I stood bedside a person paralytic on their sofa covered in blood and bodily fluids. The Emergency Service could not take this person to hospital as they became conscious and refused to go.Social Services could not work with them due to their addiction.

I read the previous evening how the Sisters of Mercy bathed and fed lepers and I was struck by the love and dignity they gave the dying. God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. They recognised the image of God in each leper and in contrast I found it hard to demonstrate similar action that recognised God’s image in this inebriated person.

Some question how a leper and an alcoholic are comparable. Does an alcoholic not choose to drink and find themselves into such a state while the leper contracts a disease through no fault of their own? Such a focus risks a deserving and undeserving classification for mercy and the Gospel makes no such distinction.

The commonality of leprosy and alcoholism is their stigma. Stigma keeps the sufferer or the diseased hidden and separate in society. Both steal, kill and destroy the person, their family and communities. The disease is an affront to our senses and betrays the frailty of our own body and minds. Is it pride that we think ourselves better as our drinking can be controlled or abstained from? If the image of God is in us and the alcoholic are we are linked in our humanity that carries the mark of our Creator. As Christ’s followers we are Spirit filled children gifted to recognise the divine image in others despite its disguise in society’s stigma.

It is challenging to love a person who can betray, manipulate and lose control of their physical, mental and emotional capacity. These failings obscure the image of God but the truth remains we are made in the image of God. If God humbled himself for such as these are we not called to follow his example and engage with the acceptable and the stigmatised in love.

Often we leave the issues of addiction to the government and for many years our Health and Social care systems have done much work. However, funding cuts have begun to limit engagement in the calamity of alcoholism in our society. Organisations like FASA, Sister Consilios, Betel-Dublin and Stauros continue to support those with drug and alcohol addiction and their families using different methods of treatment, therapy and acts of love. These organisations need the churches support as they bring the Gospel that speaks of transformation that gives dignity to those who have lost sight of their own dignity.

However, on the day these professional organisations are not there – the day the alcoholic’s soiled body needs bathed; their clothes need changed; the walls, floor and sofa need cleaned – they need a kind word of love and the presence of someone who recognises they are made in God’s image. As church communities we not only need to support the professionals but we need to act in love. We’ll need a stomach, heart and will to walk in the sandals of the man who taught us how to be with the stigmatised. We have God’s Spirit empowering us to follow his ways; to humble ourselves so that we can give dignity to those who have lost theirs.

Heather Law.

Heather Law has worked with a homelessness charity in East and South Belfast for the last five years after completing her Masters in Theology. She previously worked overseas with Tearfund and SIM.