The Seventh-day Adventist Church now has more opportunities than ever to promote its message of health – one that has made Adventists the longest-living people group ever studied, says Dr. Peter Landless.
For the 63-year-old South African native, promoting that message should include a “balanced” and “grace-filled” approach, he says during an interview in his office.
The cardiologist, former university lecturer and longtime missionary recounts his career, which was nearly cut short during a landmine accident while serving as a drafted, non-combatant physician in the South African Army in 1979. A few scars and finger damage remain. He says he’s been “saved to serve.”
Landless becomes director of the Adventist Church’s Health Ministries department this month, succeeding Dr. Allan Handysides, who announced his retirement in April. The job is one that includes charting the course of health promotion for the international Protestant denomination, and, increasingly, public health agencies and governments through the church’s growing number of collaborations. The department also oversees and provides consulting for the development and operations of Adventist hospitals and clinics worldwide.
The denomination’s healthy lifestyle – including a vegetarian diet, abstaining from alcohol and tobacco, and Sabbath rest – has been documented extensively in magazines and books. Many organizations over the years have adopted Adventist health curriculum as their official health training.
Landless says the Adventist Church now has new openings to publicly promote its message on health and gain behind-the-scenes chances to serve more governments. He won’t name some of the countries on the record, but confides, “There are opportunities that are opening up in certain parts of the world that are mind-boggling.”
He adds, “It’s an amazing privilege and a very humbling one to be here at a time like this.” The reasons to be grateful, he says, are many:
—The Adventist Health Study 2, conducted by the denomination’s flagship medical school, Loma Linda University, and funded partly by the National Institutes of Health, continues to gain more publicity. Its most recent findings were reported in top news agencies worldwide.
—Next year, the church will open its sixth medical school – in the Philippines. The denomination recently opened two other medical schools in emerging economy countries – Nigeria and Peru. Another is likely on the horizon in Africa.
—Next week, the church’s Health Ministries department and Ministerial Association will unveil church Presidential initiative for comprehensive health ministry at Annual Council, the world church’s Executive Committee meeting here at the world headquarters.
—The church next year will release its latest version of “Breathe Free,” which is update of the first smoking cessation program that was launched by the church in the 1950s. The updated version was rewritten in collaboration with the University of the United Arab Emirates and the Adventist Church’s Loma Linda University.
—Next year, the church will again meet with the World Health Organization in Geneva, continuing an official collaboration to help implement the UN Millennium Development Goals. In 2009, the Adventist Church became the first denomination to collaborate with the WHO when the UN agency began seeking faith-based partnerships.
Landless says the church’s message on health should continue to be biblical, evidence-based and in tune with the writings of church co-founder Ellen G. White, who died in 1915. It was White who first urged the church to make health part of its practice and public ministry.
“We need to keep in the forefront of the vision of the church the grace-filled, balanced health message, which reveals the love of God for a broken world,” he says.
Landless attended medical school at the University of Witwatersrand and was editor of the school journal, The Leech. He and his wife, Ros, served as missionaries near Lesotho, a country within South Africa, from 1976 to 1987.
In 1977 he was drafted into South Africa’s National Service as a non-combatant and refused to carry a weapon or work on Saturday, which Adventists observe as the biblical Sabbath. He ran a clinic six days a week for the underserved in South-West Africa, along what is now the border between Angola and Namibia.
On a rainy day, prime conditions for an ambush, the vehicle he was riding in encountered freshly planted landmines while he traveled back from a follow-up visit to an infant patient. With Landless were his driver, bodyguard and two engineers. They were thrown 100 feet from the vehicle. His driver died 11 days later.
“Being saved like that stands out in my mind as a compelling reason to serve,” Landless says. “People often say, ‘What’s a highly-trained cardiologist, who could be earning millions, doing here?’ I say it’s because we’re saved to serve, and it’s the greatest privilege in life to do that.”
In 1980 he was awarded the military’s Southern Cross Medal, the first time it was awarded to a National Service medical officer.
Later that same year he was ordained as an Adventist minister, a “direction-setting” event, he says. “Once you accept ordination, it doesn’t make you special. It just commits you totally to God’s service.”
Over the years he has worked as the principal of a family practice, a specialist in cardiology, and the deputy director of the Cardiology Department at Johannesburg Hospital. He had the privilege of being part of President Nelson Mandela’s cardiology team from 1993 to 1995. He is certified in the U.S. in nuclear cardiology and is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.
In 2000 he was elected associate Health Ministries director at the Adventist Church headquarters. Since then he has co-authored hundreds of papers and columns with Handysides and has lobbied governments on behalf of the church’s International Commission on the Prevention of Alcohol.
Landless makes a point to speak of Handysides’ longtime lobbying for the Adventist Church to launch a ministry to those affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa, where now nearly 40 percent of the denomination’s membership reside. The Adventist AIDS International Ministry turned 10 years old this year.
“The world church really owes him a debt of gratitude,” he says. “I mean that much more than just speaking well of one’s predecessor. For so long he urged the church to establish a ministry that has helped change the lives of tens of thousands of vulnerable people. They would otherwise be living as outcasts and some might not even be living at all.”
Landless says he’ll continue Handyside’s call for balanced health ministry and for collaborations with organizations, through which Adventists can further spread their message of healthful living.