In 1873, a Belgian Catholic priest named Joseph Damien De Veuster (1840-1889) was sent to minister to lepers on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. 

When he arrived he immediately began to meet each one of the lepers in the colony in hopes of building a friendship. But wherever he turned, people shunned him. It seemed as though every door was closed. 

He poured his life into his work, erecting a chapel, beginning worship services, and pouring out his heart to the lepers. But it was to no avail! No one responded to his ministry. After twelve years Father Damien made the decision to leave.

Dejectedly, he made his way to the docks to board a ship to take him back to Belgium. As he stood on the dock he wrung his hands nervously as he recounted his futile ministry among the lepers. As he did, he looked down at his hands and noticed some mysterious white spots and felt some numbness. Almost immediately he knew what was happening to his body. He had contracted leprosy!

It was then that he knew what he had to do. He returned to the leper colony and to his work. Quickly the word about his disease spread through the colony. Within a matter of hours everyone knew. Hundreds of them gathered outside his hut, they understood his pain, fear, and his uncertainty about the future.

But the biggest surprise was the following Sunday. As Father Damien arrived at the chapel, he found hundreds of worshipers there. By the time the service began, the chapel was crowded, and many were gathered outside. His ministry became enormously successful. The reason? He was one of them. He understood and empathized with them.

Our biggest problem today – ME and THEM. We rarely, if ever, become one with the people we disagree with or despise. This is why the ancient Romans often married the women in nations they conquered. This was done so that the two nations would have common children and grandchildren to look after. You can’t hate your own children or grandchildren, can you? 

In my 52 years as a priest, I have found people who were quite racist (though they would never admit it), until their children or grandchildren wound up marrying people of color or another race. Oh, do they then see the world very differently! They start talking and behaving like the lepers of Molokai and Saint Damien! 

The head usher in one of my parishes admitted to being very prejudiced against blacks. Then his oldest daughter married a black man. For my last two years at the parish he’d be standing in the back of church as he ushered. In his arms he held his black baby granddaughter, proudly introducing her to everyone who came walking by. 

Thirty years later I stood looking down at him in his coffin.  I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was his granddaughter I had not seen in 30 years. I told her how much her grandfather truly loved her. I pointed out the smile on his face and the smile on his heart that she had put there all the years when he held her in his arms.  

What have YOU had to face in YOUR life that made YOU see life differently?