Peering out the window of my rented car, the edge of my shirt stretched to protect my nostrils from polluting dust clouds, I searched for what might have changed in 20 years. Much was still the same—crowds of people walking dusty streets, wearing those trademark black, rubber shoes—footwear that tells a tale. I share the story with you just as father did with me one hot, dusty day in Vellore, India.
For whatever reason, almost 100 years ago, the little South Indian town began its reputation as the home of lepers.* Deformed faces, stubby limbs, leathery skin—All were telltale signs of this population sector. Stores, schools, and restaurants shooed them away before germs and bad luck could contaminate their air. Such was the life of lepers in Vellore. Outcasts, rejects, untouchables, they were restricted to secluded lives on the fringes of the town.
And then came to India, in the mid 1900’s, humanitarian organizations to work with Christian Medical College (CMC), a landmark of Christian education and service in Vellore. They brought with them medicine, plastic surgery, and appeals to the public for compassion and acceptance. They also brought Micro Cellular Rubber (MCR). This black, kitchen-sponge-like material was used to fabricate shoes for feet without sensation, the cushiony material preventing the onset of ulcers. With medical care and reconstructive surgery available, it soon became impossible to spot a leper—well, almost impossible. The only sign of leprosy that lingered in Vellore was those black shoes.
The sight of a pair of MCR black shoes was enough to turn one’s back on another. No amount of education about the non-contagious nature of leprosy could break the segregation. Compassion and brotherhood refused to rise above stigma.
What was to be done? After much brainstorming, the Christian community made a statement—not one of words, but one of empathetic, Christian action. All of them—staff and students—went out and bought MCR black shoes. The town was in confusion—Who was the doctor and who was the leper? Who was the accepted and who was the pariah? Whom did you turn away from and whom did you shake hands with? No one knew.
The statement made by a Christian community changed the perspective of an entire town. Today one can find MCR black shoes in most all shoe stores in Vellore. Everyone wears them. Many young people continue to go to CMC, one of only few places that offer quality Christian medical education in India. And each leaves with more than a profession. They leave with at least one pair of MCR black shoes that symbolizes true brotherhood.
What a statement of Christianity! To cross over the barriers of differences and embrace another! Isn’t that what Jesus did? If He could walk in someone else’s shoes, shouldn’t we?
*Every year an average of 600,000 people are diagnosed with leprosy; 90% of them are in developing countries.
(published in Signs of the Times, sometime in the mid 2000’s.