Zimbabwean preacher Dan Izzett and his wife, Babs, have been treated for leprosy. The couple – who are soon to retire to Somerset to be near their two sons and six grandchildren – just don’t fit the stereotype. But despite being middle class, white and, thankfully, never subjected to poverty, their bodies both bear the hallmarks of leprosy. Dan, 70, has had his right leg amputated from below the knee following an infection. Leprosy causes numbness in the hands and feet and he mistakenly bathed his numb foot in a basin of scalding water causing irrevocable damage. He also has the trademark ‘clawed hands’ of a leprosy-affected person – something he now sees as a gift from God, as there is an instant empathy when he meets leprosy-affected people across the globe through his role as a trustee for American Leprosy Missions. Meanwhile Babs, 68, who was diagnosed much sooner than Dan, believes the osteoporosis she suffers today is likely to be a result of the steroids used to counter a reaction she had to the leprosy treatment.
The stigma of leprosy
While they were able to gloss over any physical symptoms to parishioners and acquaintances (Dan’s missing lower leg was put down to a ‘bone infection’), it took them 28 years to pluck up the courage to tell their leprosy story.
They did this by giving their testimony in the church they were pastoring in Zimbabwe. They even arranged for a specialist leprosy doctor to be in the congregation to answer any questions or calm any fears of the parishioners.
“We had been advised not to tell anyone about leprosy because of the stigma the disease carries with it,” explained Dan.
“I remember when I was eventually diagnosed thinking, what is going to happen to me now? Will I have to go outside the city and ring a bell and shout ‘unclean’? “We were newly married at the time in 1972 and I thought the honourable thing would be to tell Babs that I would understand if she wanted to have the marriage annulled. There was such great stigma surrounding leprosy. “But she replied that firstly she loved me and secondly, we had made a vow before God and the people at our wedding to stay with one another ‘through sickness and in health’.”
While Dan and Babs told their family and very close friends at the time of their leprosy diagnoses, Dan eventually felt prompted to tell the community and their wider contacts their story.
“There was a scripture that came into my head – ‘the truth will set you free’ [John 8:32],” said Dan. “And 28 years after being diagnosed I wanted to come out of the closet, so to speak. “We felt very vulnerable but then very free. It was fear that was preventing us from opening our hearts.”
Jesus was known for being willing to touch those with leprosy in a society where they were treated as ‘untouchables’. Matthew 8:1-3 says: “A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.”
But Dan says that Jesus’ message is yet to be fully accepted 2,000 years later: “Although Jesus healed people affected by leprosy you have to remember people in church are the same as in our community and workplaces. Just because you go to church and try to serve the Lord doesn’t mean you’re exempt from prejudices.
“I think people still think of the Bible as saying that leprosy is a sin and a punishment from God but I can’t see that it says that anywhere.
“We just have to do what we can to bring about a change for people affected by leprosy. We want them to go free and not live in fear like we did for years.”
28 years after being diagnosed I wanted to come out of the closet
A Methodist saint
London-born New Yorker Elizabeth Shepherd knows only too well the stigma surrounding leprosy in the Church.
She is celebrating the long overdue publication of the obituary to her late father, missionary Vincent Shepherd, in the Methodist Recorder on 21st April this year, written by Lord Leslie Griffiths. Headlined ‘A Methodist “saint”’, the publication came 50 years after her father’s death in London on 26th April 1967.
Vincent worked so closely with leprosy patients in Burma during wartime that he even contracted the disease himself. This was in the days before an effective cure. In his letters to his wife, Vincent described “a daily climb out of hell” physically with regular painful injections of Chaulmoogra oil.
But this was nothing compared to the emotional turmoil of being separated from his wife for many years and missing the majority of Elizabeth’s childhood – not seeing the young girl from the age of 5 to 16. Elizabeth recalled: “I hated leprosy because of what it did to my family. “My father was treated in India and eventually my mother, who had to brave taunts of ‘how could you bear to touch him now’, joined him while I was sent to boarding school. I later found letters sent between my parents saying they wanted to tell me the truth but didn’t want to frighten me. When my mother left for India, I was told that ‘Daddy’s ill’.
“I think it was considered that a child might be more susceptible so I didn’t go for fear of any danger. It broke up the family as so often happens, causing much pain. “Eventually my parents returned to the UK and my father worked as a minister in Newton Abbot and then Bridgend in South Wales. There was an attitude in the church that there was something shameful about the disease. The church was embarrassed and thought it would upset people and make them uncomfortable. “The church was so frightened by the thought of leprosy that they did not want my father to talk about it. He wanted to use his experiences to dispel the many myths surrounding the disease. “The minister at his funeral even said to me, ‘I won’t mention the leprosy’ and I replied, ‘You will’. “The word ‘leper’ and people with leprosy being seen as untouchable is somehow ingrained in our language and I wanted to speak out about it. I wanted to bring his story out of the shadows so that his witness can continue today.
“I wanted an acknowledgement and that’s what we have now with Lord Griffith’s obituary.”
More than half of new cases of leprosy in the world today are diagnosed in India. Children often stop going to school because of the name-calling and public humiliation they experience for having been treated for the disease.
The Leprosy Mission’s new CREATE project, part-funded by the European Union, will train and mobilise 500 Leprosy Champions to fight for the human rights of millions of people affected by leprosy in India, where stigma remains rife. For example, it is the Leprosy Champion’s role to be a mentor for a child with leprosy, to help educate their teacher, classmates and future employers about leprosy and dispel the many myths surrounding the disease.
In his obituary, Lord Griffiths wrote that Vincent Shepherd remained an example of God’s unconditional love to the present day.
He finished with the words: “A statue was erected in Mandalay where Vincent Shepherd began his work with those suffering from leprosy.
“It shows Jesus standing in blessing over a group of people affected by leprosy crouched at his feet.
“One day patients pulled this statue down and broke it into pieces, protesting that the only way to depict Jesus in the presence of those with leprosy would be to show him touching them.” Elizabeth believes they learned that from her father.
Charlotte Walker is communications officer at The Leprosy Mission. For more information visit leprosymission.org.uk