Distinguished Alums 1999
February 24, 1999
Lowell Gess was born in 1921 in Paynesville, Minnesota. He graduated from Macalester College in 1942 with a BA degree and from Evangelical Theological seminary in 1945 with a Bachelor of Divinity Degree. He served as a pastor from 1945 through 1947. In 1947, he entered Washington University School of Medicine completing his training in 1951 at Ancker Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota. For the last two years of medical training and internship, Dr. Gess and his wife Ruth, were placed under appointment by the Board of Missions of the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
Following his medical training, Dr. Gess served as a missionary and as a general physician and surgeon in Africa. He served in Nigeria from 1952 to 1955 where he was appointed to the Bambur Hospital. From 1957 to 1960, Dr. Gess was given an appointment to establish a surgical program in Sierra Leone. During this stay in Sierra Leone, he recognized an urgent need for specialty care in ophthalmology. In order to address this need, he returned to the United States and trained at the University of Minnesota from 1961 to 1964 to become an ophthalmologist.
From 1964 to 1967 and from 1972 to 1975, Dr. Gess returned to Sierra Leone where he established an eye program at Taiama. After returning to private practice in Minnesota in 1975, Dr. Gess spent from three to four months of each year as a volunteer medical missionary in Africa. Normally, he and his wife would make two or three trips yearly. They did this mostly at their own expense and carried out their work in very primitive facilities in Freetown. In addition to his own efforts, Dr. Gess organized local churches to collect needed medicines and supplies which he and his wife could bring with them to the clinics in Africa. He also recruited many other ophthalmologists to leave their successful practices to spend several weeks as volunteers at the clinic.
It was a special dream of Dr. Gess to establish a permanent, full time, fully staffed and modern eye clinic in Africa and he accomplished this with the establishment of the Kissy United Methodist Church Eye Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It is the only eye clinic serving millions of people in West Africa. The program is unique in that it has a permanent staff of 15 Sierra Leone natives in addition to volunteer ophthalmologists from the United States. It also has an ophthalmologically trained Sierra Leone physician.
Dr. Gess’s trips were not only to Sierra Leone, but also to several other countries in Africa to provide surgical service and train doctors in new procedures and up-to-date methods to treat eye problems. Dr. Gess has also traveled to China, Vietnam, Japan, and South America, often at his own expense. He has worked with the United Methodist Church and Christolfo Blinden Mission.
Ken Chalker’s first appointment, after graduation from Duke Divinity School in 1974 was Lexington Church of the Cross on the outskirts of Mansfield, Ohio. When he first arrived there, this mission church was down on its apportionments and meeting in a first unit building. During his 7 ½ years as pastor, the church built a new sanctuary, office facilities and classrooms, and grew in size from 100 to more than 500 members.
Dr. Chalker continued with his studies and received a Doctor of Ministry degree from Garrett-Evangelical in 1982. He was appointed to Union United Methodist Church in the college town of Alliance, Ohio where both he and his father graduated from Mount Union College. Under Dr. Chalker’s leadership, this church undertook a refurbishing and remodeling program and attendance doubled. At the request of the state’s Planned Parenthood organization, a satellite clinic was established in 1985 at church.
Dr. Chalker was appointed in 1986 to “turn around” Cleveland’s inner-city First United Methodist Church. Its magnificent Gothic structure was the third site for the inner city church founded in the early 1800’s. On Rev. Chalker’s first Sunday, he was greeted by 57 people in a room that could see 1,000. In 1924, the church had 2,000 members, but the congregation had dwindled over the years. Though giving had also declined, the church’s endowment income guaranteed that, no matter how many people left, the church would continue.
When Dr. Chalker arrived, there was no Sunday school and practically no worship in a building that looked like part of a war zone. Only two (federally funded) programs went on during the week – a day care center and a senior citizen meal plan. Relying on his belief in “resurrection within the Christian church – that because Christ is alive, there is no church that should be dead,” he began to revive First United Methodist Church. He used part of the endowment money to launch a massive public relations/advertising campaign – $200,000 over a four year period.
Approximately 300 people now worship on Sunday morning – 48% are non-white, many are very poor, and some are very wealthy. There is an active Sunday school for all ages, and a variety of discipleship, social action, support, and witness groups meet regularly. Daily some 600 people pass through its doors which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The building offers housing for women and children every night of the year. A full time kitchen staff prepares and serves 125 meals a day, 70 on site. The day care center provides three meals a day and snacks for children from impoverished or “working-poor” families. Giving is up from $17,000 to $150,000 in the first six years.
In 1988, Rev. Chalker received the Communications Achievement of the Year Award from the Cleveland Advertising Club. In 1989, First Church received the Circuit Rider award for Church Growth. It has been the fastest growing church in the East Ohio Annual Conference.