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.”
Andre shared a picture of a man sleeping on the street, a man whose face and body is ravaged by leprosy. "We would call this a homeless person in America. If we did the same thing in India, there would be more homeless people than people in homes."
“We are all here on earth to heal, not to judge,” Andre said. “I want us to think that there are people who have leprosy in this room It’s not the kind that’s eating away at our physical bodies. We have spiritual leprosy.
"Jesus is trying to tell us that we can do anything," he said. "Find me one limitation in the scriptures. He says if we have faith like a mustard seed, we can move mountains with that amount of faith."
Douglas is currently serving with her husband who is the president of the LDs Church's Dominican Republic Santiago Mission, but she never stops worrying and thinking about the people.
She's not sure how many people Rising Star has assisted over the past eight years, but she knows it's in the thousands.
"It's a pretty serious operation and we're thinking expansion," Douglas said. "Our clinic this year will do 10,000 treatments."
When a family has one member affected by leprosy, the whole family is run out of the general population, she said, so children and spouses are afflicted as much as one with the disease, becoming "untouchable."
Even though the cure for leprosy was discovered in 1988, the stigma lives on. A person who discovers a small white spot of disease will often hide it and put off getting treatment even though it can be treated efficiently.
It's still not clear how leprosy is spread, but it's suspected there is a genetic component involved. Those who contract leprosy generally already have a compromised immune system.
Douglas said no one in her organization of volunteers has come down with leprosy despite their close contact including cleaning wounds, helping build homes for those who've lost fingers and teaching English.Comment on this story
"We have people from all walks of life volunteering," Douglas said. "Families bring their small children. We had 21 members of the Marriott family here on their knees helping. Now they're one of our best financial contributors."
Volunteers pay their own way over to India. They serve selflessly without pay.
"Oh my goodness! The miracles!" said Douglas. "We see the parable of the loaves and the fishes every day. We stand back and watch God feed the five thousand with very little. Even the Hindu say, 'Oh, it's God' as we watch the miracles happen."
Douglas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.