Jesuit Father Tom Neitzke, recently ordained in June, spent a summer two years ago in China working at a leprosarium. The journey to the remote Chinese village to stay among those suffering with leprosy and to understand their subsequent shunning by their community, Fr. Neitzke understood that there is much to learn from those among us who have the least. His reflections on the experience of being in China are below.
In the summer of 2008 I went to China with a group of Jesuits to learn about and experience Chinese history and culture. After spending a few weeks in Beijing, three of us were sent to a remote village in southwestern China to live and work with a community of lepers. As I prepared for the trip I was both excited and frightened as I had no idea what to expect.
I had never seen anyone with leprosy, and I had only heard about it from stories in the gospels or from the work of Mother Teresa. In the days before I left, I looked up Hansen’s Disease, as it is officially called, and read that I would not contract leprosy if I washed my hands, as it is spread in a similar way as the common cold. With that news I immediately put myself in charge of bringing the hand sanitizer.
As the group left Beijing and we began our long journey through mountainous and muddy roads I thought of all the ways to keep my hands in my pockets and avoid touching anyone at all costs, and I had sanitizer ready to go when needed. I was set! But if I have learned anything in my eleven years of formation it is that the best made plans usually fall apart and that God has a sense of humor!
As soon as we arrived at the leprosarium an elderly man, seeing me from a distance, walked out of the gate and grinning from ear to ear reached out his hand—a hand that was missing fingers and scarred and twisted from leprosy—with a joy in his eyes that I have rarely seen. Instinctively I reached out my hand and as we exchanged greetings in my limited Chinese I forgot about all the sprays, gels, and wipes, and experienced the touch of a man who would later tell us that he had been forced out of his village and shunned from his wife and children who he had not seen in thirty years. This man—a father, a brother, a son, and soon to be my new friend—left an incredible impression on me.
The people that lived at that leprosarium were not allowed to touch other people; society had taught them to stay far away from others and to avoid human contact. They were reminded of this daily as they went to get supplies and the nearby village children would throw stones at them as they walked down the road. This group of people had been taught never to approach or touch another human being, but for some reason when they saw us the first thing they did was reach out and embrace us.
It was during my time in China that my vocation as a Jesuit priest deepened, and I understood the call to go to the frontiers to help reconcile the world to Christ and especially to those who struggle the most in our fragmented world. This call for me, as a Jesuit priest, is to imitate Christ as one who is both pilgrim and laborer, and also as one who is missioned to be with people in order to share the light of the Gospel with them. I am humbled by the love and care that I have received by so many along the way, and I was fortunate enough to have someone show me how to imitate Christ in the man I met in China. In that moment, without him even knowing it, he exemplified the true meaning of priesthood and of Christ’s love by reaching out with affection and without fear in order to embrace my shaky and over-sanitized hand.