For Lent this year, we’re focusing on Purulia Hospital in India and the many people who rely on its services. Here, Head of Mission Development Zoë Bunter reflects on a visit to Purulia leprosy community.
The heat was overwhelming as we climbed out of the air-conditioned car we had travelled in. I glanced around, trying to take it all in. I had never visited a leprosy community before and this one, near Purulia hospital in India, was in a remote location. We had travelled for some time along rough tracks and makeshift roads to get here and now it felt as though we were in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Curious faces watched us as we arrived, and the hospital staff greeted old friends and introduced my travel companion and I.
I was on my first trip with the Leprosy Mission back in 2014, to see the work for myself. My travelling companion, Hassan, was a volunteer and a photographer, capturing scenes of our work. We had pulled up in the centre of the community, close to the men’s quarters. The people who lived here looked at us expectantly and I knew I was expected to say something to the 30 or 40 people gathered around us.
The hospital nurse translated. I said how honoured I was to visit them from thousands of miles away, how we would love to spend some time with them, and I asked permission to come into their community for a few hours. Most of all I said I carried love with me – the love and care of people in England and Wales who prayed, gave gifts, and sent messages of encouragement and care.
The community would have once been called a ‘leprosy colony’. The people lived in this isolated place, surrounded by trees, because they had been rejected from the town. Many had severe disabilities and all of them were elderly. My guess is that the youngest person here would have been in their early-seventies, the oldest well into their eighties. They were decades younger when leprosy first took hold, before there was a cure. The disease ravaged their bodies and caused irreversible damage to hands, feet, arms and legs. They were cast out of homes and families, and Purulia took them in.
The noise of bird song was almost deafening, as we trudged the five-minute walk through the long grass to where the women lived. Smiles greeted us and women with faces wearing the marks of hard lives welcomed us into their humble homes. Built of brick, each person had their own room to sleep in. But every mealtime all the residents came together in the centre of the community where food was cooked over an open fire. Mealtimes were a social occasion!
The nurse explained about the solar lamps we saw on the buildings. He told us the government had refused to provide electricity to the community so the only light at night was through solar energy. These people weren’t considered important enough to need electricity.
As we walked back to where the food was cooked and where the men lived I was struck by something; love was here in this place.
The hospital staff and residents chatted easily – there was laughter and joking, there was compassion and care. The Purulia Hospital car or minibus would come here to collect those needing hospital treatment, and return them home after they had received medication, recovered from surgery or had ulcers and wounds dressed. But there was also love among this group of very special people. They sat together talking and sharing; together they weaved mattresses or drew water from the water pump. They knew each other like brothers and sisters, a big extended family.
I asked a woman about her life here in the community and she said, with a beaming smile, that she was happy here. Here, she told me, she was with others like her. No hatred, no name-calling. This was her home.
I had come from the UK hearing stories in the news about elderly and frail people struggling with the torment of loneliness. Here there was no such thing. I don’t want to romanticise life in Purulia Leprosy Community, it was clearly a hard life with none of the luxuries that I so easily take for granted. Sores and ulcers were a constant threat, the risk of infection and sepsis was very real. But here I saw love. People thrown together by the hatred of those who didn’t understand had found friendship, community and peace.
As I remember that morning in India, I am challenged by my misconceptions of what will bring me peace. I often think it will be security, nothing to worry about, being able to switch off from anxiety.
But I have seen the ‘surpasses all understanding’ peace that is promised in the Bible alive and well in a place where there is little security and everything to worry about. But what I do know is that this little community in West Bengal, and those who live here, have been bathed in the prayers of the prayer warriors of The Leprosy Mission – in the UK, in the chapel at Purulia Hospital and across the globe.
We do not always realise the power of our prayers, but I have seen the love of God poured out on those whom the world rejected, in loving response to the prayers of the saints.
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)