I was interviewed for an episode of the “In Times Like These” podcast, which is run by the most excellent Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes at Claremont Lincoln University. You can listen to the recording here.
For the last two weeks, one particular session for the Tanzanian portion of our training program had been in the back of my mind, waiting. The itineraries we received in London listed a “Visit to leprosarium,” and we were informed that it was, indeed, a home for those affected by leprosy. I know what you’re thinking, “What does leprosy have to do with malaria?” I’ll address that in a later post. I think the question that is more likely to pop into your head might be, “Leprosy is still around?”
In short, yes. Leprosy is still around, and it still causes much suffering in the world. Not a whole lot, mind you – the World Health Organization estimates that 2 or 3 million people worldwide are permanently disabled by leprosy. The good news: new cases decline with each year. It’s a disease that is on the way out, but it’s not out yet. For that reason, there are communities located around the globe where people with leprosy can seek treatment and, fortunately, solace from a world that in many cases attaches social stigma to those affected by the disease.
We were invited to tour the Nazareth leprosarium, essentially a modern-day “leper colony”. This place wasn’t so much a colony as it was a collection of buildings in Ifakara town here in south central Tanzania, one of the few countries with enough cases of leprosy to necessitate the presence of such a place. We met Enoch, the proprietor of the joint, and he explained to us the various epidemiological features of the disease, the tests employed to diagnose it, and the treatments necessary to cure it. He’s a very funny man, and we learned a great deal about leprosy from him.
Nazareth was built by the local Catholic diocese many, many years ago. Enoch (who’s been there for 25 years) is paid by the district government, but he’s also the only real staff-person; all the other workers are volunteers or employed by the diocese. It has a small chapel on the campus, and is visited twice a month by the local parish priest, Father Mpenge, whose home we had dined at a few days previous. It’s a beautiful example of “faith in action” for reasons that may or may not require explanation.
As we began our tour of the facilities, I knew what we would encounter. Leprosy is a bacterial infection that essentially devours the peripheral nervous system and then starts on the skin. It’s not a pretty illness – opportunistic infections often lead to finger and toe amputation (perhaps even more bones) and massive skin lesions. The facial nerves stop responding so the eyes can’t close. Dust and other debris attack soft optic tissues, causing blindness. We were told to steel ourselves.
The first resident we met, whose name I did not learn, had no fingers or toes. Enoch asked him to join us on the patio and he shuffled over holding a bag slung over one of his destroyed hands. The bag contained a fork, spoon, cup, toothbrush, and comb. Enoch demonstrated the ingenuity of the Sisters at Nazareth – he wrapped a velcro strip around the man’s hand and showed us how he could feed himself, brush his teeth, comb his hair, and drink water by attaching the tools to the strap. The man smiled the whole time and laughed with us. It was a happy encounter.
We spent the next hour visiting the wards and speaking briefly with the people who were staying there. In every new room, I felt welcomed. This was not a place of suffering or worry, it was a home for people who might not have a place to call home. Many of them were severely disabled – imagine having no fingers or feet. But the residents weren’t really helpless. They engaged with us and laughed and opened their home to us. They don’t get many non-family visitors, so we must have been a welcome break in any case! We visited a large garden that provides fresh and healthy food, and we found that many of the volunteers were themselves disabled in one way or another by past encounters with leprosy.
As we walked across the courtyard, an odd thought popped into my head. “Kingdom work” is a phrase that my evangelical friends use to describe a variety of their activities: mission trips, soup kitchens, drug counseling, etc. The idea is that in ministering to those less fortunate, they can hasten the coming of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God on earth. I might say that until that day in the leprosarium known as, of all things, Nazareth, I hadn’t found an example of Kingdom work that resounded deeply with my own drive to help others.
Watching Enoch interact with the residents and seeing them smile as they greeted us brought me to a place of great peace. I can’t accurately describe it; I think I was spiritually excited that Nazareth existed, and I was actually sad to leave. There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus heals a leper by touching him, something that in his age would have been unthinkable (lepers were considered unclean). I’d prefer to let Jesus pick his own timetable for returning, but I’d also like to think that the folks at the Nazareth leprosarium are doing a bit of Kingdom work in creating a safe and healthy place for those who may have nowhere else to go.
I was called upon by our team boss to lead the group during today’s “early morning interfaith spiritual reflection”. Since we’re all young people of faith, I suppose it’s only natural that we learn a bit from each other by sharing something from our own tradition. To be honest, it took a lot of thought to figure out which direction to go with this assignment, but I eventually settled on the Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury,pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
So I recited this piece and then weighed in. To me, this prayer has two main themes. The first is service to others. It’s about being active in trying to help people. Bringing sadness to joy and darkness to light are not things that one can accomplish passively. The prayer implores god to make him or her an instrument of peace.
But the second theme, and basically the second half of the Prayer of St. Francis, begs to be sufficient in one’s selflessness. I take this to mean that even if I possess super-powers for helping people, it’s better that I do so from the shadows. I’m active, but I’m not concerned with my own station in life. It’s akin to refusing to eat until everyone else has been served. I put these thoughts out there and let the group silently reflect for a few minutes.
The first comment came from Pritpal. She had led our reflection yesterday morning (the difference between spiritual and material wealth), and informed us that she had almost selected the Prayer of St. Francis for her session. While visiting Assisi in Italy some years ago, Pritpal came upon the prayer and felt a strong connection to it. She mentioned that the especially important part for her was, “For it is in giving that we receive,” and that these words were also very important for the work that we are undertaking as Faiths Act Fellows. But her admonition was curious – Pritpal is not Catholic. She’s not even Christian.
My friend Pritpal is a Sikh, and she has made reflection upon the Prayer of St. Francis is part of her daily prayer cycle. I think this is inspiring. She felt that the message of selflessness resonated with the Sikh tradition, and she draws important lessons from its words, as I do. Although we have very different faith histories and even slightly different interpretations of the prayer itself, we see eye-to-eye on its call to action and selfless service.
Later on, we were invited to dine with the parish priest. The local Catholic church is St. Francis – coincidence? As we sat down to eat, the priest invited Pritpal to say a pre-meal prayer. She recited it its original “Gurbani” form, and the priest thanked her. The prayer called upon us to praise one God, the Giver, whose “bounty is never exhausted”. She and I later discussed with him how our morning reflection session had unfolded and how St. Francis had inspired us both. He was quite happy, and told us that all religions were indeed welcome in the house of St. Francis. During our chat, I couldn’t help but hear the azaan from the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer.
Why do people do interfaith? There are many reasons. For me, it’s the endlessly enriching spiritual conversations that I have with both my co-religionists and those from far-away faiths. I draw strength from the passion and commitment of people driven to do good works because of their religious beliefs. It was most likely the poet Rumi who was asked to describe the different religions of this earth. His reply, “The lamps may be different, but the light is the same.”
…but I’m intercontinental when I eat French toast.
In case you don’t know, and I’m sorry if you don’t, that is a lyric from the Beastie Boys, arguably the greatest rappers alive.
Also, this post attempts to place humanitarian advocacy/media work within the context of Christian scripture. I think this is very interesting.
Allow me to sum up a Biblical parable:
OK, actually, allow me a disclaimer – this parable is the combination of two separate parables with two separate messages, but it’s the way that I was taught the stories as a child in Sunday school. Now, allow me to sum up:
A princely fellow strides into the temple with his retinue. He’s very ostentatious as he walks up to the donation box. He makes a great display of dropping in thousands of silver coins, a fortune by anyone’s standards but of course only a small portion of his massive holdings. He looks around and announces the goodness and rightness of what he has done. He then leaves the temple to tell the town about his charitable work.
At the same time, a widow, barely eating enough to survive, drops two small coins into the collection box and leaves as silently as she came in. For the widow, those two small coins, while nearly nothing when compared to the Prince’s sum, represent almost everything she has. It is announced that she has truly done more than the Prince.
This is a mashup of the tale of the Widow’s Mite (a mite being a small coin) and Matthew 6, where Jesus recommends doing good things without telling people all the good things that you’re doing. God sees all, he says, and we should not make great displays of what is always seen.
For people in the humanitarian field, it has to be hard to balance an injunction such as this with the necessity of the work of helping the less fortunate. Note: this is not only about Christian humanitarians – it can apply to anyone. As someone who has handled fundraising/grantwriting for a humanitarian agency, I know how difficult it is to toot your own horn while remaining humble. But for the social sector, the cold fact stands: We need to constantly talk about how good our deeds are or we won’t have the funding and public support to continue those good deeds!
I’ve come across plenty of people who like to casually mention how much they’ve donated to so-and-so a charity in the past year. I’ve also met plenty of people who almost never mention such things, but who I know engage in them. For the former, I feel…envious, of course. They are doing what I cannot or will not do. For the latter, I feel…envious. They have truly adopted the lesson of the parable mashup above and have avoided letting anyone know what they are up to. I know people like this who proceed from a Christian basis, some from a Muslim basis, and others from a purely humanistic urge. They are to be emulated.
I still find myself bothered by the inherent contradiction of charity work in general – charitable workers are expected to strive in silence for the greater good, yet they must keep their voices constant and often loud in order to do that work effectively. I hope one day to find a clean path between these two ideas.