I was already somewhat in a state of shock—even though I had done my best to prepare for what I knew I would see.
It was my first visit to a Heaven’s Family-supported leprosy clinic in Hyderabad, India. As I had imagined beforehand, it wasn’t easy to look at the infected wounds of leprosy patients as they were compassionately dressed by dedicated nurses. But then came a shock of a different kind for which I was unprepared.
A small man hobbled into the clinic on crutches—missing all his fingers and toes—yet he was smiling. Even as he endured the painful cleaning and bandaging of his leprous sores, he seemed to radiate joy, impossibly defying the gravity of a condition that stigmatized him everywhere outside the clinic walls.
I learned from one of the nurses that his name was Eliah Etkala. She told me his story.
Growing up in an Indian village, Eliah’s life was typical. But at the age of 20, he began noticing patches of discolored skin on his body. Treatment using herbal medicines proved to be fruitless. As weeks turned into months, Eliah began losing the tips of his fingers and toes.
It was impossible to hide. The citizens of his village, friends and neighbors whom he had known for more than 20 years, forced him to leave. Ostracized everywhere, Eliah lived on the streets and begged to survive.
Eliah never learned where he contracted Hansen’s Disease—commonly known as leprosy. The bacteria that causes it doesn’t become symptomatic for 3 to 5—and sometimes 20 or more—years after infection. Despite popular notions, leprosy is actually not very contagious, and it is easily arrested and rendered incommunicable through antibiotics. Worldwide, about 180,000 people are Hansen’s victims.
It was while begging that Eliah met others like himself who told him about a community that welcomed their kind. It was at that community that Eliah found a wife, a Hansen’s victim as well. And it was also at the community where Eliah found Jesus. Since then, he has joyously floated above his temporal trials. He knows a new body will one day be his forever.
“He is a person who smiles always…he never shows his pain,” a clinic nurse told me. And what, I asked her later, was the secret to Eliah’s transcendent joy? “He says, ‘God is with me and He is always loving and caring.'”
Although I don’t understand the suffering Eliah continually must endure, I’m inspired by his faith, and I’m glad to play a part in relieving his sufferings to some degree, as is everyone who has invested in our Leprosy Ministry Fund. May Eliah’s joy inspire all of us to live above our temporal trials!