India (MNN) — Leprosy: it's an ancient disease that still strikes fear, even though it's easily treatable.
It's a disease that bears nearly as much stigma around the world as HIV/AIDS, but without the education available. Associated with horrible disfigurement and contagious nature, the victims become social pariahs once a diagnosis is made.
That's partly why World Leprosy Day came into existence. For 60 years, on the last Sunday of January, thousands of people across the globe have stopped to remember those who suffer the horrendous effects of leprosy. This observance is now marked in more than 100 countries. Even in countries where the cure is well known, there is stigma. Those in First World nations believe leprosy has been eradicated. The plight of those who contract it fights for time against other diseases for which no cure has been found.
This year on January 27, World Leprosy Day will focus on the needs of some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the world: those affected by leprosy. Audio Scripture Ministries partners with a leprosy colony called Shanthi Gramam.
The literal meaning of the name is "village of peace," but for years, it was anything but. A haven for aged, destitute persons who once had leprosy, it became a place of despair where people waited to die. ASM spokesman JP Sudararajan explains, "The easiest way for you to have life go on as ‘normal' is to cut that person off. So these people who've contracted leprosy, even though they're fully treated and they're fully cured, end up coming to these places like Shanthi Gramam and spending their lives in isolation." He adds, "It's mostly the lack of education. People are afraid of what the disease is. Then because of it, they're afraid of contracting the disease from that person, and then even associating with them."
The pain in the village was palpable. Sundararajan clarifies, "I met a lot of parents who have leprosy in Shanthi Gramam and their kids don't come to visit them, because as soon as one of the parents has leprosy, it affects the weddings for the kids."
Then, four years ago, the first digital audio Bible made its way into the village. More and more requests came, and with the Scriptures, change. It's such a simple thing, but vastly underestimated. Sundararajan shared the poignant story of a man in Shanthi Gramam who was trying to follow Christ but got sidelined by leprosy. "People got scared of him, [scared] that they would catch the disease. And so he slowly was isolated and pushed away. All he wanted was to listen to God's Word, and nobody would read it to him until we were able to bring these audio Bibles."
Just last week, Sundararajan took a team of seminary students from West Michigan for a visit. It was important for these up-and-coming church leaders to witness the transformation of the village. "The kind of hope that it's injected into this community was quite unreal. I can say all I want, but I'm just scratching the surface. I really wish I could communicate better what God's Word in these communities is able to do."
Those first audio Bibles met the craving for hope. Over time, more and more deliveries were made. Residents would come out to the distribution team and recite whole chapters of the Scripture to which they listened every day.
It became clear that not only was Scripture nurturing faith, but also community. A small church body is developing. "The only hope they have right now is the hope that Jesus brings them through His Word," notes Sundararajan. He says calling the reaction "gratitude" doesn't quite cover the reaction of the village residents. "They cannot carry their Bibles with them, so they have them tied to their clothing. So they start untying it, and they take these Bibles out. You could see their tears flowing, and they were telling us how much they appreciate having God's Word available."
With Shanthi Gramam transformed into a literal "village of peace," it's getting noticed. Outreach opportunities are growing faster than anticipated, says Sundararajan. "Other colonies are kind of getting wind of what's happened. So we're getting all these requests for audio Bibles." How can you help? "An average listener could help provide a Bible for $35."
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