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.