Telling the Stories that Matter: April 15 – Damien of Moloka’i, Priest, Missionary, Leper

The kingdom of Hawaii had one particular advantage when it came to the spread of disease since they were a chain of islands they were quarantined from the rest of the world. Of course, this boon carried a danger with it: the inhabitants were especially susceptible to infection and disease when ships began bringing more and more merchants to the Hawaiian islands. The influx of commerce and foreign visitors was accompanied by crippling outbreaks of influenza that weakened and killed many. But whereas influenza was a fast killer and survivors were able to develop a fairly sufficient immunity in a little while, there was another disease that proved to be a slow and torturous killer. This killer was “Hansen’s Disease” but it is also known as leprosy and those who contracted it were known as lepers. It was hard to hide and soon the king–Kamehameha the Fifth–decided to quarantine those affected to protect the rest of his people. They were forcibly detained and sent to live on the island of Moloka’i at a place called Kalaupapa. Contrary to common assumptions, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off and isn’t especially contagious but it does cause extensive nerve damage and can cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The other–perhaps intentionally forgotten–damage it does is the relationships it crushes by fear of contagion and threat of quarantine.

Damien de Veuster had been ordained a priest in Belgium but due to the coaxing of his brother he became interested in becoming a missionary. He became determined to travel abroad in service of the Church when it was determined that his brother would be unable to go himself. Damien stepped into the opportunity and was sent to Hawaii shortly before the outbreak of leprosy there. The lepers had been sent to their isolated place and given little in supplies, though, and Damien began to worry for them. They had been given some help in growing their own food–having been fully divorced from their land and people–but this support also proved to be insufficient. They were disconnected from those they loved and made to feel as if the world didn’t want to–couldn’t afford to–associate with them. There wasn’t any semblance of community and the 816 lepers outcast to Moloka’i fended for themselves. Damien couldn’t stand their abandonment and petitioned the vicar to be sent to them as their priest. The vicar made sure that Damien knew he was likely signing his own death warrant but Damien insisted and was sent by boat to the people. By becoming one of them, he was effectively exiling himself as he would no longer be able to leave once he lived among them. He went without hesitation for his Lord had called him to take up his cross and follow. In this case, it meant going to Moloka’i.

Damien built a church with the help of the lepers there and organized them into a community around himself. He treated their pains and lesions with his own hands. He conducted services of worship. He heard confessions and gave spiritual direction to the willing. He built furniture and homes. He painted houses to give their place another measure of comfort. He built coffins, dug graves, and performed funerals. In short, he became a devoted member and leader in the community at Moloka’i. Because of his involvement, the people gathered around him and joined together as one people to share in their suffering and carry each other’s burdens. Because of his leadership they were able to work together to sow and reap crops each year and sustain themselves in their exile. One night he went to soak his feet in hot water–as he did every night after a hard day’s work–and was frightened to find that he could not feel the heat of the water. He had contracted the disease but he kept it as his secret for a little while he worked hard to prepare the citizens of his community to go on without him when he was forced to leave them by death. As he got more and more sick the Church sent three people to take over his duties and one to care for him as he died. They carried on his legacy of love and compassion while he slipped out of this life and into the arms of the Lord who had called him from before time began. Damien died on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1889 after serving the people the world wanted to forget for over sixteen years. He was buried where he belonged: Moloka’i.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 5 – Agathopodes and Theodulus, Martyrs, Preachers, Unafraid

The year 303 AD brought with it an edict of persecution against Christians within the boundaries of the Roman empire. Diocletian was confident that such an edict would not only restrict but reduce the practice of Christianity within the empire. In many ways, he was correct. Many Christians left their faith behind when confronted with the harsh reality of imperial expectations. Others would not deny their faith but fled from Roman scrutiny at every turn–in effect, they hid their faith away so that it might not cost them their lives. Others, like Agathopodes and Theodulus, were unafraid of what imperial Rome could do but well aware of the cost associated with ceasing to preach the message and story their faith had infused into their lives.Theodulus, who once woke with a ring in his hand from a dream where an angel gave him a sign of his calling, was a young man associated with the Church in Thessalonica. Agathopodes was an elder and respected deacon in the same congregation as Theodulus. While others denied their faith and hid it away, Agathopodes and Theodulus boldly proclaimed the story to all who would listen. Thus, it comes as no surprise that they were eventually arrested, beaten, and dragged before the governor of Thessalonica–Faustinus.

Faustinus had interrogated and tortured Christians before and was familiar with what methods seemed to be most effective. So, first he spoke with Theodulus alone while Agathopodes was held in a cell away from the proceedings. Faustinus tried to flatter Theodulus at first but was surprised to see that Theodulus was unswayed by the governor’s words. Typically, a young man would jump at the chance to be highly regarded by those in power–Theodulus was the exception. Then, Faustinus presented Theodulus with a choice: wealth and influence within the embrace of imperial Rome or death at the hands of the same. Theodulus responded without hesitation that he’d much rather die than to make sacrifice to Rome and forfeit his soul for momentary material gain. Faustinus tried to reason with Theodulus by saying, “Theodulus, do not choose death!”

Theodulus responded, “I don’t! I choose life in a way that you don’t seem to understand. It is you who daily choose death by following after yourself and your sin.”

When Faustinus had decided that Theodulus was unlikely to be swayed, he sent him away to another cell and brought Agathopodes in for questioning. He assured Agathopodes that Theodulus had already denied his faith and he encouraged Agathopodes to do the same. Agathopodes shook his head and called Faustinus a liar. Agathopodes knew Theodulus well and knew what that miraculous ring meant about his calling–Theodulus would be a martyr and now Agathopodes knew he would join him in that baptism of blood. Having convinced neither of the two men, he had them beaten once again and jailed. The next day they were forced to listen to a crowd of former Christians who urged them to deny their faith yet they were once again unswayed by Faustinus’ methods. Theodulus insisted, “Yes, you have conquered some of the weak but you will never conquer Christ’s strong warriors–no matter what tortures you devise.” In response, Faustinus determined to test their faith by immediately taking them to the place of execution and raising a blade above their necks. Theodulus cried out, “Glory to you, O God, the Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, who deigned to suffer for us. Here, by His grace, I am coming to You, and with joy I die for You!” Faustinus’ bluff failed and the faith of Agathopodes and Theodulus remained steady. They were once again beaten and jailed.

That night they prayed for quite some time before eventually falling asleep and having the same dream. In the dream they were on a ship in a vicious storm that threatened to capsize the vessel and eventually to beat them against the rocks of the nearby island. When they awoke, they conferred and gave thanks for what they expected to be their impending martyrdom. Finally, they were condemned by Faustinus to die for their faith. So, they were cast into the sea and brought by the waves against the jagged rocks of the shore. Shortly before dying, Agathopodes yelled to the assembled crowd, “This is our second baptism, which will wash away our sins. We shall come to Christ in purity.” The two men died as martyrs and their bodies were eventually recovered by Christians on the shore and buried.

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