Saturday is my favorite day of the week. It’s a day without alarm clocks, long meetings and pressing deadlines. As a child, Saturdays were for cartoons, pajamas and Lucky Charms. Saturdays were for softball games, sleepovers and birthday parties. They meant a break from the grind of homework and studying for tests. Even now, my roommates and I have a Saturday morning ritual where we stay in our pajamas as long as we can, indulging in maple syrup-soaked waffles and enjoying the day that embodies freedom and relaxation after an exhausting week of work.
My fondness for Saturdays changed when I went to Africa because in Africa, Saturdays are for funerals.
Violet Asya is seventeen years old. She lives in Kenya, and for her, Saturdays are the saddest days of the year. As in many parts of Africa, funerals in western Kenya take place on Saturdays. Violet buried her mother on a Saturday in 2003, and her father on a Saturday in 2004. She is under the care of her ailing grandmother and often does not have enough money to feed herself or her brothers and sisters. Two months ago, she dropped out of school because she had no money to pay for her school fees. In the last year, she has attended five burials for some of her closest friends. Violet lives in a village where, on average, five people die each week from HIV/AIDS. The pandemic in Africa continues to take millions of lives and has taken Saturday hostage for its keeping. While Violet enjoys spending her free time playing soccer and reading books, her Saturdays are typically spent at a funeral for yet another loved one who has been lost to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
WHY IS THIS A PRESSING ISSUE IN THE WORLD?
Violet Asya’s story is a hint of how millions have been affected by AIDS. Because of its growing devastation, the global HIV/AIDS pandemic has been termed the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today. Over 20 million people have died from AIDS in the last twenty years. Twenty-five million people live with HIV in Africa as the disease spreads rapidly across different parts of the world. In India, 5.1 million people are HIV positive – the largest number of people living with HIV outside South Africa (UNAIDS). The number of those HIV positive in Asia is growing, home to 60% of the world’s population. It’s also growing in Russia. While difficult to accept, it’s growing in our own country, as well.
We live in an increasingly shrinking world. The whole world fits in little electronic boxes. We have 24/7 news coverage, internet at our fingertips, information input constantly screaming for our attention. But this calls for us to be aware of our neighbors, to reach outwards and engage with them. The overwhelming devastation and tragedy of AIDS in our world may cause some to shake their heads with a sense of helplessness. But I have met Violet, and I have seen hope. My hope is that the closeness of AIDS to our lives will inspire you to help alleviate the suffering and the injustice that cascade from the scourge of AIDS.
AIDS ON A BODY, ON A CONTINENT
James Luthuli is a young, passionate and smart young man in central Kenya who is HIV-positive. He has a virus called the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus, which is transmitted sexually, through blood transfusions, other bodily fluids, or through childbirth. HIV progressively weakens the immune system and reduces the person’s ability to fight basic diseases. HIV eventually leads to AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
James tells me that he has experienced a wide range of symptoms from HIV. Sometimes his skin gets open sores that hurt simply from exposure to the air. He often suffers from high fevers and a loss of appetite, which combine to produce severe weight loss. James is prone to a wide spectrum of illnesses, many of which are not life threatening for healthy individuals. He told me how HIV makes it hard to stay healthy. “My body is like an open house, so all these diseases can visit and attack me freely,” he explained.
A few years ago, I saw an extremely sick two-year old baby boy. He was lying rather sadly in an ICU of a South African hospital. I played peek-a-boo with him, hiding my face behind my hands and then raising my head above my hands with a wide-eyed, big smiled, energetic happy face. I wanted to make him laugh or to smile. With a start, I realized there was nothing that was going to ease the seriousness on the face of this little boy. He fought for every breath as his lungs inflated and deflated rapidly, a small oxygen nasal canella lodged in his swollen nostrils, staring at me with discomfort and affliction.
I asked the nurse what was wrong with the boy and when he was expected to recover.
“His mother died last week from AIDS,” she said. “He’s HIV positive. He has only a few more days to live.” I stood in that hospital room, instantly broken. In the next moment, looking at him, tears flooding my eyes, I felt anger. In that moment, the gut-wrenching reality of injustice filled my soul. I saw AIDS as a great enemy that took innocent children. Now, when I hear statistics and facts, and people say that 20 million people have died of AIDS, I see that little boy, and I know that one death is too many, and that 20 million deaths is utterly, totally, conclusively, irrefutably, unacceptable. Not just in my mind, but for all of us.
Just as the virus attacks the weakest parts of the body, so too, does it attack the weakest parts of society. AIDS knows no borders and hits the poorest of us the hardest. AIDS is a health crisis that affects the social, economic, political, spiritual and emotional health of communities, continents and the world. Those who are already afflicted by dire poverty are now experiencing AIDS in a way that powerfully adds lingering death to centuries of agony. The disease runs rampant among the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, and takes particular care to victimize women and children.
Most African women I met were widows caring for children that were not their own. After slaying millions of Africans, HIV/AIDS has left over 14 million orphans. Violet’s ailing grandmother, a widow, struggles every day to provide the basic needs for orphaned children of her devastated family. Her son, Violet’s father, was a schoolteacher, and his wife, Violet’s mother, once sold fruits and vegetables in the village. They earned enough to barely pay for Violet’s food, clothing and school fees. She and her siblings have now been at the mercy of other neighbors who are struggling just as desperately to survive because they are caring for orphans. This in turn is producing a new generation with little or no means for survival.
The invasion of AIDS on the developing world has imitated in real life the cinema horrors of science fiction. It has wiped out a generation of adults and killed children. It has crippled the workforce, decreased life expectancy by two decades, reduced economic growth, weakened governance, disrupted marginal infrastructures, halted productivity, undermined national security, dissolved families, invited armed conflict and impeded the health and educational development that are necessary to help impoverished communities rise above extreme poverty.
WHY SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED ABOUT HIV/AIDS?
Americans who were not overseas in World War Two, who were not in Lower Manhattan on September 11, or not in the Gulf Coast when Katrina struck, struggle to grasp the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It’s hard to imagine what it’d be like to lose so many people in your community, to lose 8500 people a day, every day; to have discomfort and death lurking in your path for all the days of your life; to witness the gradual collapse of your nation because people have died and many of the living are too sick to work.
Last week I met with a large multinational corporation that is dedicated to fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa through its corporate foundation. The director of the foundation said it was difficult to understand the emergency of AIDS until he visited his employees in South Africa to learn what they’d like from the company.
“They told me they desperately needed a hearse,” he said. “That’s when it hit me. People in our company were losing family members by the hundreds. They needed funeral supplies. I knew AIDS was a serious deal, and that we were responsible for responding to it.”
In college, I spent much of my time studying historical social justice issues, with a focus on the Civil Rights movement and the global holocausts of the twentieth century. I remember being shocked because the world had mutely allowed injustice to triumph. There had been very little opposition. I looked back at those times of suffering and injustice and wondered, “Where were the people to speak for those who were without a voice? Why didn’t we pressure our government to act?” I learned that while Africans, Asians and Europeans were being slaughtered in the conflict that would eventually take 165 million lives, six million American mothers, many of them in minks and veiled hats, and most of them claiming Christian reasoning, protested the provision of aid to the victims. Many of them blamed the Jews and Europeans for their own problems.
Documentaries of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and American racial segregation have made me shake my head and say, “Never again. Not here. Not ever.” Now I wonder if future documentaries will report how AIDS ripped through our world and most of the wealthiest and best educated failed to act.
No region of the world has been spared. The projection for the spread of the pandemic is staggering. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS – UNAIDS – has named AIDS as “an extraordinary kind of crisis; it is both an emergency and a long-term development issue.” The problem of AIDS is not going to go away by its own accord. Instead, it will become much worse. Many developing countries lack the resources to support, much less help, their struggling communities. Poverty has hindered the ability to rise above this crisis.
History has taught us that sickness and death in one corner of the planet will eventually affect others. But this disease, this pandemic, is on every continent. Why then, are we not responding to this pandemic that is attacking our world, our brothers and sisters across the globe?
WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS THAT PREVENT US FROM SERVING THOSE IN NEED?
Earlier this year, I spent a weekend taking classes on community development, sanitation and hygiene in the developing world. People from all over the country and all walks of life had convened for these courses. During lunch breaks, I shared time with a wonderful woman whose spirit had lit up our room; she had a contagious enthusiasm. Sincerely concerned about the HIV/AIDS crisis, we were able to discuss how the pandemic was impacting Africa and India. We explored how to address the issue. While discussing the spread of AIDS, she stopped me in mid-sentence, “Jena, don’t you think that if they just learned to abstain we could fix the problem?” She asked why so many people were making immoral decisions and that immorality is the reason that AIDS is devastating populations in India and Africa.
I’ve heard this before, that if we taught others about morality, the AIDS crisis would go away. This is one of the great barriers to addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis. Paradoxically, this judgment is particularly strong in the American Christian community.
My dear friend’s question drove pain into my heart. The question offered a simple answer for a complex question. In the midst of the unjust and horrific HIV/AIDS crisis, a simple answer can beguile us. It can seem to ease affliction, guilt and paralysis. I wish an easy answer existed, for I love to face a problem and try to fix it. Immediately. AIDS has been the hardest because its magnitude is stunning. Those who fight it have discovered that when you begin considering options, solutions become more complex. This is a very difficult foe.
Pamela Kumbuka smiles as she greets me. She is a painfully thin and quiet mother of four children, all under the age of 12. She has a pleasant demeanor, a kind expression on a handsome face and a powerful commitment to her young. When her husband died from malaria last year, their tiny income plummeted and their small plot of land was taken from her. She and her children have since moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, but she has no source of income to support the children. Pamela spent her childhood doing the necessary tasks for daily survival. She gathered wood, walked long and difficult miles every day to bear buckets of disease-bearing water, cooked, cleaned and helped care for her younger siblings. Unable to attend school as a child, she now, as a widow, struggles to find the means to obtain food for her children.
Her children have gone days without food and Mrs. Kumbuka struggles against despair. I have met with women who, like Pamela, struggle to keep their children alive. Sometimes, despite the protests that come from their souls, the only way they can save the lives of their children is to sleep with men who will give them food in return.
Suppose that the man from whom Pamela receives food is HIV positive. Now she, and every woman whose time he purchases have an excellent chance of contracting the fatal virus. And then, through the course of living in tight quarters, it spreads. No one knows until it’s too late.
What was the moral choice for Pamela? Stay sexually pure or watch her children starve to death? There is no easy answer to this complex challenge. In many cases around the world, women do not have the luxury of making moral decisions as we have defined them in the United States. Poverty and injustice have left these women with different choices.
We might ask ourselves why it’s tough to bring an AIDS conversation into the American Church. Although homosexuality accounts for only 5 to 10 percent of worldwide HIV cases, the issue of sexual activity has caused the church to hesitate on addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis (UNAIDS). Instead of inspiring opportunities for love and engagement, the stigma of sexual immorality invites the dangerous potential for judgment and isolation of the victims. Whether from fear or ignorance, the Church has been slow to address the issue of AIDS. U2’s front man, Bono, has called the American church the “Sleeping Giant” in reference to its response, and, its inaction, to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The ninth chapter of John addresses the question of injustice, of brokenness, and of confusion in relating the story about a disciple who asks Jesus whose fault it is that a man is born blind. Is it his fault or his parents? Or perhaps we could ask, “Jesus, why is it that this little boy was born with AIDS? Whose fault is it?”
Jesus tells his disciples, “It was not anyone’s fault. This man was born blind,” and perhaps this baby was born HIV positive, “so that God’s mercy could be demonstrated.” Then Jesus gives the blind man sight. He heals the man, He shows mercy to his children, and He gives hope to the bystanders.
Ultimately, sin is to blame for HIV/AIDS. But in the scheme of the kingdom, does it matter who can be blamed and whom we, as humans, might choose to judge? Is there any benefit to knowing where to point the finger in the process of reaching into the suffering with compassion and a helping hand? Blaming others to feel better about not helping is a common human habit. Even if HIV/AIDS could be somehow attributed to sexual promiscuity, is it not an equal sin to go against God’s command to heal the sick, to care for the widow and the orphan (James 1:27)? Are not the planks in our own eyes large and painful enough to give us cause from finding fault in others? Is this not the moment to see ourselves as instruments of God’s work in the world?
WHAT CAN I DO?
I am sitting in a coffee shop. But if I lift my fingers from the keyboard, and close my eyes, I am suddenly in a South African hospital ward with a beautiful dying child. I am seated in a mud-floor Kenyan hut with a hungry family, hearing them sing to God. I am standing on a narrow dusty road walking into a brilliant crimson African sunrise. The faces of the orphan, the widow, the AIDS victim, the broken, the lonely and the hungry move their lips. If I turn off my iPod, even here in America, I can hear their call, their labored breathing, their plea for human dignity, for hope, for a chance to live and to fulfill that which God created them to be:
What do I have to offer as my body is deteriorating? How am I to
expect anything better in my life if I live in a shack buried in trash?
Who will love me, now that my mother has died of AIDS and I am
HIV positive? We are the downtrodden.
I hear Violet, James and Pamela’s call as a scream inside my heart:
Help, we struggle for self-respect. We struggle against the internal
killers of shame, lowliness, disability, doubt. We are poor. If you
can, help me, Sister.
Sometimes we can’t save the sick, but we can support them in dignity and love. We can hold the orphan. We can teach a girl to read in order to gain confidence in the face of a frightening future. We can advocate for them. We can serve and love them. We can embrace them in prayer, for God promises that there is no such thing as a helpless situation. His redemption rises in the midst of crisis and turbulence. We are each called to do something great, and I fear that so many of us see the overwhelming gloom of a situation and doubt God’s ability to come through the brokenness. I remind myself to not forget what happened at the cross.
Isaiah 58:9 says, “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help and he will say: Here am I.”
Your prayers are necessary. God listens to the cries of the oppressed and to those who advocate for them on His behalf. In praying for our brothers and sisters across the globe, change can occur, both within the lives of those you pray for, and within your own heart and in your own life. Your prayers are powerful. I let God stir me as I prayed for people who are infected and affected by AIDS. I let Him guide me where He desired, and I have never been so fulfilled in a sense of purpose or felt so aligned with Him.
You can help Violet Asya and James Luthili and other brothers and sisters with financial support. I work for Blood:Water Mission (www.bloodwatermission.com), and work with Africare (www.africare.org), and African Leadership (www.africanleadership.org).
These, and other organizations, focus on holistic, fellowship-driven and sustainable community development to strategically assist communities, most affected by AIDS.
Our government has an abundance of resources that are needed desperately in places like Africa. In a democracy, it’s our job to make the phone calls and write the letters to the Senators and Representatives. It’s their job to listen to our expectations that they immediately and substantially support AIDS programs across the globe like the Global Fund and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Leadership is ethically inspiring others to their best selves. If you are a student and have an interest in starting a chapter on your high school or college campus to advocate for fighting the global AIDS pandemic, there are groups that can assist you in doing so. Acting on AIDS (www.actingonaids.org) and Student Global AIDS Campaign (www.fightglobalaids.org) are an excellent start.
It is important to remember that the AIDS crisis is happening in our own backyard. You can look up your local AIDS organization and find volunteer opportunities where you can get involved.
Stay informed and maintain conversations about the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As noted, the AIDS crisis is complex. It raises intertwined questions about justice, community development, faith and who is my brother? Bring the conversation to the dinner table, to the small group, to the office, and into your American life.
Maintain hope and extend grace and love. There are incredible individuals across the globe, including in our own country, who are offering this hope and love to people living with AIDS. In Africa, I have met leaders with hearts of character, convictions of steel, and the determination to make a difference in someone’s life.
Julie Hornby, a nurse at the Hillcrest AIDS Centre in Durban, South Africa, once told me, “We’re not curing people, but if there is one person you can give pride and dignity to in order to make them part of the community, all of this is worth it.” Her spirit and drive was a Times Square neon sign that beamed, “HOPE.” The world needs the Julie’s to seek beauty and dignity in places of sorrow and loss, to walk alongside our brothers and sisters like Violet, James and Pamela.
I have seen firsthand that the deepest and most universal desire of people everywhere is to be loved, to be loved regardless of social, economic, racial, or physical conditions, to be treated as if Jesus were washing our dirty feet.
WHY WE CAN’T WAIT
Courageous activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained the events and forces behind the Civil Rights movement in Why We Can’t Wait. He described the urgency for action against injustice by saying, “Perhaps it is easy for those who never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
In the same vein, when you genuinely accept that a young girl must bury her parents while a two year-old dies without ever stepping foot outside the hospital in which he was born, and when you understand a single mother’s burning sadness in sacrificing her body to feed her children, it’s simply impossible to return to the notion that nothing can be done, and that you’re better off waiting for someone else to act.
Over recent years, awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis has increased. World leaders, rock stars, movie actors and other popular icons have begun to speak more urgently about the pandemic.
The problem is that it’s not enough. It’s not enough because AIDS still kills 8,500 people every day. This is an extension of humanity’s ancient injustices. It’s particularly painful because it acutely strikes the most impoverished communities and nations in the world in a time when the concept of plenty has been overdeveloped. It’s not enough because we who have much are equipped to do more than shake our heads and say, “That’s too bad.”
Today is Saturday and I’m at my desk in my home in the South of the United States of America. A mix of favorite iTunes is playing. A tropical storm blew out my bedroom window, and it was being repaired as Hurricane Katrina moved into three Southern states, reminding us of our need to do what is right before it’s too late. Bright morning sunlight beams through the new window, and I can see shades of African crimson, and remember how I was welcomed and touched by people who have less than little.
Saturday used to be my favorite day until Violet shared her life with an American non-profit worker who asked why she didn’t like Saturdays. I’m privileged to share my prayers with her, and to carry a tiny part of her burden through my love of Christ, my obedience to kingdom-building, and my very intentional support and advocacy on behalf of my African brothers and sisters.
Saturday is again becoming my favorite day of the week. Wherever I am, and whatever load I carry, I know I’m not alone, for I share that day with those who need sharing most.
This article was originally published in The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World. Permission for republishing this article was granted by the author.