Saturday, November 20, 2010

Church of Lepers

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is the true story of Neil White who was a successful Louisiana entrepreneur and magazine publisher. He was active in the community and his local church. He was married with two children. Then he was arrested and charged with check kiting and financial fraud. He was convicted and sent to a minimum security prison in Carville, Louisiana. Even though the security precautions were minimal he still lost his freedom, and had to work at a series of menial jobs. He was an inmate and had little privacy and dignity. Additionally, Carville was unique in that the prison shared space and facilities with the only remaining leper colony in the US. At first, White admitted to being afraid of coming into contact with one of the lepers or touching anything they had in common. Prison at the leper colony was nothing like the genteel Southern life he was used to. In the course of his year long imprisonment, his life changed dramatically. His wife divorced him and he had little contact with his children. This was devastating in itself but he also experienced inner changes, too. His pride was challenged as he worked alongside people he would never have associated with on the outside. And he got to know some of the lepers, especially one older woman in a wheelchair named Ella. She had lived at Carville most of her life. When she was younger it was common for a person with leprosy to be uprooted from their home and life and forced to live at Carville. Lepers were lepers and people did not understand the disease and were afraid of catching it. Conversations with Ella helped White face himself and confront the personal issues that landed him in prison in the first place. Since White attended church on the outside, he often attended the Catholic services in the prison chapel. There the lepers and the inmates broke bread together. It was a transforming encounter. For the first time, White experienced true Christian community. When he left prison Ella had some advice for him: find a church. He wanted to find a church like he had known at Carville. This is how he described it: "where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked. A place to go when I needed help. A place to ask for forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image and money."

He didn't know if a place like that existed outside prison walls but he was determined to find it if it did.