Learning from a Leper
January 1994

“Learning from a Leper,” Ensign, Jan. 1994, 65–66

Learning from a Leper

A few weeks after I arrived in Hawaii to serve my mission, my companion, Elder Naylor, and I planned to visit Hale Mohalu, a leper hospital in Pearl City. We were going to visit a member of the Church, Joe Kekahuna.

I was unnerved by the prospect of being close to someone with leprosy, a disease that has been called “death in life.” Weren’t these the people who in biblical times were forced to call out “unclean” to anyone who approached them? Was there any chance that I might contract leprosy?

My companion, sensing my anxiety, explained, “To begin with, we don’t call it leprosy; we call it Hansen’s disease. Hansen’s disease isn’t as contagious as many people think. I visited the leper colony at Kalaupapa twice a month during the whole time I was on Molokai. I’m not afraid, and there’s no reason you should be.”

We went to Hale Mohalu the next day. The patients we passed on the way to Joe’s room looked very normal, and I was feeling much better about the experience—until I saw Joe and all my apprehensions returned. His body was in an advanced stage of deterioration. I felt my heart would break with pity for him.

I mumbled a greeting and then fell silent, not knowing what to say. Joe sensed my uncertainty, turned his sightless eyes in my direction, and began to speak to me.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, elder,” he said. “I am a dying man, but I am a happy man, too. When I was young, like you, I thought I would live forever. I did bad things. I was a hard man, who would never listen to the missionaries. I liked my good time; I had no place in my life for God. This disease sent me to Molokai, to Kalaupapa, where I lived among the lepers. I found God in Kalaupapa, and I found the Church.”

His voice broke with emotion as he continued, “I’m glad I have this disease. Without it, I would be the same as I was, and there would be no future for me. I would have lost everything. Learn from me, elder. Learn from Joe Kekahuna, the leper.”

Joe’s words changed my pity into feelings of gratitude. Our visit with him was very short, but his insight will stay with me forever. I learned that no matter how bad or uncertain our circumstances may be, the most important thing in life is to be close to God.

  • Lee G. Cantwell, a member of the Smithfield Sixth Ward, serves as high councilor in the Logan Utah University Fourth Stake.