“In the midst of darkness, light persists.” – Mahatma Gandhi
In the Northeastern state of Bihar, India, there is a collective of 22 leprosy colonies served by the Little Flower Leprosy Welfare Association. Little Flower is headquartered in the Sunderpur colony, tucked right on the border of Nepal. They have a small school, a microbusiness venture, and a leprosy hospital. Rising Star Outreach was asked to take over running their school until our own new campus is built, and a lovely partnership has since been formed. Due to my role as the Development Director for Rising Star Outreach, I spent some time visiting Little Flower in January of 2020.
As mentioned, Bihar is in the eastern part of India and borders on Nepal. In January, the weather is temperate on sunny days, but in the unheated, plastered, and cement rooms that we stayed in, you often felt damp and chill, especially in the mornings and evenings. Smoke, pollution, and fog can be particularly bad this time of year, and the sky was hazy and thick with it. Driving there at night, over the bumpy, pitted, often dirt roads, we laughed in disbelief as – for hours – our bus driver somehow managed to make correct turns despite the fog being so thick you could barely see a few feet in front of you; he even managed to stop in time for the lone cows that often seemed to magically appear out of the fog, right in front of us. Overall, it took us 7 hours to drive the 125 miles to reach our destination. It was a memorable start to what would be an unforgettable trip.
It was after 10 PM when we finally pulled up at our destination outside of the Little Flower complex. We expected everyone to be asleep and out of the cold, back in the school hostel or the nearby colonies. Yet out in the thick fog, we suddenly noticed a large group of smiling faces waiting for us as we stepped off the bus. The children and their teachers had waited to welcome us and came out as soon as they’d heard that we were close. They greeted us with colorful flower garlands, common in India, and broke out into a song they’d been practicing: “Happy Welcome to You!” It was touching to see their happy faces, wrapped in scarves and hats against the chilly night, so eager and excited to share their culture and home with us. We felt wrapped in their love instantly.
We spent our first few days in Bihar at the school, visiting with the students and sitting in on some classes. In the afternoons, we would leave and head to a nearby colony to work on a toilet construction project. The children trailed after us like a group of ducklings, always wanting to help or be of service and always with the largest smiles on their faces. They taught us their calisthenics routine right on the spot when they saw us stretching and insisted on carrying the bricks right alongside us – down to the smallest child – as we worked on building the wall of the community toilet. Nisha, Sagir, Basil, and the others – the memory of their huge smiles still brings a smile to my face, almost unconsciously, every time I think of them. Those children are such a light.
On our second day in Bihar, we were taken to the nearby leprosy hospital to visit with some of the patients. I didn’t know what to expect, but what we found was unlike the brightly lit, white, sterile hospitals I was used to. The women’s and men’s wards were long rooms, with beds lining each wall, down in a row. The plastered walls were unadorned, but for some wires, and stained from the condensation; in many areas, you could see the various layers of paint and plaster that had crumbled off. The small metal beds had a thin mattress and what few pieces of furniture were in the room, beyond that, were rusted and old. However, each of those thin mattresses was covered in a brightly patterned or colored sheet, bringing some level of cheer to the room. On each bed sat a patient, wrapped from head to toe in scarves and thin blankets, trying to keep warm.
We started in the women’s room and received some shy smiles as we moved along the beds, holding hands, giving hugs, and then eventually playing a little music. Our director in this area, an Indian native, originally from Delhi, had started coming to the hospital each week with a stereo and music so as to dance with the patients. Standing in that room, I’ll admit I felt pretty dubious and our dancing felt a little forced. I was worried that we would come across as patronizing to these men and women, but he insisted they loved it. Indeed, the women did seem to enjoy it.
We soon moved on to the men’s ward, and this was even more sad than the women’s. When we arrived, the power was out in this section of the hospital. Often in this region, and indeed, across India, there are power cuts and blackouts that can last for hours due to the unreliable power grid. Unfortunately, it seemed the hospital’s backup generator couldn’t light the entire facility. Entering the men’s ward, I felt chilled – not just by the cold, unheated air in this darkened room, but by the terribly dismal sight that met my eyes.
The men sat cross-legged on their beds, just as the women, wrapped in their blankets, wearing every article of clothing they had with them just to keep warm. They merely sat there, sitting silently in the dark, staring blankly ahead at the space in front of them or down at their hands. The faces that did turn to look at us as we walked in looked indescribably forlorn and resigned. There were no smiles.
When we entered, it was quite cold. Earlier in the week, I had been in a classroom similar to this room that was so cold you could see the children’s breath in the air as they breathed, listening to the instruction. It was heartbreaking. Here, there seemed to be nothing to even enlighten the patients’ minds, but instead just the cold, quiet darkness. What little light there was filtered in from the doorway at the end of the room and the few, partially-covered, barred windows at one end. To me, it felt incredibly bleak.
We all turned on the flashlights on our phones, and my group began making their way through the room, smiling, quietly saying namaste in greeting, and occasionally taking hands in ours. One of our board members, who I was traveling with, made her way around the room, hugging everyone. I followed them into the room and smiled and nodded my head at those I made eye contact with, but again self-consciously worried about how best to act. What was culturally appropriate? What was encouraging and empowering? Why, despite all I knew about the disease, did I still feel somewhat afraid? I was ashamed of my own disquiet and uncertainty.
One of those accompanying our group soon produced a small stereo and turned on the upbeat music for the dancing. Suku, our Northern Area Director, began dancing and clapping his hands in time with the beat. The women I was traveling with also began dancing and clapping as we all held our phone’s flashlights high up in the air to try to lighten the dark room. I was a bit hesitant and looked to the patient next to me to gauge his reaction. His bald head was wrapped in a checkered scarf, one of his eyes was completely glazed over (likely due to prolonged damage from being unable to blink), both eyes were tinged with red, and he’d had a vacant expression on his face when we entered. Suddenly, a small smile spread across his face, and he began to quietly clap along with the music. Just the sight of this small change in him softened my heart a little, and I chuckled at the display of my dancing group members. When he heard me laugh, he turned to look at me, and his smile widened; then, he nodded at me. That one simple act caused an instant change in my heart.
I no longer felt disconnected from the people around me; I no longer felt the worry of making a cultural offense. Instead, I felt a warmth spread through my heart, and I suddenly felt drawn to those in the room. These were my brothers.
It is sometimes amazing what little things trigger a change in us, and this moment of shared humanity was one of them. Something as simple as an honest acknowledgment and smile was all it took. We both smiled and laughed at the silly dancing before us and seemed to recognize the pure intention behind the action. Suddenly we were enjoying the moment, together. I can imagine this being what so many of the leprosy-affected crave from those they see on the streets or in their communities – to be looked at, truly, if even only for a moment. Professor and author, Brene Brown, suggests that “Connection is why we’re here… it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” I suddenly felt grateful for the connection this man offered me and how he put to rest my own insecurities. I had come hoping to offer comfort to him but – as is often the case – felt that service in reverse.
A few moments later, a man who looked to be about middle-age got up off his bed, without a word (that I could hear), and began to dance to the music like it was nobody’s business. He waved his arms and spun and swayed around the aisle on his bandaged feet even as the bandages started to unroll! He moved his hips better than my former salsa dancing instructor and seemed to be engrossed in the music. Everyone else started to whistle and whoop along. The whole feeling of the room was enlivened and animated.
Suddenly, the lights in the room came back on. Everyone cheered. Yet the man dancing didn’t even skip a beat! He kept dancing – the electricity was inconsequential! It seemed to me almost as if he were dancing to make a statement. We continued to watch him and were moved by the life he brought to the room. Not only was there now visible light in the room, but I think we all also felt a lightening in our hearts. I know that I truly did. However, it wasn’t just thanks to the man whose dancing animated the room. The light I felt came first from the simple smile of a fellow human being – of my brother there – and of what I felt seeing his smile in that seemingly dark place. I learned something from him and looked forward to returning the next day to learn more. I was also reminded of a lesson that I have witnessed again and again and which is most dear to my heart: we all have a light within us that we can share to lighten the lives of one another. I felt that light that day, in a cold, darkened room of a leprosy hospital, thanks to the smile from a new friend and the determined courage of another.
Rising Star Outreach