Profiles of Changemakers: Tom Frist


This profile was published as part of Gandhi’s Be Magazine’s #ProfilesofChangemakers series, uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Changemakers who are being the change they wish to see in the world.

Author Tom Frist has spent much of his life trying to make the world a better place, promoting the health, relief, rehabilitation, and economic development of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Born in Tampa, Florida in 1945, the youngest of four children of Dr. John Chester Frist, a Presbyterian minister, and Betty Ferran Frist, a writer. Tom graduated from the McCallie School in Tennessee in 1963 and received his BA from Davidson College, including one year of study at the Université de Montpellier in France. He later did graduate studies in public health at Yale University, in not-for-profit management at Columbia University, and in business administration in the Advanced Management Program of the Harvard Business School.

Tom has taught English and American literature in India on a Fulbright Grant and studied the similarities and differences in Christian and Hindu mysticism. He has served as a UNICEF field representative in Vietnam responsible for building hospital wards in Saigon and Danang and for emergency relief and refugee feeding programs in Danang, Hue, and Quang Ngai, feeding ten thousand children daily. He has done social research in Tanzania, founded and directed national organizations for the disabled in Brazil, set up refugee programs in Vietnam and an economic development program in Nicaragua, served as president of international organizations for Hansen’s disease (leprosy) in the U.S. and Europe, and contributed as a board member and volunteer in NGOs. Along with scientific articles and a chapter in a textbook, Tom is the author of several books focusing on issues of social and spiritual development, and has founded several nonprofits. He and his wife Clare Strachan Frist have two children, Lisa Kristin and John Daniel. Tom and Clare now currently reside in Montreat, North Carolina, but they also have a farm in Brazil and travel frequently to Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and other countries.

What motivated you to begin writing and what moved you regarding the topics you chose to write about?

Since the time that I lived in India and Vietnam in the late 1960s, I have been interested in the plight of stigmatized persons–especially those with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and those with disabilities. I wanted to help them “normalize” their lives and so I spent a number of years in Tanzania and Brazil researching the causes of stigma and suggesting ways that stigma could be reduced. I published the results of this research in some small international scientific journals interested in the subject, and that is how I got started writing. Later, as president of the American Leprosy Missions and of the International Federation of Anti-leprosy organizations, I was asked to write a chapter on rehabilitation in a textbook on leprosy and then a book on the social and economic aspects of the fight against leprosy. As an English major in college, I also was interested in creative writing and so I decided to try my hand at writing novels—starting with a book based on my fifteen year experience in Brazil creating programs to help people with leprosy and disabilities become normal citizens. I later wrote another novel based on my three-year experience in Nicaragua promoting the economic development of a very poor region of that country. While these four books might be classified as more or less secular books with Christian underpinnings, my other two books are thoroughly Christian. I wrote The Thoughts of a Good Man to honor my father and to summarize and share with others many of his sermons as a Presbyterian minister. As for Be Good, Do Good, I wrote this book to explore the struggles one goes through trying to apply the two great commandments of loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves to international development work. In fact, one might say that the unifying theme of all of my writing is what it means to do good in a loving, effective, and efficient way.

As one of the topics you’ve written on, do you feel that Leprosy hasn’t been dealt with properly, if at all. What outcomes do you hope for with regard to how people understand the disease.

When I began in leprosy work in the early 1970’s, there were an estimated 15 million people worldwide with the disease. Today, because of a cure, there are less than a million, although many more have disabilities because of it. When I first became interested in leprosy work, people with the disease were still isolated in leprosaria, villages of patients, and in segregated health center programs, and patients were greatly feared and stigmatized. Today, this situation also has changed for the better, and leprosy work is now almost totally integrated. All of my work and writing in leprosy has been devoted to encouraging and to speeding up the progress of education and integration so that people who have the disease no longer feel shame; so that those who come into contact with them neither fear them nor treat them differently from other people, and so that leprosy becomes a disease like any other.

Clearly, you have lived and worked in many challenging areas of the world and helped those in need. What is the most important contribution you feel you have made through your work?

The most important contributions that I feel that I have made in international leprosy work have been to help raise awareness of the socio-economic problems faced by people affected by leprosy and to establish integrated programs alongside medical programs to help them deal with these problems, still some people will be unsatisfied with these services and have Compensation Claims. I have also fought hard to give people affected by the disease more of a voice in international bodies responsible for creating programs to help them. I feel that my contributions in general economic development have been very modest—mainly sharing my own experiences with others about what works and what doesn’t work in international development.

Relocating and living abroad, as well as dealing with life and death issues of oppressed and third world peoples can be extremely tiring and perhaps devastating at times. What is your driving force, and what are the projects you will focus on in the upcoming years?

For me it is not a struggle to live abroad. I love living in other cultures and experiencing how different and yet how similar we all are as human beings. Part of my motivation for living abroad has been my desire for adventure, but there were other reasons as well. For example, I lived in France, India, and Spain as part of my own and my wife’s academic aspirations. During the war, I lived and worked in Vietnam as a UNICEF employee building hospital wards and feeding refugees because I was a conscientious objector and felt that it was my duty as a young citizen of the US to serve just like those soldiers who were drafted. As for my time in Tanzania and many years in Brazil, I was there because leprosy was a major problem in these countries and I had received invitations from government and NGOs to come and try to help them research and solve some of these problems. I lived in Nicaragua for almost three years because of an invitation from a group of prominent Central American businessmen for me to come and try to help them give back to their countries by setting up a simple economic development program in a very poor region of that country that they would finance. As for your question about projects that I would like to focus on in the coming years, I would say that the project my wife and I are most passionate about is returning to Brazil to turn our farm there into a Christian spiritual retreat and training center. I would also like to write one or two more books.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges in the world today?  If you feel they aren’t being addressed, would you explain?

To me the biggest challenges in the world today are more spiritual than economic, as important as the economic problems are. As a Christian, I believe that our biggest challenges continue to be what they have always been—to change our hearts so that we love God with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. We need to learn how to honor and cooperate with the Spirit of Love that created and sustains the universe and to be its channel to others in practical ways. Doing so we would protect our environment for future generations, we would not kill in war or anger or self-righteousness, we would have fairer income distribution, and we would be happier people.

What is your biggest inspiration?

My biggest inspirations are the honest and good people I sometimes meet or hear about who recognize and admit their failings but who still strive always to do better and to become the beings they were meant to be. Nelson Mandela was certainly one of these.

*Editor’s Note: During our conversation leading up to this interview, I spoke with Tom Frist about a personal passion I have for a pilot program called Boyz Inc. I asked him to share his thoughts on this work:

“Tom, I mentioned to you about my passion for getting boys connected and how important that is to our future. But everywhere you look, every thing you read or see or hear in the media reinforces how troubled our youth are or seem to be. What is your opinion? Where is the disconnect?”

When I recently visited my high school alma mater, the McCallie School, I was immensely impressed at the quality of the young male students whom I listened to as they shared their hopes and accomplishments and their dedication to service. Unfortunately, I believe that these exceptional individuals are not the norm. More and more, I see young men falling behind young women in education, in service, and in maturity. I do not have the wisdom to understand just why this is happening or to offer suggestions for changing the trends, but I do know that it is a major problem that we have to address. One other observation I would like to make is that I have a sister-in-law who, like you, has a passion for young teenagers (especially those from Latin American) and has established an international organization and a website to help them in their struggles to make smart choices in life.

Describe in a little more depth the books you have written, and perhaps what you wanted to achieve with them.  

Don’t treat me like I have leprosy is mainly a training manual for leprosy workers around the world and deals with the history of leprosy and the physical, psychological, social, and economic problems caused by the disease. It also suggests effective and efficient ways to treat these problems and thus normalize the lives of people affected by the disease in their communities. I wrote it because I was asked to do so by ILEP, the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations. It is an expanded edition of a chapter that I had previously written in the textbook Leprosy, edited by Robert C. Hastings.

The Descendant is a novel based in Brazil, which tells the leprosy story as a human drama. It also deals with the fascinating history of the “Confederados,” the American Southerners who immigrated to Brazil at the end of the Civil War.

Through Fire and Water is a novel based in the Rio San Juan Region of Nicaragua. I wrote this adventure tale to bring attention to this historic and beautiful region and to delve into different motivations for doing good.

Be Good, Do Good is a book for people who seek meaning and joy in their lives, and who desire to serve others in an honest and concrete way in today’s rapidly shrinking world. In this book, I discuss what it means to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, and I share practical advice on how to do that. I wrote this book because doing good is a subject with which I have long struggled.

In The Thoughts of a Good Man I summarize sermons and talks given by my father, John Chester Frist, a Presbyterian minister. I wrote it because my father died when I was only fourteen, and this was a way of getting to know him, as well as honoring him.

Share a little about your childhood and family, and how this shaped your hopes and dreams for your life.

Except for the early death of my father, I had a fun childhood living near the ocean in Mobile, Alabama, during the school year, and then in the mountains of Montreat, NC, in the summer. I am so grateful for the opportunity to attend excellent schools and universities, for my wife and two children, and for an extended family of ministers, doctors, teachers, writers, artists, politicians, and socially conscious philanthropists and entrepreneurs who seek to serve. I’ve had a rich life so far, including work in many fascinating countries where I’ve been able to serve in many useful projects. I pray that I will still be able to contribute for many years to come, because it is in useful work that we meet so many of our friends and find that elusive thing called joy.

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