Leprosy! The very word strikes fear in the hearts of many people. It was in the early years of my life that I learned about this dread disease in the pages of the Bible.
For the first few decades of my life I never actually saw a leper. My first encounter was when I visited a leper colony while on a visit to the Republic of the Philippines while working in the former Far Eastern Division.
Recently I learned that the subject of leprosy would be the centerpiece of a 75-minute monologue to be presented at the church I attend in Southern California.
“Damien” is the story of a Belgian Catholic Church priest in the 1860s who volunteered to be a spiritual mentor to lepers assigned by government health officials in Hawaii to a secluded colony on the island of Molokai.
The story of Father Damien was brilliantly presented by Dr. Kenneth Wright, an actor with LifeHouse Theater [most recent role: Qoheleth (The Teacher) in Ecclesiastes], a Redlands, California-based, Christian-oriented theatrical group specializing in dramas that infuse classic tales with moral values in Judeo-Christian traditions.
In real life, Wright is an anatomy professor in both the schools of medicine and dentistry at Loma Linda University.
Dressed in a drab black cassock worn by Catholic clergymen, Wright enacted the dramatic story of Damien’s total commitment to the colony populated by hundreds of Hawaiians with leprosy.
After his assignment to Hawaii by his order in Belgium, Damien served on the big island of Hawaii until he learned of the plight of the lepers, sent by society to die on a lonely island, Molokai, without any medical or spiritual support.
Damien’s role was not only to be a priest; he also dressed ulcers, built homes…and coffins, and dug graves. His arrival was a turning point in the life of the colony. Under his leadership, basic laws were enforced, shacks became painted houses, working farms were organized, and schools were erected.
After serving the colony for 16 years. Father Damien contracted leprosy and died of the disease at age 49.
As the presenter paced through the priest’s personal story, I noted the audience’s rapt attention. Every eye was riveted on the professor as he strode across the stage. The sets were minimalistic, yet provided the flavor necessary for the story to come through in a way that I have seldom experienced in productions of this kind.
I sat entranced at the actor’s God-given gift of memorization with dramatic changes of tone as the story unfolded. If he had made any mistakes or lost any part of his script, none in the audience knew it.
The monologue itself consists of a series of flashbacks of Father Damien’s career, all done in the first person. The script of the play included conversations, portions of Damien’s letters, and transitions of places in the colony development. Wright skillfully did this as he successfully portrayed Molokai life to his audience of entranced listeners. He received and rightfully deserved a standing ovation at the end of the monologue.
Don Roth is the West Coast Representative for the Secretariat of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He resides in Yucaipa, California.