I want to talk about Unconditional Love today, in particular a Cause I have been passionately committed to: the canonization of the Belgian born priest, Father Damien. They called him the hero of Molokai because this incredible man was the only one who volunteered to service Molokai when death was almost certain. He defied the Vatican’s orders not to have direct physical contact with his flock and went to the Hawaiian island of Molokai, a leper colony in 1873 to serve the sick and dying. Single handedly. Hundreds of islanders were banished to this island during the terrible plague traced to a ship load of Chinese farm workers brought to the islands and causing widespread panic and disease.
I have been devoted, along with many others to the Cause of seeing this Blessed man declared a saint. Make no mistake. I’m not Catholic, nor has God whisper in my ear dictating this long and winding road, but I did have an encounter with Father Damien that I have never forgotten. Damien, thanks to the new Pope, Benedict XVI is on the road to Sainthood. At last. The spiritual patron for Hansen's Disease, HIV and AIDS patients and other ‘outcasts’ has finally been embraced by the Vatican, once embarrassed that Father Damien, in caring for what he deemed his Children, fell victim to leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) himself and died in agony of it at the age of 49. His story is remarkable. When he arrived on the lonely, isolated Kalaupapa peninsular, he was shocked to find so many sick and dying men, women and children, banished to the island with no food, shelter or any treatment for this hideous, progressive disease. Damien stopped the women from being raped, demanded food and medicine to be shipped to Molokai, built housing and a church for his children. He fed them, bathed them. Respected them. And he loved them. Utterly and unconditionally. He must have been a talented builder because every single structure he erected is still standing and in use, by the remaining two dozen patients who will by Hawaiian state law be allowed to live at Kalaupapa until their last breath.
Visitors are allowed to Molokai, but a permit is required and no more than 100 tourists can be on island at the same time. A few years ago, after the death of my grandmother, who raised me, I fell into a deep depression and during a long stay in Maui, found a compilation of oral histories from former patients at Molokai. Their stories were devastating. So many families were destroyed by the “Separating Sickness.” I felt increasingly compelled to visit Molokai and read everything I could on Father Damien. I became obsessed with the wonderful Australian movie, Molokai in which the extraordinary David Wenham portrayed Damien. Like many islanders, I became enraged when Father Damien’s steps toward Sainthood resulted in the Belgian government digging up his body from his grave in Kalaupapa. Long before he contracted Hansen’s Disease, he considered himself a leper. I felt in death, as in life he would want to sleep with his children and when the Belgian government bent under international pressure and returned his right hand to the people of Hawaii, I felt even more strongly about paying homage to the man I considered a true hero.
Coincidentally, I won a book on ebay called Margaret of Molokai and couldn’t wait to receive it. Then I got an email from a man on Molokai was devastated because I had beaten him out on the book auction. He had tried to win it for his mother, a still-living resident at Kalaupapa. I offered to give him the book as soon I had read it. I promised him I would read it quickly and send it to him immediately. He responded with a kind email saying I was the embodiment of the spirit of Aloha. This man and his wife and soon, his mother, started corresponding with me regularly and I ended up going to visit them. Anyone who has read my Phantom Lover series might be interested to know that Lopaka’s tutu [grandmother] is based on the woman who became my surrogate mother on Molokai. She took me on a tour of the hospital. I was shocked to see all the barriers still in place, as a sort of memorial and living museum where family members were allowed to come and visit their loved ones in the disease’s curable stage, thanks to new drugs.
We went to Damien’s church and we sat in a pew. I will never forget the sun shining on me, the dizzying scent of ginger stems washing over me. I looked at the floor as I thought about my grandmother and all the things I might have said to her given the chance to say goodbye. I saw all the holes in the floor. That, I hadn’t expected. “What are they?” I asked my friend. “Spit holes. In the latter stages of leprosy, the victims during Damien’s time, before there was a cure, could not swallow. Damien still wanted them to come to church and he put spit holes in the floor so they could still come to church and pray.” And then, a wondrous thing happened. I felt him. I really did. His beautiful, Holy ghost was in his House, and I, like all his other outcasts had just become one of Damien’s children. It was an indescribable feeling. It was a high feeling of pure love. “He’s here, you can feel him, can’t you?” my friend whispered and I just sat, stunned. Had I been alone, I know I would have dismissed that moment as a fantasy. That feeling has stayed with me for years now and I reach in for it, whenever I need it.
Recently, Pope Benedict declared the inexplicable healing of 80 year old Audrey Toguchi’s cancer as a Miracle. Her fatal illness miraculously disappeared after a long visit at Father Damien’s grave. He has pushed Damien’s case to the head of the line where he should be. Earlier this year, I went back to Molokai and took Father Damien a lei. I know it’s only his right hand there, but it still belongs to him. The hand that touched, nurtured, fed and held people terrified and feeling abandoned by their God. In Hawaii, Father Damien Day is celebrated on April 15. Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995, the Catholic Church commemorates Damien on May 10.
Known officially as “Blessed Damien of Molokai,” he will soon be known as Damien, hero, father…SAINT.
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