The Importance of Identity

25 April 2018

The Importance of Identity
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Written by Brent Morgan, International Director

In my role with The Leprosy Mission, I travel widely to different countries around the world. Often when I pass through immigration into a country, I am required to give fingerprints in addition to presenting my passport. Sometimes my photograph is taken and complex facial recognition software is used by the immigration authorities to identify me. 

Other security systems scan the retinas in our eyes, because like our fingerprints our retinas are unique to us, and everyone else’s are slightly different. All these things are done in order to confirm that we are who we say we are – to confirm our identity.

Our identity can be a valuable commodity. Our identities can be stolen and misused. Some years back my credit card details were used to fraudulently purchase £1,500 worth of jewellery.

Sometimes our identities are mistaken. In my home town in New Zealand I was sometimes mixed up with a gentleman named ‘Brett Morgan’. Although I never met the man, I belonged to the same golf club and I would often receive email invitations to golf games and golf trips which were intended for him. On one occasion when picking up a prescription from the local pharmacy, I was given his medications instead of my own.

Besides the various biometric markers we can be identified in a range of different ways; by nationality, ethnicity, creed, tribal group, church affiliation, family, gender, where we live, our preferences, and even by the sports teams we support. 

But what happens when we lose our identity? What happens when all these things get taken away from us?
I was saddened by a story that appeared in the world media recently about a woman affected by leprosy in India. Sajida, aged 65, had lost her pension because she was unable to provide the necessary biometric information – fingerprints or a retinal scan. The reason was that she did not have any fingers and was blind as a consequence of her leprosy. 

Essentially, and as far as the authorities were concerned, she had no identity. Sajida’s identity, first and foremost, was a person with leprosy. Often with people affected by leprosy, this loss of identity, this separation from friends, family and community can be just as devastating as the disease itself.

Supria and PurimaI have met many people like Sajida; people whose lives have been devastated by the physical consequences of leprosy. One story from India that really affected me was that of Supria (16) and Purima (12), two sisters brought to one of our hospitals who were both suffering from leprosy. Unfortunately they came forward for treatment far too late and their leprosy was very advanced. Supria was about to have both her feet amputated and Purima was probably going to have one of her feet amputated. All this could have been avoided by early diagnosis and a course of antibiotics. 

But many times we have the opportunity to give people with leprosy new identities; both physical and spiritual. Kamless is a young man who, as a boy, had to leave school because of his leprosy. He had a clawed hand and underwent reconstructive surgery in one of our hospitals. I met him several years after his surgery. Amazing transformation. You would not know that he had suffered from leprosy; his hand looked great, he was able to participate in sports and help his father in the family tea shop. His hand was not as good as if it had never been affected but was still very good and he and his family were delighted. Kamless had missed a few years of school but he was catching up, doing well, and hoped to go on and study computer science at university.
Kamless Kamless after healing

About five years ago I visited a leprosy-affected family in Nepal (pictured at top of page). Bhola was leprosy-affected and was not able to work because of the disability in his hands and feet. The Leprosy Mission had given the family a small loan to start a vegetable growing business. Bhola’s wife Bina was not in good health and needed to have heart surgery to replace both her heart valves. One of my colleagues who also met Bina asked if we could give them the $3,000 that was needed for her surgery – there was no way that they could ever afford this amount. Unfortunately, it fell outside our core work of leprosy, so we could not fund the surgery. Undeterred, my colleague decided to raise the funds herself, set up a fundraising page online, swam 200 lengths of the local pool as a fundraiser and raised the full amount for Bina’s surgery. Our colleagues in Nepal organised Bina’s surgery and a year later I got to meet the family again. Bina was in much better health, not completely better, but certainly vastly improved. The family welcomed our group like we were heroes. Through a translator, Bhola spoke to us. “We can never thank you enough for what you have done for us,” he said. “We know that The Leprosy Mission is a Christian organisation. We don’t know a lot about Jesus but we know we want to become Christians. Can you show us what we need to do?” And right there our group prayed with them and led them to Jesus.

The Scriptures are replete with passages about our identity in Christ. In 1 Peter, Peter was writing to new believers, people with a new identity, people like Bhola and Bina, giving encouragement in times of persecution. And in 2:9, Peter describes some elements of our identity in Christ: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (NIV) All these things identify us as followers of Christ, in order to declare his praises, and I believe to become champions of change. And an identity in Christ can never be taken away from us. “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,” as Paul writes in Romans 8:39.

The Leprosy Mission’s Vision is to see ‘Leprosy Defeated and Lives Transformed’. Part of this vision is to see zero leprosy transmission by 2035 – ‘leprosy defeated’ – an exciting possibility for a disease that has been around for thousands of years. And when we talk about ‘lives transformed’ we mean both in the physical sense, giving people like Kamless a new physical identity, and also in the spiritual sense, like Bhola and Bina. Of course, that transformation comes not from us but from God. (The Leprosy Mission’s founder, Wellesley Bailey, wrote that “from the beginning to the present time the work has been the Lord’s, and that no human instrument can take to himself any credit in the matter”). But what a privilege it is to be a part of that transformation, by following in Christ’s footsteps, continuing his ministry, being the hands and feet of God in the earth. And if we find our identity, not in our nationality, family, hobbies, or even our church, but first and foremost in Christ, we invite him to bring wondrous transformation in our own lives as well. 

Brent Morgan has been working as International Director of The Leprosy Mission since 2016, following seven years as Executive Director of The Leprosy Mission New Zealand. Prior to this, he worked for World Vision and in the private sector, including a number of years based in India.