EDITOR’S JOURNAL: In the company of lepers
When Neil White reported to prison on May 3, 1993 after being convicted of bank fraud, he did not realize that Carville, La. not only housed a penal colony, but also the nation’s only remaining leper colony. Those suffering from Hansen’s disease (the formal name for leprosy) lived their lives in seclusion alongside prisoners—many of whom were convicted of white-collar crime. Before stealing almost $750,000 from several banks, White’s dream was to create a publishing empire that would influence people at the highest levels of American society.
Prior to his felony conviction, Neil and Linda White resembled a power couple from Oxford, Miss. He was as handsome as she was beautiful. Their two children seemed to make the picture perfect in the eyes of all who observed them. From time to time they even attended church. White was finally caught, convicted and sentenced to prison. In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is his memoir of time among the sinful and sorrowing in Carville’s prison. He recounts his experiences as lepers and prisoners shared common space. The sheer force of daily interaction with people who were so seriously ill made for many unsettling and sobering experiences.
For the lepers, their lives showed outward decay from a disease that gradually eliminated their ability to experience pain and ultimately reduced them to nothing prior to their death. The prisoners—though physically healthy—revealed decay of a different sort. While their skin and nerves were not open sores, the rottenness of sin’s power had eaten away at their conscience to the point that they had been taken down to life’s dungeon where there was little to do but think about the series of events which landed them there.
On his first day, White met an African-American woman by the name of Ella Bounds. Her life had been a series of dramatic defeats, beginning when she entered elementary school in Abita Springs, La. When it was discovered she had contracted Hansen’s disease, Bounds was taken by force and dropped off at Carville. Since 1926, she had lived among the lepers and watched as prisoners came and went. The sad saga of Bounds’ life was evident as she sat in her wheelchair with no legs—a result of the ravages of leprosy. Yet she constantly spoke of God’s power to comfort the afflicted. In a small chapel where the lepers and prisoners would gather together for worship, everyone seemed diseased in different ways.
When White first went into the chapel, he remembered that the last time he had gone to church he appeared in a Brooks Brothers striped suit and a $300 pair of shoes. On that day, he was clothed in institutional green prison garb watching and listening about the glory of God. His experience in that small chapel radically impacted his thinking about God and the world. Secluded from the rich and powerful of the world, everyone present on that day had a powerful sense that they were “broken and chipped and cracked.”
By his own admission, White never experienced a conversion to Jesus Christ. He did experience, however, the powerful dynamic that comes when brutal honesty meets the Gospel. When that happens, the Ella Bounds of the world find hope and joy in Jesus Christ and him alone. Others walk away empty-handed.
In like manner, the local church should be a place where the power of the Gospel confronts the catastrophe that is the human experience. In that encounter, the sheer force of brutal honesty should meet the power of hope in a God who freely justifies sinners at great cost in the death of Jesus. Sin’s effects in a fallen world are devastating to the human body and the human mind as Satanic power holds captive legions of individuals dead in trespasses and sins as they follow the prince of the power of the air and are by nature marked out as recipients of God’s wrath (Eph. 2:1-3).
The tragedy is that so many churches resemble places where people wear fine suits and secretly live a double life rather than a hospital chapel where spiritual lepers come to worship a God who is their only hope both in life and in death. That this is often the case should raise questions as to whether much of modern Christian ministry serves as a prison for wealthy and intelligent convicts or a hospital for lepers who find refuge in the Gospel of a peasant king who was raised from the dead.
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Luke 18:13.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger.