Janet and I spent last week in Hawaii. After attending a conference in Honolulu, we opted to spend our free time not at a beach resort but rather on the small, sparsely developed island of Molokai. There, we hiked the Kalaupapa trail, a vertiginous descent that negotiates 26 switchbacks in three miles, the only land route to Hawaii’s historic leprosy colony.

Before statehood, the kingdom of Hawaii tore leprosy patients from their homes and shipped them to Kalaupapa, a peninsula isolated from the rest of Molokai by 3000-foot cliffs. From lookout points along the trail we caught glimpses of the peninsula, a lovely strip of land surrounded by a turquoise sea that caresses the coast with foamy white waves. The setting resembled an artist’s version of paradise, the kind of place that might attract a Hyatt or Ritz Carlton resort.

Instead, for more than a century Kalaupapa served as the dumping ground for some 10,000 leprosy patients, who called it “The Place of the Living Dead.” Such was the fear of contagion that the administration erected fences to prohibit patients’ contact with workers. One doctor examined his patients by lifting their bandages with the tip of his cane. Family members who visited an infected relative had to sit behind a barrier, as if visiting a prisoner. And if patients produced children, authorities seized them and sent them off the island.

At first the diseased lived in anarchic squalor. Disfigured, outcast, they lived by their own rules in a kind of community of the damned. It took the dedication of a Belgian priest, Father Damien, to bring order. Damien began honoring the dead with proper burials, found a safe water supply, and oversaw many construction projects: roads, a reservoir, 300 houses, several churches, an orphanage, hospital and school. He had little medical treatment to offer, but believed strongly that human beings should never be cast aside, regardless of their affliction. An advocate and activist, he got on the nerves of the government as well as his superiors. Who but the church, he asked, would care for the sick, the unwanted, the unloved?

Damien’s close contact with the sick eventually cost him his life. One morning in church he approached the pulpit and, instead of his normal “My Dear Brethren,” opened with the words, “We lepers…”  He had contracted the disease, and died before he turned fifty, in 1889. Years later, Damien’s body was returned to his home country to lie in state before reburial. Among those who greeted the quayside procession, the King of the Belgians stood bareheaded as a mark of respect for “The Martyr of Molokai.”

Since Damien’s time, nearly everything has changed in our understanding of the disease leprosy:

  • It is one of the least contagious diseases; 95 percent of people have a natural immunity.
  • As modern versions reflect, the biblical word leprosy likely refers to a different ailment, an infectious disease of the skin.
  • Drugs now control the disease, and global rates of new infections have plummeted, to around 200,000 per year—although many of the 16 million patients judged “arrested cases” still need treatment and rehabilitation for previous damage.
  • Leprosy attacks nerve cells that carry pain signals, and almost all the feared aspects (blindness, loss of fingers and toes, etc.) can be prevented if patients safeguard any activities that might cause injury.

Due to my work with Dr. Paul Brand, with whom I coauthored three books, I have visited leprosy hospitals on several continents and heard firsthand many poignant stories from patients.  Strangely enough, those who feel no pain have historically borne some of the greatest suffering, due to societal prejudice. As a patient in India told me, “I lost my job.  I was kicked out of my village and rejected by my own family.  I could not ride a bus, or enter a café.  I was truly outcast.”

Christian history includes episodes that rightly cause shame and embarrassment, but the treatment of leprosy makes a proud balancing chapter.  Most of the advances in the treatment of leprosy came from missionary doctors and nurses, the only ones willing to work with the dreaded disease.  The tradition of compassion traces all the way back to Jesus, who ignored societal rules against touching those believed to have leprosy.

St. Francis of Assisi famously embraced a beggar with leprosy.  In the Middle Ages, as leprosy ravaged Europe, an odd rumor spread that Jesus himself must have suffered from the disease, due to the prophetic description in Isaiah 52-53 of a Servant “disfigured beyond that of any man.”  Improbably, leprosy gained a reputation as the Holy Disease, and Christians in Europe sought out sufferers as representatives of Jesus, who had promised that, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” [Matthew 25].  The devout, defying society’s stigma as well as their own fears, looked past the unsightly symptoms of leprosy and began treating its victims as they would treat Jesus.

Orders of nuns devoted to Lazarus (the beggar in Jesus’ parable of Luke 16, who became the patron saint of leprosy) established homes for patients—twenty thousand such homes across Europe.  These indomitable women could do little but bind wounds and change dressings, but the homes themselves, called lazarettos, helped break the hold of the disease in Europe, by limiting transmission and improving living conditions.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries, including Father Damien, spread across the globe to establish hospitals and clinics for leprosy patients.  The American Leprosy Mission formed, one of very few ministries dedicated to combating a single disease.


e spent seven hours at Kalaupapa before beginning the long trek back up the cliff. Now a National Park, the site duly honors the memory of Father Damien. His church has been lovingly restored, along with a few patients’ homes.  Volunteers are helping to repair some of the 7,000 graves scattered among several cemeteries. The lava-rock ruins of scores of former buildings, now unneeded, are the ultimate tribute to those who served leprosy patients before a cure was found.

Only eight elderly patients remain at Kalaupapa, and they do so by choice. I spoke with one 92-year-old resident who has a home on Kauai yet keeps returning to the former colony, “because they’re my community.” Museum displays recount the stories of patients who lived through the era of fear and prejudice. As I read them, I could not imagine a more incongruous setting for the agony they described: coconut palm trees, wild orchids, the rhythmic sound of crashing waves, verdant craters straight out of Jurassic Park.  Nevertheless, this paradise lies in the shadow of a wall of separation from the rest of humanity—a literal wall in the form of towering, tree-covered cliffs. A century ago, leprosy patients at Kalaupapa had every possible advantage save one: the love that only comes through human contact.

I had much time to reflect on Father Damien, Dr. Paul Brand, and others like them as I climbed the trail back to what locals call “topside.” I breathed a prayer of thanks for those who faithfully serve God, usually out of the limelight, often putting themselves in harm’s way. Diseases come and go, but the tradition of sacrificial service endures: the first foreigners to contract the Ebola virus were missionary health workers.

Mother Teresa once called the beggars she ministered to, “Jesus in most distressing disguise.” What if every follower of Jesus took seriously his assurance that we serve him by serving “the least of these”? Besides the sick, Jesus’ list in Matthew 25 includes the hungry and thirsty, strangers, the destitute, and prisoners. What would happen if we broke through the walls of isolation around the needy?  Would those conditions fade away too, like leprosy?


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16 responses to “Banished to Paradise”

  1. Cyd Haynes says:

    Dear Philip , I am determined to thank the people who have greatly impacted my life. You are one of these. I have read all of your books, my favorites being Soul Survivor and The Question that Never Goes Away. I had a chance to meet you in San Diego at a church talk a few years ago . I have had a very difficult life (don’t worry I won’t go into it all ), and recently had the privilege of speaking at a Cancer Foundation event and also at some retreats. For my title I ‘borrowed’ your phrase , “pain, the gift that nobody wants” . I hope you don’t mind . I did give you credit for it =). Why do I appreciate you ? Your honesty , uniqueness, great writing style, but mostly because you’ve had a real encounter with Christ and are using the gift God has given you to influence our generation and many to come . Thank you , Philip !

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m still blushing. And tempted to reply, “Yes, but you don’t know about…” Instead, I accept this as a lovely and needed “grace note,” and thank you for offering it at a most propitious time. –Philip

  2. julie christianson says:

    I have ordered your book, The Gift of Pain, after being told about it by our Pastor during a recent board meeting for Love for Myanmar. (And also from a student in my Truth Project class recently) In 2014, we began working with a Christian Leprosy hospital in Malyamine, Myanmar. (Our organization has established multiple orphanages and other services for the past 6 yrs in the area.) I was astonished at the number of leprosy patients and uphauled by the number of family members ostracized and required to move into a leprosy community outside the hospital facility. We visit every year and this August, we will be taking a group that includes 9 young people (4 Texas A&M students, including my daughter.) The Leprosy hospital patients have been on her heart since our last visit. She has looked into medications that they need and we’ve found out they aren’t receiving all of the meds required to heal them from this disease. I don’t fully know what I am requesting of you. I only know these people need help, the disease can be cured, meds should be available and you have been an advocate and a voice for them in the past; as well as God has steered our journey into the realm of leprosy and the people of Myanmar thus far, recently leading us to your book. Any suggestions, advice, ways of making the public more aware, prayer, etc would be appreciated. Regardless, thank you for your diligent service to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and your dedication to helping the least of these. Blessings.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Dear Julie,
      I’m so glad to hear of your concern. I was in Myanmar about 10 years ago, though I had no contact with leprosy patients then. What you say does not surprise me, as stigma of the disease continues to this day. Good for you for caring. I am leaving this week on an international trip, and do not really have access to the practical help you’re looking for. However, if you contact the American Leprosy Mission in Greenville, SC, I’m sure they will get back to you with some suggestions. Please use my name, as I have a good relationship with them. Drs. Paul and Margaret Brand were both on the board. Bless you, Julie. –Philip

  3. Aster Dibaba says:

    Hello Mr. Yancey:

    Thank you for sharing about your experience in Hawaii. I am not surprised that you search for people that experienced pain and suffering. God has used you and Dr. Brandt to explain pain from many different angles. “Pain the gift nobody wants” was one of my favorite that I read and passed it on to people. I have a little cottage that I call Pinielle. Where I go and pour out to the Lord about my pain. I am 67 years old now when I was 18 I asked the Lord to heal me from my Polio because everybody thought I should be healed even in my innocent approach God did not heal me. At the time I did not understand why. “My grace is sufficient I will be honored through you.” was the message I got. I didn’t understand it then. Just a year ago in my little Pinelle I said to the Lord please touch my body and stop this pain. Again I got the same message that I got when I was 18. Looking back at these many years His grace has been more than sufficient and that He has blessed me to minister to others that are in worse shape than I am. The physical pain draws one to Christ. It is the hidden pain that nobody can see that robs our sights, our healing… So I do rejoice for my pain. I have learned not to waste my pain and suffering. All of us that have physical and other pain.

    Thank you for putting your gift to encourage us all.


    • Candice says:

      Saying a prayer for you today, Aster.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Dear Aster,

      You may not know that my father died of polio when I was barely one year old, after he and others believed he would be healed, and together they decided to forgo the iron lung. Your comment touches and inspires me. We’re the same age, by the way. I’ve often said that pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed–and you’re a fine example. –Philip

  4. Lois waggoner says:

    That was so good!! Lost contact with you both for awhile but often think of you and Janet. And Marshal. God Bless you! I loved Hawaii as missionaries from Philippines we would stop there with my parents and five of us children! In 50’s and 60’s . Not so commercial then.

  5. Dan Izzett says:

    Dear Philip
    Thank you for your report. Both my wife & I have had Leprosy. I wrote a comment for Dr Brand’s funeral & the catch phrase about his life was: “I never knew you but you knew me”. He was loved & brought relief, hope & Jesus to a multitude of people.
    We now do advocacy work for American Leprosy Missions & The Leprosy Mission.
    Dan Izzett

  6. Rich says:

    I find Mr. Yancey to be right on the mark on Biblical interpretation and his concern for others infectious.

  7. Carolyn Strafford says:

    What an amazing journey. I read the book about Father Damien about 30 years ago and was very touched by the history. It is really wonderful to see the land I have imagined in your photos. We once owned a Christian bookstore and we have read lots of your books and that of Dr. Brand also. Many of your latest books were given to
    us by our son-in-love, Jeff Crosby, whom you know. He thinks so highly of you as do my husband and I, though we never met you in person. Saw you at CBA a time or two.
    Blessings and gratitude for sharing all these years!!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I think the first bookstore signing I ever did was in Jeff’s store in Indiana. He’s come a long way since then–and a good way. –Philip

  8. Dawn says:

    Unfortunately, everytime I hear or read Dr Paul Brand’s name I remember situations that were very painful and humiliating.
    Dr Brand may have been a ‘father figure’ to you but to others he caused great pain

    • David Muhs says:

      I find a great deal of pain in your reply.
      I am not sure of the source of your pain with Dr. Brand. You felt compelled to write a response without explanation. It is my hope that your pain is resolving, although it is apparent there is still much present.
      I am sorry, but hopefully you have been able to share with someone.

  9. Jean Bruns says:

    As a Certified Hand Therapist and 30 years of experience with hand/upper extremity injuries & disease, I met Dr Paul Brand 3 times. It was an honor then to meet such a good Christian man who also was a world-renowned physican. I have the 3 now out-of-date books co-authored by Dr. Brand and Phillip Yancy. They are excellent works showing God’s creation in our bodies and lives. Thank you, Mr. Yancy, for continuing God’s work.

  10. Daniel J. Zemek says:

    Back in 1989, I went to Ethiopia and Nepal to work amongst leprosy patients with International Nepal Fellowship. “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” and “In His Image” were very instrumental in preparing me for some of the hardest…yet richest…Christian service I have been a part of in my lifetime. I wouldn’t trade my two years in Ethiopia and Nepal working with these wonderful sons and daughters of God for anything.
    Thank you!

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