[Women’s Voices for Change] This article was originally published in Women’s Voices for Change.
“In Tanzania they don’t have a national Thanksgiving holiday,” says Sandra McCann, radiologist and Episcopal priest. “But every day is Thanksgiving there. Every single prayer starts with ‘Thank you, Baba.’ Each prayer starts with a litany of thanksgiving. When I first arrived in 2004, I found this annoying, especially in our small pastoral groups that meet only one time a week for 20 minutes. I would say, ‘Do you have any prayer requests?’—and before they could make the request, each one would have to go through the thanksgiving litany.
“But I’ve come to understand this and appreciate Thanksgiving on a deep level, because the most common prayer I hear is, ‘Thank you, Father, for protecting me through the night.’ And I learned that living through the night is not a given there. The mother might miss the snake when she goes around the house with a torch before bedtime. And so many diseases threaten them—especially malaria. (Sadly, little Martin Nyemo Mazengo died of malaria just four months after I baptized him.) So just making it through the night is something you give thanks for every day.
“They are thankful for every drop of rain, every little gift—a toothbrush, some medicine for malaria . . . They dance their offerings down the aisle every Sunday. And everyone must give. It can be an egg, a tomato, or a coin. A big gift would be a chicken or a goat. When they bring the offering plate up to the altar, they offer it to the priest, the deacon, to any important visitor. If you didn’t give, you would be left out. You would have lost your chance to say ‘Thank you.’”
Sandra McCann and her husband, Martin, are Episcopal missionaries. He is doing what he’d loved to do in the States—running a histopathology laboratory plus doing many needle aspiration biopsies and teaching. She is doing what she never dreamed she could ever do—working as a priest.
Taken by Surprise
Rev. Dr. Sandra McCann has switched careers abruptly—and with some amazement—all through her life. Ask her how she happened (“happened” is the apposite word) to become a doctor, then a radiologist, then a priest, and she’ll say, with a touch of wonder, “I was taken by surprise!”
Her first life-changing choice came in a flash in her sixth-grade classroom. Her teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. Sandra wanted to be a nurse. “And this girl said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh! Women can be doctors?’ When my turn came, I said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’
“And I never veered from that. Even though I didn’t know any woman doctors, I just decided that’s what I wanted to do. I essentially had blinders on from that very moment. I never thought about anything else.”
So she became a doctor. She met Martin McCann on the first day of her internship. Perplexed about which specialty to choose, she was certain she wouldn’t like radiology; fresh out of her internship, not knowing what she wanted to do, she accepted a slot in a radiology residency that had become available after a man was drafted to Vietnam. And found, to her surprise, that she loved this work.
Several years after marrying and having children, the McCanns became regular churchgoers, and Sandra, who relished learning, began taking theological courses at her church.
Martin was as devoted to his specialty as she was to hers. In their mid-fifties, both were at “the top of our game.” Martin was chair of the department of pathology at St. Francis Hospital in Columbus, Georgia, and Sandra was chair of radiology at Hughston Orthopedic Hospital.
“I never had a day when I didn’t want to go to work,” Sandra says. But in her fifties she noticed that “in the last few years, the interesting cases weren’t quite as fascinating to me. At that time I was working with a mission for homeless, mentally ill people‑—raising money for a home for them and doing services for them on Sunday. I was drawn to them. I enjoyed my Bible studies rather than getting out my medical journals. That was the only thing that I noticed . . . that my interests were slowly being drawn to my church activities.”
An Unexpected Calling
Then, in 1999, when Sandra was 55, Martin came back from a brief volunteer medical trip to Haiti and told his wife, “I think I’m ready to do this full time.”
Sandra was taken by surprise. And she wasn’t ready to retire. But when Martin phoned to tell her that he’d been accepted into the tropical-medicine program at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, “I hung up. Then I called my business manager and said, ‘I want to give my three months notice.’
“He was totally shocked.”
Why the change? Sandra hadn’t been cherishing a desire to be a doctor in a third-world country (except when, in fourth grade, she devoured the school library’s biography of Albert Schweitzer). Yet she had a new interest in mission, and had begun picturing herself happily taking courses at the Servant Leadership School of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C.—if Martin could get into a tropical medicine course in the D.C. area. And now he had. “Crazy things happened. Within six weeks we had sold our house. We rented an apartment, and two weeks later we jumped into the car and went to Johns Hopkins, with Martin’s microscope, a box of books, and two suitcases. We felt completely free—like we were on our honeymoon again.”
Additional flash-fast changes ensued. At the end of that summer, Martin was scheduled to go to Peru to do field work. Sandra said she wasn’t about to quit the courses she found so fascinating. But when the plane headed for Peru, Sandra was on it. Although she had repeatedly said she was not going to Peru, the morning Martin was going to the travel doctor to get his immunizations, he asked if she were coming with him, and out of her mouth came “Yes.” This openness to change eventually led to Sandra’s ordination as a priest. When they returned from Peru, Sandra continued taking theological courses for the sheer love of learning. After she talked with her bishop about being available for a call to medical mission, he encouraged her to think about the priesthood. She had never considered this.
Africa at Last
Sandra graduated from Virginia seminary in May 2003. Four years after retiring to follow the call to do fulltime mission work, she and Martin were interviewed by the national mission office of the Episcopal Church in New York City, and were finally officially appointed as missionaries. After taking a course in the Swahili language in Tanzania, they spent the remainder of 2004 in Maseno, Kenya, before going to their permanent assignment in Dodoma, Tanzania. Martin was given space to set up a histopathology laboratory in the diocesan medical clinic. Sandra was posted to Msalato theological college.
She was, she admits, “a teacher who was only one page ahead of her students. It was wonderful for me. I studied day and night. I loved teaching.” Her job evolved from full-time teaching to becoming the college chaplain and communications director. Being the chaplain involves arranging the daily chapel services and Sunday schedules, as well as going out to village churches twice a month to preach and to encourage the local priests and catechists. Being communications director involves not only being a tourist director and raising money, but working to help it acquire accreditation. That has been accomplished. Msalato students can now earn a bachelor of theology degree without going abroad.
The McCanns live in “relative luxury” (a cement-floored house that features cold running water) on the college campus near Dodoma. “Where we are there are only a few thatched roofs. It’s relatively prosperous because people have jobs in Dodoma. More and more people are getting tin roofs, and there are some cement-block houses replacing mud huts. Everyone cooks outside on charcoal or wood. Eighty-five percent are subsistence farmers, so they grow what they eat. That’s why drought is a huge issue. What they don’t grow, they don’t eat.”
Nearly 10 years later, Martin and Sandra are still in Tanzania. “Martin is as terribly fulfilled as I am,” Sandra says. After Thanksgiving she will end a brief stay in the States and return to the land of thanksgiving.
“I think the greatest gift the people here have given me is gratefulness,” Sandra says. “There is such poverty. They suffer daily. But I’ll hear them singing as they walk 12 kilometers to get a bucket of dirty water. This joy in life struck me when I first went to Dodom. It brought me back to what my spiritual mentor, the Rev.Gordon Cosby, had said to me: ‘The lack of gratefulness blocks all other graces.’”
— Deborah Harkins, who co-edits WVFC‘s site, was an assigning editor at New York magazine for more than 20 years. She has also been the articles editor of The Modern Estate, a columnist for The New York Daily News, and associate editor at NYCityWoman.com.