Written by Heather Warne, The Leprosy Mission International
As Christians, we are called to stand up for justice. Time and time again the Bible tells us to care for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, people living in poverty. The verse above, Proverbs 31:8, encourages us to speak out for justice where it is lacking. Through doing so, not only might we be instrumental in achieving justice, but we can have a positive impact on lives and communities through empathy, encouragement and love.
But too often it seems we focus on ‘speaking up for those’ and miss the proviso ‘who cannot speak for themselves’. We need to ask the question – are the people we’re speaking up for actually voiceless? And if not, how can we better contribute to justice?
In Mark 2 we see a paralysed man seeking healing from Jesus. It’s crowded. The man’s four friends, rather than leaving the man and pushing through the crowd to plead on his behalf, actually cut a hole in the roof to lower the man himself into the room where Jesus is preaching. Although the man does not speak in this passage (perhaps his paralysis prevented him), his presence is his voice. The intervention of his four friends gives him the opportunity to be heard, and enables him to directly encounter Christ, who not only heals his body but forgives his sins.
People affected by leprosy aren’t, generally, voiceless – though sometimes people don’t want to hear them, and sometimes they may have lost confidence through oppression and stigma. At The Leprosy Mission, we have an increasing focus in our projects around the world on making sure people affected by leprosy know their rights, are assured of their value in society and are equipped with the knowledge, confidence and appropriate platforms to speak on their own behalf. And it’s having an incredible impact. Through sharing their own stories, through advocating for the rights and entitlements that are important to them, communities and individuals affected by leprosy are changing not only their own situations and social status but the minds and hearts of those around them.
This also means that people affected by leprosy are having their dignity respected – as resilient, capable people who have the right and ability to speak for themselves. Getting to tell your own story matters. Over the last five years, the number of people affected by leprosy that are tackling leprosy-related issues at the national or regional political level across the countries we work in has been growing, with 399 individuals in 2016 – and that’s just those that are personally known to us!
Where once advocacy was ‘on behalf’ of people affected by leprosy, we now recognise the importance of people being able to voice their own issues and stand up for what’s significant to them. Like the four friends in Mark 2, our job includes encouraging, facilitating, pushing, and sometimes using the influence we have as an organisation to enable this to happen.
One of our new Board members, Amar Timalsina, has personal experience of leprosy and the stigma and discrimination that too often come with it. He shared his testimony with some of us at the international office during our last Board meetings, and, although we all know about the realities of leprosy and what it can do, hearing directly from Amar had a profound impact on us. Amar spoke of the experiences that inspired him to advocate for himself and others affected by leprosy.
“As an insider, I know what it feels like, when you have leprosy, and the stigma associated with it,” says Amar. “Why was I treated as an outcast, though the disease was not my invention or invitation? I had no hand in planting leprosy in myself, but I was being made a disgrace. I shall, throughout my life, work to restore affected people back to normal life, the life of dignity. I staunchly believe, we too are equal stake-holders in our communities, and we do have the right to live a dignified life as any other citizens.”
At present, as well as serving as a Board member of TLM International and Global Fellowship, Amar is the principal of a school in Kathmandu, has been elected the president of IDEA Nepal (an organisation of people affected by leprosy), and is on the advisory panel of people affected by leprosy in ILEP (International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations).
He is far from voiceless.
You can read Amar’s story here