One by one, members of the Jesus Christians religious community stepped forward to give away a kidney.
By the end of last year, about half of the 30-member international group had donated at transplant centers across the United States, some traveling from as far away as England and Australia. After the first donated, others were quick to follow.
"There is a real euphoria that seems to follow the operation that is contagious," said Jesus Christians co-founder David McKay, 60. He donated a kidney at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in January 2003. "Pretty soon, hands were going up and people were asking, 'Can I donate, too? How can I find someone to donate to?' It kind of spread that way. And there hasn't been any hint of regret from any of the people who have donated."
McKay's recipient, whom he met online, paid his travel expenses.
"I was upfront that we met through the Internet and that they were paying my fare to come there," McKay said. "So the hospital was aware of that."
But when four more were set to undergo surgery at the Mayo Clinic, medical center officials got cold feet.
Dr. Steven Textor of the Mayo Clinic said the surgeries were delayed because social workers were worried it would be difficult for anyone to back out.
Officials also were turned off by the group's plan to hold a news conference. So after "much teeth gnashing," the officials agreed to accept the Jesus Christians only on a case-by-case basis, Textor said.
Newspapers in Australia and elsewhere have nicknamed the Jesus Christians a "kidney cult."
McKay bristles at the cult label, saying the group doesn't indulge in "doctrinal heresy, sexual misconduct, mind control or a leaning toward mass suicides." He said he has been portrayed unfairly as a "mind-control manipulator" who coerces members to donate kidneys so he can get publicity.
It's a nomadic, communal group. Members travel across the United States, England, Australia, Kenya and elsewhere, usually in campers and RVs. On their Web site, they are instructed to "forsake all," including families, friends and jobs.
The group says its commitment to organ donation is rooted in Scripture. Members say they're practicing what the apostle Paul preached when he urged Romans to present their bodies as "living sacrifices." On their Web site, they cite John the Baptist, who asked crowds seeking baptism to give proof of their repentance. One such proof would be for those who had two, to give to those who had none, the site says.
"In the light of these instructions, we feel that 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," the Web site says.
The Jesus Christians were harshly criticized by Australian health officials after they admitted lying to get around a ban there against donating to a stranger. Officials of one state, New South Wales, where McKay lives, recently announced they were lifting the ban.
In the United States, two Jesus Christians have given kidneys anonymously, a few have found recipients through the Internet and others were referred to recipients by former kidney patients who already had been helped by members of the group. McKay said transplant staff knew group members were finding their own recipients, and approved.
If true, the centers would be violating a long-standing guideline that good Samaritan donors be kept anonymous - and apart from their recipients - before the surgery. Meetings typically take place afterward with mutual consent. Textor said since the donor-recipient pairs had already introduced themselves to each other, the transplant team listed them as friends or acquaintances, even though they met over the Internet.
Jesus Christians member Rene Gonzalez said organ donation proved to be a way out of his spiritual rut. He donated in September 2003 in Los Angeles, where he was living. "I was praying for God to use me," Gonzalez said. "Even if I had died while donating, then it would have been dying for something positive."
According to McKay, the group's organs continue to be in great demand. It hasn't been easy to tell people in search of type O donors that the group has no more members with that blood type, McKay wrote in the Jesus Christians newsletter in July.
"However, there are still a couple of A, B and AB members who are not linked up with potential recipients."