It was a long trip. Anxiety gripped us along the way.
Earlier, we were told stuff about the place and its people. We tried hard to let the relatively new information sink in. Yet, we still harbored opinions of concern and feelings of unease.
We did not know what to expect. We were uncertain of what the future could and would hold for us.
As we walked through a guarded gate, we saw them. It seeamed like time stood still. Whatever happened, they stood still like time. And they were staring at us.
Did our appearance and quite odd outfits bother them? Did the things that we brought with us intrigue them?
Or did they start to worry at the thought that we came from another part of a family of communities and nations that might not have been as accommodating and cordial as theirs?
However, what we soon experienced negated any and all of the above questions.
Fixed on us, their eyes were engaging black balls of curious acceptance that were excitedly expecting guests, not strangers. They knew we were coming, and theirs were looks kindly asking us to be with them.
Perhaps, silently etched and expressed at the back of their minds were the words “We need you, brothers.” Theirs were quick peeks and long gazes that prayed that we should consider having an enduring and worthwhile stay with them.
Beneath the glowing wide eyes were glaring smiles that calmly nullified our misplaced doubts and fears. Their glad faces candidly showed us that despite the pathetic worldly struggle of a few, timeless happiness and precious good memories still fill the hearts and souls of the many.
As if by a secret signal, they moved towards us. Devoid of any qualm, they offered us a hand to hold and shake. Happiness was theirs after a huge hug, which could traumatize a grizzly. That spontaneous rub on the cheek came sparingly (Thanks God!).
They bestowed on us anything and everything that bespoke of a warm welcome. Likewise, they made us sense the innate joy of being wanted. We were left without any solid or valid excuse to not return their amiable and friendly ways.
Further, they made us very comfortable in their midst. They made us believe that we belonged, as equals.
They treated us with esteem, favor, honor and respect. They willingly put aside any and all biases and differences that could have crossed their mind before we came.
When we crossed an imaginary line of discrimination and pretentiousness and stepped into their side and firmly stood beside them, they appreciated and liked it. They claimed elation and triumph.
In due time, we walked hand in hand and arm in arm with them. We played with them. We ate with them. We worked with them. We laughed and cried with them. We simply did with them what they did with us – giving us the best time of their life.
By the way, the above narrative happened in 1970.
‘We’ were then very young university freshmen, mostly from Manila. We went to Cotabato City in the southern Philippines to study and train for priesthood.
‘They’ were the incredible and resilient men, women and children who lived and cared for each and every one of their own – almost literally, from cradle to grave – inside the very strict confines of their paradise a.k.a. home under the sun in the then town of Nuling (now Sultan Kudarat), in the province of Maguindanao.
The hand to hold and shake, the huge hug, and other physical contact were unrehearsed acts of brotherly love during a series of regular monthly pastoral visits and work we had in a government facility then called the Nuling Leprosarium (Today, it has evolved into a modern multi-care medical facility called the Cotabato Sanitarium that still caters to the needs of about 50 leprosy patients.)
Research literature defines leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, as a long-term bacterial infection that may result in a person’s lack of ability to feel pain, thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection on unnoticed wounds. Weakness and poor eyesight may also occur.
Contrary to popular impression, leprosy is not highly contagious. It is also curable.
Global indicators showed that in 2012, the number of chronic leprosy cases was recorded at 189,000, down from some 5.2 million in the 1980s. In the last two decades, 16 million people worldwide were cured of leprosy.
Social stigma has been associated with leprosy, which has affected humanity for thousands of years.
In the early days, people with leprosy were separated from the ‘others’ and were placed in leper colonies. In modern times, leprosaria were established where persons afflicted with the disease were treated and freed from it.
Most colonies and leprosaria have since been closed.
Lessons were imbibed from that unforgettable experience that occurred some 46 years ago. These were lessons that we always talked about and learned from every time we rode the bus to take us back to our abode, called the Novitiate, in Tamontaka, then one of the five villages of Cotabato City. (Today, the city has 37 barangays.)
They taught us that normalcy, by whatever standard, was nothing but a state of mind that thrives on what is common among individuals of a kind that perceives that they are better or lesser than others.
The leprosarium residents made us realize that being normal was to generate within ourselves and spread to others the best practices of acceptance and respect.
On their own terms and despite their physical and emotional struggles, they showed us that they too could be better persons and that they too deserved to live and to enjoy a good life.
They taught us that humility can best keep and preserve dignity.
They taught us that being civil and understanding towards another fires up humility and exemplifies dignity.
They taught us that, like love and respect, humility and dignity are spiritual values that one must earn for oneself, and that both are neither for sale nor for the buying.
They taught us what giving was all about. A sentence in a parable found in Matthew 25:31-40 of the Bible reads: “Whatsoever you do to the least of My brethren, that you do to Me.” Then, who is the least of the brethren and what is the giving for?
They taught us that giving was all about spending and sharing moments with each other.
These are the moments that needed a shoulder to cry on, moments that called for a listening ear, moments to hear some words of advice and wisdom, moments to gather together for a prayer seeking for God’s blessings and moments that sparked a visit and inspired more visits — all these at great value and at no cost.
They taught us the power of touch. They have touched our lives; and we have touched theirs.
The residents of the leprosarium have given more, if not all, of themselves. Couldn’t we? #####