Years ago I ministered to the people of the Beni, the jungle area of Bolivia, in a town called Riberalta. I was a teacher in the elementary and later secondary school of that town. After being there for a while, I realized that two of my students, who were brothers, were sons of a leper. Now I had never seen a leper. I had only read about them in the Scriptures or heard others talk about them. All I knew was that they had a terrible disease, and that they used to ring bells to announce their presence in a neighborhood. People had the idea that they might catch their disease (which is a fallacy, as leprosy, or Hansen’s disease, as it is now known, is not contagious). It was not unlike how folks treat those with AIDS in our own country today.
One day I decided to go and visit this man, let’s call him, Sr. Rodriquez. I went down to the banks of the Beni River to their house. ‘House’ is quite a word for that in which they lived! It was a shelter built of bamboo, or chuchío, as it was called, with a high slanted roof covered with palm leaves. The spaces between the bamboo strips were filled with mud. When I entered the house I found it very difficult to see after coming in from the bright tropical sun. When I became accustomed to the darkness, I saw a low wooden bed, which is called a catre, to one side. There was something in the middle of this bed. As I became even more accustomed to the darkness, I realized that this ‘something’ was the man I had come to see! Here was a man, who obviously was quite tall, sitting with his knees up to his chest, his shoulders were all purple and covered with suppurating sores; one of his ears was gone, as was part of his nose. His hands were covered with greatly stained cloths. I discovered later that the fingers of one hand were totally gone as were one or two on the other. I had never seen such a sight! My first reaction was, I think, a very human one. All I wanted to do was to get out of there! Just as this thought entered my mind, Sr.Roderiguez smiled! It was very crooked smile, given his infirmity. He then said “Sister, I want to thank you for helping to educate my children!” I was stunned! If he had cursed and sworn and complained about his terrible illness, I think I could have understood this better. But here he was with words of gratitude to me, the missioner, who had come, I thought, to console him!
We then began to have a conversation in which he told me a little about himself. He was the father of twelve very handsome children, He had been what we call in Spanish, ‘un comerciante’, someone who went up and down the jungle rivers bringing supplies and selling things to those folks who lived upriver and couldn’t get into the pueblo where we lived.. He said, “You know, Sister, when I was working the rivers, I never had much time for God, but since I have become ill, Jesus and I have become very good friends!”
He then told me about his relationship with God and how it had grown since he became ill and could no longer work the rivers. It was then that I realized that Mission is a two-way street. I, the missioner, had come to minister to him and here he was teaching me!
A very humbling experience!
In Baptism we receive the gift of Faith. However this gift is not something to be selfishly kept to oneself. It is meant to be shared. This is what Señor Rodriguez shared with me.
*name of man has been changed
Sister Helen Phillips, M.M.