The famous poet Robert Louis Stevenson visited the island of Molokai while sick with tuberculosis and described how he was struck at his island landing by the “abominable deformation of our common manhood… a population as only now and then surrounds us in a nightmare.” Life at Molokai, he went on, “is an ordeal from which the nerves of a man’s spirit shrink, even as his eye quails under the brightness of the sun.”
Stevenson went to such lengths to describe Molokai in an open letter he wrote defending St. Damien of Molokai from charges, after his death, of unsaintly behavior. Stevenson had never met St. Damien, but he had experienced the ripple effect that St. Damien’s life had caused in the people of Molokai. Seeing the impact of St. Damien’s work and hearing the stories people remembered of him was enough to compel Stevenson to vigorously defend St. Damien in a published letter. What made the life of St. Damien of Molokai extraordinary, and what insights does his legacy teach us about what it means to be a missionary entrepreneur?
St. Damien the Missionary
St. Damien grew up in Belgium, the energetic son of a corn merchant. After joining the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, St. Damien requested to be sent to Hawaii as a missionary, and it was there that he was ordained to the priesthood. When St. Damien chose voluntarily to go to Molokai— the island where lepers lived, often in violence and fear— the life work that faced him was one of tending to rotting flesh and broken limbs, and likely succumbing to leprosy himself. Stevenson described that, by committing himself to serving the people of Molokai, St. Damien essentially shut “with his own hand the doors of his own sepulcher.” What gave St. Damien the courage to face such suffering and choose to offer his life as a gift for others?
St. Damien’s choice was motivated by a deep-set conviction that God infinitely loved each person in Molokai and that God called him to love them too. If we live on strictly human terms, we probably won’t be able to overcome our repulsion at human suffering and deformity. It is by the grace of God that we are able to see the beauty, worth, and sacredness of each person— regardless of the state of their body. By His grace, we become able to see the soul shining through; we become able to see Christ in others. St. Damien had this perspective: He was a missionary with his focus on the soul first, the body a close second. St. Damien’s inspiration for his mission work is manifest in his own words:
The voice which invites us, which has called us to make the offering of everything we have, is the voice of God Himself. It is our Divine Savior Who says to us as to His first apostles: “Go, teach all nations, instructing them to observe all my commandments…”
For Us: Give a Total Yes, Even in Weakness
One of the lessons that St. Damien’s life offers us is that God does not expect us to be perfect vessels of Him; but allows us to be channels of grace even in our imperfections. As Stevenson noted, St. Damien had some evident human coarseness and rough character traits, from lack of hygiene to stubbornness. Yet St. Damien let God use him, even with his rough edges, for the sake of others.
St. Damien did this by giving himself over to God’s will, by saying yes to the mission in Molokai. This yes was lived out in acts of charity, in enthusiastic service, in always finding the humanity in those he served. God does not want us to be perfect before giving ourselves to Him; He wants us to choose to love Him at once, and He will purify us as we live out that choice.
For Us: Don’t Shirk the Dirty Work
Another lesson we can learn from St. Damien’s life is not to shirk the dirty work. St. Damien did not live in a loftier house than the lepers, neither did he live a more refined life. Rather, St. Damien lived in the grime. He put himself on the level of those he served, taking on a certain equality with them. As St. Damien said of the people he served, “I would gladly give my life for them. I do not spare myself when it is necessary to go on a sick call that takes me twenty to twenty-five miles away.”
St. Damien’s situation involved not just physical hardships, but complications for his own life, such as how to have his confession heard. When a priest from a neighboring island was able to come into hearing distance in a boat, St. Damien would make his confession, shouting his sins to the priest. St. Damien shows us that we need to be willing to sacrifice our pride— and also perhaps our desire not to get muddy and dirty— for the sake of the mission God calls us to.
St. Damien the Entrepreneur
St. Damien’s tasks at Molokai demanded that he be an entrepreneur as well as a missionary. One of St. Damien’s trademarks was his open mind, his willingness to be convinced. While St. Damien was stubborn in his ways, he was also willing to engage in conversation and accept correction or change if a conversation showed his error. Stevenson recounts, for example, how St. Damien planned to distribute a donor’s money in a certain way, but was convinced by a colleague’s arguments that the plan was unjust and the money better allotted another way.
An accusation levied against St. Damien after he died was that he was headstrong. Stevenson defended St. Damien by simply replying to his accuser, “I believe you are right again; and I thank God for his strong head and heart.” Perhaps entrepreneurs tend to be a bit “headstrong.” But St. Damien shows us that, coupled with openness to listen and change one’s ways if necessary, this strength of will can be a powerful attribute for good!
For Us: Business Connection
St. Damien’s life was transformed by his willingness to go to Molokai, his yes to serving the persons on the island. This was not merely a one-time yes but a yes that he re-affirmed every day that he served. St. Damien’s vocation was marked by saying yes, and this reflects an important leadership insight: Leadership is about affirmation. In It’s Not About the Coffee, former Starbucks’ CEO Howard Behar puts it this way:
Leadership is not about saying no. No only appears to be a shortcut to leadership. Leadership is saying yes to people, affirming them, giving them resources, your trust, and clear purpose… Saying no is necessary at times, but it’s not a strategy for life or business success. When we say, “Yes, I will,” or “Yes, I do,” we take a step toward knowing who we are and where we’re going.
St. Damien’s yes to Molokai shaped his identity, allowing his heart, and the hearts of those he served, to be touched with the grace of that acceptance. What are we saying yes to in our lives, and how is that yes shaping our identity?
St. Damien of Molokai’s Intercession
Reflecting on St. Damien would be incomplete without mention of the Eucharist. Incredibly, St. Damien wrote that his situation at Molokai would have been unbearable if not for the Eucharist. Having Jesus present to him in the Eucharist was St. Damien’s ultimate source of strength and consolation. “Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends with souls who seek to please Him,” St. Damien wrote. He continued:
His goodness knows how to proportion itself to the smallest of His creatures as to the greatest of them. Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.
St. Damien of Molokai, pray for us.