Thirty-year-old medical student Emmanuel McNeely considers his life goal and God-given calling to work toward gender and racial diversity in medicine.

“That way we can help eliminate health disparities and really improve health outcomes for all races,” said McNeely, a 2012 graduate of Palm Beach Atlantic University currently pursuing his doctorate in medicine at the Florida Atlantic University’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine.

As an African American med student planning to specialize in orthopedic surgery, McNeely believes his career ambitions are a direct result of a surgeon who took the time to mentor him. He has co-founded The Dr. M.D. Project to provide more minority students with guidance in the field. The project earned McNeely the 2021 Young Alumni Award from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU).

McNeely, “embodies the whole-person love and care that Jesus himself models for us in Scripture,” said CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra. “The global pandemic has highlighted just how important it is for us to have medical professionals like Emmanuel who are committed both to serving and training up the next generation of leaders within underrepresented communities.”

Study after study has detailed the health disparities between black and white patients in the United States, with black Americans suffering from diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease at higher rates while receiving lesser care.

Researchers have found that black patients seen by black doctors have better health outcomes, but only around 5 percent of active physicians are black, according to a 2018 survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

A Chicago native, McNeely’s life changed at age 19 when he shadowed his mentor—Dr. Edgar D. Staren at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America—doing a gallbladder removal. He left the operating room with the boost of confidence knowing Staren believed in him and wanting to become a surgeon too.

“I felt empowered. I thought, ‘He’s patient. He believes in my abilities, and he’s taking the time to actually teach me,’” he said. “That was a defining moment.”

Through the challenges of pursuing a career in medicine and the weight of the current racial tensions, McNeely said his identity in Christ has given him the confidence to move forward and hope for progress.

As part of The Dr. M.D. Project, which he runs with his wife, Sa’Rah, McNeely hosts workshops featuring his own insights and expert speakers such as human resource managers, African American surgeons, and department heads. He also facilitates a virtual professor mentorship by connecting students with mentors in their desired professions.

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“Sa’Rah and I had overcome so many hurdles and learned as we went,” he said. “That was really the driving force for us creating The Dr. M.D. Project—to give guidance, encouragement, and also instruction on how to really get over obstacles, get over adversity, and pursue your dreams.”

The couple also belongs to All Nations Worship Assembly in Baltimore, where Emmanuel McNeely plays drums in the worship band and hosted a virtual comedy show during the pandemic. “The Bible says a merry heart does good like a medicine,” he said.

McNeely, who is slated to receive the CCCU award at a ceremony in March, recently spoke to CT about the work of The Dr. M.D. Project and how Christ led him to pursue more equitable medical care for all people.

Share a little about your passion for the intersection of faith and calling.

I was once asked in a medical school interview how I foresaw my faith hindering my future practice of medicine. They looked at my resume and saw that I was very involved in church. That really struck me because I recognized that faith can be looked down upon for someone wanting to serve in a field of medicine.

I grew up with two parents who were very involved in the church, and we were really big on showing the love of Christ by shining our light so that others could see it. For me, faith meant more for me to actually show the love of Christ. In medical school, they teach us that African Americans have predispositions to diseases that other people don’t necessarily have. Therefore, to love our neighbor is to provide them the best care.

Tell us about your story and how you came to Christ. Obviously, you grew up in church, but is there a particular time when you went from “lost” to “found”?

My story starts at about six years old. That’s right about when I really understood that Jesus died for me, that someone loved me enough to die for me, and because of that, I’ll have eternal life. But I will say that high school is when I really came into finding my identity in Christ. A lot of people recognized me as being different. I played on the football team, and they’d say, “Hey, preacher boy! You have to pray before the game!” I had no clue how they knew I was a Christian, but that’s when I got a good understanding that you shine your light. You don’t have to preach at people. God will peek through, and that light will shine in a dark place, and he’ll get the glory from it.

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What drew you into medicine, even what specifically drew you to surgical medicine?

I knew I liked chemistry. I was thinking about some kind of career in medicine. I got that opportunity to shadow Dr. Edgar D. Staren after I got a job at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. [I realized] there was something about caring for someone who is at their lowest state. I worked as a chemotherapy technician and I made chemotherapy, but it wasn’t until I actually shadowed Dr. Staren and went into the operating room when I saw that I could take someone from their lowest state and, after the surgery, bring them back to a [better] place. It really made me think about Christ and how he takes us from a broken place and puts us back together again. He’s the Great Physician.

Share your thoughts on this year’s collision between the medical world, with the pandemic, and the rise of racial tensions. How do you fit into all of this, how does your mission fit into this, and how does The Dr. M.D. Project fit into this?

The blessing about getting to the point where we are, though we have a long way to go, is that Sa’Rah and myself are afforded a platform. We’re afforded a seat at the table during this pandemic. I’ve been invited to rooms to speak about what was going on in the media with George Floyd and all the protests. It’s a really unique opportunity to be at the table and to speak for the community.

Everyone should be represented within medicine, and if minorities, specifically black patients, are vulnerable to certain diseases, you better believe we need them represented at the table. We need black physicians, and we need minority physicians. For me, 2020 has really amplified the need for more black physicians—male and female—to be at the table.

I was able to actually work with The Johns Hopkins Hospital on their “Stand With You” video, and I was blessed to be featured on the news to speak about racial tensions and the video. [2020] really highlighted the need for black physicians. It also highlighted the need for gender and racial harmony. In a white coat, I can be a hero.

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If you had an audience of students in front of you right now, what would be the first thing you’d say to encourage them?

The first thing I would tell them is that it’s possible. You don’t need to compare yourself to others or question your ability. But what you do need to do is to find a mentor—someone who’s doing exactly what you want to do—and to learn from them. Get guidance and instruction. My last piece of advice would be to never quit. Let your passion drive the pursuit of your dream. If you’re passionate and you’re willing to work hard enough, you can accomplish anything.

For all the students out there, can you share about the importance of study?

I believe studying is important because it enhances critical thinking. As a future physician, we are taught in medical school how to think critically and how to be detectives. We rule in diagnoses, and we rule out diagnoses. Someone presents to you and you have to identify a whole list of potential causes for their current condition. I believe studying is so important because it allows you to really enhance your critical thinking skills.

I really live by “study to show yourself approved” (2 Tim. 2:15, Modern English Version) and “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (Col. 3:23). If I’m studying, I do it as an offering to God. If I’m learning, I’m doing it for that patient that I’m going to be taking care of late at night, and they’re there alone and need a fully faithful, energetic, confident, and competent surgeon to take care of them at their most vulnerable state.

What was it like to study at a Christian college and to be a part of a Christian academic community?

At any college, Christian or not, the students are under immense stress. They’re trying to identify who they are. They’re trying to figure out their next step. For me, Palm Beach Atlantic University was beautiful, because I incorporated faith in my pursuits—I had a reason for why I was studying. When I felt depressed, I leaned on the Lord. I would go to chapel, and our campus pastor would be preaching on motivation. I would go in empty, and I would return filled. Then I would go right across the street to the library, and I’d sit there fueled and impassioned because there was purpose to my studying.

I really believe faith-based learning gives a purpose; it gives you a why. A lot of students are asking, Why am I doing this? I know what I want to do, but why? Christian education is so important because it defines your why. We do everything unto the Lord for his glory, and he allows us to do great things for his glory.

Rachel Kang is a writer and the creator of Indelible Ink Writers. Her first book, on creativity as calling, is due out in 2022.