Fear like no other…

The man who jabbed a pin into his foot, deliberately.

After travelling in the USA, world-renowned Leprosy specialist Paul Brand, afraid at the lack of sensation in his heel, jabbed a straight pin into his foot and felt nothing.

He wrestled with the reality all night. The tell-tale sign of leprosy is to have no sensation on the surface of the skin. He knew what the disease did. He understood the ramifications. Finally dawn came. He took a deep breath and stabbed the pin into his foot one more time.

This time the pain was very real! The long and arduous trip had taken a toll on his body and the numbness was simply a result of the long hours of sitting.

Paul realized that the fear of leprosy was still very present in his mind.

His wife, Margaret did not live under the same fear. When a young man appeared at her door asking for Dr. Paul Brand, she invited him to stay in their home. Paul was furious when he returned. But his wife refused to listen. In her devotions that morning she had read the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.” Margaret invited Sadan for only one reason: Jesus would have done so. Margaret’s actions mark her out as the strong woman she was and all Christians ought to be: not afraid to defy custom or convention to do the right thing.

Illegal Compassion

Men and women affected by leprosy rarely experienced the compassion of others. At every turn they met disgust, fear and inhumane treatment. Margaret’s actions mean so much more when we consider that in 1898 the British Colonial government officially declared those affected by leprosy to be cast out of the community. They were not allowed to touch any food, medicine of clothing that another person would touch. They could not bathe, drink or use water from any public well, pool or water source. They were forbidden to travel in any public transport and they were not allowed to work. Should a compassionate employer hire someone with leprosy, they would face a hefty fine.

Wellesley Bailey, the Irish man who started The Leprosy Mission, wrote these words in his diary:

“If ever there was a Christ-like work in the world it was to go amongst these poor sufferers… diseased and destitute, cast out by his friends, regarded as accursed by his gods, afflicted with a loathsome and incurable disease, he is surely of all men the most in need of our pity and help. It is to give home, shelter and Christian teaching, together with medical relief, to such as he is that the Mission to Lepers exists.”

For centuries, men and women affected by leprosy were told they were unclean. They were untouchable. They were the despised outcasts of society. Paul, Like Margaret, was not afraid to defy custom and practice for the sake of what was right. He had met with opposition to his efforts to treat leprosy patients at Vellore. But the effort in overcoming those challenges paid dividends in the lives of those he treated. One day, just a few months after he had opened the makeshift clinic, he was treating a young man who had permanent damages caused by leprosy. He describes the interaction in Pain: the Gift Nobody Wants:

“…I was examining the hands of a bright young man, trying to explain to him in my broken Tamil that we could halt the progress of the disease, and perhaps restore some movement to his hand, but we could do little about his facial deformities. I joked a bit, laying my hand on his shoulder. “your face is not so bad,” I said with a wink, “and it shouldn’t get any worse if you take the medication. After all, we men don’t have to worry so much about faces. It’s the women who fret over every bump and wrinkle.” I expected him to smile in response, but instead he began to shake with muffled sobs.

“Have I said something wrong?” I asked my assistant in English. “Did he misunderstand me?” She quizzed him in a spurt of Tamil and reported, “No, doctor. He says he is crying because you put your hand around his shoulder. Until he came here no one had touched him for many years.”

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Adapted from The Giant Who Walked on Elephant Hill by Ken Gibson, pages 16-18. Images from Where Hope and Dignity Meet, also by Ken Gibson.