Getting out of the passenger door, my eyes immediately scale the enormous coconut trees lining the driveway. I raise my hand to shield my eyes from the brilliant rays of sunshine filtering through the balmy branches overhead. My mouth drops open.
“Guys, look up there,” I shout, pointing to the sky.
“Where?” my teenage son asks as he climbs out of the car.
“Up there, at the top of the coconut trees.”
“How cool,” he says, shielding his eyes with his baseball cap. “Can you believe how fast those guys shimmy up those trees while carrying machetes?”
“And how fast they drop those coconuts to the ground,” laughs my father as he joins us. “Don’t get too close. We don’t need you getting hit on the head with a coconut. Besides,” dad says, wiping his handkerchief across his sweaty brow, “besides, that’s not the only incredible thing you’ll see today. Looks like we’re the last ones to arrive, we better find our group.”
In silence we walk on a crushed white stone path to a block office building. The crunching sound beneath our feet announces our presence long before we arrive at the doorway. A white-haired man comes outside to greet us. I smile at him, he smiles back, revealing missing teeth and deep set wrinkles. He gestures with his hand for us to walk along another pathway.
As we pass the office building, I see a long row of small white block buildings several hundred yards away. There were children playing outside with stones and string. To the right of the buildings is a very large vegetable garden enclosed with chicken wire. Our group members are scattered about the garden. One man is kneeling as he examines the insect infested produce. To the left of the buildings are several chicken coops swarming with mosquitoes. For a moment I stop walking and turn to my father.
“Dad, which way do you want to go? I don’t want to go near those chickens or that garden.”
“Then let’s see what the children are playing.”
“But Dad, are you sure?” I try not to purse my lips or wrinkle my forehead.
“Why not? Aren’t we here to minister to the people?”
I turn my eyes downward as I lower my voice. “I know Dad, but we have to use commonsense too. We have to protect ourselves.”
I feel my father’s disapproving look going through me. “Isn’t it God’s job to protect us?”
I linger behind as my father and son approach the children. I watch my father reach into his pocket, pulling out pieces of candy. The children shrill joyfully, running toward him. My son points toward one of the small buildings. My father turns to me, signaling me to join them.
In the shadow of the building’s doorway stands a beautiful young dark skinned girl. Behind her l see a small cot, a folded blanket, and a chair. The room is unpainted, the window bare. I shift my attention to the girl, noticing one foot is bandaged with soiled rags and one hand is missing several fingers. My breathing is shallow, my chest tightens.
Before I utter a word, my father strokes her hair, and then wraps his arms around her as he speaks gently to her. My son offers her a piece of candy then he hugs her, patting her back.
“Come,” my father says to me. “Come hug her.”
“But Dad, she’s a leper. Isn’t it dangerous enough that we’re in a leper colony, let alone physically having contact with them?”
My father shakes his head, narrowing his eyes. “Do you think that all she needs is our financial help, our words about God, our prayers? Do you think she likes having us gawk at her missing limbs for a piece of candy? Look into her eyes. She’s just a baby girl, sweet, tender, and frightened. What she needs is to feel God’s love wrapped around her through our arms.”
My eyes well-up as I ask God for forgiveness. I step closer to her, smile, and swallow the lump in my throat. I gently place one arm on her shoulder. She looks up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks. I step closer, pulling her into a full embrace. This small leper touches me in a way which I can never touch her. I look up into the sunshine, feeling the Son shining on and through me.
“Now, this is incredible,” I tell my son.
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