Sorry What Did You Say?

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Sunita tried to get an extra hour in bed on Sundays and do everything a bit more leisurely than usual.  When she pulled her phone towards her she was amazed to see it was already 8.30. She could not believe that the sounds of the morning in her Delhi flat had not woken her already, she must have been much more tired than she thought. She rolled over onto her back and suddenly noticed that the fan was going at high speed but she could barely hear it. With a sense of foreboding she sat up and realised she could hardly hear anything. The sound of water running into the sink as she brushed her teeth was odd, as if only some of the sound was reaching her ears.

Sunita had been deaf in one ear for many years but it hardly bothered her, now something was wrong in the other ear. As she reached for some cotton buds hoping to clear out the blockage her cousin popped her head around the door and said something, Sunita could see Asha’s mouth moving but she couldn’t hear a word. A feeling of complete panic engulfed her and wildly she prodded just below her ear. A fraction of hearing returned and logic told her that it must be a local blockage and she should not be afraid.

No specialist was available until Monday so Sunita decided to go to the chemist for some wax softening drops in the hope that they would help. The medical shop was just along the street from where she lived but it involved crossing one little lane and manoeuvring around the cars, bikes and veg stalls lining the narrow road. But she was as uncomfortable as if she was crossing a busy railway junction unsure where all the noises were coming from and which direction she should watch first to avoid being hit by a bike or car. She was feeling very fragile by the time she reached the medical shop. It was busy so she had a moment or two to collect herself but when she spoke she couldn’t tell how loud she was or what she sounded like and she was relieved to find she had been understood. The next hurdle was paying the bill. She concentrated hard and looked at the mouth of the shop keeper before she could understand how much she had to pay him.

Though she was discouraged and worried she decided to go to church anyway. She felt safe once she was in the auto but church was altogether different. Usually she loved the songs and hymns but the distorted hearing made the music sound horrible and she dared not sing because she could not hear what she sounded like. She was able to follow very little of the sermon and was hopelessly distracted by a miserable feeling of what she would do after church when her friends would greet her and she would not be able to hear them. She suddenly felt an enormous sense of loneliness. Being deaf in one ear had been one thing, this was horrible, so horrible she crept out during the final hymn rather than have to meet everyone.

She spent the day quietly contemplating what life would be like if her hearing could not be restored; music would be out of her life, an unimaginable loss she thought; she guessed that if there was some residual hearing she might be alright to talk one to one as long as she could see the face of the person she was talking to but if there were other noises or conversations going on or if it was too dark to see the mouth of the speaker, she knew she wouldn’t manage and people only have so much patience to repeat things. In the afternoon when her phone lit up she had to ask her cousin to take the call and she realised that if she couldn’t use the phone then she would be useless at work. One by one the difficulties presented themselves in her imagination. By the time she went to bed she was most sincerely praying for a reprieve with the visit to the doctor the next day.

Sunita, had nothing seriously wrong this time. On Monday the specialist  syringed her ear and solved the problem. She was left hearing well but deeply touched by the experience.

Mercifully most people do not get to experience any type of disability except perhaps until they grow infirm with old age, although maybe if we did, we would be more sensitive. As a Christian how often do you find yourself thinking about what life is like for others? We should be doing it all the time because that is the stuff of compassion which is a characteristic of our Lord Jesus and also because we are told to do so in Colossians 3:12

“Therefore as God’s chosen people clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

In the story, Sunita experienced just a few of the daily challenges of hearing impaired people –

  1. Vulnerability walking down the street unable to hear the traffic.
  2. Wary of speaking because they have no idea if they are shouting and worried about annoying others.
  3. Exclusion from singing with others in church for the same reason
  4. Inability to hear the sermon
  5. Dread of after-church-fellowship because they cannot hear what their friends are saying
  6. Loneliness
  7. Risk of being unemployed

I am sure there are many more.

We who are church, have the power of the Holy Spirit, our own attempts at compassion will be pathetic compared to what the Spirit can show us. Let us call upon the Lord to open our eyes to the challenges of people with disabilities around us and find ways to make sure that the Gospel and fellowship of other Christians is readily available to them.

If you would like your church to be more responsive to people with disabilities please contact Engage Disability here to enquire about training.

By Our Love

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 Picture Credit

There is running through my head, a commentary that looks at the one hand, at how church can respond to people with disabilities (and their families) who are already Christian and another which mulls over how church can respond so that people with disabilities who are not Christian, will be welcomed in and come to know The Lord Jesus. In both cases I am certain that Christians/church have already been given the model and the power to respond in a way which will see Christians living with disability fully engaged and uplifted, as well as non-Christians with disabilities turning to the Lord. The model is the early church and the power is the Holy Spirit.

The early church as depicted in the second chapter of Acts is one of a group of people meeting daily (yes daily) for devotion to the work of the apostles, prayer, breaking of bread and fellowship. We know from the record that they lived in community which may not be how we live now but that does not matter. What matters is coming together very often; it is the building of relationships one with another in common faith and as Paul writes in Ephesians 3:17-19

“And I pray that you being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The early church was wrapped in the recent vision of Christ on the cross, that level of love is what they understood. They had received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and they were fully alive to the love and power of God, we can say that they were “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God”

In the context of disability how might this work out? Geeta and Raaj Mondal, a Christian couple known to many in Delhi, have two sons, the eldest is Samarpan and a few years younger is Saday. Like all children they have been involved in general acts of mischief but it was complaints from other parents, together with a suggestion from a school teacher that they might consider sending Samarpan to a special school that eventually led to a diagnosis of autism. Raaj mentions in his recollections of that parent-teacher’s meeting that he found himself crying as he drove his scooter home. Geeta says Raaj was shattered so that when they received the diagnosis they went straight to the home of dear friends,

“People who had always provided a place for us to share our thoughts”

Geeta recalls her husband just sat silently with his friend whilst she talked with the hostess about what to do next, at the same time feeling thankful for such friends.

Friendship like that is what we as church need to be offering one another. It is pure love without judgment or conditions, being available to listen, share and grieve together as Paul says in Romans 12:15

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

We can do that best when we have built relationships by meeting often, praying together, studying scripture together and spending time relaxing and eating together in a reflection of God’s love for us. It is easy to start that process with people like you (maybe young doctors, a bunch of young parents or professional men and women) it might require more loving thought to include families living with disabilities. I am reminded of a Telugu lady knocking on the door of a family living a couple of blocks away from her in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. She did not go to their church, indeed could not really have known they were Christian but she had seen little Shreya their daughter with Down syndrome out playing and came to visit to offer friendship and prayer. They became faithful friends who have prayed together weekly for Shreya for more than ten years.

Such is a Christian life, one that cannot fail but to provide the necessary support and encouragement, a shoulder to cry on and friends to rejoice with on what can seem like a long, lonely journey for families living with disability. The driving force will be Christian love, the power to remain faithful and to know what everyone in the fellowship needs most and when, is the Holy Spirit and the motive will be to nurture each other towards salvation and an eternity in Christ.

Geeta and Raaj say that the first thing any church can do is find out those families and individuals with disabilities in the church and undergird them. Then as relationships build, identify practical ways to help, perhaps by providing opportunities for tired caregivers to get away for a rest. A third step might be to invite other children, those in the family without disabilities, to have a treat without having to share it with the brother or sister with disability. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, it is not easy being the sibling of someone with disabilities and always having to “understand” “be patient and kind because…”

In allowing the Holy Spirit to work to bring us alongside and to listen to and support families living with disabilities in our congregations we shall be transformed, more welcoming and better able to reach out to people with disabilities who are not yet Christians. For they will know we are Christians by our love.

To know more about autism click here or send an e-mail

Gifts Galore

Picture7Just a short blog post this week with three great stories.

This morning Delhi Bible Fellowship South (DBF South) congregation had a combined service starting at 9 a.m. This meant that instead of the usual two English services there was just one and that too a communion service.

Shreya was right there at the door handing out the notice sheets with a happy smile and greeting for everyone. Sounds fairly much what you would expect except that Shreya has Downs Syndrome and as a little girl she could not bear to be in crowds of people. Indeed I saw her at the wedding of a church couple recently and she was quite distressed by all the people. Yet at the end of the service today she reached forward and shared a hug with the young woman sitting in front of her in church.

What an answer to prayer! Her Mum says the beginnings of her socialising came when she started to go to Sunday School at DBF South and now here she is today lending her gifts for the church.

George Abraham and his family have been members of the Methodist Centenary Church, in Delhi, for a long time. He is involved in leading praise and worship, and fairly recently he anchored a multilingual service. Apart from church, he and Rita attend The Bible Study Fellowship that meets on Saturday mornings for in-depth studying of God’s word. After he had been attending for a while he was invited by one of the leaders to join him for coffee and a chat during which he was asked if he would like to take up a leadership role for one of the sub groups. He did, and he and Rita both say that their years studying with the group had seen a manifold increase in their understanding of scripture. This is a description of a man using his gifts to serve The Lord. George is blind.

Inderjit Lal who is a member of The Cathedral Church in central Delhi, as his father was before him, has served on the Church Committee and was Treasurer for a spell. Inderjit can walk only with great difficulty and is mostly in a wheelchair.

Today during the sermon we were reminded that many of us have work or passions related to justice, health care, universal education, saving the girl child and other similar important causes but nothing should be more important to a Christian than the gospel. As a Christian it is hard to disagree with that, which is why these three examples are so encouraging. Church is there for all; it must be open and welcoming to people of all types with or without disabilities. Let the gospel reach everyone so that they too can serve the Lord and as Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:10

“Each one should use whatever gifts he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its  various forms.”

There might be something we can do to make that possible for every Christian.

  • Maybe there is someone in your congregation with a disability. Do they have opportunities to take a full and active part in church life, or is there more that could be done to make them feel welcomed to serve? Why not ask them?
  • Perhaps you know of a Christian who has disabilities who is not coming to church; it might be worth meeting them and trying to find out why and looking together at what might make it easier or more welcoming.

“They Don’t Know How To Be With Us”

DSCN0105The atmosphere in Kiran Village*, Madhopur, near Varanasi is amazing. The formally barren landscape is covered with trees and purpose-built buildings and the little paths are busy with boys and girls and young men and women on crutches, with wheelchairs or just plain wobbly, making their way from the gate to their class-rooms, the production units or the therapy rooms. Just a half a mile down the road is the Ganga, flowing slowly and low at this time of the year and with broad, sandy banks.

I had met Promila Charan some years before, she works in Kiran Village as the PA to the Director. The last time I saw her was a few days before she was flying off to Europe. I was longing to find out how she enjoyed the trip and also to know more about her life as a Christian professional with disabilities. Long after the children and staff had gone home Promila directed her wheelchair into the guest house, transferred herself to a more comfortable chair and we began to talk.

Quite soon into our conversation Promila said

“Read the Bible and see for yourself Jesus came for the weak and poor. Even if we have disabilities we are part of the church. We all have a purpose.”

Of course she is right but she also added

“Pastors don’t really know how to care for us, how to be with us”

It was something I had heard from the wife of another person with disabilities who told me that the new minister in the church seemed to patronise her husband and did not seem to know how to behave with him.

So what is happening here? I would like to suggest that Church ministers, like many other people in larger society, haven’t a clue about disability. They are unsure what it means to be a person in a wheelchair, or someone who is visually or hearing impaired and it is hugely puzzling to know how to be with someone who has the odd movements of a person with cerebral palsy or idiosyncrasies of autism. Yet we need our pastors to be able to serve the whole Christian community whether they have disabilities or not.

Engage Disability has produced a Disability Inclusion Toolkit packed with sensible suggestions and explanations on how church can respond to disability. If anyone reading this would like to know more about training to make your church more responsive to disability then please send an e-mail to sylvia.engagedisability@gmail.com

A good approach might be to emulate the attitude of Promila’s parents. Promila is the last of several children. Her father was a highly educated freedom fighter and much respected in general society; he loved his youngest daughter dearly and always encouraged her to try things “you can do it” was something both her parents told her often. So it was that she went on to do a Masters degree in Economics, the only girl with disabilities out of 500 in her year. In my blog last week I mentioned that George Abraham was also set in the right direction by parents who never held him back but allowed him out on a bike and kept him in normal school, collaborating with the teachers for his wellbeing.

For church leaders, the example of these parents, matching as it does Jesus’ attitude, is a fine model to follow. A great place to start in improving your response to people with disabilities is to treat them as you would other members of the congregation. If you do not usually patronise members of your congregation then you do not need to do so to one in a wheelchair. People with disabilities have fears and doubts and worries just as everyone else and they need the love and support of church members and leaders too. They have spiritual needs to be addressed and may have a heart to serve the congregation and gifts that church leaders need to learn about. And finally, as people with disabilities they may have particular concerns that they would be glad to share with church leaders for prayer and support; they will not feel able to share if they are not welcomed in the same way as everyone else.

Promila said that she had heard about a job in Kiran from a member of her church, someone kind enough to think of sharing the opportunity which has changed her life. George met his wife first at Sunday school and later they hung out with a crowd of young Christians at university.

Both George and now Promila, have attributed their successes in life to parents who encouraged them. A lesson there for church leaders too. Find out the challenges and then be an encouragement. A few words here, the knowledge that they are prayed for, news of an opportunity, and a chance to serve in church are all practical encouragements.

We might also give a thought to parents and family members living with disability. Promila told me that one of her regrets was that both parents died before she started work in Kiran. She knew they would have been pleased for her. Congregation members and church leaders must take the time to support parents of children with disabilities. They have all the usual fears and worries of parents plus a few extra as they wonder about care-giving after they grow old or die and as they try and juggle the needs of children with and without disabilities (it is not at all easy to be the sibling of a person with disability).

It is recorded in Luke 14:15-24 that Jesus said

“Bring in everyone who is poor or crippled or blind or lame”

Crippled and lame are not the sort of words we use now because people with disabilities have asked us not to, but the message is clear, the kingdom of God is for all and when we miss out those living with disability we are being disobedient.

Promila did eventually get around to telling me that she had the most wonderful six weeks in Europe. She visited Switzerland, Italy and Ireland, stayed in people’s homes and spoke in churches. She could travel in public buses because they are designed to receive wheelchairs. When she returned to India she found herself thinking

“When will we make public places accessible in India?”

A great question really. Would Promila be able to speak in your church or is it inaccessible for someone in a wheelchair or using using crutches? ….. but that is for another blog post.

*Kiran village is the location for Kiran-Society a Centre for Inclusive Rehabilitation Click here to know more 

“I Can Always Ask”

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If it is true as I mentioned in my last post, that we are all vulnerable, all dependent on others and indeed God, for who we are and how we can live in this world then there is a commonality between all people, those with disabilities and those without. It is at that point of vulnerability that compassion is possible. It is not a superficial attitude that says “there but for the grace of God go I”, rather it is a deep understanding that if I wish for a full place in society, if I long to be loved and need to be accepted then so do others and if I am hurt by rejection or being considered inadequate then others too will equally feel the pain of rejection or exclusion and resent being written off as useless.

George Abraham is a most accomplished man; he is musical, a cricket wizard and experienced CEO who has founded and run organisations and seen that they achieve sustainability before handing them over. He is an events organiser, public speaker and a Christian leader, and has a delightful sense of humour, he also happens to be visually impaired. I have known him for a few years and long since realised he was talented. I met his wife Roopa much later at a lovely lunch they hosted for me in their home. She knew George when they were children in Sunday School, lost touch as parents were posted and then met up with him again as a student in Delhi at which point she decided that he would make a great match. She said what she saw was a handsome, intelligent and accomplished, Christian man and she told her parents that she was fond of him. George’s father, on the other hand, was having to battle George saying he did not wish to be defined by his disability so his parents should not accept proposals from people with disabilities. As an aside it is a great testimony to share that George’s Dad said it would be his prayer that the Father would “send the proposal to his door” which is exactly what happened with a re-routed letter from Roopa’s parents suggesting they should meet up.

The reason that I tell this story here is because although George has a full and fine life he is the first to admit his vulnerability not as a sign of weakness but as a fact. He was as daring as any youngster even riding his bike around the colony where they lived and his love of cricket was based on bodyline bowling…

”I would aim for the haze at the far end of my vision and it was either a wicket or hospital for the batsman!”

But he is the first to admit that the derring-do of youth was matched by the practical application of his Mum collaborating with teachers, opening the house to his childhood friends for shared homework etc. He described himself as outgoing with lots of great friends so he was always surrounded by sighted boys and girls growing up. He used the word collaboration a lot. And it is a great word for that is what we all do through life, collaborate with others to get things done, because we cannot do them alone.

 In 1 Cor. 12:21-26 Paul is talking about how the body (the Church) is made up of many parts.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

I was near Delhi University North Campus a few weeks after visiting Roopa and George when I saw four visually impaired students walking together towards the metro and I was reminded of George’s comments about how his achievements are greatly influenced by the good sighted friends he has had along the way. He wished visually impaired students would reach out and make friends with the sighted students for their mutual benefit.

George had recently found himself forced to take an unscheduled long bus journey and had told the conductor he would need help to know when they had reached their destination and how to get from there to the airport. His neighbour on the bus asked why he did not travel with a companion his response was

“I can always ask for help.”

It is obvious isn’t it? I cannot tell you how many times I have felt inadequate to a task and have had to ask for help. How is that alright for me but somehow considered a weakness in a person with a disability?

So, what has any of this got to do with you as an Indian Christian reading this blog?

  • I hope it has challenged your idea of what it means to be a person with disability
  • I pray that it will bring you to your knees to thank God for reminding you that you are nothing, nothing at all without His blessing. You are vulnerable and that is the common ground you share with all men and women. We all need each other and God.
  • I trust that if you are a parent and you know any children with disabilities you will encourage your children to play with them, invite them for birthday parties, and children’s activities at home and church.
  • I hope that the next time you need to ask for help or directions you will recognise the need as one you share with people with disabilities, the elderly and children ….. and it will make you more sensitive and caring and less quick to judge.
  • I pray that if you are student you will not shy away from fellow students with disabilities because you are afraid.

You can listen to George Abraham speaking about his childhood here  https://youtu.be/e-HBnuy_BZc

I would like to apologise for originally using the logo of the World Blind Cricket Council as the opening image for this blog.  I am sorry for any confusion this may have caused.

 

 

Acknowledging Shared Vulnerability

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Recently I met a young woman in a small tribal village in Manipur about an hour’s drive from Imphal. Her name is Nengnei Kim or Kikim and she is about 34 years old. I saw her first through a side window of the lovely wooden house in the hills. As she watched us walk up the drive her high cheek bones and very thick, short, black hair, cut with a full fringe, reminded me of a picture I once saw of a dignified South American tribal women. Kikim joined us in the wood panelled sitting room crawling to and fro on her hands and knees. I was privileged to have the opportunity to ask her father about their lives with Kikim. He explained that they had thought perhaps she had received the wrong medicine for a fever as a baby but subsequently tests showed that half of her brain was nor properly formed affecting her development.

Kikim’s father told me that he thought his other children had found their sister an encouragement as she was always around them and seemed happy as they were growing up. She seems to show no other feeling but happiness was how my friend interpreted what he said to me.  When I asked him about the struggles he and his wife had faced he said that it had been hard trying to cope with the many seizures she suffered but that about ten years previously a friend had brought an evangelist home and together they had prayed and fasted and since that time Kikim had not suffered any seizures. As he spoke Kikim crawled towards him and rested her head on his knee as he gently ran a hand through her hair. It was just for a moment and then she crawled off again and sat against the wall looking around and occasionally drumming her fingers on a small side table.

As we were served tea I noticed on the mantelpiece above the magnificent fireplace a framed notice of recognition from the Baptist Church for Kikim’s father’s work organising the feast at one of the major church events that constitute a significant part of the communal life in the village. Kikim’s father said the church had helped with money for medicines and the women of the church come and pray but he seemed a little surprised at my question about the response of the church, only mentioning the evangelist much later in the conversation.

That same evening one of his sons came calling at the house where I was staying. He is a fine young man who has spent years away studying for his PhD but his heart remains in his beloved village in the hills. When I mentioned how grateful I was to his father for taking time to share something of his life with Kikim he said I think we should use reason about these things; my father thinks the prayers of an evangelist cured the seizures, I think it was just her age and medicines; she still takes medicines.” The sensible logic seemed perfectly reasonable, especially coming from such an accomplished young scientist, and I started on a few quick (and rather trite) Christian responses. Then he told me with a tinge of bitterness, that as a child he had prayed and prayed for Kikim. In that moment I glimpsed a vulnerable little boy struggling to understand why his prayers were not answered and I became aware of a deep sadness.

Thomas E. Reynolds is a Canadian theologian with a son who has autism and various other neurodevelopmental disorders. In his book Vulnerable Communion; a Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Reynolds writes that we live in a time where the value of each person is based on whether he or she is capable of being productive in the sense of able to work and be part of modern capitalism. The modern world expects and respects independence and productivity (the language we use is an indication: what was earlier called Personnel Management is now called Human Resource Management, as if each of us is so much human capital!). This way of defining normal, naturally excludes people with disabilities who therefore need healing/hiding/pitying/caring for as they somehow represent something that is out of control. It is as a result of this so called prevailing view of “normalcy” that family members of people with disabilities find themselves running a full gambit of feelings including anger, disappointment, frustration, shame, pity, fear, loneliness, revulsion, bitterness and doubt.

Reynolds shows that this ‘normal’ is nonsense because none of us are actually independent. We are born to be in community, we have been “loved into being by God” and “objectively, many people spend a great part of their lives physically dependent upon others” (…in childhood and old age, during sickness etc.)  “On a subjective level we are all dependent upon others for well-being.”   “Human beings crave worth and fear the lack of worth, so we seek recognition and welcome by those around us.”  We need other people and that neediness means we are vulnerable by being “open to being wounded.” There are many strings to this vulnerability but acknowledging that we are all vulnerable and all are interdependent will allow us to consider an alternative where communities are based “upon a vision of the common good that empowers the well-being of all, and in terms of the creative love of God who is revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ”

It is in that new view of society represented by God’s love and endless grace, that we share in a common vulnerability as Jesus did; and the relatives of people with disabilities can hope to find how to live without experiencing the negative emotions resulting from having to deal with a world that thinks interdependence and vulnerability are weak and abnormal.

We who are church are often as deeply immersed in the worldly notions of ‘the normal’ as everyone else and so we try to ‘help’, believing our role is to pray for healing and give to charities when what is actually called for is holiness. We are called to be something different in the way that Jesus was different. We are to be people who love as Christ loved. This can be done by being available, giving and receiving love in mutual vulnerability interwoven with compassion and sympathy. Our love is to respect others just as they are, as Christ did. Christ came alongside us as a vulnerable human (God made man) and then did not judge others in the way of the world, he wished only that everyone may live and live to the fullest. The Lord’s desire for us to experience joy is boundless…he offers us eternity. Our love, therefore, shall seek to nourish the beloved’s ability to experience joy. And, just as God remains faithful in Christ and the Holy Spirit so we must remain faithful; that is not ‘doing for’ someone but ‘being there’.

This kind of holy love stands in contrast to the mistaken world view that declares Kikim is a problem needing a solution. When we condemn Kikim by the worldly notion of ‘not normal’ we deny our shared vulnerability and dependency and in so doing bring into doubt the truth of Christ’s love.

 

One Caste, One Religion, One Disease

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As Christians we can expect that church will bring about change in society, sometimes it happens in unexpected ways.

Bethany Leprosy Colony in Bapatla, A.P. is a self-settled community of people affected by leprosy many of whom spent time in the Salvation Army Evangeline Booth Leprosy Hospital just cross the main Chennai to Kolkata railway track. Prasad was one of the founder members of the community in the 1950’s and a Christian; he established the first church in Bethany. Many of the people affected by leprosy who lived in Bethany had moved there from the leprosy hospital after treatment and methods of care changed. They were unsure about returning home either because their families would not welcome them or because finding matches for siblings would be difficult. These were therefore people that felt excluded.

Anthropologist, Dr. James Staples in his book Peculiar People Amazing Lives records that the people often spoke of themselves as being “Oka kulam, oka matam, oka jabhu” or “One caste, one religion, one disease” a topic that he takes up at some length in the book. In this case the one religion is Christianity which most of them had been exposed to during their stay in mission hospitals and which they began to practice once they settled in the colony. The form of Christian practice was shaped by the protestant evangelical missionaries they met in the hospital settings and then significantly by the Lay Evangelical Fellowship (LEF) pastors who regularly visited the community to conduct the Sunday services.

Society attitudes towards leprosy can be best described by a look at a local doctor who I shall call Dr. Lakshmanarao. He confessed in the 1980’s that he was afraid to treat leprosy patients in his small private practice. He was afraid of the disease (even though he was scientifically trained) and he was afraid of the impact on his own business if he was seen caring for people with leprosy. He only changed his mind after meeting a young Christian nurse from the UK whom he considered vibrant and beautiful but who had chosen to work in the Salvation Army Leprosy Hospital. He reported:

“When I saw her I looked at my own motives for avoiding treating leprosy patients and realised they were unsound.”

He subsequently went on to serve the community for many years visiting the colony and treating people in his clinic, which continued to thrive.

At the same time a young man with leprosy who worked in the Salvation Army Hospital and later moved and worked in Bethany leprosy Colony had one hand that was disfigured as a result of leprosy. He would boldly go about his business in the local town of Bapatla but always with the affected hand hidden in his trouser pocket so as to avoid rejection or any confrontation about leprosy.

The LEF pastors were almost the only Indian visitors to the leprosy colony and their faithfulness was striking at a time when many people would have been, like Dr. Lakshmanarao, uncomfortable interacting with leprosy affected people never mind visiting the colony.

It is these LEF pastors  who together with the fervent Christians in the leprosy colony, insisted on holding an annual three day prayer meeting in Bethany which over time attracted Christians from the local villages and Bapatla town. All would meet together to listen to speakers from across India sitting under giant pandals, in the open space in front of the community hall right in the centre of the leprosy colony. Those prayer meetings brought outsiders into the village in a manner that had not been seen before indeed in the one year a group of pastors travelled from Mumbai and stayed in the colony guest house.

Here then, is the societal change that I mentioned at the start of this blogpost. There were no walls around Bethany Leprosy Colony, they were not necessary as no one really wanted to come there but the response of the LEF pastors were in part instrumental in breaking down the invisible walls of fear and exclusion which have disappeared from the colony now.

The Bethany example proves to me that Christians, by their behaviour, can effect change in society which is why it is so vital that church in India leads the way in its response to disability, providing a model of inclusion that not only allows all people to learn about Christ but which others can emulate.