The Pearl Diver (Jeff Talarigo), is the fictional account of a nineteen year old woman who lives at home with her family and dives for pearls off one of the islands on Japan in the years immediately following WWII. One day she notices a dull red spot on her arm and later finds another on her back. She has a mild case of Hansen’s Disease, better known as leprosy. Though medicines are available to treat her disease (and in fact, it never progresses past this point), because government officials fear what will happen if people with leprosy are allowed back into the general population, she is banished to the Nagashima Leprosarium.
At the leprosarium, she is told to forget everything about her past. She will never see her family or friends again. Her name has been erased from her family records. She is told to choose a new name. The island and its two thousand people will be her home and her family for the remainder of her life.
The story goes on to give a powerful portrayal of life under such circumstances, capturing the sense of suffering and despair experienced by the inhabitants. What is described in the story was probably not much different than what would have been experienced by people with the disease in Jesus’ time. Although in Biblical times the word “leprosy” was used to describe several skin disorders, the consequence was always the same – separation from the general population (Leviticus 13-14). Lacking our modern diagnostic and treatment capabilities, quarantines were the way ancient cultures dealt with potentially contagious diseases to keep them from decimating the population (just think about any of the plagues).
Leprosy was more alienation than isolation. It wasn’t just that they were cut off from the others (like a soldier on a tour of duty or a person in a hospital), they were away and weren’t allowed by the rest of their society to return. It’s not hard to understand how hopelessness could quickly set in. This also might be the background for the leper’s request that Jesus cleanse him, “if You are willing,” (Luke 5:12). This was a man who had gotten used to hearing people call him unclean or telling him to stay away from them. It’s quite possible that it struck him as incredible that there was someone who was willing to have anything to do with him. It also explains Christ touching the man. As Lord, He could heal any way He chose, at a great distance or up close (Matthew 8:5-13). He chose to touch the man because He knew his spirit needed healing as much as his body did.
The Pearl Diver ends on a provocative note. Over the years, government officials slowly eased up on their strict policy and incrementally allowed people from the leprosarium to return to the outside world. When she is in her sixties, the pearl diver leaves the leprosarium. But she is unable to adjust to life on the outside. After a brief time, she decides to return to the leprosarium and the people there. They are her pearls. Only Christ could look at a person with leprosy and see a pearl. Only Christ could look at some one who opposed Him and see a pearl. When we begin to look at people as pearls, regardless of what they look like or what they think we look like, we begin to live like the body of Christ.