On March 19, 1864, Jozef de Veuster, a Belgian missionary, arrived in the port of Honolulu, Hawaii, determined to help spread the Gospel to the native peoples of the islands as a member of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Two months later, he was ordained a priest and began his priestly work in several parishes on Hawai’i and Oahu. During his time there, the Kingdom of Hawaii began to experience a public health crisis, as foreign diseases were introduced the natives. One of the most devastating diseases was what we now term Hansen’s Disease – then, they called it simply leprosy.
The king of Hawaii, Kamehameha V, established a village on the island of Molokai for those afflicted with the disease, with the hopes that they could take care of tilling the land and caring for themselves. Unfortunately, due to bad planning and some hopelessness on the part of the residents, the village soon deteriorated into drunkenness and disarray. It seems, being abandoned by your people and government in your plight has an adverse effect on people.
The local bishop wondered how these people could get spiritual and pastoral care – seeing how such an assignment amounted pretty much to a death sentence. Jozef, however, stepped up. He would go. Upon his arrival, hope returned – even in the midst of that despair and inevitability. Laws were enforced, homes and schools were built, and Jozef himself would dress wounds, bury the dead, comfort the sorrowing and teach the children.
Today, we know Jozef better by his religious name: Damien – Damien of Molokai – and in October, we will know him as Saint Damien of Molokai.
The religious prescriptions of Leviticus that we hear this morning, certainly, served a practical purpose for a small community. It is important to enforce quarantine for a time in order to keep a group healthy while the afflicted recover. Leprosy, in the Old Testament and Jesus’ time, was a nasty business. However, adding to that nastiness was the assumption that the affliction carried with it a moral sense – a stigma – a judgment.
These lepers were used to being cast aside. They were alone and cowering on the edge of society, looking in from their “safe distance.” All the things “normal” Jews took for granted: eating with others, doing business in the market, worshipping in the Temple – all these were out of reach for a leper.
When Jesus heard this man’s plea, “If you wish, you can make me clean” he heard the years of loneliness and derision, the longing to be complete and included, and his heart was “moved with pity.” Mark, always economical and careful with his words, tells us “he stretched out his hand [and] touched him.” Christ – God-made-man – reestablished contact for this man – both with God and man. He did not despise his condition; he did not shy away; he did not judge.
The power of stigma is strong. There are many labels, as we have seen, that place people somehow outside of us and our worlds. Be they illness, political persuasion, sexual orientation, nationality, race, economic condition, or whatever, these stigmas create the barriers that keep us from fully “stretching out our hands and touching” one another. As much as we may try not to, or want to admit it doesn’t exist, there is an implicit judgment. This was especially the case up to some years ago around those who had HIV/AIDS.
The challenge of the gospel is to imitate Christ – whether he is speaking out with an unpopular opinion, criticizing authority for hypocrisy, or reaching out to those whom society at large has written off. Our task is, first of all, to see those people in our lives who are calling to us, “If you will it, I can be clean.” Sometimes, the first step in healing is to simply be recognized as a person with intrinsic value.
Before Blessed Damien came to that leper colony on Molokai, the residents had given up hope on themselves because society, it seemed, had given up on them. His arrival must have seemed like a break in the clouds and the very light of God shining down on them. We too can be that ray of light in another’s day.
Today, you can visit the US Capitol building in Washington, and there, in the National Statuary Hall, there is a bronze statue, placed there in 1968, of that brave priest from Belgium who found his place with the suffering and dying in Hawaii. He is the only priest to be so honored. But even more important an honor than that, Damien makes his home now among the Blessed around God’s heavenly throne. What got him there? His adherence to that Spirit of Christ that says, “I do will it. Be made clean.”
We may never be honored with a bronze statue anywhere, yet our call is the same. The holiness that our faith demands of us calls us to see Christ in all people and to reach beyond ourselves, beyond expectations, beyond convention, and touch those whose lives have been for so long without that touch. Then, as we stretch out our hand, Jesus stretches out his. And we are touched as well.