As a child I was always especially fascinated by the stories of Jesus with the lepers. I still am. I could never imagine what it would be like to live with such a horrible disease, especially when my childhood imagination filled my mind with gory pictures of gaping wounds, fingers and limbs falling off and of people shunned by society, living in caves on the outskirts of town. The stories of Jesus’ compassion towards these people taught me about His mighty power to heal, His love for all people, and also the importance of saying “thank you”.
I never imagined in all my life I’d have a friend who is a leper in modern day India. The first time I met KaviRaj he was begging on the street and after shaking his hand, I nervously went to Doctor Google to see if leprosy was contagious. To be honest it feels kind of freaky being with him – I feel exposed, vulnerable and a little nervous that somehow I might possibly ‘catch’ something.
Here I am in this picture with my friend KaviRaj standing on the right, and Ravi to the left. Both men have leprosy, both are Hindus and I am at their home, known as the Leprosy Mission House. The house is next to the riverside slum in Kotdwara, where one of our Education Centres operates.
I’ve known KaviRaj for three years now. We don't know each other that well, but every time I see him we get to share our stories a little more and my life is all the richer because of this. The two of us have much common … it’s cool that we are both the same age (he is 52, and I am 51). He is married like me, we both have kids, we laugh and we cry together. We pray for each other throughout the year and we certainly enjoy each other’s company when we get to catch up once or twice a year.
KaviRaj ‘caught’ leprosy when he was 8 years old, which as you can imagine, changed the trajectory of his life. His parents could not cope with a son who had this disease, so one evening they brought him to the local Sikh Temple and they left him there all by himself. KaviRaj never saw his parents again. As a young boy he learnt to survive on the charity and kindness of others. 44 years later, Kavi has an inspiring story of how he continues to overcome terrible suffering and adversity associated with leprosy. Every day he begs on a busy street to supplement to small amount of money he receives from the charity of local churches. He has a family to feed and provide for.
Leprosy still affects Kavi’s physical health. You can see in the photo that he has a damaged eye. Ravi has bandages on his feet, covering fresh, painful wounds. Both men must take medication every day of their life.
I am overwhelmed that KaviRaj says that he prays for me often and that he and his friends look forward to my visit whenever I’m in town. This April, KaviRaj told me that he was really sad when he heard I was in Kotdwara but I hadn’t visited him. His excitement and happiness when we arrived at his house for a surprise visit was just so special.
The power of friendship is incredible. Friendship breaks down barriers and is medicine for the soul. When I visited last I just Ioved their infectious laughter, their happy tears when we talked together, their warmth, the sincerity of their interest and care, the things communicated not by words but simply by holding hands. I was told that these men never experience the physical touch of others except from their family. Perhaps this is why, they never really stopped holding my hand as we talked together.
I can't imagine what it’s like to have an illness that isolates you, that separates you from the essence of being human – to be a leper! This thought challenges me to think about who are the lepers in modern day Australia.
When I visit these inspiring people, I always give them a small amount of money, I feel that it’s the least I can do. But I have learnt something important. Apparently these guys, compared to so many others living in poverty in this town, are pretty well cared for by the local churches in Kotdwara, but from I have seen and experienced charity is not the same as friendship …there is power in friendship.
And this brings me back to the stories I learnt as a boy about Jesus. These are the same stories that I have the privilege of teaching the children in my school. Jesus offers each one us friendship. He offers acceptance and places dignity and value on us all.
What KaviRaj and Ravi have taught me is that friendship extends way beyond charity. Our friendship is a two-way gift. I love these guys and they love me back.
……………………………. Check out our website www.kotdwarahelp.org to learn more about our work in India. If you’d like to make a donation which I will send as a gift to KaviRaj and the other families in the Leprosy Mission House, here are our account details;
BSB: 812-170 ACCOUNT NUMBER: 100122703 ACCOUNT NAME: RM & DJ Thomas INDIA Please write your name and KaviRaj in the reference section
I will ensure that this gift makes its way directly to these families. If perhaps you would like to write a card, including a message of encouragement, love and friendship I will personally deliver this in September.