I met a leper.

Really, I did. He said so.

I was talking to a friend who was asking me about the sermon I was about to preach. I told her I was preaching on Mark 1, a moving story of a leper who came to Jesus to be healed. As soon as I said the word leper, a voice from behind me said, “hey, I’m a leper.” I turned around to see five well dressed men sitting on a couch behind me. The spokesmen for the group said “I’m a leper and all these guys are as well”, pointing to his friends on the couches. “We are actually schizophrenics”, the man proclaimed boldly. “The bible refers to us as demon possessed and people today think we are whackos.” After the man made this statement, my heart began to hurt for him. I began to grasp what he was trying to tell me. He was begging me to understand that the leper in Mark 1 was viewed as a social corpse and he as a schizophrenic could identify. This man and his friends knew what it was like to be physically and socially outcast and misunderstood.

One thing I didn’t know is that I was talking to some famous, modern-day lepers. All of them had PhD’s and one of them was John Nash, the Nobel Peace Prize winning mathematician who was portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. These men and many others stayed where we live for a week as they were leading a symposium on schizophrenia and the flourishing life at my seminary.

So what did I do after this stirring encounter? First I went back to my room and cried for 30 minutes. I cried because these men represent multitudes of others who are viewed as “whats” and not as “whos.” The leper in Mark 1 was a “what”,  because we know nothing about him except “what” disease inflicted him. We know nothing about where he was from, what he was like or what brought him joy. We just know he had a disease. The men I talked to throughout last week made sure I knew they were so much more than “whats”; they were “whos.” You might be reading this and saying, “of course they are “whos!” My response would be, “then why are so many modern lepers still on the outside of the village, begging to come into our churches, homes and social circles?”

I think I took a step in conquering a fear I didn’t know I had. In my closing conversations I wanted to let these men know that they have helped shape they way I see life. One man asked me if he could quote me on that and I said, “yes.” He then said, “Can I quote you an every conversation we’ve had this week?” Remembering that I was talking to a bona fide genius, I said, “sure.”