Listening to the Sunday afternoon session of General Conference, I was startled to hear Elder L. Todd Budge give the Latin roots of the word sacrifice as sacra, meaning “sacred or holy”, and facere, meaning “to make”. So, he concluded, “sacrifice literally means to make sacred, or holy.” The reason this startled me is because of an unusual experience I had in India years earlier, which I have never forgotten.
Let me back up a bit:
Nine years of time had slipped by from my first visit to the Putherankotai (Puth) Leprosy Colony. In those nine years, the people in this colony had become some of my dearest friends. This evening, as the Rising Star Outreach van pulled into the colony, we were immediately surrounded by five women who had recognized the van from the distance. They were all chattering excitedly. As I climbed out of the van, I heard the call being sent down the colony in the Tamil language, “Becky has come!” I heard my name being repeated again and again as patients yelled the message along, and then, having done their duty in the message relay, ran to come up to the van.
Deciding to come was perhaps irresponsible, but critically important. During my previous two visits to India, I had been so deluged with meetings and official responsibilities of our rapidly growing charity, I had not been able to visit the Puth Colony. The leprosy patients in this colony had heard that I was in India but knew only that I had not chosen to come visit them. They had expressed to Padma how hurt they were to know that I was in India, but too busy to see them. Try explaining to a leprosy colony member sometime, that you couldn’t come see them because you had “important” meetings! They know nothing of meetings. They only know of relationships.
When I came to India this time, I had listed as one of my top priorities, to visit the Puth Colony. This was not as easy as it sounds. The colony is a good two hours’ drive from our headquarters. The visits usually took around two hours, and of course, the return home was another two hours. Basically, half a day.
The cost of diesel fuel is very high in India. Our van is a gas guzzler. Visits to the Puth Colony were therefore relatively expensive and had to be planned carefully. I mentioned to our manager that I wanted to go to the Puth Colony on this visit. He therefore set up a day for the volunteers to work in the colony. I could ride with the volunteers.
Then, that morning as the time came to leave, I was besieged with a crisis. The head of our Board of Directors, Sam Ambrose, insisted that I stay at the campus to meet with him. He was coming down to the campus from Chennai and wanted to discuss some irregularities that he had found in the internal audit. I told him I had planned to go to the Puth Colony. He was insistent that I stay to meet with him. It would take him two hours to get to our campus from Chennai, where he lived. He insisted he could only meet with me that morning.
Due to the length of the drive and his desire to miss rush hour traffic, Mr. Sam Ambrose came down in the late morning. It was with a mournful heart I had watched the van full of volunteers leaving for the Puth Colony that morning, without me. I was distracted during the meeting with Sam. I kept thinking about what the colonists’ reaction would be when they learned from our volunteers that I was in India for the third time and wasn’t coming to see them. The meeting dragged on and on. I was miserable. It had taken me years to develop a relationship with the people in the Puth Colony. I felt it slipping down the drain as the meeting droned on and on.
After the meeting we felt obligated to offer a late lunch. More formalities. By the time the Chairman was headed back to Chennai, it was late afternoon, and the volunteers’ van was returning from the Puth Colony.
As the volunteers exited the van, they were all talking happily. They had just experienced a wonderful day. They seemed to all be talking at once, telling me about each of the different leprosy patients and how much they had enjoyed working with them. They had been building fences with them around their individual gardens. Each volunteer mentioned that the colonists had been keenly disappointed when they learned I was in India but had not come with the group.
The volunteer group leader said, “Yes, it was the first question they asked, “Did Becky come?” Is she in India?” Then, reproachfully, “Why didn’t she come with you?” The group leader said, “I explained to them that you had an important meeting.” I groaned inwardly. I wondered if I would ever be able to repair the damage to those friendships that this slight had caused.
Our Executive Director, Amy Antonelli, noticed that I was quieter than usual as we prepared for dinner. She asked if I was okay. Choosing to be honest instead of shrugging off her inquiry, I told her how bitterly disappointed I was that the meeting had dragged on so long, it was now impossible to go to the Puth Colony. Darkness falls quickly in the evening. The roads in the countryside are very treacherous. One of the things we dread most is having an accident out in the country. Too many times we have come upon accidents ourselves. The injured are often just left to die. To Americans, this seems inconceivable. But in the village areas of India, people have very few resources and often don’t know how to help. For all these reasons, we have made it a policy at Rising Star not to travel at night unless it’s an emergency.
Given the lateness of the hour and knowing that it would take two hours to reach the Puth Colony, an hour at the colony, and another two hours back, it was inevitable that the journey home would be made in the dark.
Amy and I stood staring at each other without saying anything for at least a full minute. Then Amy smiled. “Let’s go!” We ran to find Mani, the driver that had been with us from Rising Star’s first day. Of the five drivers, he would be the one most willing to take the risk. He found him cleaning out the van. He had been the driver to the Puth Colony earlier that day and had already put in a full day’s work.
Mani is a big Indian. Most Indian men, particularly in the villages, have slight builds, and are shorter than I am (I’m 5’3”), due to their lack of nutrition. But Mani is tall and muscular. He is as dark as the night, but the darkness of his skin makes his smile even more radiant. It comes quickly and seems to beam from his face. Mani is tender-hearted and he is devoted to our work.
When Mani saw us approach him, that beautiful smile spread across his face. Then he looked down and said in his broken English, “Becky, today—all patients—Puth Colony—ask—where is Becky? Very sad.” I looked at this kind man and said, “I know Mani. I want to go to Puth Colony. Will you take me?” He looked up surprised, his eyes sweeping the late afternoon sky, “Now?” “Yes, I know it’s late. We will have to travel home in the dark. Mani, this is the third time I’ve been in India without going to the Puth Colony. I’m worried about our friendships.” He nodded. “Yes. They say—three times—you not see them. Very sad.”
I could see the concern in Mani’s face. He knew the dangers of the dark country roads better than any of us. “Danger. Traffic.” “Yes, Mani, we know.” He thought inwardly for a few moments, then turned with a smile, opened the van door and said, “This time in India— you go!”
Amy and I piled into the van. We soon found ourselves flying down the road and I realized that we had brought nothing to share with the leprosy colonists. We had no rice, no beans, no micro-lending funds. We weren’t coming with the clinic, so we wouldn’t be providing any medical care. We wondered aloud if they would think our coming was a little funny, without a defined purpose. “Maybe they’ll think we’re starting to make social visits!”
But when we arrived and we heard the shout, “Becky is here”, being relayed throughout the colony, we knew that it would be okay that we had just come to see them, empty-handed or not.
As the women arrived at our van, they welcomed us with hugs. There is another interesting gesture of expressing love in India—they stroke upwards with their fingers under your chin. It’s the Indian equivalent of hugging. When the person involved is a leprosy-affected person, it makes an interesting experience. The stroking is done enthusiastically with their stumps or deformed hands. It creates an unusual sensation. It’s very different from the gentle touch of fingers, but never-the-less is one of my favorite sensations. Due to the fact that the hands often have open wounds, initially I inwardly recoiled at the gesture, but had come to accept and welcome it as their way of expressing affection. This particular evening it was offered profusely, with excited laughter and extra warmth.
I realized that I hadn’t seen Rita. When I asked where she was, there was a palpable sadness. No one replied. Instead, Saral led me to Rita’s old hut.
When I saw her, my heart sunk. Rita was sitting on the ground, obviously in great distress. Normally, thin, and gaunt, now she was nothing more than a bag of skin and bones. I ran up to her, greeted her with the Hindu salute, then sat down beside her. I put my arms around her to hug her. She was burning up with fever, I could feel the heat through her threadbare sari. Her eyes were swollen and red. One eye was seeping. She had become nearly blind the last few months. I inwardly cursed myself for having waited so long to see her—I hadn’t even realized how blind she had become.
There was a strong stench that greeted me as I sat next to Rita. It was quickly apparent what it was caused by. One of her feet had become swollen. The entire foot was discolored, and the wound looked angry. I had worked long enough with the leprosy-affected to recognize gangrene. The thing that we had dreaded for so long with Rita’s feet had finally happened. There is only one treatment that we have for gangrene, given our limited resources—amputation.
I gently asked Rita if she had talked to the doctor when the clinic had been there earlier in the day. She nodded yes. I asked her what the doctor had said. She turned her face away. Saral told me that the doctor had told Rita that her foot needed amputation. “Then why is Rita still here?”, I asked. “Why isn’t she in the hospital?” Saral looked down and muttered something. Mani, acting as our interpreter, wasn’t able to catch what she said, so he explained it himself. He had been with the doctor that morning and had witnessed the events.
Mani explained that the doctor had informed Rita that she needed to have her foot amputated. Rita had refused. “But if it’s not amputated she’ll die,” I objected, frightened. Mani said, “Yes—doctor explain—Rita say—not live without foot—no go hospital. Doctor say yes. Rita say no.” I could feel Mani’s sadness in his voice.
I directed Mani to translate every word I was about to say, exactly as I said it.
With one arm around her shoulders, I spoke first of my love and respect for Rita, and of my concern for her. She nodded. I told her how important it was for me to make sure she received the necessary treatment. She nodded her head, “no”. I pled. I cajoled. I cried. Nothing would move her. She replied that she didn’t want to live without her foot. This dear woman– who had suffered so much, with such fortitude and courage during her life—who had born up under losing her fingers, one by one, then her hands, her toes, her eyesight, but now was refusing to live without her foot. After arguing and trying to persuade her for about ten minutes, I finally said, “Rita, it’s breaking my heart, but I respect your wishes.”
She was obviously in great pain. She winced and moaned any time her foot was jostled. I didn’t even have an aspirin on me. Feeling helpless to provide any meaningful comfort, I finally in desperation just started stroking her. She leaned her head against my shoulder. I started to sing; simple songs I remember my mother singing to me when I was sick as a child. I could feel the wetness of her tears as they dripped onto my shoulder. As I stroked her, she lifted one of her arm stumps to my chin, to stroke my chin.
As I sang song after song, the women in the colony, one by one, began to sit reverently in a semi-circle in front of us. They were also silently weeping. Then, the men in the colony, drawn in by the song, came and stood outside the circle. That was very unusual. Men don’t usually get involved with women in distress. I guess it was the music that drew us all together.
I sang and stroked for about 40 minutes. I have to say that it was one of the most sacred experiences of my life. Finally, as darkness fell, I had to leave. Knowing that I would likely never see Rita again, I gently gave her one last hug and kissed her gently. I bid her goodbye and promised her that she would be in my every prayer. She raised her arm stump to me. My hand lingered as I accepted her gesture. Finally, I let her arm go. I was crying openly by now. Embarrassed by my emotion, I quickly climbed into the van.
Amy and I had two hours on the return trip in the dark to discuss our feelings. We each felt intense sadness, yet, in honesty, that sadness had a seed of relief in it. Rita’s life here was extremely difficult. Death represented release. As we talked, we both recognized that our sadness was tempered by the knowledge that in the Spirit World Rita would be unfettered by the disease that had defined her life here on the earth. But there was more to define the feeling that seemed to be filling my soul.
I said to Amy, “There is more that I am feeling, but I’m not sure how to describe it.” Amy agreed that she was also experiencing a strong emotion that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Then very gently into my mind came the word, sanctification. This was completely confusing.
Before coming on this trip, I had been working on my lessons to be delivered at BYU’s Education Week that year. I had entitled this series of lessons, Four Great Keys from Alma 5 to Draw us Closer to God. It included the following four lessons:
- How Do I receive His Image in My Countenance?
- How do I Experience the Mighty Change of Heart?
- How Do I Sing the Song of Redeeming Love?
- How is Materialism the Hidden Cancer that Destroys Spirituality?
According to Alma, these topics were on the pathway to achieving sanctification. But how did what I had just experienced have to do with sanctification?
I didn’t feel at this moment that I was being told that I was sanctified, rather I felt that I was being taught what sanctification was. I had struggled with the topic of what it meant to sing the song of Redeeming Love? What was redeeming love? Obviously, the sacrifice given by the Savior of the world, which was motivated by perfect love was redeeming love. Through that beautiful sacrifice, each of us can be redeemed. But I wondered, “How can WE sing the song of Redeeming Love?” Suddenly, as we drove along in the dark on this back road of India, I knew the answer.
Mother Teresa was famous for saying, “We can do no great thing, we can only do small things with great love.” She also frequently said, “It doesn’t matter how much we do, it only matters how much love we do it with.”
Now, as I thought of what we had just done I was struck with the fact that on this particular visit we really hadn’t done anything to relieve the suffering of these people. We hadn’t brought any food, medicine, money, or other humanitarian help with us. We had simply come to express love. It was this love that was what touched both the people and ourselves. Could it be that love, given through personal sacrifice was redeeming? Is this how we could sing the song of Redeeming Love? As I asked silently myself these questions in response to the word, sanctification, that had been quietly spoken to my soul, I believe I received a sure, spiritual confirmation that love is truly redeeming, or sanctifying.
Mother Teresa had expressed an eternal truth. It truly didn’t matter how much we did. It was the love that was the healing power!
It was fascinating to me that Elder Budge’s talk in Conference on Sunday was on the Humanitarian Work of the Church. He talked about how through giving with love we could become holy. He said, “Something is made holy by consecrating it to the Lord. The humanitarian work of the Church is such a gift.”
By the love we offer to God and to others through sacrifice, we are truly being “made holy”, as the Latin word suggests.
Elder Budge closed his talk with this beautiful thought, “As we live for God and others by giving of our means, our time, and yes, even of ourselves, we are leaving the world a little greener, leaving God’s children a little happier and in the process becoming a little holier.” By now, my whole soul was responding to his words, just as it had responded to the quiet revelation of sanctification spoken by the Spirit to me outside a leprosy colony years before. What a wonderful blessing, available to us all as we reach out in love to God’s children.