There was no known cure. It devastated, it deformed and it destroyed.
In the middle 1800s, due to the influx of visitors from all over the world, leprosy began ravaging the native people of Hawaii. In their acute fear and desperation, the leaders decided to force those who were afflicted by the disease to a remote peninsula on the small island, Molokai.
Those shoved from boats were washed ashore to live their remaining days without adequate medical supplies, tools, or food. The sick were left alone and abandoned, miserable and destined to die slow and excruciating deaths.
Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and children were powerless to help, to comfort or to save those exiled to the island. They were not allowed to visit, even if they had been courageous enough to do so.
There was no one to help the lepers navigate the frightening and unpredictable journey of death.
Until Father Damien volunteered to do a short term mission to the island and the leper colony. Each of the few brave volunteers were instructed that they must not touch a leper, nor smoke the communal pipe, eat meals with them or sleep in one of their huts.
When Damien arrived at Kalaupapa (the leper colony), he walked among the living dead. The people were bleeding and oozing, grotesquely disfigured and their spirits were equally devastated. Hopelessness reeked.
Damien struggled to celebrate his first mass. In fact, because of the terrible stench of decaying bodies, he turned away and had to convince himself not to throw up.
Damien spent his days on that “short term” mission attending to those whom society had forsaken. As his time was coming to an end, he wrote to his superiors, “I wish to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers.”
Eventually, Damien’s wish would become reality.
When Damien returned to the colony, he began his first sermon with, “We lepers...”
Damien understood that authentically loving the people meant touching them, eating meals with them, and smoking the communal pipe. He had to be one of them.
Of course, it was his death sentence. After 15 years of living in the colony, at 8 a.m. on April 15, 1889, Father Damien died of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) at the age of 49.
Damien lived what he said he believed. He was a Christ follower and so he did what Jesus did.
Damien moved into their “neighborhood.” He sat with the scared, he tended the seeping sores of the diseased and listened to the lonely talk about their lives before the diagnosis.
Damien said prayers for them each day, he ate meals with them, and he offered hope to those dangling by a thread of despair.
When Damien spoke the words, “We lepers...,” the die was cast. By becoming one of them, he modeled the message of a gracious God who is close by in our brokenness and will leave never us alone. No matter the stink, the anger, the sickness or the sorrow. He is a God who does not move away but moves in to sacrificially love the forgotten.
Damien did what Jesus did. I aspire to do the same. But mostly I fail. So today I just thank God for living with me in the messy “sickness” of my life.