In the book "Sanctuary of Outcasts", you can find the true story of a man jailed in a minimum-security prison that shared a property with the last leper colony in the United States. Elderly, disfigured, long isolated from the larger culture, many without family and most without acceptance — the National Health Service was allowing the patients to remain there until they died. Thus a group of marginalized souls and "outcasts" nurtured each other in the face of the outside world's rejection.
The book tells how Neil White — at first scared of the disease and determined to avoid its victims — underwent a time of reflection, soul-searching, and spiritual insight. "Finally, in a sanctuary for outcasts, I understood the truth," he writes. "Surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I could see my own."
White and an 80-year-old African-American woman named Ella — a wheelchair-bound double amputee because of her disease — became friends. He summarizes the lesson he learned from the Roman Catholic priest, Father Reynolds, who ministered to the little church inside the compound of patients and criminals: "Pride, he said, was an excessive belief in our own abilities. Lost in our own pride, he explained, we are unable to recognize grace."
As White prepared to go back to the outside world, the thought came to him that he needed a church there like the one prisoners and lepers had shared:
Not just any church. A place like the church at Carville. Where the parishioners were broken and chipped and cracked. A place to go when I needed help. A place to ask forgiveness. A sacred place where people were not consumed with image or money. I didn't know if a church like this existed, but if it did I would go.
Now that Mr. White is free, I hope he remembered the lessons he learned in jail. And I hope he found that church he was hoping to find — a church that can love and accept, hold accountable and nurture, give the Holy Spirit time to redeem and transform. That is the sort of church everybody needs to find.
For the many who think their lives don't count and that they are nobodies, Jesus put the church in the world to say, "You matter to the God who knows your name — and he sent us to find you. Welcome to our sanctuary for the outcasts."
Remember Jesus, the first to make a sanctuary of outcasts, as he healed the leper in Mark 1. Notice that Jesus heals the leper with a word of command, but not until he touches the man and shares his state of being an outcast!
So he traveled throughout the region of Galilee, preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.
A man with leprosy came and knelt in front of Jesus, begging to be healed. "If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean," he said.
Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. "I am willing," he said. "Be healed!" Instantly the leprosy disappeared, and the man was healed (Mark 1:40-42 NLT).