When we talk about resistance, we often think of the most extreme examples. I know that when I think of resistance in the context of Christian mission, my mind first flicks to those real fighters, the revolutionaries. However resistance is not always extreme, it is not always loud and it may never be recognised or applauded during ones life time or even after it. There have been many quiet resistors and there are those resisting right now; in ways so quiet that we will never hear about them.
A man who quietly resisted is Father Damien, born in 1840, a man who deliberately ministered in a leper colony in Hawaii with the consequence that he eventually contracted leprosy and died at the age of only 49.
Father Damien was a Catholic minister, who in 1864 traveled to Hawaii to work as a missionary in downtown Honolulu. There, Damien served in several parishes on the island of Oahu at the same time as the Kingdom of Hawaii was facing a public health crisis. By 1864 Native Hawaiians had became so afflicted by diseases introduced to the islands by foreign traders and sailors that thousands had died of influenza, syphilis and other diseases. This included the plight of leprosy. In the year that Damien moved to Hawaii, the Hawaiian King quarantined the lepers of the kingdom and moved them to a settlement colony on the north side of the island of Molokai. For Hawaiians, leprosy was by far the worst of the plagues, for the idea of banishment struck right to the heart of their sense of community. The lepers were provided with supplies and food but no proper healthcare even though there was a huge Christian presence on the islands. It is said that fearful of the disease, the majority of missionaries would steer their boats up to the beach near the colony and throw supplies ashore, never setting foot on the island and ministering only from the boats.
Moved by the miserable condition of the lepers whom the Hawaiian government had deported to the island, Damien felt the call of God on his life to minister to the needs of the people. In 1865, Damien asked for permission to go to the colony and in 1873, he traveled to Molokai, not as the first to visit the colony but as the first to live among them. He followed this call, even though it meant a certain death sentence on his life because the contraction of leprosy was almost inevitable. He arrived at the island to the introduction ‘Father Damien will be a father to you, and he loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you” Over the following years, Damien went beyond being a priest. Under his leadership, basic laws were introduced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized and schools were erected. He is said to have dressed ulcers, built homes and beds, built coffins and buried more than 6000 lepers.
Damien was a skilled carpenter and not only built several churches in the colony but then organized the choirs to sing in them. After twelve years of this heroic service he discovered in himself the first symptoms of leprosy. He nevertheless continued his mission, but on 28 March, 1889, Damien became bedridden and passed away shortly after. He had served 15 years amongst the lepers.
In Damien’s ministry we see 3 aspects of resistance played out.
1. Resistors listen and obey the call of God on their life, they don’t allow their path of resistance to be judged by human criteria.He obeyed the call of God on his life and didn’t allow his path of resistance to be judged by human criteria. Damien followed his heart, a heart set on Christ’s mission to be with the sick and needy. A personal conviction that extended beyond what anyone else recognised as ‘appropriately Christian’ at the time to something he shared only with God. See Damien was not resisting an anarchic government; he was not fighting for his life nor imprisoned nor even persecuted. But, to be with the lepers he had to quietly resist the fact that no one had done what he had done before; he had to resist the social stigma that was attached to mixing with lepers. He had to resist falling in line the behavior of his own church members because they had never taken their mission so seriously as to actually believe in risking death for the sake of reaching the needy. Damien had to resist living up to human criteria to follow the call of God on his life.
2. Often resistance will take place against the comfort of those we associate with, against our friends rather than our enemies. Damien had to resist those he associated with, the views of his fellow ministers and the comfort of doing what was considered acceptable of a Christian minister. Whilst he had a lot of support when he arrived in Hawaii, his shift to the leper colony was not popular with his church and initially he had to resist constant discouragement from parts of the church. He could have stayed on the big islands and ministered amongst the healthy population; he could have been quite successful and brought many souls to Christ. Yet, he left this for a life amongst the terminally ill in a remote colony of the rejected. Can I suggest that we may be right in pursuing what God has called us to do, even if everyone else around us condemns us for that, even other Christians….If we follow Christ’s mission, if we truly resist, we will very well face opposition from those that we consider on side because their own comfort is threatened by a more radical Christianity.
3. Resistance isn’t accompanied by a promise that people will ever notice us, or agree with the path that we have chosen. Resistance isn’t accompanied by a promise that people will ever notice or agree. After Damien died he was highly criticised by the church and was buried in a simple grave. Though sorely missed by the surviving leper’s, he was accused back home and in Hawaii of being quote ‘a dirty bigoted man’. It was said that he disobeyed orders not to go to the leper colony, he was not responsible for the reforms that took place, he was immoral with women and the leprosy from which he died was a result of his own vices and carelessness. These particular accusations came from Reverend C. M. Hyde, a Presbyterian minister in Honolulu. Though now credited for what he did on the island, Damien died poor and unrecognized, shunned by members of his own faith. Whilst we know that resistance for Christ shouldn’t be accompanied by earthly reward, the thought remains that resistance will end at some point and we will be applauded by society or other Christians for bravely living for Christ. The thing is, the majority of resistors die unnoticed by the majority of their fellow human beings. It seems sad that doing the right thing doesn’t result in other people necessarily supporting us. However it is nonetheless the path we may have walk, purely because God tells us to and because we have to trust our Father above what anyone else says.
Perhaps the words that best sum up a life of resistance, as lived by Father Damien, were the words spoken at a commemorative service at his graveside in 1936.
"Holiness is not perfection according to human criteria; it is not reserved to a small number of exceptional beings. It is for everyone . . . . In your daily life, you are called upon to make choices which sometimes demand extraordinary sacrifices."
This is resistance.