Touching Lepers
by Lori Heine

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy.  When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.  “I am willing,” he said.  “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.  (Luke 5:12-13 NIV) 

Our chapter of Dignity, the LGBT Catholic organization, has taken the name of our adopted patron saint.  We are now the Catholic Community of St. Damien of Moloka’i.  We feel a special affinity for Father Damien, now canonized in both the Latin and the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church.  Even branches of Christianity that don’t recognize individuals as special saints regard Damien as the patron of those abandoned by the world. 

In 1873, Father Damien was voluntarily assigned to live on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, to which those in the islands suffering from leprosy (now known as Hansen’s Disease) were banished.  As no cure existed for the illness at that time, he knew he was likely sacrificing his life.  He helped bring law and order to the island, worked hard to improve living conditions there and oversaw the establishment of schools and farms.  Though he could have departed in satisfaction at a job well done, Damien stayed on for sixteen years.  In the end, having contracted leprosy himself, he died there.

Lepers were regarded, by most people, as untouchables.  They, and the other islanders afflicted by the illnesses foreign sailors and traders had brought to that former paradise, had been given up, by “polite society,” as lost souls.  But Father Damien knew that his Lord was willing that none should be lost.  Like Jesus, he considered no one untouchable. 

On May 10, in a special Mass, our Dignity chapter celebrated the legacy of St. Damien.  Our presiding priest, Rev. Elaine Groppenbacher, issued a challenge.  “Who are the lepers in our society today?” Of course gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have long been relegated to that role.  Now that we are beginning to win more widespread acceptance, those of us who are grateful for Christ’s welcome are looking around to see how we can pay that welcome forward.

Our congregation that night included two homeless women, at least one of whom has struggled with mental health issues and addiction.  A homeless man also regularly joins us for worship.  A friend of mine, who joined us for potluck afterward, asked for help for a friend of hers, who is also homeless.  The next morning, attending Mass at my regular parish, St. Mary’s Episcopal, there was a homeless woman who wept throughout the service.  God is thumping us all on the head.

These are the new lepers.  “Respectable” people shrink at the sight of them.  But God surely loves them as much as “He” does anyone else.  They languish among “the least of these” who Jesus made clear, in God’s eternal Kingdom, shall come first.

There but by the grace of God go any of us.  I won’t make God thump me on the head again.  It is time to act, to bring Christ’s love to those who come to church because they have given up on being welcomed anywhere else.  Indeed, not only must we be Jesus to them, but when we serve them, we serve Him. 

“Each day,” Mother Teresa is recorded as having said, “I see Jesus Christ in all His distressing disguises.”  As the riches of God’s Kingdom have been shared even with us, they brim over in such abundance that when we share them with others, we discover something amazing.  Instead of having less of them for ourselves, we have still more!             

 

© 2014 Lori Heine


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