In 2016 I was blessed with the opportunity to serve in the China leper colonies with other Christian volunteers. While there were many blessings in the work, three valuable lessons made it a particularly meaningful experience and underscore the value of service.
Lesson 1: The Beauty of Character.
Leprosy had damaged and degraded the bodies of the old men and women in the leper colonies in terrible ways (I called them grandma and grandpa). Though now cured of the bacteria many lost limbs, bore large wounds, and had suffered the loss of their eye-sight. People like this would not be considered attractive. However, in my time there I came to appreciate a beauty that transcends the confines of skin complexion or body symmetry, and embraces a broader definition grounded in purity of character.
Having received the message of Christ’s love and His coming kingdom many of the grandma’s and grandpa’s let go of unforgivness and bitterness towards those who may have mistreated them. The gospel did much to brighten their countenances and uplift their spirits. To know that God loves them so much as to send volunteers form different parts of the world to minister to them brought them hope. Their love for Christ and eagerness for His second coming was inspiring. Often times we would find them studying and memorizing the Scriptures. They especially found joy in passages like 1 Samuel 2:8 “He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes.”
They loved to sing about God’s love and their heavenly hope, and their songs were a great source of encouragement. It was moving to see that all the ridicule or embarrassment they received could not nullify the power of the gospel in their lives. I have seen choirs and congregations unite in songs to God and have been impressed by such displays, but to hear the same songs sung by victims of leprosy bore a greater testimony. Their pure and grateful spirit made them a joy to be around and was truly beautiful.
Lesson 2: Christ is even more beautiful.
I have never seen His face and cannot describe His features, but serving in the leper colonies more clearly painted a picture of Jesus for me. Through the service of the volunteers I saw Him earnestly engaged in ministering to those in need. In even the simple tasks of bathing or feeding the grandma’s and grandpa’s I saw His hands employed in the work, His feet going from door to door to visit those with no companionship or no ability to leave their rooms. Christ’s attributes were reflected in the lives of the volunteers and through them I learned much of Him.
Jesus has a deep love for the sick and suffering. Because they have been pushed far away from sympathy and love, He reaches out farther to save them. He ministers first to their practical and temporal needs, then as the way is opened, He offers them salvation and eternal life. Christ has taken it upon Himself to seek out and find this class of people. He sees that their missing limbs and sicknesses do not disqualify them from God’s gift. It is His purpose to show them that they too have the right to come to a knowledge of God. The truths of the atonement of Christ on their behalf, the gift of new glorified bodies and a spot among the heavenly chorus, belong to them as well. Jesus’ words in Ezekiel ring true: “I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick…I will save My flock, and they shall be no more a prey” (Ezek. 34:16, 22).
Lesson 3: Co-laborers with Christ.
Though we have character flaws and find ourselves still in need of help, God bestows upon us the privilege of working with Him. I do not believe that it is because of any talents we possess that He uses us, but because in working with Him He is able to produce in us a character more like His own. As we continue work for the sick and suffering we develop a burden for them. They are in need of help and relief that only Christ can give, thus He invites us to be a channel through which He can impart such help. This process not only benefits them but is purifying our hearts as well. Thus we can grow to know something more of the meaning of love.
In working with Him we will realize that this work which He bids us to do for them is truly what He has done for us and in reciprocating it, we will understand more of the depths of His sacrifice. His plan is to give us a heart like His own. For this purpose, to be changed into His likeness while assisting others is the invitation given, to co-labor with Him. Ellen White says it best in writing,
“While the world needs sympathy, while it needs the prayers and assistance of God's people, while it needs to see Christ in the lives of His followers, the people of God are equally in need of opportunities that draw out their sympathies, give efficiency to their prayers, and develop in them a character like that of the divine pattern.
“It is to provide these opportunities that God has placed among us the poor, the unfortunate, the sick, and the suffering. They are Christ's legacy to His church, and they are to be cared for as He would care for them. In this way God takes away the dross and purifies the gold, giving us that culture of heart and character which we need” (Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 261).
Lessons such as these help us understand the blessings of service and gain the appreciation for it which Christ intended. While it is true that it may not always be the most agreeable work, the blessing of being assimilated to Christ in character while at the same time blessing others is sufficient to make us disregard its inconveniences and press on in faith. Let us learn the precious lessons embedded in service.