Amidst the paradise of the tropical Hawaiian Islands, Molokai was the closest thing to hell on earth. The clear blue skies, azure seas and lush vegetation made a mocking backdrop for hovels housing deformed creatures shuffling in putrefying bodies through barren activities of a meaningless life. Everywhere the stench of rotten flesh hung like a pall, while the shouts and cries of angry men brawling, carousing and habitually drunk spoke of a people abandoned by society and left, without hope, to rot.
Though not shouting, like the lepers of the Bible, "Unclean! Unclean!" those words rang out unceasingly in their hearts. This was the leper colony of Hawaii where doctors reportedly examined them by lifting their dressings with a cane and left their medicines on a bare table to be collected when they had left. It is no surprise that the decadence and decay in their bodies was mirrored in their spirits.
Then one day, in the person of Damien de Veuster, a Roman Catholic priest, Jesus came.
The Catholic church was aware of the appalling conditions on Molokai. Reluctant to sentence anyone to a life in such horrendous conditions dealing with a contagious disease, they called for volunteers to go there for three months before being relieved.
Father Damien volunteered.
On arrival in 1873, he immediately set about showing the people their dignity as beloved children of God, made in His image. He honoured those who had died by giving them a proper burial, personally digging graves and making proper coffins. He protected the cemeteries from marauding wild pigs and dogs, enlisting the help of those still capable. When his three months was up he elected to stay.
To restore the dignity of his flock, he made an agonising, Gethsemane decision. He would show them love in every way, casting aside his own fear of leprosy. So he dressed their wounds -- sometimes rushing outside for fresh air before returning to the stench of gangrenous flesh; he hugged them; he shared their meals; he anointed their leprous foreheads with oil and drank the communion cup with them.
He so identified with them that in talking about them, he spoke of 'we lepers', though there was no evidence of the disease in him. He wrote: "...I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say 'we lepers'; not, 'my brethren....'"
In the meantime, he enlisted their help in restoring the settlement. Working tirelessly, the hovels were replaced by neat lines of painted cottages with their own gardens, the church was extended and a hospital and orphanages built.
Slowly the dignity of the people was restored. The church was packed and the gospel fearlessly proclaimed.
Then one day, as he warmed his feet in scalding water, he felt no pain. He had contracted leprosy. Working feverishly to complete his many edifying projects, he now felt the full brunt of prejudice and loneliness of the disease.
Prohibited from seeing his fellow priests and travelling freely, he remained with his beloved flock as the disease progressed. Some people, regarding the disease as the judgement of God, linked it (quite erroneously) to a licentious lifestyle. In many quarters he was despised and rejected.
Finally, in 1889 at the age of 49, he died of the disease.
"This is how we know what love is," says John, "Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for others."(1John 3:16)
John also tells how Jesus, after washing His disciples' feet said to them, "I have set for you an example that you should do as I have done for you."(John 13:15)
How closely Father Damien followed the example of Jesus! Jesus touched a leper. Damien washed their wounds. Jesus humbled Himself, became a man and took on the form of a servant. Father Damien served his flock tirelessly, calling himself 'we lepers' until he became one.
Perhaps, as Reformed Christians, we might quarrel with Father Damien's Catholic theology. Yet who can doubt that, in following His example, Damien brought Jesus to the settlement of Molokai.
Physically, he plundered a hell on earth, transforming it into a beautiful settlement.
Spiritually, the wails of a population rejected by man and destined for hell became songs of a loving community destined for a life with God; the God who shone through a man who dared to take radically, Jesus' exhortation to follow His example.
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