In the United States, it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, set aside as a national holiday to honor the slain civil rights leader. That makes it a good moment to write about Thomas J. White, who passed away earlier this month.
I first learned about Tom White by reading Tracy’s Kidder’s book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (books do make a difference). In it, Kidder tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, who with White and several others founded Partners in Health (PIH).
Both at its founding and for the full life of PIH, White gave generously to keep the fledgling organization afloat and to fund its growth. In addition to the financial support, White also gave his time and influence, trying to do what he could to improve the health and well-being of people in Haiti, Peru, Russia, Rwanda and Lesotho.
As Paul Farmer notes in an eloquent eulogy, White practiced “a ministry of showing up”. Neither heroic nor necessarily self-effacing, he did what he could, when he could.
Each year, Partners in Health recognizes significant contributions with the Thomas J. White prize, a way of celebrating and inculcating the values that drove his actions. I saw him but once in my life and I never met him, but through the words of others, I feel as if I know the person that Ignatians and Paul Farmer call “a man for others”.
If you’re interested in learning more about Partners in Health, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” is a good place to start, as is the organization’s web site. Paul Farmer has written extensively about health care in the countries in which PIH operates; a search under his name will turn up several notable (and dense) titles. The organization continues to lead efforts to rebuild medical facilities in Haiti, and donations are always of value.