"JEDER KANN SEIN LAMBARENE HABEN." (Anyone can have his own Lambarene)
A few years ago, I received a letter from Albert Schweitzer's daughter, Rhena. She shared fond memories of one of her father's most faithful assistants, Erica Anderson, who I met in 1973.
Everyone knows Schweitzer was a writer on theology and a master organist. But he's best remembered as the physician who founded a missionary hospital in 1913 near the town of Lambarene in French Equitorial Africa, now Gabon. His first consulting room was a chicken coop. Patients often paid him with produce or livestock. Generous support from abroad was always needed to keep the hospital open. "Something must happen in someone's heart before anything happens in Lambarene," Schweitzer said.
Something happened in Erica Anderson's heart. A New York filmmaker, she asked Schweitzer's permission to visit Lambarene to make a documentary. He invited her to come, but bring no film, since he would rather "burn in hell" than have a movie made about his life. So Erica set sail for Africa, with all her camera gear. "I expected to remain with the doctor only a few months," she told me. "Instead, I stayed 19 years."
Rhena was hospital administrator when Erica arrived. She recalled how Erica "changed from a strong-willed business woman to a person dedicated to my father and his philosophy of reverence for life. Erica supervised maintenance crews, helped with the doctor's correspondence, and took care of hospital garbage disposal. When my father visited Europe, Erica was his driver."
After ministering to Africa's weak and infirm for almost 50 years, Schweitzer died in 1956. Erica inherited many of his books and letters, as well as a $10,000 bequest. She'd completed her motion picture, Albert Schweitzer, and it won an Oscar, but now she had a higher ambition.
Following the doctor's promise, she set out to find her own Lambarene, her own way to help mankind. With his bequest, she bought a small farm near Great Barrington in western Massachusetts where, in 1966, after converting the barn into a small theater and library,she opened the Albert Schweitzer Friendship House. Rhena visited her there, as did I. Erica welcomed a steady stream of guests, including busloads of school children who came to watch her movie and learn about reverence for life. Erica told them how a visitor at Schweitzer's jungle hospital was about to swat a pesky fly. "Please don't do that," said Schweitzer. "You see, that's my fly."
Before leaving, boys and girls stood in a circle around a long rope which hung from a bell in a cupola atop the barn roof. Each was allowed to step forward and pull the rope, ringing the bell, but only after promising aloud, "I will do all I can never to harm any living thing." Some teachers later wrote Erica, telling the great length pupils went to, to keep their promise.
Erica died in 1979. Her friendship house remained open until 1994, when it closed for lack of funds. The barn bell has not rung since then, but Erica's spirit lives on in hundreds of remembered promises.
"Like my father, Erica enriched many lives," wrote Rhena. Most important, she found her own Lambarene, which was Schweitzer's wish for all of us. Have you found yours yet?