On his medical missions to Africa, Dr. Lawrence Czer has dealt with poverty, lack of electricity, bad accommodations -- and military checkpoints. In Sierra Leone, Czer and his team were sometimes stopped by rifle-toting soldiers who simply wouldn't let them through.
"They'll just have you stand there and you'll see other people going through," Czer said. The medical team refused to give the soldiers any money. All they could do was try to cajole them.
"Or shame them," the doctor said. "We tell them, 'Listen, we're giving free medical care to your people. Now, what are you doing holding us up from doing that?' "
It worked. For more than a decade, Czer, an otherwise genteel, soft-spoken cardiologist, has been a key part of the medical teams organized and sent by his church, the Lighthouse Church of Santa Monica, to some of the poorest, most war-ravaged countries in Africa. The trips, which began with a mission to Gambia in 1998, are now made at least twice a year.
The heart is the doctor's specialty. Czer, pronounced like "Caesar," is medical director of the heart transplant program at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. But in Africa, he functions more like an overburdened general practitioner, seeing up to 100 people a day with maladies that include broken bones, malaria, parasites, serious burns and high blood pressure.
Czer was raised Catholic in the San Fernando Valley and educated by nuns and brothers. As an adult he joined the Protestant evangelical Lighthouse Church, an outpost of the Foursquare denomination. He and his wife were drawn to the church's search for a "practical Christianity," he said. And that is what motivates him to make the trips to Africa.
"We don't stay in great hotels. We're with the people. We don't exclude anybody. We see the poorest of the poor. We lay hands on people. We touch people. We tell them we love them," he said. "We think that's what, probably, Jesus would do if he were walking the earth at this point."
In addition to Gambia and Sierra Leone, the church's medical expeditions have traveled to Burundi, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The fall mission next month -- which Czer will probably not be on -- travels back to Gambia. The church's bigger spring trip is often to Sierra Leone, where medical team members have set up their temporary clinics in several towns. Beyond medical services, the church has provided expertise and raised funds to build schools, churches and water projects.
The medical teams make it a point to revisit communities. "We like to know the people, establish relationships, get to know the country," said Czer, 58, sitting in his small office at Cedars. His desk is stacked with papers. Nearby is a framed photo of his seven children, all wearing airy white. His older children, as well as his wife, Kari, a kindergarten teacher, have at times accompanied him on his trips.
"Lawrence is the most understated guy you will ever meet," said Robert Hamilton, a Santa Monica pediatrician, fellow Lighthouse Church member and medical coordinator of the Africa visits.
Czer is the counterpart, for adult patients, to Hamilton and other pediatricians on the trips, where often half those served are children. "He's so good at African medicine," Hamilton said. "He provides a tremendous ballast for the trips."
The church missions focus on places where medical help is most needed. Hamilton called the needs of post-war Sierra Leone "mind boggling."
"When you go to Africa, you kind of grow up in some ways: 'Oh, this is what the world is like,' " said Hamilton, 56.
But they also specifically choose places where there are Christian churches to help the teams set up, explain the lay of the land and advise on potential dangers.
Many of the people in the countries they visit are Muslims or followers of traditional African religions. That stops the medical missionaries neither from treating them nor from teaching them about Christianity -- though not necessarily simultaneously.
"What we're trying to do is demonstrate Christianity," said Czer. "We're not actively proselytizing. Our job is to bring dignity -- and let the local pastor do the rest."
Rob Scribner, the pastor of Czer's church, generally does not go along on the medical missions but makes trips at other times, during which he preaches to all comers. When he asks people if they want to be prayed for, they often readily agree, no matter their religion, he says. "They have so little, they have nothing. They're thinking 'Am I going to eat?' We've been sending rice for years to our churches so we could feed people," Scribner said.
Hamilton estimates that each mission costs about $35,000 in medications. The participants, who volunteer their time, generally pay for their own airfare and lodging. The church picks up the cost of medicines and supplies, holding fundraisers to help. A recently opened thrift store (at 1727 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica) provides some funds as well.
As a young couple, Czer and his wife, Kari, who was raised Greek Orthodox, "were seeking a better way to see what God was saying," he said. He tried her religion but "I just could not understand the liturgy," he said.
Now married 30 years, the couple found in the Lighthouse Church more emphasis on reading the Bible and less on the "ritual and the big buildings" of their previous churches, Czer said. He misses some of those rituals. But Czer said of the Lighthouse Church, "For what we were going through at the time, it really addressed our needs."
They joined the church more than 20 years ago.
"I wouldn't be doing this, probably, if it weren't for reading the Bible and trying to understand what God wants us to do," Czer said of his medical forays to Africa. "I wouldn't have that depth of understanding."