August 2006

Dear brothers and sisters,

St. Francis mentions his encounter with the leper as a pivotal experience in his conversion. "Kissing the leper" has been on my mind a lot lately, and the more I reflect on it, the more I can see why this was such an important event in Francis' life. It must have changed his attitude toward everyone he met from then on!

A recent article on the Franciscan Outreach website talked about a homeless person's frustration that no one would look him in the eye and engage him as a human being. That hit home with me - I know I avoid making eye contact with people on the street, especially people with whom I would prefer not to interact. Is this "with a gentle and courteous spirit [accepting] all people as a gift of the Lord and an image of Christ" (Rule, Article 13)? Hardly.

I can make excuses for why it is unsafe or unwise for me to make eye contact with street people. It was unsafe for Francis to approach the leper, too (Hansen's disease IS contagious). How do I balance prudence with the Rule I have professed? How do I recognize "the presence of the divine seed in everyone" (Rule, Article 19) while exercising common sense?

Unfortunately for my self-image, there are lots of other "lepers" whom I have no excuse for avoiding...but I do anyway. In the workplace, there are those whose communication style grates on my nerves, and those who would rather complain than work. There are those whose physical appearance or personal mannerisms are unusual, and those whose English is difficult to understand. There are the "invisible" people - the janitorial staff and other maintenance workers. Somehow, I need to "grow up" and treat all of these people as, well, God's children! Not that I have to get along with them all - we are required to LOVE, not to LIKE. But avoiding the people that make me uncomfortable is not the answer.

So, what to do? One answer follows Francis' example: to put oneself in the position of having to interact with the "lepers". In ten years of taking Communion to nearby nursing homes, I learned to deal with the uncomfortable sights, sounds, and smells of such facilities...and the simple fact that you're around people who are ill, maybe dying. I've had people ask me how I could go into a nursing home; well, you just DO, and it gets easier with time. I haven't yet worked in a soup kitchen or other facility serving the poor; I clearly need to do that in order to face another set of "lepers" for me, and get past my own fears.

Back to the daily world I face, which is filled with plenty of lepers. Those are the people I really need to start with! Small things like making eye contact and smiling at the janitors can make a difference - and that's about as non-threatening a "kiss" as you can get. Each "leper" will need a different "kiss". In some cases, I may have to learn from the Little Flower, who wrote about her techniques for dealing with a sister whom she really didn't like. She was so effective that the sister thought St. Therese was particularly fond of her!

Many years ago, I participated in a number of workshops intended to raise awareness of the issues facing women and minorities in the workplace, and to make each of us aware of our own prejudices. Without awareness, we cannot take action. As I become more aware of the lepers in my life, they provide me more opportunities for daily conversion. Let us pray for each other to have the grace to kiss our lepers! - Vickie