Soon after our arrival in Kunming our team joined up with some other volunteers, including a Chinese nurse who serves the rural poor, to travel to villages deep into the countryside. The bus wound its way up the hills, passing peasants working burnt-red soil on terraced fields, to arrive at an ancient walled village. For a thousand years these crumbling mud walls have kept lepers isolated from the outside world. Even today, when leprosy in China is rare, lepers are ostracized here. And even after the disease has been treated, permanent damage can remain – like missing fingers, disfigured limbs or blindness.
The village once held 400 lepers, but today it is a community of about 40, plus one doctor who looks after them. We arrived soon after the harvest, so many of the lepers’ one-room-houses were plied high with corn. I joined one woman on her mud floor and began to help her shuck corn. She was blind and missing a hand, but she sure knew how to shuck corn! Periodically another leper would come in and take the corn outside to hang it up to dry. The houses in the Yunnan countryside in October are covered in golden chains of corn and vibrant red chilies.
One in every six people on the planet is a Chinese peasant farmer, so it was a surreal experience to join these crippled and elderly farmers in their back-breaking labors. It’s easy to idealize the simple life of farmers in straw hats when you see them from a train window, but when you’re hoeing beside them the harsh reality beings to set in. Especially because they depend on these crops for their livelihood, since the meager amount they receive from the government is not enough to live on. (Yet another way that China didn’t seem very Communist to me).
In one sense we didn’t “do” much while we were there. Most of us weren’t able to offer them medical care, we didn’t see any miraculous healings, and for the most part we couldn’t even communicate with them because we didn’t have enough translators… but I felt just being there had an impact. On them, yes, but especially on ourselves. We hummed “Amazing Grace” along with them as they sang it in Chinese in a little concrete building they call church. When Dan went to hug a man, he clung to for 5, 10 minutes. How long had it been since he’d last been touched? Some of our teammates gave a beautiful lady in an old Mao-style cap a haircut. A little Chinese boy helped sweep some of their houses clean. I’m pretty sure in some way these small acts expanded the kingdom of heaven.