After three days of agonized prayer and fasting, the priest was no closer to a decision than he’d been at the start.
He desired to serve the Lord with all his heart. 13 years ago, he’d left his beloved Belgium and come willingly to this kingdom willingly. His missionary service here had been full of sacrifice and dedication to a people who were still devoted to their pagan gods. Yet now, his Bishop had asked him to go where no one would willingly choose to go.
In 1873, Joseph de Veuster – known by his parishioners as Father Damien – had been asked by his bishop to go to Kalawo. Damien loved Hawaii, and had enjoyed his service there. But his heart had been sorely tried as he’d seen the King exile those with leprosy to the remotest parts of Molokai Island. He’d prayed for God to help those poor unfortunates, yet had never dreamed that God would someday call him to live with them. Everyone knew that living with the lepers of Molokai was a death sentence. Yet, that is what God had now asked of him.
The young priest wept as he prayed. He did not hesitate to serve anyone, and had often gone to the homes of those with leprosy to minister to them. God had spared him thus far, and He could protect him if he went to the leper colony. Yet, he hesitated; being among so many lepers would increase his risk. He knew he’d want to minister to them without barriers, and he shrank from giving his life at such a young age.
As he considered the question, he looked out his window. His eye was caught by the sight of Palani. Damien watched as the slender man slowly pulled a cart down the lane. As Palani neared his hut, the priest could see that the cart held what looked to be a bundle of stained rags. But, in his heart, Damien knew that it wasn’t rags.
His heart sank. It must be Karokina.
There were so many children in Kohala, and Damien loved them all. He loved their simple faith, and their joy during the games that they played in the garden of St. Philomena’s church. But Karokina was special. Karokina took childish joy to a new dimension. Her eyes sparkled with energy; she seemed to dance as she walked, and she had a way of making every moment electric. After her mother had died, Karokina and Palani had bonded together. Damien had seen the way that Palani had been comforted by Karokina’s joy, and how he’d slowly begun to heal after his wife’s death.
But last month, in the church yard, Palani had spoken to him. “Father Damien, it is Karokina. I fear she has the leprosy. Please pray.”
Damien had promised to pray, and he did not doubt that God had heard his prayers. Yet here was Palani, walking down the path toward the harbor where the ships carrying lepers would board. As the cart passed his window, the priest heard a low groan from the small pile of rags.
Unable to stop himself, Father Damien began to follow them. He walked slowly behind the pair, and heard Palani talking tenderly to Karokina. He told her how much he loved her, and how sorry he was that he had to send her away. He asked her to forgive him. His voice broke as he vowed that he would gladly sacrifice his own life to go with her; but he had to remain behind to care for her brothers and sisters. He told her that God would be with her.
As they reached the dock, Palani stopped. The ship was almost ready to sail. Father Damien watched as Karokina slowly began to crawl out of the cart and toward the ship. Father Damien saw tears in both of their eyes, and felt the warmth of his own tears flow slowly down his cheek.
Karokina spoke softly. “Papa, I know I must go. And I do forgive you. I only wish there was someone to go with me.”
Father Damien joyfully thanked God for this answer to his prayer. He answered Karokina, but he spoke to God. “I will go,” he said.
He lifted Karokina tenderly from the ground, and stepped with her onto the boat.
author's note: Father Damien died at age 49, after 16 years’ service to the lepers of Kalwao.
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