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Verna Alva

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

Verna Alva in front of a painting of a whale

Since elementary school days, my dream was to become a physician. I was fascinated by the complexity of the human body and challenged by the many illnesses that affect it. I saw in medicine an opportunity to learn more and to serve. Now, with years of experience behind me, I’m amazed not only at the extraordinary expansion of knowledge in medicine, but also at how much there is still to learn. I am passionate about knowing that the human brain (the organ that allows us to communicate with the Creator) continues to be a laboratory for researchers that contributes new knowledge every day.

I studied medicine at the National University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru. I had to make the transition from the sheltered Adventist subculture---which gave me a solid foundation of character—to life “in the world.” This meant accepting the fact that many in the church were not in favor of young people, especially women, attending our country’s national universities.

A few years later I had the opportunity to obtain a British Council scholarship and study Child Psychiatry at the University of London. Maudsley Hospital (1964-1966).

While working as a child psychiatrist, I realized the enormous importance of the family environment, the school and the various institutions of society for the harmonious development of the child. Then it was essential to educate in mental health. Beyond medicine. I chose to focus on child and community psychiatry, because children need immediate care—while they are in the process of development—and because the effects of comprehensive timely, appropriate intervention will be felt for a long time. Children and early adolescents are not only a potential for the future, but they are also our capital, they constitute an asset for the churches, for each country and for the whole world, which cannot be looked down upon.

Amid the tasks of university teaching and caring for children, a new opportunity opened. I had the privilege of receiving a scholarship from the government of the State of Israel to study a Master’s in Public Health at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1978-1980). I was the only Adventist in the class among a relatively small group of international students from Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Gaza, India. In biblical lands, the same God helped us and protected us.

I was invited to run for the Senate in Peru in the 1985 elections. Due to some circumstances, I did not get to hold a seat there. Honestly, I don’t think there is any incompatibility between being an Adventist Christian and holding political or public office. There are many ways in which we, as Adventist, can contribute to the improvement of life in our countries both as ethical professionals and as representatives and servants of the people in a democratic process. The challenge is always to promote justice, peace, and fraternity on this earth without losing sight of “the blessed hope” of Christ’s return.

To me, being an Adventist Christian means, understanding and trying to live in the triple mission that the Lord Jesus lived in his earthy ministry, preaching, teaching, and healing.

I am passionate about thinking and seeing the Ministries of Evangelization and Health working together in conferences and institutional life, in prevention healthy lifestyles and comprehensive health for communities. I am concerned that Adventist clinics which in my country are prestigious private establishments may not be able to fully serve to the economically less favored classes to the most satisfactory extent possible. Our membership is constituted, in great number by members of that social stratum.

I envision that the medical students at the Peruvian Union University can spend one of the years of externship or internship, working with the local churches, observing and caring for the integral health of the church, exchanging health and medical practices and religion of everyday together with the Pastor and Elders. In Peru, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the members of the church, a good number of them lay people, have been carrying out comprehensive health education and many of these groups are led by our sisters lay women, simple housewives and professionals, with a fruitful ministry using the technological means available.

“I like to preach, I started preaching to my friends in elementary school. Since I became a medical doctor, I have preached in big and small churches around Lima, including at the Peruvian Union University. The last time I preached was about Breaking the Silence against Domestic/Violence. Occasionally a parishioner complains saying “don’t you know, in the Bible says women are not allowed to speak? Bur most gladly agree that the preaching is Christian, Bible in hand.

There have always been women who contributed leadership in the OT and NT. Ellen White the great leader, in the founding hour of the Adventist movement (1844-1863) confirms that the women who followed Jesus, sustained and supported his mission. Some names are in the gospels, but others are not. The history of the Adventist church is also full of women: treasurers, educators, department heads and heads of Sabbath school in its early years.

Currently there are many lay women preachers, and some countries are already ordaining women. I believe that the Lord will manifest Himself as we approach the most dramatic moments in history, allowing greater leadership of Women in the SDA church. All the Priscillas, all the Lydias, all the Eunices, etc. of the XXI century will go out preaching “the Faith that was once given to the saints.”.

Adventist Christians cannot carry out these great tasks without daily and frequent prayer for the Holy Spirit. I believe faith and service are very interconnected. My Faith: the belief in a God who has created us, has redeemed us, guides us and will return, has strengthened my professional practice and my whole life. Thanks to the wonderful gospel of forgiveness and grace.

A desire, that all women leaders of the church, in administrative positions, pastoral tasks and in other departments-----remember---- as well as those in other responsibilities, from simple housewives to those with the highest university positions, that there is an imperative: pray for the gift of helping, expressly mentioned in the scripture and that they exercise the ministry of friendship, which opens paths, builds bridges towards avid generous hearts, ennobles the intellect of those who give and those who receive.

Verna Alva MD MPH taught psychiatry and public health in the School of Medicine, Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru. She was director of the Department of Child Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health in Peru and served on the Executive Committee of the General Conference as a lay representative of the South American Division. Interview by Ruth Peeters.

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