Water from the well
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Vanakkam. I am currently spending a very relaxing holiday back in the U.S. with my family and friends. I am enjoying spending time with my mom and dad, and taking advantage of all the luxuries of home, like warm showers. Although, even in Sri Lanka, I am fortunate to at least have running water in my bathroom. Many people still rely on water drawn from a well, for bathing, washing, cooking, and drinking. A well is an essential part of life in the village, necessary for survival. But in one area near where I live, there are people who were denied access to this basic resource.
In a village called Chulipuram, there is a community of families who have been shunned by their neighbors because they are effected by Hanson’s Disease – better knows as leprosy. For those of us in the western world, leprosy is a Biblical disease, something unclean that we associate with Jesus’ ability to heal. But for the people in Chulipuram, it is very real, and it has had a terrible effect on their daily life. Even for the many people in the village who are not infected with the disease, the stigma of living there prevents them from getting a good education, jobs, and the opportunity to make a better life for their children.
Although Hanson’s Disease is not easily transmitted, the people in the surrounding areas live in fear because of their ignorance about the disease. When it rains and water begins to flood the compounds where these families live, they dig ditches to drain the water from their yards. However, their neighbors have repeatedly filled in the drainage ditches to keep “unclean” water from escaping, forcing the people in the leprosy community to live in water up to their knees. If they try to make a living by selling items on the roadside, no one outside the leprosy community will buy from them.
One of the most disturbing incidents I heard about involved the leprosy village’s access to clean water from the well. For some time, they had been able to draw drinking water from two wells in a nearby field. However, the owner of one well suddenly told them he would no longer allow them access. The other, not trusting them to stay away, actually poured oil into his well, ruining the water not only for them, but for himself as well. Luckily, the church was able to raise the money to dig a new well, declared open for the use of anyone in the area who needed it. As Jesus reached out to heal the physical wounds of those infected with leprosy, a few within the church are reaching out to these shunned people, to offer them dignity and hope.
Even within the church, however, many people still fear close contact with those who have Hanson’s Disease, and it is the work of a few courageous individuals who have brought new life to Chulipuram. Pastor Joshua, a 30-year-old minister who has a heart for working in this community, has faced criticism from even his fellow ministers for his focus on Chulipuram, and he has received very little support from the leaders of the church. Joshua has opened a community center where families gather daily for fellowship, extra classes and nutritional supplements for children, and other help, such as flood relief. Australian missionary and nurse Beverly Watson provides weekly clinics, with a vision of eradicating this disease, which is easily curable for those who are willing to seek medication in the early stages. Both Joshua and Beverly are also boldly forging ahead with plans to educate the wider community about Hanson’s Disease, to eliminate some of the discrimination and fear.
Several times a week, the kids are given milk and fruit. Earlier, Beverly saw some children from the village with the extended bellies and unhealthy skin that are signs of severe malnutrition. But since the milk and fruit program started, those signs have disappeared. And with the weekly clinics, any children who show the beginning signs of Hanson’s Disease, small white, numb patches on the skin, are immediately given medication which will stop the infection from progressing, and which can cure them fully within a year. At Beverly’s urging, someone who runs a contracting business in the area has offered construction jobs to any of the men in the village who are able to work.
Hope and dignity are returning to the people of Chulipuram. It is being transformed by God’s love, love shown by people who are not afraid, who understand that God’s love extends to all, that even those who are considered the lowest of caste, the poorest and sickest of society, are worthy of God’s gift of salvation and grace. And in the process of sharing God’s love, everyone is transformed.
Several children from Chulipuram are living in children’s homes started by Pastor Joshua, so that they can escape from the stigma of living in that community, and have opportunities for a healthier environment and better education. Four of my precious little sisters in the girls home come from Chulipuram. Not only have they transformed my heart, but they are opening the hearts and minds of others, too.
A Hindu family, whose house is on the same lane as both the girl’s home and my dormitory, have adopted me into their family. They are warm and generous people, but like teenagers anywhere in the world, their two daughters don’t always appreciate their parents. For the past three months, their oldest daughter, Sumi, a recent high school graduate who has won many awards for her traditional Bhara nathiyam dancing talent, has been teaching dance classes to the girls at the home.
When I first asked her about teaching the girls, she was hesitant. Not only was she unsure of her own abilities to teach, but middle-class Hindu families like hers don’t normally have much social interaction with lower-class families like those the home girls come from. Even though she was a little nervous, she took on the challenge, and soon she was teaching four classes a week to girls of different ages, and beginning to care about the girls and their progress. She started learning about their stories, and one day a few weeks ago, she was commenting to me about what difficult experiences the girls have already had at such a young age, and she said to me “I have to thank God for my family. I’m very lucky to have a good home.”
An even bigger revelation came a few days later, when one of the home girls told Sumi that some of the children come from families affected by Hanson’s Disease. This fact is not known by most of the neighbors, because we want the four girls to live there without facing possible discrimination. Even though Chulipuram is only a few miles from Sumi’s home, she didn’t know that the leprosy community even existed. I was very proud of my young friend’s reaction. She was immediately afraid, especially after spending a lot of time in close contact with the effected girls. But instead of reacting negatively and treating the girls any differently, she came to me with her questions about the disease, with a sincere desire to learn about it and understand it.
This is in contrast to some of the most respected leaders of the Christian church, and even some of the members of the management committee of the homes, who have opposed accepting children from Chulipuram in the homes, even with the assurances from doctors that there is no health risk to having them there. Sumi even tentatively said that she might want to visit Chulipuram with Pastor Joshua and I sometime, to learn more about it and see the conditions there for herself. In her attitude, I see hope that we can change the attitudes of the community. I see the love and acceptance of Jesus. In this 18 –year –old Hindu girl’s personal relationship with the children from the home, society is being transformed.
Who are the lepers in your community? Here in U.S., there is no Hanson’s Disease, but there are people we are afraid of, people we don’t want to share our “well” with. In yesterday’s paper, I saw the shocking results of a survey in which 44 percent of Americans said they support limiting the civil rights of Muslim-Americans. In fact, people who identified themselves as religious were more likely to favor taking away some rights from this group. 22 percent of those surveyed still think racial profiling is a good idea. Who are the lepers in our hearts and minds?
It is normal to be a little afraid of those who are different, whether that difference comes from a skin disease, a skin color, a difference in economics or social background, a difference in sexual orientation or religion or nationality. Society encourages this fear, it justifies it with stories about how different we are, and about the dangers we face, about crimes and threats to our way of life. It pours oil into the well of our souls, and before we know it, we find ourselves isolated from those around us, poisoned by our fears. But God sent his Son to cleanse our wells. Because of this gift of grace, we don’t have to have the strength to overcome our fears on our own. Jesus fills us with pure, clean water, and all we have to do is let others draw on the love of God that lies deep within us.
I would like to close with a prayer for peace that Pastor Joshua will also read this weekend, at a Christmas carol program being put on by the girls and boys home. Please join me in prayer.
Prayer for Peace
Prince of peace, we need you in our world, in our country, in our community, in our church, and in our own hearts. Come, Prince of Peace, into a world torn by violence and hate. Teach us your ways. Lead us in your paths, so that people may receive your healing presence through us. Strengthen our leaders to make the difficult, courageous decisions needed for a lasting, just solution to the conflicts in Iraq, in Sri Lanka, in Sudan, and around the globe. We are weak, and often let anger control us. In this Christmas season, help us to find a new way. Make us pure and innocent, like children. May the Prince of Peace guide our words and our actions. May Christ be out guide as we enter a new year. Come, Prince of Peace, into this community, where economic, social, and religious divisions remain. Come to our church, where power and earthly concerns often keep us from fully serving you. Come to each person here, whose hearts are often overcome with selfishness and pride. Come, Prince of Peace. Our hope is in you. Transform us with the power of your love. In your name we pray, Amen.
Diane serves as a Global Mission Intern by the Common Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She teaches English and participates in community-based work