Former NBA player Shawn Bradley helps children with their studies at
the Rising Star Outreach campus in Thottanaval, India.
This column is a report from India, where I have just finished touring my book, “Neighbors in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent.” While I was there, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, a national holiday, came around. I decided to take the holiday to visit Rising Star Outreach — a charity that helps leprosy-affected people near Chennai in the south of India. There it operates a secondary school to help children with leprosy.
Rising Star’s Peery Matriculation Higher Secondary School actually serves more than leprosy-affected students. Students who have leprosy-affected people in their families are treated as if they themselves suffer from the disease, so the school must serve a very wide community.
It also has a mobile clinic and a medical team that goes to 13 leprosy colonies around Chennai and the rest of India. Chennai has severe pockets of poverty with almost medieval quality of life. There I met with Dr. Susan Hilton, a native who runs almost the whole operation. In the United States, Rebecca Douglas is the founder and president. The charity has a U.S. base in Provo, Utah, and anyone who wishes to donate to it can find out more at Rising Star Outreach’s website.
I was amazed at the progress many of the children make. They presented us with a classical dance performed by the young men and women. They have science and math labs that will prepare them for entering the workforce. I also saw some hopeless cases of people with destroyed limbs and facial features. It was a gut-wrenching experience but one I needed. I have been going to India for almost 45 years, either as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the U.S. Senate, as a teacher or just as a man visiting friends. This visit to the Rising Star Outreach campus was the most poignant, startling and maybe refreshing visit I have had. My problems seem minuscule after seeing theirs — I have not faced any challenge anywhere near what they face.
There are many similar leprosy centers run by Rising Star associates across India. It is hard to believe leprosy is still a problem in today’s world. What happens is that once someone is in a family with anyone associated with leprosy, even if they are recovered, they are branded as lepers and forever outcasts. They cannot marry into anything except another family with leprosy, and they have no jobs and cannot get out. Thus, for many centuries, leprosy has continued, from the time of Christ onward.
I have just been honored to have a seat on the board of advisors of Rising Star Outreach, and I will be attending my first meeting this weekend at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. I am very glad this volunteer opportunity has come to this 75-year-old. We have several needs in our own country, and I will do what I can wherever. This leprosy-related work has an edge or a poignancy to it that makes me want to serve my fellow man and God even more.
The main purpose of my trip to India was to do a book tour with my Indian publisher, Penguin. But the chief result personally was my eye-opening visit to Rising Star Outreach’s school and colony. It has far exceeded any event in my life recently.
This article first appeared in Deseret News on October 16, 2017
Sen. Larry Pressler was a U.S. senator for 18 years and congressman for four years. He is a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law graduate and a Vietnam veteran.
This article, written by Becky Douglas, first appeared in Meridian Magazine on October 4, 2017.
Several years ago a letter arrived with a return address that immediately caught my attention. It was from a prisoner in Maximum Security at the Utah State Prison. My interest was immediately piqued and I tore open the envelope and began to read. It was from a prisoner on death row, Doug Lovell. His story caught me completely by surprise:
Several years ago PBS had featured a one-hour documentary on the work we do in India with the leprosy-affected called Breaking the Curse. It proved to be wildly popular, eventually gaining over 1,000 showings on PBS. It even won the Gracie Award that year! But the greatest impact it had on me personally arrived in this letter from Maximum Security.
Doug had seen the documentary in his cell and had been profoundly touched. He decided to send $5 a month to support our work in India. He said he could do this because the state allotted him $30/month to purchase necessities such as shaving cream, deodorant, etc. He normally managed to save enough money to buy himself one Coca-Cola a week. By giving up his Coke, he figured he could manage this donation. I wondered how long his resolve might hold.
His checks began arriving each month like clockwork. After several months, I wrote him a thank you note. He responded immediately and thus an interesting relationship of pen pals was born.
I have now been corresponding with him for more than ten years. I have visited him in prison (yes, in Maximum Security!) on a number of occasions. He has also become incredibly dedicated to our work in India. His donations quickly increased to $10/month—a third of his income! He took a job at the prison delivering meals to newly arrived inmates to earn more money to donate. That has had a tsunami affect!
As he meets new prisoners, they are generally very depressed and hopeless. They are overcome with feelings of self-recrimination and worthlessness. Doug understands where they are coming from. He is in prison for a hideous crime of rape and murder and for many years figured there was no salvation or forgiveness possible for him. But he was eventually converted back to God and wishes now to do all in his power to help others who are struggling.
He quietly encourages these discouraged men with downcast eyes and heavy hearts that no matter what they have done, they can still reach out to God—that He is in fact, waiting to hear from them with open arms. If they don’t believe it, he tells them, “they should write to Becky”.
As a result, I am now writing to nearly 30 men in prison! My husband teases me that I have more pen pals who are incarcerated than who walk free! They are desperate to know that God still loves them; that they still have worth. Their crimes run the gamut; from the former Stake Presidency member with two sons on a mission who got involved in white-collar crime—to a man in prison for abusing multiple children.
Doug also convinced his prison Bishop that he should invite me to speak to the prisoners, so I received an invitation to address men from the general prison population at the weekly LDS Church Service at the prison. I decided to speak on, “The Eternal Worth of a Soul”. I was the only speaker and given forty minutes.
Along with the Bishopric, I stood at the entrance to the prison chapel as the men filed in. Each one introduced himself by name. I smiled, looked in their eyes, and repeated their names as I shook their hands. The chapel was filled.
As I looked out over the congregation I was struck by their expressions. Some seemed a bit defiant or even ashamed, but for the most part there was humility and suffering in their faces. I prayed for guidance to say what would be needed.
As I talked, I watched expressions changing. I saw a glimmer of hope on some faces. One man was teary. Others remained expressionless. I had been warned that at ten minutes to the hour the lights would flicker and a large number would walk out to attend their other elective activity. Sure enough when the lights flickered about 30 men got up and walked out. Then unbelievably a minute later, most of them walked back in again! They had convinced their guards to let them return. They clearly hungered to hear that they still had worth to God, that He could be forgiving and that He loved them regardless of their choices.
Afterwards a number of men crowded around wanting to thank me for the message. Some choked up as they spoke, some were clearly embarrassed by their situation, but quietly told me that they felt my words were meant for them, and were what they needed to hear.
The entire event was incredibly humbling.
A few days later I received a note from a Bishop from another ward at the prison—this one in Maximum Security. He wondered if I could return the following Sunday and share the same message with prisoners in Maximum Security. Returning the following Sunday I had another remarkable experience.
This time there was no general worship meeting. Instead we had to meet the prisoners either individually or two by two. They were shackled at the waist to their chairs. Their feet were shackled, as were their hands. It felt a bit awkward. But once again I was struck by how hungry they were to find their way back to God.
One man in particular, impressed me. He was a tall, striking African American. He spoke of how he wanted to know if there was a way back for him. He said he had begun reading the New Testament. When I asked him about his family he told me that his father was a Protestant Minister in South Carolina.
“My father, Reverend John, is a good man. My whole family are good people, except for me.” With the last three words his eyes shifted downward with shame. As I prodded him to tell me more he continued hesitantly, “My father is ashamed of me.” I asked him if he had tried to contact his father? He replied that he had written him many times asking for money, but had never received an answer.
I asked him if he would like me to try to contact his father. “Oh yes”, he nodded. He gave me his father’s phone number. What is your message for your father? He replied, “Tell him how much I respect him and mom and my brothers and sisters. Tell him how sorry I am and that I’m ready to change. Tell him that more than anything I want to make my father proud one day.”
“Okay” I said. “But I’m not going to ask your father for money and neither are you if he responds—until you can first repair your relationship.” He seemed surprised, but then agreed.
I thought of how our Heavenly parents might react to this child desperately wanting to come back not only to his earthly father, but to his Heavenly Father and Mother, as well. His earthly father may well reject him, but his Heavenly Parents never will.
I’ve been trying to reach his father for the last two weeks. I wish I had his mother’s number, because I suspect she might be more accepting. I’m praying that his dad will be accepting and open and forgiving. I’m praying that his brothers and sisters can be welcoming. And I’m praying that his Church community can be forgiving.
I would hope that if he came to our Church he would be welcomed and encouraged, rather than judged. It’s easy to fear even a repentant sinner. It’s easy to judge and condemn those who have struggled with any issues that we don’t have trouble with. As President Uchtdorf once said, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you!” I’m not advocating that offenders don’t need to pay their debt to society. They definitely do! I believe that it’s all part of the repentance process. But I’m advocating that we leave judgment to God, and personally forgive.
I’ve read with interest recent articles in Meridian about divorced people in the Church who struggle with isolation and rejection; articles about missionaries returning early who feel judged and unworthy, articles about single adults who feel left out and like second class citizens.
We can do better! I wish everyone could have the experience of sitting on the stand at the worship service at the prison and watching the faces of about 100 men who had chosen to spend their free hour on Sunday trying to reconnect with God, instead of in a sports activity or other activity they could have chosen instead. The hunger was palpable. May we always be found on the side of those who lift and encourage, rather than on the side of those who judge, reject and condemn.
To further unravel the mentality of begging among the leprosy-affected and the habit of being recipients of aid instead of productive citizens, the students of the Peery School get all of their special treats and fun stuff – including gifts from their RSO sponsors – by earning them at the Star Store. This is a small store set up behind their hostel where items “for sale” can be purchased using ‘stars’ that students earn for good behaviour and accumulate. The inspiration behind the store was an incident in which a student from the school intentionally broke a crayon, but assured his teacher: “Don’t worry, the Americans will send us more.” This sparked an acknowledgment amongst the staff and management that “nothing given for free has any value,” and that students need to learn early on how to work for things they want and model this throughout their lives.
We were visiting Chettipunyam, the colony where I danced to Justin Bieber with Saleema and Das. So far it was my favorite colony (don’t tell anyone I’m picking favorites) and it was only about to become a more favorite. I didn’t know why some of my students were home on a random Thursday, but I found out a little bit later from Saleema that it was because their father/uncle had died of a heart attack. The oldest son, Daniel, is 10, so the father was very young – so devastating to the family, especially the wife who had just had another baby.
Nevertheless, the kids were all very excited to show me their home. I’ll be honest… I was excited to see it. It’s so nice to see where these kids come from. As we walked down the path to their house, I asked Keerthika Devi how she was. In America everyone says, “I’m good,” but here the norm is, “I’m fine, thank you.” She said just that with a big smile, then suddenly got distracted by something like all 1st graders do and she ran off with Dharshika, a UKG girl. I was left with Daniel holding my hand. I looked down at him and asked him how he was.
“I’m WONDERFUL,” he said. How does he know that word? I thought to myself. Then I remembered: on the first day I ever taught 4th STD I taught them the word wonderful. I taught them that it means very super, very excited, very happy. Daniel remembered that small minute or two of me teaching them a new word, and here he was, almost three months later, three days after his father passed away, and he is holding my hand, smiling, telling me he is wonderful. That was wonderful. I’ve been having a harder time lately and that moment touched my heart profoundly – not only because he was saying this so soon after such a tragic event, but because it was evidence that these kids are listening – even if it’s only one or two a day, and it’s something as small as a happy new word such as wonderful. I wasn’t doing nothing.
“Oh good! You learned that from me, didn’t you?” I said with a smile. He looked at me with a face of someone who had accomplished something great. “Yes I did! How are you?” Earlier I had said I was fine to Keerthika Devi, but now I took a second and could honestly say, “You know what – I am wonderful as well.”
I saw their home and met their mother and aunt, and after we did crafts and I painted their fingernails. We found some blue glitter in the craft box and I put it on the girls’ eyelids to make them feel extra beautiful. Tender moments. I loved that although all of these kids go to school and are getting a good education, they still love Das like a brother despite his dirty clothes and lack of education. Love holds no bounds for these children, because they used to be there (I am also curious as to why Das doesn’t go to school… he’s 7 years old and all the other kids in the colony go to school except him). After a bit we headed back to the community hall (which is just a one-room building that Rising Star volunteers built for them in years past) and on the way I wanted to stop and say hello to a woman I had met last time. Her name is Maria; she has no hands or feet but can dress her own wounds. She told us she had lost a son and shed some tears over it. I wanted to visit her and see how she was doing. The second I came to her door and sat next to her she fell onto me and started crying. She was dirty and her hair was greasy but I kissed her head anyway. She sobbed for a bit while I tried to soothe her suffering by simply holding her. One of the translators came looking for me (by the kids’ request) and he found me with Maria. She cried out to him in Tamil and when she lifted her arms and waved them rapidly I can only assume she said “I have no hands,” she gestured to her feet, “I have no feet,” she lifted her skirt to show some of her ulcers, “I have open wounds and pain!” She did some other gestures and pounded on her heart, still speaking in Tamil, and when she looked to the heavens and shook her arms with tears streaming down her face it was clear she was crying out, “Why? Why has my God done this to me??” The anguish was so powerful. The translator talked to her for a bit, and later he explained to me more of what she was saying. Turns out she hadn’t lost just one, but all four of her sons to sudden illness or accidents and this man who had just died from a heart attack was her grandson. She hasn’t had any food or drink since he passed away (three days) and Rex told me that she said if she could walk, she would jump in front of a train – that she wishes to move on and be done with this life. And really… who could blame her?
I returned to the community hall. Already I’d had urges to cry of who knows what emotion more than a few times. When I walked in, everyone was in there mingling. Games were out; kids were playing Jenga, catch, drawing, talking, etc. Every single person in the room was smiling and the sun was shining in through the windows (not actually glass windows, just cut outs in the wall). I talked to Saleema for a bit, and she shared her excitement about her niece getting married this January and told me to come to the wedding. She also told me she was the grandmother of Sanjeevini, the 1st STD girl I talked about in my last post. She said I could call her “mummy” and asked me how Moosa is doing, a 4th STD boy who recently had heart surgery that I spend a good amount of time with in medical while he’s recovering. Everything she said was gracious thanks; what a blessing that my niece is getting married, thanks to God for my wonderful family, praise to God for the success of Moosa’s surgery – attributing every good thing in life to God. She’s not wrong; every good thing in life does come from God, and this moment was good, so I thought to myself, Thank you, dear God, for putting me right here right now.
There was so much joy in that room that day. It was overflowing. I brought my speaker and we played cheery music in the background. The littlest sister, Sindu Jensey, drew a “henna” on my hand with a pen and was so proud of it. Dharshika got into the first aid kit and found the latex gloves… instead of trying to keep the kids away from that stuff like we usually would, we started blowing the gloves up like balloons. How excited those kids were to a] have balloons, b] have the balloons come from something they weren’t expecting and c] have the balloons HAVE FINGERS!! There were so many priceless moments shared that day. It was wonderful.
I got on the bus and wanted to start crying. My insides were overwhelmed with a roller coaster of so many different emotions – I felt like I was going to explode… or I don’t know, maybe counterintuitively implode. Today I had experienced excitement, tragedy, worth, awe, encouragement, inspiration, harsh reality, creativity, intrigue, beauty, simplicity, responsibility, curiosity, pain, heartbreak, shock, empathy, relief, fun, laughter, sharing, gratitude, positivity, genuine love and pure joy.
It all goes to show that these people are fully human. They experience all the same emotions that we do, they’re just in a different location and physical situation. So often people will say, “Oh these people have nothing, yet they are so happy.” Often, this is true**, as shown in the community hall. But guess what – they still experience grief and pain. The mother was in mourning and the grandmother was in such a deep depression that she wanted to commit suicide. She has nothing (in our terms), and she is not happy. People see the happy ones; they’re the ones that come out to socialize and meet us. They don’t see the ones who hide away from the world and are hurt and struggling to keep afloat in life; I do. Everyone is human, and no one is exempt from the trials and sufferings of life.
**It’s starting to bother me when people say they have nothing. They don’t have nothing; they have everything. Okay, maybe not everything. Indeed there are extreme struggles, sometimes they don’t have food or shoes or clothes, they’re abused, their houses are falling to pieces – this is hard. But the fact of the matter is that they don’t need what we Americans consider “necessary,” they don’t need dishwashers and laundry machines and showers and a room full of fancy clothes. For the life they lead, they have what they need. If I were to try to live in Provo, UT without a toilet, that obviously would be a problem. But here it’s not necessary. They have less than us, but they don’t have nothing; they just don’t have the unnecessary.
Anyway, love. I love Chettipunyam.
Artists all Around
One of the colonies has established an art school for those affected by leprosy in the colonies. It’s actually incredible what these people can do. This is a painting I bought with the artist. Notice her hands. Yes, that’s right. This extraordinary painting was done by a woman who is lacking full fingers.
Later that day I paid a visit to the medical center. If I haven’t already said this, one of my sweet 4th STD boys had heart surgery a couple weeks ago and is recovering in medical until he is cleared to go back to school. I try to go over there to spend time with him, so this time I went over with Jenga and a coloring book. Other kids there obviously joined in. We had a blast.
This post first appeared on the
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