by Joe Bliffen
Over the past 51 years Dennis D. Pruett, MD, has been known as Chiremba (doctor) to the Africans who live in the bush country of Zimbabwe. In 1958, at age 34, Dr. Pruett, his wife, Lucy, and their four children traveled to what was then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Africa.
Arriving in Cape Town, South Africa, the Pruett family, along with nurses Betty Iddings and Helen Doyle and secretary Betty Morgan, were met by the Max Ward Randall family, missionaries to South Africa. After a couple of days, they began the long and arduous journey from Cape Town to Rhodesia in the “Gollywhopper,” a large four-wheel drive vehicle suitable for the rugged terrain that led to the bush country that would be their home for the next 20 years.
They crossed the border from South Africa into Southern Rhodesia at Messina, where they were met by their dear friends John and Marge Pemberton, who had been fellow students at Kentucky Christian College.
The Pruetts made the grueling 300-mile journey into the Matsai Reserve to the newly established Mashoko Mission. It was here in the bush country that Pruett and his nursing staff set up a surplus army tent and began a medical practice. The tent also doubled as an operating room where surgeries were performed on an old door resting on two 55-gallon drums. This physician was now in competition with witch doctors in darkest Africa.
TRAINED BY CHALLENGES
Before arriving in Zim-babwe, Pruett already knew about living in a primitive environment. He had experienced dangerous, even life-threatening situations.
In the 1920s and 1930s, his home was on the side of a mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia, the most mountainous and southernmost part of the state. As a boy roaming the mountains and valleys of wild West Virginia, Denny faced the dangers of wildcats, bears, water moccasins, copperheads, and rattlesnakes.
In 1942, at age 18, he joined the U.S. Naval Air Corps. He was trained in Florida, California, and Hawaii before being assigned to Air Group 19 Torpedo Squadron aboard the USS Lexington.
He saw action in Guam, Iwo Jima, several other Pacific Islands, the Philippines, and Okinawa. He participated in the largest naval battle ever at Leyte Gulf. He lost many close friends during the war and was wounded over Guam, receiving a Purple Heart.
Pruett was awarded the Air Medal with four stars indicating action against the enemy on land, sea, and air, and was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1945.
EDUCATED TO SERVE
But Pruett’s goal in life was much greater than the life of a U.S. Navy pilot. Because of his love for the Lord and his compassion for people, Pruett dedicated himself to medical evangelism—the preaching of the gospel of Christ by providing professional medical care for people who are sick and injured.
To achieve this, he faced 12 years of education and training. In 1946 he began his higher education, which led to a Doctor of Medicine degree from Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
But he almost didn’t finish his education. One day during his third year at Wake Forest, he and his wife, Lucy, decided he should drop out of school. They were out of money.
But that very day they found a $300 check in the mail from the First Church of Christ in East Palestine, Ohio. He stayed in medical school.
During his six years of medical training in Winston-Salem, Pruett was busy evangelizing. He established two churches: Ardmore Christian Church and Matthews Chapel Christian Church. Both congregations are still active today.
After a year’s residency in surgery and a fellowship in tropical medicine, Pruett and Lucy and their four young children—David, Darel, Denise, and Daniel—boarded a merchant ship bound for South Africa, their gateway to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
That was 1958—51 years ago. Today Pruett is 85 and is still busy working in medical evangelism, practicing medicine, preaching, and writing books.
From 1958 until 1978 the Mashoko Christian Mission (later, as the mission expanded, it became the Central Africa Mission) became the home of more than 70 missionary families from the United States. These missionaries included physicians, dentists, nurses, preachers, educators, builders, and other support personnel. Everyone was needed to manage the exponential growth of the church in Zimbabwe.
During his first 20 years in Africa, Pruett and his coworkers built hospitals, clinics, church buildings, and schools and established Zimbabwe Christian College to train Africans from all over southern Africa to minister to the churches. Africans were also trained as nurses and teachers and administrators. The goal was to make the Africans independent of American missionaries. Today, a Christian African physician, Zindoga Bungu, is in charge of the medical work begun by Pruett in 1958.
In 1959-61, the $100,000 needed to build Christian Hospital at Mashoko was raised through the giving of churches and individuals in America. This fund drive was led by the vision of Christian Standard when Edwin Hayden was editor. The Africans baked more than 600,000 handmade bricks.
The first, and present, hospital chaplain is Augustine Makuku of Zimbabwe. Through his work at Christian Hospital, more than 15,000 people have been baptized into Christ and 33 satellite churches have been established.
Long before megachurch came to describe large congregations in America, a megachurch started and nurtured by Pruett, Pemberton, and many others grew in Zimbabwe, and today it dwarfs any congregation in America. Sunday school attendance alone is more than 35,000 children, plus the adults.
As an additional benefit of this medical mission, many of the children of the missionary families at Mashoko have become ministers, missionaries, physicians, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals. Some are still serving in Zimbabwe.
Pruett’s “congregation” owned a 120-bed hospital, several medical clinics, church buildings, primary and secondary schools, and a Christian college. This megachurch had so many members and was spread over such a large area that Pruett used an airplane to save untold hours of travel time.
The war in Zimbabwe started in the mid-1970s, and American missionaries, for their own safety, left Zimbabwe. Pruett’s last night in Zimbabwe was spent hiding from the rebels who invaded Christian Hospital at Mashoko. The next day, afraid the rebel soldiers might try to kill him by shooting down his little airplane, Pruett flew a circuitous route to the airport at Harare.
During the war, and even to this day, many courageous African Christians suffer torture; many were maimed for life or were murdered because of their faith in Christ. But the church in Zimbabwe is still alive and the hospitals and clinics and schools and churches are still operating and even growing stronger.
Today, Pruett’s daughter, Denise Hayes (a registered nurse), and her husband, Jim, operate All God’s Children, a mission in Zimbabwe that provides a home for children with AIDS. Pruett’s son, Daniel, died in the summer of 2009 ministering to several churches he had established.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while still in Africa, Pruett responded to calls from American missionaries working in other countries to help them build clinics for medical evangelism. In order to administer this new work, which spread worldwide, Pruett founded The Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism. FAME’s primary emphasis was building medical clinics and supplying medicines and medical equipment. Even mobile clinics were sent to several countries.
Then in 1986, Pruett established his third major mission organization, HASTEN International Inc. (Health And Salvation To Every Nation). The goal of HASTEN is to recruit and support native physician/ministers for the work of medical evangelism. Because of Pruett’s leadership, and increasingly the leadership of his son, Dr. Darel Pruett, HASTEN supports eight national physicians and has built medical clinics in India, Philippines, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Zimbabwe. Today Dr. Pruett is pursuing the opportunity to establish a medical evangelistic work in China
In 1996, the elder Pruett had heart bypass surgery. There were complications, and Pruett was unconscious for 22 days, underwent two additional surgeries, received 95 units of blood, and in the process became the “poster boy” for the American Red Cross in Winston-Salem.
Now enjoying good health, Pruett continues as president of HASTEN International and is still preaching the Word of God. He addresses groups of physicians all across the country. He is trained in the following areas of medical expertise: surgery, general medical practice, emergency medicine, missionary medicine, and plastic surgery.
Pruett owns Old Town Immediate and Family Care, a medical clinic that received the highest award given to immediate medical care facilities in Winston-Salem. Because many of his patients are Hispanic, at age 73, Pruett learned to speak Spanish.
In addition to all this, Pruett was one of the founding physicians of the American College of Emergency Medicine. He has received numerous honors in emergency medicine and a Doctor of Divinity from Kentucky Christian University.
Years ago Pruett wrote, “Medical evangelism is the best way in the world to put Christian ideals into action. You see with your eyes, touch with your hands, and feel with your heart the love Christ had for people when he helped them. This is made more wonderful when you see the appreciation from a people who now understand that the love God had for all people is manifested by his servants.”
Joe Bliffen serves as minister of Fourth Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio.