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It felt like a miracle. After years of careful campaigning, our Chairman, Padma Venkataraman, along with a number of other activists and Senators, had finally convinced India to enact a National Leprosy Day. It had been a hotly contested journey—between those in power, many of them believing that those with leprosy had been cursed by God—and those who worked with the leprosy-affected, trying to afford those afflicted, the slightest shred of dignity.
Flush with the emotional rush of this legislative victory, Padma felt almost giddy at the possibilities. Determined that the first National Leprosy Day would be one to remember, and one that would catch the attention and imagination of the masses, Padma set to work in the state of Tamilnadu. She convinced one of our supporters to supply a banquet hall. She invited all the top government ministers, including the Chief Minister, along with the top civic and businesses leaders in the state. Because of her reputation as a nationally respected social activist and daughter of a former highly respected President of India, they accepted, a bit hesitantly. After all, what could one expect at a day of celebration for the dreaded disease, leprosy?
At this point Padma turned her attention to the leprosy-affected themselves. She wanted them to be their own spokespersons, rather than have a bunch of people stand up and talk about them.
She carefully chose four patients who, through micro-finance, had shed their lives as beggars and had become thriving entrepreneurs; owners of tiny, but flourishing businesses. She made sure they all had new clothes for the occasion. She tutored them on appropriate behavior in refined society—no spitting, no burping, proper use of a toilet, how to wear shoes, belts, etc. She rehearsed their short presentations with them over and over. She wanted to impress the leadership of Tamilnadu that these people, given an opportunity, could become productive citizens; that every leprosy-affected beggar had a life of potential.
In the meantime, at Rising Star Outreach, we caught the fervor and excitement of the occasion. Gopi, the Director of our tiny pre-school had scrimped enough money to buy what we liked to call “Indian Princess” outfits for our little girls, and white tunics for our little boys.
Since the children in our pre-school loved to sing, Gopi reached out to me for an idea of a song that would be appropriate for the occasion. Immediately into my head popped the song, That’s How I’ll Show My Love for You. Aware that almost every dignitary at this ground-breaking function would be Hindu, we decided we needed to change the lyrics a bit.
The children caught the excitement in the air and quickly learned the song. They immediately loved this song, because this was a principle that they had lived personally, on both sides of the coin. They had been bitterly stigmatized because of their parents’ struggles with leprosy, yet they had been taught at Rising Star Outreach that their lives were equal to everyone else’s, in the sight of God.
The big day finally arrived. With great anticipation and a little trepidation, Padma welcomed all the dignitaries; leaders from both government and business. Powerful people. She carefully explained how our micro-finance program worked. She then invited the patients she had worked with to come to the stage to share their stories. There was an immediate spirit of consternation, almost to the point of pandemonium in the room.
The dignitaries were offended and arose to their feet, indignant. No one had warned them that there would be actual leprosy patients at this function. Why had they not been warned? This was an outrage! Whose idea was this to bring such people into the same room with them, threatening to defile each of them by the mere presence of such untouchable people? Angry words and expressions threatened to completely disrupt the event.
Padma pleaded for calm. She implored these leaders to return to their seats and give the patients a chance to be heard. There was much grumbling, but eventually they all sat back down, even though they were clearly displeased at this unsettling turn of events.
The patients were also a little undone by this commotion. They had spent their lives ostracized and stigmatized by these very people and the system they represented. They knew this hatred well—they had experienced it their entire lives. They hung back and hesitated to speak. But Padma stood beside them, encouraging them and trying to infuse her own boldness into them.
Hesitantly, with eyes downcast, they haltingly told their stories of what life was like to a person reduced to begging to support their destitute families, of the shame, of the suffering, of the unspeakable indignity of it all. Then they talked about the small loans they had received and how this simple act of having another human being believe in them had begun to change their lives. They accepted the risk, frantically searching for any skill they might be able to develop; had begun to work hard, and slowly as they experienced success, they had become believers in their own selves. They began to feel that there was a place for them in India and that they could do their own part to help India, instead of being a blight on the economy.
As she listened to them, our Executive Director, Amy Antonelli, was so proud of their courage. Searching the crowd for a response, Amy said her heart sank as she saw the dispassionate, hardened looks on the faces of the attendees. When a heart is hardened with judgement, it is difficult for anything to penetrate it.
Amy fearfully worried about sending our beautiful little children into this tainted atmosphere. But they were not to be denied. They were delightedly dressed in new clothes and their enthusiasm was nearly uncontainable. With a lump in her throat and a desperate prayer in her heart, Amy gave the signal for Gopi to lead the children onto the stage.
When it was clear that the children intended to sing, the grumbling settled down a bit.
The tiny children sang with conviction, their little faces glowing in earnestness. Amy said she felt they represented the face of God, himself. Amy recounted to me later that they were exquisitely beautiful as their tiny high-pitched voices rose to sing the inspired words,
If you don’t walk like most people walk, some people walk away from you;
But I won’t! I won’t!
If you don’t talk like most people talk, some people laugh and point at you;
But I won’t! I won’t!
I’ll walk with you; I‘ll talk with you;
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
They went on to exuberantly sing the verses that we had written. Amy noted that the anger in the room seemed to dissipate perceptibly. These were the very people who had promulgated this behavior of exclusion for the people affected by leprosy. Amy said she felt the Spirit reaching out from these beautiful children and wondered how anyone could miss the tenderness of this moment. She cast a glance at the civic, business, and government leaders seated in front of the stage. She was stunned to see that in these precious few moments, there had been a complete transformation. Many were wiping tears from their eyes.
This not only felt like a miracle—this truly was a miracle. Through the gentle medium of music, the Spirit had reached out and softened the hearts of everyone in the room. When the children ended their song—still glowing and beaming with smiles—there was an audible, almost sacred hush in the room. Then, suddenly the room erupted into thunderous applause.
The Chief Minister spontaneously climbed up onto the stage, opened his arms, and bent down to hug the children. At that point, the entire audience queued up to come onto the stage and hug the children, many of them with tears streaming down their faces. They had been touched deeply.
Then the unthinkable happened. The Chief Minister next approached the leprosy -affected entrepreneurs, held out his hand and actually shook each of their hands. Once again there was a stunned, but this time an awkward, silence. Now that their leader had actually touched a leprosy-affected person, what would be expected of each of the leaders? To most of them, to touch an untouchable was a taboo that had been imbued in them from their earliest days. They felt it would be a dishonor to their position, to their religion and to their families. But now that the Chief Minister, himself, had shaken the hands of the patients, what could they do? They looked confused and bewildered.
Gingerly a few of the ministers followed the example of their Chief Minister and reluctantly held out their hands to shake the hands of the patients. The others shuffled by the patients, not shaking their hands, but making congratulatory remarks about their stories. This was the making of history! To our knowledge, such a thing had never before happened in India. Amy stood back and watched in awe.
This simple concept; to reach out and include an ostracized person; to walk with them and talk with them, had melted the hearts of people taught from birth that such a stigma was designated by God, Himself.
Is this simple concept one that has equal power in our lives? Of course it does! In every high school cafeteria in our country there are students who feel as if they are unwanted, unlovable, unworthy of others’ attention. They sit alone; They eat alone. They keep their eyes down. Their hearts are wounded. Day after miserable day.
How easy would it be for another student to come up to them and invite them to join them? Can we do it? It’s obviously not only in cafeterias in high schools that children of God feel rejected and unwanted. It happens in nearly every neighborhood, nearly every congregation. We all have living among us, those who for whatever reason, feel isolated. Can we follow the example of a Hindu Chief Minister and reach out a hand; extend an invitation; and validate another life?
On TV last night I watched a news story related by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, along with a man who at the age of 19 had cast himself off the Golden Gate bridge intending to kill himself. He related how he had traveled to the bridge on a bus, with tears streaming down his face. He was obviously in distress. Not one person reached out to him. He said, if even one person had showed him a kindness that day, he would not have flung himself off the bridge. Not one person had spoken to him. Not one. They had looked the other way.
He happened to be one of the few who survived such an ordeal. Today he works relentlessly to spread the message that a friendly word could literally save a life. We live in a country where suicide has increased more than 30% in the last 20 years. We also live in a country where many suffer the pain of rejection day after day. Surely, we can reach out a hand. We can walk with them and talk with them. That’s how we can show our love for them. Such a gift of self invites the healing spirit of the Lord into both their lives and our own.
We have a perfect Exemplar who showed us the path. He personally walked the dusty paths of Palestine along with the outcast, the hated tax collectors, the despised poor, the blind, the maimed, the leprosy-affected—essentially the untouchables of His day. He walked and talked with these people who were drawn to Him by the love He emanated. Let us do the same!
To learn how you can help with the efforts of Rising Star Outreach, CLICK HERE.