PROVO — "A great majority of God's children aren't sleeping in beds," said Brian G. Andre, an institute teacher for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and speaker at the 2012 Brigham Young University Campus Education Week, who taught a class titled "You Were Born to Make a Difference."
Ten years ago, Andre was invited to go to Chennai, India, to photograph the people in leprosy colonies in southern India. The invitation came from Becky Douglas — who with her husband and friends — founded Rising Star Outreach.
"After my initial trip to India, I was so affected by the images of the leprosy beggars that I had seen on the streets, that I was unable to sleep," Douglas recalled later in an interview via Skype. "Finally I decided that I could either have insomnia forever or I could take action. I called three of my friends and also dragged in my husband's secretary. The five of us created Rising Star Outreach that morning."
John and Becky Douglas started Rising Star Outreach in 1999 after they discovered their teenage daughter had been sending money from her allowance to an orphanage in India before she died.
The Douglas' and Padma Venkataraman, the daughter of a former Indian president, are helping thousands of people who'd been isolated from the mainstream community because they have leprosy. They provide basic medical care, schooling, housing, help with infrastructure and basic tutoring in English and in business. They enable the creation of micro-loans to help those in the colonies achieve some financial independence.
"I went (to the colonies) because she asked me. Becky has a way of getting people to do things for free," Andre said.
He said it was a life-changing visit. He came away with a new appreciation for Jesus Christ's healing power, a power anyone can and ought to share.
"We have so much to be grateful for," he said. "It's easy to love my neighbors as long as they are good looking and have similar beliefs as I do."
Andre said it's harder to love those deemed "untouchable" and who have disfigurements and mangled limbs. One has to first let go of judgment and fear.
"It took me some time," Andre said. "Now, I'm thinking maybe they are the ones who are blessed."
He said Venkataraman is the most Christlike person he has ever met because she doesn't judge or hold back love — she simply serves the best she can. He said people must step outside of their comfort zones to truly make a difference.
He described people without fingers and toes, people who'd gone blind from their disease but who were still so grateful to be alive. He said healers can soothe and heal with simple words. “I think we just need to acknowledge each other if we want to be healers in the world," he said. "We can say a kind word and it will be worth more than money."
According to Andre, many lepers feel truly abandoned as their families do not acknowledge them and they are confined to the colonies where food and medicine is in scarce supply.
Andre said there were beggars everywhere. “They’ll even take their limbs and char them so they look more pitiful."
One mother kept asking Andre if he brought any food. When he opened his hands to show he had brought nothing, she just smiled and said that was all right. "How I wished I had some bread, something," he said.
The needs are so great that even a small gesture, a simple acknowledgement of worth, is welcomed, he said.
One beggar told him the disease is painful, but the isolation and judgment is more so, "They call us cursed of God. We live yet we are dead.”
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