things I’ve learned from the lepers

(All indented quotes are from the writings of Mother Teresa.)

I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money. No, I wouldn’t touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God.

See that beautiful woman up there? Her name is Mimi, and she has leprosy. I’m the one in the purple t-shirt, and I’ve suffered from my own form of leprosy as well. I’ll explain in a minute.

Leprosy: as defined by the National Institutes of Health, also known as Hansen’s Disease.

Even those who never read the Bible know that it’s full of people with leprosy. The unclean, the untouchable, society’s outcasts, forgotten, ignored, or viciously and deliberately scorned, the “least of these.” There are all sorts of theories about what the word “leprosy” really means, as used in the Bible. Everything from mentally insane, emotionally disturbed, or merely unpopular to people forced to sit at the roadside and scream “Unclean!” to passers-by, people who were considered to be highly contagious, even before we as humankind knew what “contagious” really meant, or how pathogens and bacteria are transported from person to person. People described as being “covered in sores”.

For anyone who isn’t aware of it, leprosy still exists today. Statistics abound as to the number of new cases diagnosed every year. Look them up if you’re interested. Off the top of my head, I know that the number of diagnosed cases is rising in India every year. Ninety-five percent of the world’s population is immune; of the remaining population, those who contract the disease can be treated with antibiotics and are considered to be non-contagious after as little as two weeks of treatment.

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a pill that will cure the perception that people with leprosy are “unclean”, and the practice of confining people with leprosy to controlled facilities to “protect the surrounding populations and communities from contagion” still occurs.

I have been blessed to have been allowed to visit a leprosorium on numerous occasions since my first visit to the Dominican Republic in 2000.

Yep, you read that right. BLESSED. Here are a few things I’ve learned from the residents of the Sisters of Mercy (Mother Teresa’s organization) leprosorium:

You’re never too old for a teddy bear. (Notice the beautiful hands holding the teddy bear.) Same is true about candy; go have that Snickers bar, or a Jolly Rancher.

Blindness doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t see, nor does deafness prohibit you from hearing.

If you can’t sing well, you can still sing loud.

If you can’t dance, it doesn’t matter. Dance anyway.

When someone loves you enough to throw a party in your honor, make every effort to attend. But if you can’t make it, and they really love you, they will bring the party to you.

Never, ever, underestimate the value of a simple touch.

Language barriers don’t always prohibit honest communication. Sometimes those barriers enhance honest communication.

There are people who still keep their word, no matter what. A Wake Forest student visited the leprosorium during spring break a few years back, and she made friends with one of the gentlemen residents. Although he was blind, he insisted on having a polaroid picture taken of himself, with his new friend. The picture was taken and placed in his hands. He then asked the student to place his fingers over her face, so he would know exactly where her face was in the picture, and he told her, “I will pray for you.” The following spring the student returned, and when he heard her voice he called out to her, saying “I prayed for you!” and showed her the picture. Her face was no longer visible, having been worn away by his touch as he held the photo as he prayed.

The beauty of a home is as much or more about the people who live there as it is about the materials by which it was constructed, or by the luxury of the furnishings within. Stuff is…..just stuff.

This is the doctor who takes care of the patients at the leprosorium. He’s worked there for 35 years, give or take. He knows a great deal about the symptoms, treatment, and care of patients with Hansen’s disease.  The thing about leprosy is that it damages peripheral nerves, effectively removing the patient’s ability to feel pain. A person with leprosy can get a speck of dust in his eye, and because he feels no pain, he does nothing to remove the irritation, thus damaging the cornea and potentially causing blindness. A person with leprosy can get a burn or a scrape on a hand or foot, and because she feels no pain, the smallest of injuries can become so infected and inflamed that permanent damage occurs. Sometimes the patient loses fingers or toes, or hands or feet…all because there is no pain to warn him of a problem. In other words, pain can be a blessing, an indication of something that needs attention, NOW!

Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. 

The doctor also knows about that ‘other’ form of leprosy. He calls it ‘leprosy of the heart’. When we lose our ability to feel empathy for others, to be willing to walk in their shoes, to seek first to understand rather than to be understood, we become hardened; we don’t see the needs of those who surround us every day. I confess to struggling with this form of the disease.

The first time I visited the leprosorium, one of the first residents I met was Enrique. He LOVES Senor Jack, the American director of Mission Emanuel. He always had a smile for everyone he met. His ‘uniform’ always included a hat, most recently a Panama hat, and sunglasses.

Enrique died this week. I will miss him terribly.

But, borrowing from that other great bastion of wisdom, the script of “Men in Black”…he isn’t dead, he just went home.

We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do. -Mother Teresa


6 responses to “things I’ve learned from the lepers

  1. This article has touched me in so many ways. I also sometimes feel like these people but not due to leprosy but due to depression and not being able to work like I use to in years past. But it is so true the simple smile or touch and knowing that people understand really helps. We all are dealing with something and if everyone would just take the time to give a smile or a hug it could do wonders for that person! God bless you for getting to go and see these people and let them know that you are praying for them as I am sure they are praying for you! We all have to pray one for another to make it through these days that are testing us in our everyday lives and bodies that no longer do what we wished they could! Love ya!

  2. Rick Fletcher

    Visited the DR lepresorium & Dr. Batista today wit 50 youth & 20 adults. Blessed by the experience once again.

  3. Of all the visits I’ve made to the leprosorium, I am always amazed and blessed by the visits with youth. Teens can be difficult with each other, as my daughter has learned this past year as she lost her best friend of ten years over an incident so immature and ridiculous. Watching young people interact with the residents at the leprosorium gives me hope that somehow, someway, they will realize how important real friendship is, and how easily it can be broken….and just as easily mended.

    Dr. Batista: the most humble, amazing, loving man. Truly blessed. Even with ,my (very) limited Spanish skills, I can usually understand him without a translator. He speaks from the heart.

  4. I wonder how I can get in touch with Dr. Batista..

  5. Need to know a contact number for the dr

  6. Liza, I don’t have Dr. Batista’s number, but you can try to get it from someone at Mission Emanuel in Santo Domingo.

    Dr. Batista is a wonderful man. We were in Santo Domingo in January and my mom fell at the leprosorum and banged up her knee. He took such great care of her.

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