Recently I received a letter from someone who had just read Man of Vision, the book I wrote about my family and the founding of World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse. While the book celebrates the miracles God did through my dad’s ministry, it is also very honest about the challenges and heartaches my family faced, in large part because my father traveled for ten months out of every year for twenty years.
There is no doubt that his long absences took a great toll on his health, put a strain on my parents’ marriage, and left my sisters and I without the benefit of truly knowing our daddy. But the greatest tragedy of our lives was the sudden death of my older sister, Sharon, in 1968. She was only 27.
Moved with compassion by the revelations of God’s mercy and grace in the midst of our human imperfections and struggles the reader wrote:
I hope God over the years has been able to heal and fill every place in your heart where your father's absence left a wound. I hope God has been able to bring peace to the losses you've carried, (especially) with the death of your sister.
I could have simply answered with a resounding “Yes! He has.” But I felt the best way to reply was to share the following experience from my recent trip to Taiwan.
Connecting with the past
My father began supporting various missionary projects in Taiwan in the early 1950s, and in 1965 I traveled with him to see some of the children’s homes, hospitals, and schools World Vision had helped build and was supporting. I had not been back to Taiwan since, and even though I knew that most of the things I remembered would be long gone, I asked to revisit some of those historic places.
On the first day I was taken to a busy suburb of Taipei to see Lo Sheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium. Today it is a six-storey, full-service hospital — but it was on this very site that my father helped Lillian Dickson, founder of Mustard Seed International, and the government of Taiwan build and maintain a leper colony, clinic, and church.
When I visited as a 15-year-old, the church stood on a hill surrounded only by trees, lush gardens, and a cluster of single-storey, red brick buildings where hundreds of men, women, and children suffering from leprosy — also known as Hansen’s disease — lived, worked, and worshipped.
But this past January, when I walked into the modern emergency room entrance with its shiny floors and white-coated doctors, I felt completely disconnected. Surely this had nothing to do with my father or the lepers he had cared so passionately about!
My interpreter, Charlotte, and I went up to the top floor to meet with the administrators of the hospital. “I'm here because long ago my father worked with Lillian Dickson to build a leper clinic here,” I explained a bit sheepishly, once we had all sat down and been served tea. I felt a bit foolish taking up their valuable time with my stroll down memory lane.
“We know,” they answered, nodding and smiling. “Your father helped found this hospital. We need to know more about him. Can you send us pictures and stories for our history?”
I was truly taken aback but pleased to realize that the part my father had played decades before had not been forgotten.
Meeting extended 'family'
They offered to show me the wards, and I followed, expecting a tour of the hospital. We entered a side wing and passed room after room of elderly people lying in beds surrounded by modern medical equipment. Some were clearly near death.
We stopped at one room where a man was sitting up, looking at us with a big smile on his face. With a shock I realized that he had no nose or ears or legs. In fact, none of them did.
I looked at the administrator in amazement and she nodded. “These are your father's lepers. They never left here. They have lived here all their lives, and now we are caring for them with all the love and dignity we can give them. They are our family.”
“And mine,” I wanted to say. I entered the room, and the man who was smiling said something.
“He wants to know if you're the daughter,” Charlotte said, nodding yes at him.
He nodded back and said, “You look just like your mother.” I felt myself slipping into another time and place as I remembered that Mama had been here with Dad — in 1968! No one had prepared me for this.
A reunion 40 years in the making
As we left the ward, my host said, “There are some others who are waiting to meet you.” As though in a dream I followed her out a back door and straight into the past. In a beautifully kept garden setting I saw the steepled church my dad helped build and one of the original single-storey brick buildings that had been there when I visited in 1965. There were seven women waiting to greet me, all beautifully dressed and groomed. All elders of the church. All former lepers.
Amazed, I gave each one a hug. (Charlotte would later tell me that one of the ladies commented that she was amazed that we were not afraid to hug them.) Then a voice said, “We were so sad to hear about your sister.” The ladies were looking at me expectantly, tears in their eyes, but honestly, I had no idea what they were talking about. My younger sister Robin was fine when I left home.
Then it struck me — they were talking about Sharon! They had waited 40 years to express their condolences, and I felt my eyes begin to well with tears as the reality of what was happening hit me. “We all cried and prayed for your family when we heard the news,” someone added, as they all nodded in agreement.
I sat with those dear saints for about an hour as they showed me pictures and shared stories about my dad, telling me about the many ways he had blessed their lives. “Oh, he was so handsome,” they kept saying over and over, making me smile. They were right. He was.
An unforgettable New Year
It was January on this latest visit, and Chinese New Year was fast approaching. Everywhere I went I saw advertisements for the ten-course meals Chinese families traditionally share. But as the ladies explained, they had been so desperately poor back then that they never got to celebrate the traditional New Year’s feast.
“It was a sad time for us,” explained Wu Xi-Mei, a 67-year-old woman who had been brought to the leprosarium when she was 10. “There was never any extra money for Christmas presents or to celebrate the New Year as others did. Our families had rejected us because we were lepers, and no one remembered us. Many people would get so depressed that they would take their lives.
“Then one year your father came and heard about the situation. So he declared that we would have a banquet to celebrate Christmas and New Years’. Everyone dressed up, and we had a feast! And,” she added, “there were presents for everyone. I remember holding the box in my hand and opening it to find a new necklace. I had never had a gift before, and my hands trembled as I put it on.” She touched her neck. “I still remember what it felt like to put that necklace on.”
Wu Xi-Mei was eventually cured of Hansen's disease, as were all the other ladies, and trained to be a nurse right there at the hospital. She met a wonderful man (also a cured leper), married, and had healthy children and grandchildren. Today, she is retired and spends her days in the wards I first visited, sitting with the elderly. “I see them into glory,” she told me with a brilliant smile.
An unexpected blessing
As our time ended I thanked the women for sharing their lives and stories with me. Never had I experienced such an amazing or unexpected blessing. But God was not done.
“Meeting you has been a great gift from God to me,” I began, searching for a way to express how I was feeling. “I never really knew my dad, because he was gone most of my childhood, but now…
One of the ladies spoke up, interrupting my thoughts. I glanced at Charlotte, who for once looked like she was at a loss for words. Then she said, quietly, “She says that they owe you an apology. They want to ask you to forgive them for taking your daddy away from you.”
I was stunned. Never had I felt so humbled or — the only word I can think of is loved. Finally I found my voice and said, “Please. Don't apologize. And don't feel badly for me. I am happy God used my dad to bless your lives. And now He is using you to bless mine. Thank you for helping me know my father as you knew him.”
Believe it or not, that was just my first stop on my trip to Taiwan! I will be sharing more stories about my adventures there in future installments of this blog, God Space. But I want to end this reflection with what I wrote to the lovely individual who inspired all this with her thought-provoking comment:
As I hope this story reveals, God has indeed “healed and filled every place in my heart” and given me great love and appreciation for both of my parents. I feel blessed beyond measure to have inherited this great legacy of faith and ministry, and I pray every day that my life is a tribute both to them and the God they served so well, if not perfectly. God bless, Marilee.