Lifting an envelope toward him with her nubs, the leper said, “This is just a little love gift for you and your team for your worldwide ministry.”
Deeply moved, Billy Graham grasped her nubs in his hands and thanked her.
As she walked away, the missionary translated a note she had included: “Wherever you go from now on, we want you to know we have invested in some small way in your ministry and given, in a sense, our widow’s mite. We send our love and prayers with you around the world.”
Inside the envelope were two Nigerian pound notes worth approximately $5.60 in American money at the time.
Graham turned away to look across the vast brushland. After a few moments, he turned to Grady [B. Wilson] and Cliff [Barrows], tears trickling down his face. “Boys,” he said, “that’s the secret of our ministry.”
We tend to think of leprosy as a scourge of the past. But it was the 1960s when Billy Graham visited the leprosarium mentioned above, and this weekend, January 28, is World Leprosy Day.
The day aims to raise “awareness of a disease that many people believe to be extinct, when in fact around 210,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, …” lepra.org.uk explains. While we think of it as belonging to the third world, 150-250 cases are reported each year in the United States. Leprosy is closer and more real than we may think. If not for medical pioneers, we might not have an answer for it – or the freedom to reach out to those people in ministry as Billy Graham did.
As a child, I encountered scary depictions of leprosy in movies and stories: people with their fingers and feet falling off, their faces deformed and distorted, crawling on nubs. I would secretly shudder and be glad that it wasn’t something I had to fear. Then, I discovered books by Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey (The Gift of Pain, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, and In His Image) where they write about the marvels of the human body, and particularly about Brand’s work among lepers in India in the latter half of the 1900s. He became one of my real-life heroes. It was wondrous to find that although leprosy is still a real problem people face, someone made it possible to face and conquer the dreaded disease.
Brand was a missionary doctor, working among a people group who have been, and in many cases still are, the most stigmatized and most ostracized throughout all history. He worked at a time when the disease was still largely believed to be highly contagious, untreatable, and almost always fatal. In a large part, his pioneering work and research in direct contact with leprous patients brought an end to those myths.
In a story told on leprosymission.org, when Dr. Brand first touched a leprosy patient, the man began to cry, and Brand asked a colleague what he had done wrong. “You touched him and no one has done that for years,” she answered. “They are tears of joy.“
While living in India and working and teaching at the Christian Medical College and Hospital in Vellore, India, Brand found that doors were closed to lepers because hospitals feared the spread of the disease so much that they refused to admit them. In 1950, he established a leprosy hospital and rehabilitation community called New Life Center, near the Christian Medical College in Vellore. His work brought light to the facts that leprosy is not extremely contagious, it is not necessary to shut leper patients out from normal society to prevent spread of the disease, and leprosy can be prevented, treated, and cured.
As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention verify, the immune system in 95% of adults can fight off the bacteria that causes leprosy. Leprosy cannot be spread through casual contact such as shaking hands, sitting next to or talking to someone who has the disease. Leprosy can be cured through antibiotic treatment and within a few days of beginning antibiotics, patients are no longer contagious, allowing them to live a normal lifestyle with family, work, and school.
Brand’s most significant contribution to medical science was to disprove the notion that leprosy actually rots away flesh. He found that instead, the disease damages the nerves causing a lack of sensation that allows people to injure themselves without realizing it. For example, something as simple as a stubbed toe or a cut doesn’t bring the sensation of pain to call attention to the wounded site. Thus, the injury can be repeated over and over until infection, scarring, and permanent damage occurs. Brand experimented ways of not only protecting the body from injury but also engineered the technique of reconstructive surgery to correct disabilities caused by the disease.
Brand took on unknown risks to dispel myths that prevented any kind of help or hope for people suffering from leprosy. His brave work taught me something about courage and selflessness that counts helping others as more valuable than taking caution for yourself. Perhaps, it was not by chance that Brand’s books so inspired me as a child. Fifteen years later, I too was in India, where I met with lepers and others with afflictions that – if not for Brand’s work 50 years ago – would have left them as outcasts and untouchable.