“The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.” –St Francis of Assisi in his Testament
There is an often told story of St. Francis of Assisi and an encounter with a leper. I’ve seen many different versions. The stories might be different but the life lesson is the same.
Francis, and most people at that time, had a fear of lepers. When they would hear the bell that lepers were required to ring to alert others of their presents they would often run in the opposite direction. So did Francis.
One day Francis had an encounter with a leper and experienced a change of heart. As Thomas of Selano wrote in his biography of Francis Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul:
“Among all the awful miseries of this world Francis had a natural horror of lepers, and one day as he was riding his horse near Assisi he met a leper on the road. He felt terrified and revolted, but not wanting to transgress God’s command and break the sacrament of His word, he dismounted from his horse and ran to kiss him. As the leper stretched out his hand, expecting something, he received both money and a kiss. Francis immediately mounted his horse and although the field was wide open, without any obstructions, when he looked around he could not see the leper anywhere.”
As with Luke’s account (24) of the road to Emmaus, many conclude that the leper was indeed Jesus. Francis’ encounter began his ministry to lepers near Assisi. Francis learned that the lepers too were children of God.
For me, the lesson is that we often shun people that are different, those that society rejects. We stay in our safe little world assuming that it’s someone else’s problem.
So, who are the lepers of today? Who are the voiceless, ignored and forgotten among us? Who does society reject? And, more importantly, what should we as Christians do about it?
The mentally ill, those with physical deformities, those with intellectually disabilities are often ignored, avoided, marginalized and forgotten. They are the lepers of today.
We treat the homeless, the drug addicted, the unemployed, food stamp and welfare recipients with the same disdain. They are the lepers of today.
The unborn, the elderly suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia are voiceless as we place convenience ahead of love for these children of God; they are the lepers of today.
As Francis’ namesake and our current Pope Francis has said we may need to get dirty. We need to take our faith to these children of God.
Every day as I exit the freeway on my way to work, I usually encounter a homeless person panhandling for money as motorists wait for the light to change. Occasionally, when the timing is right and I have some cash handy, I’ll roll down the window and hand the homeless person money. It may be a good deed but it never feels right.
A few weeks ago with temperatures in the single digits I was amazed that a young woman was begging for money. As I reached to top of the ramp, I could see that she was shivering from the freezing cold. I was moved to roll down the window.
“You are going to get frostbite!” I yelled as she approached me.
“I am so cold, as soon as I can get money for bus fare I am returning to the shelter,” she replied. At that moment I did something I hadn’t done before.
“What’s your name,” I inquired. “Amanda,” she replied as she broke into a huge frozen smile.
“Amanda, I would be happy to drive you to the bus stop and give you bus fare.” She agreed.
As we drove the few blocks to the bus stop she warmed herself in the car. As we waited to spot the bus, Amanda shared her story.
Amanda was begging for money for her three children, a single mom who lost her job, home and husband in the span of a few months. I gave her money for bus fare and enough to help her and her kids for a few days.
As she spotted the bus and opened to door to get out of the car she looked at me and said, “You are the first person to call me by my name in a long time. It felt good. Can I ask your name?”
“Tony,” I replied.
As she closed the door she said, “Thank you Tony, God bless you.”
“God bless you and your kids too, Amanda.”
This time my good deed felt right!
So, what can we do?
- When you are tempted to turn away from a person in need or a person that doesn’t look like you, try turning towards them instead. Smile, look them in the eyes and offer a “good morning.” You might just be surprised at how they might light up and smile back.
- To be truly pro-life, we must stand up for all life from conception to the grave. And this means the homeless, mentally ill, physically handicapped, and those that don’t share our lifestyle, sexual orientation or religion. To quote Rick Warren, “We can walk hand in hand without seeing eye to eye.”
- And, don’t be afraid to “get dirty” and speak up for those who are forgotten, marginalized, and ignored who have no voice.
Let’s let Francis be our example and served those who are treated like the lepers that Francis served and Jesus healed. We can do this.