When it comes to leprosy, people feel scared. However, a group of Christians sold their houses and gave up their stable jobs to voluntarily serve in leprosy rehabilitation villages across China all year round.
The volunteers included a mother who sold her houses and together with her three daughters, served leprosy survivors for eight years, a millennial-generation brother who visited over 50 leper colonies, and an elderly Christian couple who kept working for four or five years rather than enjoy their retirement life.
On the date of the International Leprosy Festival which falls on the last Sunday of January, I, together with two workers from the local church, paid a visit to two leprosy rehabilitation villages in Shandong province.
The establishment of a volunteer "helping" team
The establishment of the ministry that serves those who recover from leprosy arose from suicide by a leprosy survivor.
Grandpa Kim, the founder, found that the person he visited the first time took his own life in a hospital. News of the suicide pierced Kim's heart and led to him reflecting on it. He recalled, "Is the God whom I believe really fair? Who will tell leprosy survivors that 'Jesus loves you'? I will tell them that 'Jesus loves you and I love you, too'."
In February 2006, the "helping" team began serving in a leprosy village in Yanji, Jilin. Later the volunteers continued their work in more than 40 similar colonies in Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Fujian, Zhejiang, Guizhou, Hubei, and Shaanxi provinces. During its peak, the volunteers numbered over 100.
Currently, most of the surviving members living in rehab villages are above 70 years of age and are hardly able to take care of themselves because of their handicaps.
Devoted to being their hands, legs, and feet, the ministry helps them deal with simple, everyday affairs. Seemingly simple tasks are very challenging and have many difficulties.
Visual shock. Leprosy survivors have different levels of handicaps. A slight injury results in a finger becoming distorted and a severe effect is the loss of hands or legs. The disfiguration of faces, noses, and eyes are also common. Owing to the difficulty in healing, some survivors have unhealing wounds that make them look quite scary. Some wounds even have more than 100 maggots growing inside or discharge a bowl of pus. Sister Mo from Guangdong became terrified at the sight of massive infections or heavily disabled victims but gradually became less afraid of them.
Olfactory impact. Houses, where elderly survivors with mobility problems live, are full of foul odor. Bedridden members even urinate in bed. Unhealed wounds smell like slough. Brother Zhang, in his twenties, said that at first he couldn't help but vomit.
Unbearable loneliness and boredom. When Sister Xiao Bao became engaged in the ministry, she was less than 20 years old. For eleven months she lived in a mountainous leper colony in Guangxi with her mother and elder sister. There was no telephone or entertainment facilities. She only once went downhill from the mountain. Thinking back on that period, she felt grateful because reading the Bible was the happiest thing during those days of boredom.
Suffering from being misunderstood and wronged. Showing love doesn't necessarily produce gratitude on the part of the recipient, but rather sometimes misunderstanding and insults. A sister washed the dirty clothes of an elderly person who scolded her, thinking that she had thrown them away. Some residents claimed that their clothing, food, or money had been stolen by volunteers. In order to accompany an old woman, a sister stayed with her for nine months but ended up being evicted. Nevertheless, ministry workers were able to continue on, moved by meditation on Jesus' teaching about loving one's enemies.
"Not-to-be-refused hospitality". For some volunteers, the biggest challenge was to have food given by survivors. A young sister described a scene in which an old man gave her a pastry with his misshapen hand that had saliva flowing from his mouth onto it. What would you do? If you refused, that man would feel like having been given the cold shoulder. The only choice would be to resist your inner refusal and eat it.
Tiredness without vacations. Sister Tian who volunteered there for eight years said that the long hours of work led to a breakdown in the volunteers' health. Volunteers worked 365 days a year without holidays or celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year. She added, "Who would take care of those seniors if the volunteers rested?"
Joy and peace from the ministry
Several workers told me with a smile that their lives had been renewed and that they had received joy and peace. They wouldn't have left the villages even though they were paid ten or twenty thousand yuan a month.
Brother Zheng, together with his family, had volunteered for 12 years. He had been a "prodigal" man who had often fought and drank but was deeply touched after visiting Grandpa Kim and wished to become a man like him. The second day he resigned his job and joined Kim. Zheng stated that serving survivors might have seemed dull and boring, but he had fallen in love with the work. In his opinion, it had become his life. For him, the lives of his relatives and friends were unacceptable. Some of his rich elders hadn't supported their parents and friends hadn't given him genuine help when he was in trouble. That kind of world was too awful.
Sister Zhang from Jiangxi and her son, who used to work in a factory, also quit their jobs and afterward volunteered full-time at the leper colony. She laughed and said, "Serving is not just about good deeds, but also about putting God's word into practice and the experience of it and following the way Jesus walked. That joy is given by God. Otherwise, how can you be joyful with nothing?"
Some of the residents were moved to faith and decided to follow Christ. After converting, they studied the Bible hard, which brought much comfort and strength to the volunteers.
An 88-year-old man with failing eyesight was able to recite Psalm 119. Some could recite the Gospel of Matthew and some started to learn to read. When an older resident was dying, a volunteer told him that Jesus loved him, to which he then replied, "I also love Jesus".
Gratefulness from leprosy rehabilitants
"Family life was something so new to me. In my elder years, I have finally lived this life for a few days, " said Ye, who has been living in a leprosy village for 60 years since the age of 13.
He used to urinate inside his house, which made the place smell very unpleasant. Fed up with that kind of life, he tried to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills or eating rat poison but failed after vomiting it up.
"We are abandoned by our families and society, but these Christians eat and live with us. I don't provide them with free food, but they serve us. Now that they help me, my life is worth living," he said gratefully.
Mr. Chen, 73, also shared, "My home is 1.5 kilometers away from the village. During the past 52 years nobody dared deal with me. I never imagined that there are good people who are not afraid of me, stay with me, feed and help me wash my body. I feel that I am the happiest man."
Brother Ren, in his early thirties, did not sleep well for 15 days after leprosy recently severely affected his face, hands, and legs. At that time, his greatest wish was to have a good sleep and enough food to eat.
After being treated in a hospital for a year and a half, Ren recovered and had to leave the hospital. Then the "helping" team helped him. Now he also volunteers in the ministry.
Expecting more Christians to join
Some ministry workers shared that according to a survey conducted over a decade ago, there were 600 leprosy rehabilitation centers and more than 240,000 leprosy survivors in China. Now many older victims have passed away and many rehab villages have amalgamated, reducing the number of survivors and centers.
Even so, there is still a large number of survivors who need to be served.
The "helping" team has 60 members, which is half the number when it was at its peak. All the members have served in seven centers in Shandong, Jiangsu, Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces for at least four years. What's more, three homes that take in the homeless and care for them have been set up.
During the early years, the ministry "quietly" served this special group. In recent years they have started to share their testimonies in churches, hoping more Christians would join them.
- Translated by Karen Luo