Sometimes in the wave of negative reports coming out of China the stories of local believers living out the gospel in daily life get buried. The following Gospel Times article shares the work of three churches who are actively seeking to serve a portion of society that continues to deal with intense rejection in this day and age—victims of leprosy. These churches are a catalyst for both social and spiritual change, caring for the body and soul even to the point of influencing local governments to take on the plight of these “least” in society, demonstrating that truly, no man should ever be an island.
No Man is an Island
A Christian community cares for lepers.
British poet John Donne once wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself
Every piece is of the continent,
A part of the main.
The unfortunate reality of life is that there are those in this world relegated to life on an island. Recently the media brought attention to Chen Baofu, the only “patient” living on Fujian’s Lantau Island. Although free from illness for more than 30 years, he has found it almost impossible to leave this place.
According to the article “A Leper’s Island Life”, published in The Legal Evening News, 36 years ago 16-year-old Chen Baofu was sent to Lantau Island for treatment. Facing financial constraints on the one hand and stigmatization regarding his past disease on the other, Baofu remains bound to the island to this day. He has been officially declared well for over thirty years. For the leper, more grueling than the experience of the actual physical trauma is the inner loneliness they must endure.
According to historical records, leprosy has more than 2,000 years of history in China. Due to limited medical options, a large number of leprosy victims suffer disfigurement of the limbs, face, and eyes.
During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Guangdong area officials had little defense against or treatment for leprosy. As a result, they developed a “genocide” policy to be enacted in certain situations. In other circumstances, they sent victims of leprosy to the mountains or islands in order to limit their contact with the outside world, assuming food shortages and isolation from society would lead to a natural dying off of those with the disease.
Over the years medical treatment has improved and we have long been able to both prevent and cure leprosy. However, there is still a long way to go in the work of removing discrimination and prejudice towards this population.
Beihai Church Cares for Lepers for Over 100 Years
Even in present times, Guangxi's Beihai prefecture maintains a separated leprosy village. The difference is that these villagers are not an island unto their own.
Over the years, members of the local church have brought the love of Jesus to this leper community by actively caring for them. More than 100 years ago the local believers built a church for the village, an establishment that remains a part of the community to this day. Though the church building itself has been renovated and rebuilt multiple times the one constant has been the presence of God’s love displayed there.
The subject of leprosy is generally familiar to Christians. Mentioned often in scripture as an “unclean” illness, lepers were required to live separately from the community at large.
However, when Christ came to walk among us he also entered the world of the outcast lepers, speaking with, touching, and healing them. He demonstrated by his example of love how we as believers should treat those afflicted by leprosy.
It's possible that the skeptic, born of this cold age, may not believe in the kind of love recorded in the biblical account of Jesus reaching out to the lepers. However a walk into the Beihai Leprosy Village reveals that this sort of love is still touching lives to this day.
In 1891, the British “Dr. Fute” [Chinese name given] requested that the British Empire Leprosy Relief Association help the Beihai–London Hospital open an associated leprosy department.
This was China’s first leprosarium, accommodating more than a hundred lepers and mandating a policy of forced injections which brought about remarkable results.
At the same time the Beihai County West Gate Church for lepers was also established as the first church in Beihai.
Prevailing in spite of Setbacks
Built in 1891 within the Beihai Puren Leprosy Hospital, the church moved with the hospital to Baiwu Village in 1936. The church was forced to cease all activities during the Cultural Revolution, but was re-established in 1986.
In 1993, due to urban development and the moving of the Dragon Pond, the church entered a 20-year period of continual difficulties, eventually falling into disrepair.
Thanks to a donation from the Shanghai International Church, the West Gate church was finally rebuilt in October of 2014.
Through these years, members of the Beihai church have continuously cared for the local leper population. Their help has come not only in material matters but even more in matters of the spirit, allowing the afflicted to recover from the shadow of past discrimination so they no longer need to live in fear.
Love Surpasses Language Barriers in Shangri-La
Pastor Yu Wenliang, chairman of the Yunnan Christian Council told a Gospel Times staff member that at Christmas time in 2009 he and co-workers visited a leper colony in Yunnan’s Shangri-La. The visiting group brought Christmas presents to the community, as well as rice, sugar, tea, and other daily necessities.
Most of the villagers didn’t understand Chinese but they still found ways to express their gratitude to the Christians. Almost all were elderly, with some already into their 80s.
Although a largely Buddhist community, a portion of the group ultimately became followers of Jesus.
Responding to this development Pastor Yu remarked, “We helped them not only in material matters but also brought them spiritual comfort.” It was evident from their response that those who accepted the gospel were filled with joy, in spite of the reality that they remained physically far worse off than those in the society around them.
Church Moves Government to Act on Behalf of the Marginalized
From the time they first heard of the need, Hunnan’s Zhuzhou district Christian Church has unceasingly showed God’s love to the leprosy colony near Yuanling county’s Shizhou village. Thirty-nine lepers have lived in this village since early in the Liberation. At that time, transportation to the area was cut off and this combined with the threat of disease left the men and women isolated from the outside world, as day after day, year after year, illness ran its course in their bodies.
Macao Church Catalyst for Local Church Involvement
In May of 2002, the Macao Christian Missionary Alliance Church sent a delegation of ten to visit the leprosy colony, about an hour’s climb into the mountains. Director Tan of the Leprosy Prevention and Cure Department accompanied the group.
The terrible nature of this disease is hard on the body, leaving the afflicted with significant physical abnormalities; the eyes are unusually slanted, the mouth is crooked, and the entire face is often deformed as are the hands and feet.
This Macao CMA trip acted as a catalyst for establishing the very close relationship between the Zhuzhou Christian Church and the leprosarium.
From 2002 until 2009 the Zhuzhou Christian Church provided each member of the leprosarium with 50 yuan per month in living expenses. In order to address the health issues facing the lepers the church contacted medically trained individuals from the United States, Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong, Macao, and other countries. These individuals came multiple times to offer patient care within the hospital.
Local Church Calls on Government to Act
In 2009, in an effort to solve basic health and daily life issues within the leprosarium, the Zhuzhou Christian Council wrote a proposal to the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee) outlining the need for help solving problems within the hospital itself.
Municipal leaders took the issues raised seriously, and through a series of meetings decided to build a new hospital, to provide 400 yuan per month to each of the patients in the colony as a living stipend, and also to improve transportation conditions within their area.
Just Like Us
Each of us desires a healthy life, but unfortunately there are those who will face the reality of disease. These individuals may seem different from ordinary people, just like the lepers, and are likely to find themselves isolated from early on in life.
But no person is an island, capable of independent existence, and when we are willing to walk in love those hearts which were formerly isolated and closed will eventually open wide.
We must remember that those suffering from leprosy need more than physical healing; they also need to encounter spiritual healing and to experience the same love and acceptance that each one of us longs for.
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