son to do so also. There is a service for children in the Church of God, Anderson, IN. It is called Children of Promise. For $32 a month you can feed, clothe and educate a child and sometimes their family. It is a way an old lady like me can help and do some good.

    Two examples of the great good they can do is a boy from South America called Danny and a girl from the Philippines. The boy was able to get more help after high school to go on to college and become a doctor. Then he returned to his own country and practices there. The girl did the same in the Philippines and, after college, was hired as an aide of high degree to the President of the country.

    So, even far away and unable to do a lot, we can still help people in areas of the world that will last and last. Each month as I set aside the amount I give, I add $10-12 to be certain that when I die, there will be enough in my savings to continue supporting them for 1 year. I am blessed doubly to be able to give since God saw to it that I was able to have extra to share.

  7. Dr. AK says:

    In the world of media where rarely any good news is read about Pakistan, I knew that I must still thank God for few courageous and faithful Christians who continues to witness the love of Christ in that difficult country. Reading about Dr Pfau has helped me to see the extent of the Love JESUS can exhibit through a feeble but faithful one. I thank God for a saint like Dr. Pfau who have shown us the possibility in and through Chriat. I am blessed and humbled. THANKS for an excellent report.

  8. Jenn Batey says:

    Hello, so my comment has more to do with the opening paragraph, then the post…but I have been meaning for quite some time now to relay this to you. In the Spring of 2014 I happened to see your name on some used, purplish book for sale on a table at a garage sale. I picked it up, curious to read. Little did I know how that book was to carry and guide me over the next season. The book was, The Gift of Pain.
    Everyday for 40 consecutive days, excepting weekends, I brought that book with me as my sole companion to what was a physically and emotionally draining summer. My 4, almost 5 year old daughter, my fourth and last child, underwent 40 ‘dives’ as they call it, in a Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber. In many ways, it was our last ditch effort at a miracle to make her ‘better’. She had numerous delays from birth, all quite unexplainable. She wasn’t autistic, but she didn’t speak, had a most uneven, vulnerable gait, and was beyond her peers in almost all developmental categories, across the board. With the exception of a few spots on her brain suggesting a TBI in the womb, and a thinner Corpus Callosum, both of which weren’t traumatic enough on the MRI to warrant her delays, we had a mystery diagnosis on our hands.
    That summer, I got off of all social media, and spent a lot of time in prayer; the Presence of God was near and profound, even though the season incredibly taxing. Truthfully, my adrenals crashed and I entered into somewhat of a clinical depression.
    At that point in my faith, it was near unacceptable to me for as a Christian to not have ‘authority’ over sickness and disease, (and a host of other human problems). This is embarrassing to put on paper. So, in addition to the physical and emotional- I was head on in a Spiritual crisis as well, I had no idea what to do with the constant and seeming ‘No’s’ to my prayers for my baby girl. I was worn out from praying for healing and miracles.
    The Gift of Pain allowed me, page by page, little by little, dose by dose, to re-examine suffering and the Christian life. It sparked a journey that lead me to develop a podcast devoted to the very subject. Your book began to rearrange my views on Pain, which in turn allowed me to open my eyes and submit to the pain of others. I made friends with dying adults, disabled adults, and a Muslim doctor in our HBOT office. It was such an incredible, life changing 40 days- that I think the staff was perplexed over the tears I bawled during our last session. I gave your book to my Muslim doctor friend, and thanked him for his kindness, and continue to pray for him and his family.
    Dr, Paul Brand was an amazing, selfless person, and his fascination with the creation and function of the human body is so valuable.
    And, to this day, you are still my number one favorite writer…and so, I thank you too, a few years too late, for sharing you gift with the world, that we might see and breath, and feel and love, a bit more like Jesus, on this side of heaven.
    My daughter is better than she was before the treatment, but will always be cognitively delayed and speech imapired; she will also require supervision and care.
    Even so, I did receive my miracle and healing that summer…it just looked quite different than from how I asked…it happened on the inside, and probably had a little more to do with me, then my beautiful girl.
    Thank You,

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I am stunned as I read your story. Parents of disabled children (or children of disabled parents) are the real heroes, the place where faith is put to an advanced test. Your honesty and vulnerability teach all of us. Bless you in this very hard journey. As I mentioned, I’m updating some of my books with Dr. Brand, and am immersed in his life yet again. I wish you could have known him… –Philip

    • Tim Carpenter says:

      Great testimony. It is such a shame that we as Christians can’t be honest about our struggles and doubts. You (like David) had valid reasons to lament and question. Way to persevere! God bless you.

  9. Colleen Davis says:

    Father Pedro Opeka in Madagascar, a catholic priest, he has helped tens of thousands of the poorest of the poor. http://www.amicipadrepedro.org/padrepedro_en.htm

  10. Felicity McAllister says:

    Thank you for sharing her story. I wonder if you have heard of Dr Katherine Hamlin who with her husband established a birth injury hospital in Addis Ababa? . She went in 1957 from Australia intending only to stay a few years. She is still there today, still practicing surgery on women shunned by society in her 90s. Her husband passed away there but she continues indefatigable!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Yes, I visited Catherine Hamlin and her hospital in Ehtiopia a few years ago. She’s a remarkable woman, with many similarities to Dr. Pfau. The story of her appearing on Oprah is amazing–finally, a “saint” got the attention she deserves! –Philip

  11. Crystal says:

    My servant heroes are the caregivers for the mentally and physically disabled. My handicap son wanted to move out when he turned 18. It took me a year and half to get used to the idea of putting him in strangers hands. With lots of prayer and learning, we did find a good home for him. The compassion I see in the staff at his home has brought me to tears a couple of times. This group of people bands together and brings a quality of life to 6 men, most who cannot even speak. It was sad to learn that the other men’s families wrote them off long ago. The staff celebrates all the holidays with them, take them out to eat, fun times at the mall, weekend field trips, plus to programs Monday – Friday. On top of all the daily care they need to survive. While I know they are not volunteering, they are underpaid and they have to give so much physically, mentally and emotionally. They have become an extended family to me and I will be forever grateful that God opened this door for us.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      You are absolutely right. I would expand that list of servant heroes to include occupational and physical therapists. Watching them work with my brother after his stroke, I was amazed at how they could convey hope and a will to live and regain function. What’s wrong with a society that pays sports heroes $10-20 million per year and caregivers $30,000? –Philip

  12. Samuel Prem Chandar J says:

    Thank you so much to introduce a witness of Jesus Christ to me. It help me stand firm for God in the mess – age.

  13. Sandra Grant says:

    Surely if there were more Christians like Dr. Pfau, there would be less fanatical terrorists.

  14. Kevin S. Robinson says:

    Check out http://www.hopeforhome.org/ Hope For Home and Daryl Fulp

    The plight of orphans and children with special needs in developing countries is desperate. A lack of resources for even the healthy means that these little ones are left with what few crumbs may fall from the table. Many languish in substandard orphanages and institutions while others are allowed to die.

    But there is hope…the Church of Jesus Christ.

    Hope for Home Ministries exists to bring glory to Jesus by caring for orphans and children with special needs in developing countries. Our multi-faceted approach to needs provides support to families who want to care for their children and provide homes when that is not possible.

    Guatemala Uganda Liberia

  15. Hi Philip, I have read Dr. Brand and your book and was so impressed with the work done with this disease and now I am in awe of DrPfau. These places where it seems the main happenings are all about chaos and death scare me so I for one would find it really difficult to set foot in the country let alone visit a place like where she worked. I am like others here and yourself no doubt amazed that we come across individuals like this who sacrifice themselves for others. I am left feeling that by comparison, I have done very little to ease the plight of others in distress.
    Thank you once again for challenging me to open my eyes!

    George Fanning

  16. Angela Seneviratne, Sri Lanka says:

    unquestioning obedience to God’s calling is what I saw and yes discipline and commitment in her life even though circumstances were dire. Thank you for sharing her story of Dr. Pfau and her ministry in Pakistan. much to learn from her.

  17. John W - UK says:

    Humbled. Thanks for sharing her story.

  18. Linda McDermitt says:

    Wonderfully inspiring. I applaud this amazing woman……and then ask, how does this speak to my life? I must listen for His voice and be His instrument for healing. Certainly, there is a need for a faith that looks to Him to be able to live in the place/conditions she did.
    Thank you, Philip!


    Dr. Philip,

    As usually, you inspire us all with great, amazing stories about people who really make a difference and have a huge impact in this overwhelmed world full of hate/sufferance/pain/neglecting and inter-religion hatred and cruelty. I believe this types of Christian leaders should be brought into a larger audience and attention, and more than that we all should support and provide our best to ease such crusades, wherever they are on this world.
    I’m reading all your books/postages and you inspire us all via your live comments/experiences/books and interviews.
    It is quite a privilege and honor to be contemporary with you, as your a mentor and a row model for many of us around the globe.

    Thanks a lot for your sharing/attitude and Christian perspective!

    Laviniu Ardeleanu

  20. Having lent my copy of Fearfully……. and neverhad it back, am looking forward to your new revised version! I thought that book and the other one Imagine (also lost!) so stimulating and I learned so much. Go on writing, please!

  21. Grace says:

    What a wonderful story :’) glad you covered her story !

  22. Virginia Youdale says:

    Never saw anything in our press about this remarkable woman. Thank you for telling us!


  23. Michèle Gyselinck says:

    And as she arrived at heaven’s gate the Lord was there to greet her and say, “Well done my faithful servant. Come in and enjoy your reward.”

  24. Elsie Wietzke says:

    Such selfless service in response to our Lord’s mandate to love and serve others–including, and perhaps especially, the “unlovely”–makes me weep. Hers was a life of beauty in the lives of those in desperate circumstances and bleak surroundings. Her spirit lives on and inspires us to pour out our love and compassion in meaningful acts of service–fruits of our faith. I am so grateful to you for sharing her story! I treasure your writings.

  25. Elsie Wietzke says:

    Such selfless service in response to our Lord’s mandate to love and serve others–including, and perhaps especially, the “unlovely”–makes me weep. Hers was a life of beauty in the lives of those in desperate circumstances and bleak surroundings. Her spirit lives on and serves to inspire us to pour out that love and compassion in meaningful acts of service–fruits of our faith. I am so grateful to you for sharing her story! I treasure your writings.

  26. Tom Howerton says:

    Thank you for telling her story! Godspeed!

  27. Elaine says:

    Thank you Philip, thank you.
    Another of the Lord’s blessed saints home at last.

  28. John Maxham says:

    Thank you for letting us know of this extraordinary woman and her example.

  29. Judy Grieve says:

    Do you know Jeremy Courtney founder of Preemptive Love? I believe he began in Iraq helping bring heart surgeons to remote areas to help children with damaged hearts. Since ISIS he has remained in Iraq and worked to help those Iraqis still trying to live there. He and his wife have helped Iraqi women and men learn to make soap using what they have locally. The soap is sent to refugee camps and sold in the US to help these Iraqis become self sufficient. I follow his blog and am impressed with his on site efforts in Mosul.

  30. Bridgette says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I did not know yet about Dr. Pfau and I feel very impressed by her devotion. May God bless her and she RIP and may we all try to do our best at the places where God wants us to work on behalf of HIS plans for the world.

  31. Carol Behrends says:

    My aunt Katherine Morgan. Pioneer missionary to Pasto, Columbia. She and her husband, Lester Morgan started the work in the early days of their marriage. Lester lost his life to cancer early on. Katherine continued the work while raising four daughters. Never waivered or complained. She had a prison ministry and held Bible studies in Bogota in her old age. I believe she was in her nineties when she died.

  32. John Thomas says:

    Thanks for the great article. What a life!
    Huldah Buntain of Calcutta is a truly great life worth writing about. She was. a friend of Mother Teresa.

  33. Jill Orr says:

    Your writing always expands my horizons and my perspective on life. Thank you for sharing her story.

  34. Zelma says:

    What a great life of love and service, I wish I knew such humility!!

  35. Po-Wing says:

    I am always encouraged to read about the sacrifices and exploits of some of Go’s choicest servants.

  36. Bob Sutton says:

    Thank you Philip for bringing to light this incredible story of a woman who loved Christ and those around her in need – blessing on you and all God is about!

  37. Dear Mr. Yancey
    I am from Indonesia. In these two weeks, I have reread your book (with Dr. Paul Brand), Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, which is translated into bahasa Indonesia. Is it coincidence? May be yes, but I believe it is not coincidence. About servant heroes, I know one of them. He was my late grand father, dr. Kasmolo Paulus. He was a surgeon from Bethesda Hospital, Yogyakarta, a hospital in Java Island, Indonesia. I have tried to find writings or long articles about him, but with little efforts. I have a dream that there will be a book, a biography, about him. If you asked Yogyakarta senior citizens, may be they could give you some story about my grand father.
    Thanks for sharing the great story about Dr. Pfau. We need stories like this nowadays.
    Yours sincerely.

  38. Randall K. Mathews says:

    Like so many others in today’s world, I too grow weary of reading and hearing about the dark things happening all around us. How refreshing to read your latest blog about Dr. Pfau and her ministry in Pakistan. What an amazing woman who modeled a life of sacrifice and commitment to some of the most vulnerable human beings on the face of the earth. Thanks for sharing her story with us.

  39. Joy Raguine says:

    I enjoy reading Philip Yancey’s writings

  40. Anita Durham says:

    Someone needs to start the process for saint hood. No

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