Previously, I wrote of Leprosy being The Sin Mirror, an illness in the natural dimension reflective of supernatural principles.
But leaving it at that would be half the story. In the bigger picture, there is also The Grace Mirror, a fitting reflection in this season of Passover.
The Separating Sickness
For much of human history, to have Leprosy was to have a dreadful death sentence. It not only meant disfigurement and death but also social isolation. Whilst we have a cure for it today, that was not the case back in the 1800′s.
In a bid to stop the disease from spreading and creating an epidemic, the Hawaiian government decided to send all lepers to the island of Molokaʻi. By creating an isolated leper colony on an island with some of the highest seas cliffs in the world, they hoped to contain the disease and stop its spread to the rest of the population. The writer Robert Louis Stevenson referred to it as “a prison fortified by nature”.
Unfortunately, like the Sin Mirror that Leprosy is, enforcement of this containment policy led to the break up of families. Husbands, wives, sons and daughters were forcibly taken away to a colony of strangers, never to return. Such was the fate of about 7000-8000 Hawaiians from 1866 to 1969. It’s been said that every Hawaiian family has a connection to someone buried in Molokaʻi.
Little wonder then that Leprosy became known in Hawaii as The Separating Sickness. The mirror of how sin separates us in our relationships and specifically from God is unmistakable.
The Grace Mirror
Mirroring the forced separation, deaths and general hopelessness which sin brings, the people of Molokaʻi soon suffered socially, emotionally and spiritually in additional to the physical afflictions leprosy brought. Faced with 2-3 deaths per week, this inward despair expressed itself outwardly with immorality, abuse and extreme drunkenness.
Ultimately, the people of Molokaʻi needed to know exactly what every one of us does especially in times of crisis, where is God?
In 1873, a courageous young Catholic priest resolved to answer that question and he did so by volunteering to spend his life serving them. He answered by mirroring God’s presence in the material.
Fully aware of the dangers of personal contact, he still chose to live among the 816 lepers of Molokaʻi. In answering this question, he built hospitals, clinics, churches, homes, furniture and some 600 coffins as well as dressed ulcers and dug graves. His 16 years of service transformed the community with basic laws being respected, shacks becoming painted houses, working farms being organized and schools being established.
He of course also answered by leading them spiritually. During each service, he would lovingly address his flock as “my dear brethren.” Then one morning, in a calm clear voice, he began the service with, “My fellow lepers.”
His name was Father Damien and he died aged 49 on this day, the 15th of April four years later in 1889. How fitting it is that his sacrifice was completed in the season that his Lord’s earthly sacrifice was. Mirroring his Lord Immanuel’s answer, Father Damien’s answer of where God is began in being with, then being one of those he came to save.
As one who was whole coming from another world to help those who were sick, Father Damien mirrored the graceful example of His saviour. This Passover, may we reflect upon and more importantly, reflect it to those around us.
Born Jozef De Veuster on January 3 1840, Father Damien was given the honor “Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua” by King David Kalākaua of Hawaii. Declared a saint in 2009, he is also known as Saint Damien of Molokaʻi and “the Apostle of the Lepers.”
“The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, counts by the thousands those who after the example of Fr. Damien have devoted themselves to the victims of leprosy. It is worthwhile to look for the sources of such heroism.”
Mahatma Gandhi, “Mahatma Gandhi Answers the Challenge of Leprosy” (1965).
Gandhi also claimed Father Damien to have been an inspiration for his social campaigns in India.
“In January 1936, at the request of the Belgian government, Damien’s body was returned to his native land. It was brought back aboard the Belgian sailing ship Mercator and now rests in Leuven, a historic university city close to the village where Damien was born. After his beatification in June 1995, the remains of his right hand were returned to Hawaii and re-interred in his original grave on Molokaʻi.”
The Hawaiian government repealed the quarantine policy in 1969. Many of the residents of the Molokaʻi colony chose to stay and as of 2012, 17 people still live there.