It was a short flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on an airline that was then called “The Thailand Company for Walking on Air.” The previous few weeks had been a profoundly magical experience. We had filmed several days in the life of a Buddhist Monk and a sequence with the king’s art instructor, and my mind was filled with the beauty of Thai art and Buddhist philosophy, the melody of temple bells and the classical stories of Thai dance. As we descended, I hoped all that beauty would insulate me from the tragic sorrows of the Thai leper colony where we would be filming for the next several days.
Since ancient times, because of their terrible deformities and the fear of contagion, lepers have been shunned by society. In the Middle Ages, when the disease reached its peak, lepers were considered “unclean” and they were shut away in “lazar houses” and were forced to carry bells to warn of their presence when they wandered the streets begging for a meager living. They often formed groups, finding shelter where they could be free of the stigma associated with their disease. In Thailand, many settled on an island in the Ping River, a few miles south of Chiang Mai.
In 1905, a doctor names J.W. McKean, asked the local ruler for permission to set up a village where lepers could live. Over time, he built a community with small cottages, a water tower, a clinic, schools, and a church. It was in this colony that we had come to film the work of medical missionaries seeking to ease the suffering of the residents. During our stay, I learned much about lepers and about the compassion of the missionaries and volunteers who worked to ease their suffering. But I also learned something about myself. And much of it was not good.
Although I knew that modern treatment had made the disease rarely contagious there was something of the Middle Ages at work somewhere in my consciousness. I was ashamed to find myself repulsed by the physical deformities, the claw hands and feet, thickened skin and eroded facial features. I found myself looking away when they came near, or closing my eyes to protect myself…from what? It was almost impossible to look into their eyes. Was it simply, “there but for the grace of God go I?” Or was it something deeper, ancient? Was it primal fear?
One day I was helping film a hot wax treatment which eased the pain of a patient’s “claw” hands when way in the distance, where we had been filming that morning, I saw a man struggling toward the clinic. As he drew closer, I saw he was waving my sunglasses in his gnarled hand. He had apparently found them and at great cost, was struggling on his crutch intent on returning them. It was an act of good will. But my first impulse was to deny that the sunglasses were mine. Perhaps I could hide where he couldn’t find me. Of course I resisted the impulse, thanked him, put them in my pocket, resolved to wash them and put them way.
One Sunday, the lepers, missionaries, and film crew gathered in the church. On this Sunday, a part of the worship service was the Eucharist, the consumption of bread and wine symbolizing the blood and body of Christ. I remember watching that chalice of grape juice passing from awful lip to awful lip as it came my way. Again, I wanted to run, to hide. But not only would that have been a heartless act of inhumanity, it would have been an act of sacrilege. And so I stood and waited and watched until I felt the chalice touch my lips and the sweet nectar it held touch my heart. As I passed the blood of Christ on to the man next to me, I looked directly into his eyes. And what did I see there in that ravaged face? I saw a human being just like me. No longer could I hear the Leper’s Bell ringing.
If you enjoyed this story, maybe you’d like my new novel, “The Lost Caravan.” It’s available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and my website Marshall Riggan Storyteller.