“Unclean, unclean” – Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I live just a hundred meters from our Jesuit infirmary. If the Jesuits who live in community there have communicable diseases, such as a bad case of the stomach flu, they are kept in isolation and there are safety precautions – for their own sake and for the sake of an innocent visitor who does not want a bout of gastroenteritis or whatever else is going around.
Modern health care facilities have all kinds of precautions for patients with diseases that can spread like wildfire. Our infirmary has just a couple of dozen residents. So we can too easily reach the threshold, whereby the local health officials must impose further restrictions, such as limiting visitors. That gets difficult for the residents.
The number of external visitors drops considerably, for instance at daily Mass. People approach the front entrance and are met by signs alerting the potential visitor to the dangers that lurk inside. That notice from the department of public health is basically a polite version of what we hear about the leper in today’s reading from Leviticus. “Unclean, unclean! That person shall remain unclean as long as the disease persists; and being unclean, such a one shall live alone with their dwelling outside the camp.” Today we find ways of treating the sick person without sending them “outside the camp.”
I had the privilege of working with lepers and tuberculosis patients at Jesu Ashram, in Matigara, India (in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal). This was for a few months in the early nineties, when I was in the Jesuit stage of formation known as tertianship.
Jesu Ashram provides free medical treatment and care to destitute sick people, especially those living with leprosy, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS. In 1971, in the Jesuit Province of Darjeeling, a hospice and dwellings for disabled leprosy survivors called Jesu Ashram was set up by Canadian Jesuit Brother Robert Mittelholtz (from Southern Ontario).
No one is running around shouting, “unclean!” Jesu Ashram is tremendously welcoming and friendly. The hospice has a 360-bed capacity in four wards. In 2011, there were nearly 3,000 inpatients. Those patients who are able are involved in the daily upkeep of the hospital, tending the grounds and helping to cook meals.
In 2007, Jesu Ashram was declared an HIV/AIDS hospice following a steady increase in patients with HIV, from six in 2001 to more than 1200 by 2009. An HIV/AIDS ward was inaugurated in March 2010. It is called Gonzaga Sarai (sarai means “inn”).
Once weekly, Jesu Ashram runs an outpatient clinic where thousands have been treated over the years. In many cases of leprosy, the clinic helped fight the infection early on and avoided the deformities associated with later stages of the disease. Some patients recover but cannot return home because they fear rejection due to their severe deformity – the outcome of long untreated leprosy.
They receive a monthly allowance and are settled in nearby dwellings built by Jesu Ashram, where some are engaged in income-generating activities. Jesu Ashram also offers a three-year course on nursing for girls from poor families who have completed their high school education. The students pay about 150 Indian rupees per month (three Canadian dollars), which covers half the cost of their boarding and lodging. Approximately ten young women are enrolled yearly. If you are interested in finding out more, go here. www.canadianjesuitsinternational.ca/projects/india-jesu-ashram/.
Leprosy is very real. So are other communicable diseases. Our Christian challenge is to treat the disease without rejecting the sick person.