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Soul Purpose

Dave McKay and Susan Gianstefani each donated kidneys to strangers. Their reasons for doing so, they tell Joanne McCarthy, are far less complicated than their critics suggest.

IN a suburban house at Glendale a man lifted his T-shirt to show me a scar.

We searched for a minute.

We found the mark left by the top of his shorts on the white skin of his belly but no scar.

Then we ventured south into an area I hadn't expected to explore so soon after meeting him.

"It's here somewhere," said Dave McKay, the founder and leader of the Jesus Christians.

He was quite keen to show me the suture marks left after he donated a kidney to an American man in an operation that would not have been legal in Australia at the time.

"Is there a medical document or something to prove it?" I asked as his search ventured ever lower.

McKay's wife Cherry left the room to look for a document.

But in the rooms where there are many documents and books she couldn't readily put a hand on anything that proved Dave McKay gave up a kidney to save another man's life.

They gave me the name of McKay's doctor instead.

"She's just here in Cardiff. If you give her a call she'll confirm it," he said.

I said I would and we moved on.

The couple was keen to talk about kidney donations, the extent of their investigations into liver donations and a female member's donation of 23 eggs to a childless couple a week ago.

They would probably raise a fist to the NSW Government which last week released a protocol making kidney donations by living donors to anonymous recipients legal in this state for the first time.

The protocol comes after several years of criticism of the Jesus Christians, whose members have travelled overseas to donate kidneys based on their beliefs of giving all to others based on nothing but altruism.

The Jesus Christians would raise their fists except they're pacifists.

Instead Dave McKay just smiled and said he was pleased to take part in an article putting the Jesus Christians' side of the story after years of articles where his little group had been called a cult, with him as cult leader.

There are unusual elements to the Jesus Christians story, not the least being the way their beliefs fly headlong in the face of 21st century materialism.

The kidney thing is just a side issue which regularly titillates the media.

Throw in a connection to the notorious free-sex-for-all American cult the Children of God, and the Jesus Christians would always have trouble getting their message across to the public, McKay conceded.

But they would keep on trying.

Let's look at the kidneys, and why the Jesus Christians want to donate their organs to strangers without, they emphasise, anything in return.

"It's quite simple how it started really," McKay said.

About four years ago he was on a plane from Los Angeles to Sydney which showed a movie called The Gift of Love about a boy who donated his kidney to his grandmother.

"By the time I landed in Sydney I thought, come on, why don't I do something to help someone who will die otherwise, so I started looking into how I could donate my kidney."

So he started asking around, to health authorities and government bodies who said it could not be done.

And they started noting his name and that of the Jesus Christians on their files, and rumours started about a cult leader possibly forcing his members to give up their kidneys for Christ.

McKay said kidney donation was simply an extension of a Bible message from John the Baptist he that has two, let him share with him that has none.

"Jesus commanded his followers to take up their cross and follow his example of sacrificial love," said McKay in an article Kidney Comments on the Jesus Christians website.

"In the light of these instructions, we feel it is only reasonable that we do what we can to save or dramatically improve the quality of another person's life, by giving one of the two kidneys that we now have to someone else."

McKay believes kidney donation is something of a watershed test of faith for modern society.

"Why do we have two kidneys? We don't have two of any other organ but we have two kidneys," he said.

"It almost seems to me that God put an extra kidney in there so that at this particular time in history, with the technology we have, he wanted to see what we would do with it."

John the Baptist almost certainly wasn't thinking kidneys, but McKay sees it as a logical extension of the prophet's message.

His group is also looking into liver donation.

"To hack off a piece of liver is far more unnatural, I'll grant you," McKay said.

"In the last couple of weeks I've got a report back from a hospital in Israel and a doctor who said he would check the possibilities. It's a much riskier operation."

Susan Gianstefani, 37, is a Jesus Christian living with her husband Roland, 41, in a van in the yard of the McKays' rented home.

They are missionaries for the group. They have both given away everything in line with Jesus Christians teachings. Everything they have today, and it's not much, has been given to them.

Susan has donated a kidney. Roland has taken the first steps to do so.

Susan is not feeling 100 per cent because she has just endured five months of fertility treatment to donate 23 eggs to a childless couple she knows.

After 18 years as a Jesus Christian she is not offended by the cult stigma, and was happy to explain the steps that led to her kidney operation in July 2002.

She was 19 and "looking for something idealistic" to do with her life when she made contact with Dave McKay.

"I'd been brought up in the Church of Christ and encouraged to read the scriptures. I was involved with nuclear disarmament, human rights, Amnesty International, and the message of the Jesus Christians made sense to me.

"The concept of giving up everything to give to the poor, doing something with your life to help others and being a pacifist, it was appealing."

She recalled seeing McKay and some followers, including her future husband, walk across the Nullarbor and "I thought they were crazy, lunatics".

Then the student who had planned to study medicine or architecture met and joined the Jesus Christians.

And many years later, after Dave McKay started talking about kidney donations, Susan Gianstefani decided to do something about it.

Her kidney donation to an American man was filmed by a British documentary maker and an Australian current affairs show. She was not happy with the latter, which went heavy on the "weird cult type of stuff".

She made contact with the recipient over the internet after receiving considerable abuse from people who suspected her motives when she offered a kidney for free.

"There're so many people offering their kidneys for $20,000 over the internet, stacks of it, that when you offer a kidney for free you get abuse from people wanting kidneys.

"I had messages saying: Who do you think you are? Go away and stop making fun of us."

In the end her air fare and accommodation at an American hospital was paid for by her kidney recipient, just as Dave McKay's expenses were met by his recipient.

Last week NSW Health Minister Morris Iemma said the government agreed to living kidney donations because of the decline in the numbers of organs from deceased donors due to a reduction in road deaths.

"There are 758 patients in NSW and the ACT receiving dialysis as they wait for a kidney but only 84 kidneys were donated from deceased donors in 2003," he said.

The new protocol "means a person can elect to give a kidney to a stranger, for no reason other than altruism".

"It's not a rite of passage . . . It's just something people choose to do because we would like to see people not dying, and it's so incredibly simple to do," Dave McKay said, explaining the Jesus Christians' stance.

"We believe one day live donations of kidneys will be no more unusual than live donations of bone marrow."

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