Rebecca J. Vander Meulen
16 April 2006, Easter
We live in a Lenten world of death and suffering. But in the midst of AIDS’ Lenten character, there are glimmers of Easter, of life emerging amidst death.
Last week we held a large diocesan-wide gathering that was part-celebration, part-conference, and part-training. As I’ve probably mentioned before, after some cynical priests referred to us as the “group of death,” we formally changed our name from the “Equipas da SIDA” (AIDS teams) to the “Equipas da Vida” (Life teams). Our goal is to promote life, not AIDS. And not just survival, but real, deep, abundant life. Life in the body, life in the spirit, life in community. In preaching life, we long to reflect and channel God to one another—God who is not only the author of life, but also the author of NEW life. This is our challenge, this is our calling, and this is our passion. Beautiful life-filled stories were told and created during our conference. I share here a few.
At any conference or workshop I coordinate, I habitually ask if there is any congregation in which someone is living openly with HIV. The question starts conversation on stigma, shame, and community, but until this most recent conference I’ve never had a “yes” response. Last week, five or six people said that others were openly living with HIV in their congregations. Bit by bit, the silence is breaking.
As Gloria was traveling to the conference, she was in the same minibus as Maria, a sick woman from her village who’d been referred to the hospital in Lichinga by our community health project. Maria started vomiting in the minibus, but Gloria was out of reach, so Gloria asked someone sitting nearby to use Maria’s capaluna (skirt) to wipe her face. Gloria’s request was met with ardent refusal. In fact, though minibuses invariably do not begin the journey until they are completely full (so full that I make sure the money for the journey is in my bra, not my pants pocket, where it would be impossible to retrieve mid-journey), disgusted passengers moved so far away from the sick woman that she had enough space to put her head down on the seat next to her. Seeing their response, Gloria asked the driver to stop so she could go support Maria herself. Noting Gloria’s gentle care, a surprised passenger asked her if this was a family member. Yes, said Gloria, she’s my family. A family created by AIDS.
We’d specified that each parish should send two delegates: one woman and one man. But we also specified that delegates should be able to read and write, and in one isolated and remote region we couldn’t find a single woman who was literate enough to even sign her name. We ended up with two vibrant men, including Artur, a middle-aged man who said he hadn’t known a thing about AIDS a year ago. Artur said he had been sleeping with “everyone” until Equipa da Vida members had arrived by bike from the big town, 35 miles away, and had explained what HIV was and how it was spread. Artur, having known nothing about HIV, says that now he’s left his old sexual behavior behind, and feels joyfully free. He’s now working to tell as many people as possible about this germ called HIV!
Midway through the seminar I came down with a little bout of diarrhea. Had this happened six months ago, I would have had two options: to keep on facilitating, or to devise some really extensive group activity for participants to work on while I spent time with the toilet. But the four district coordinators with whom I work are growing so well that now I was able to take the morning off and leave things in their hands. I don’t think my absence was even noticed.
On the first full day of our conference together, a guest speaker who serves as a doctor in Guatemala told moving stories of people there who she has encouraged to be tested. In addition to giving evidence that HIV is not just an African problem, she gave evidence from a doctor’s perspective of the value of testing. At the end of her session, nearly half the participants wrote on anonymous slips of paper that they’d like to get tested (most of them for the first time).
Though I’ve regularly encouraged people to get tested through activities that demonstrate the potential value of testing, I’ve never offered testing within a conference. Why not? The Mozambican government wants testing to be done in officially approved testing sites, so practically speaking, offering testing to a group can be complicated logistically. In addition, I’m generally wary of activities done “en masse,” in which people are driven to some action by emotions or peer pressure, but later resent having been gently coerced into that decision. As the majority of our churches are in remote areas, where treatment—even of opportunistic infections—is often not an option, I’m often confronted with the claim that in such conditions a positive HIV result is merely a death sentence. But my biggest hesitation has been because of my inability to offer post-diagnosis support to various people at the same time. When any large group of Mozambicans gets tested, several will have positive results. These people will all need support at the same time.
The insistence of one man broke through my hesitations. This man lives in a remote lakeshore town on the Tanzanian border, a three or four day walk from the nearest ferry boat stop. He stood up in the conference and said, “There’s no way I can get tested at home. I need to get tested here!” I wasn’t forcing testing on him. He was demanding it from me.
So we continued with the already scheduled daily testing-related activities, and also arranged to bring a group of participants to Lichinga’s testing center on the last afternoon of the conference. The public list of people who wanted to get tested grew by the day—to a total of more than a dozen.
The morning of our closing mass, I mentioned our testing plans to the person who was leading our worship. I asked if he could add a line within the normal prayers remembering the people who were to be tested that afternoon. But instead he adjusted the order of worship and allowed these people to come forward for special individual prayers. Many went up, some visibly trembling. A pretty good “altar call,” from my perspective.
At the end of the conference, I accompanied eight people to Lichinga’s testing center. (Because of logistical reasons, we arranged for several others to be tested in their home regions.) After all eight had gotten the test, we sat again for reflection, sharing, and prayer. Though no one openly shared their results with the group, there was true sense of community. I made myself available to anyone who wanted to discuss the process or results individually, and got a string of people who elatedly told me their results were negative, and that they were ready to encourage everyone they knew to get tested. But then someone came in and calmly showed me his piece of paper with a positive result. This result surprised me, as he hadn’t been crying or even looked sullen in the broader group.
We’ll call him Armando. He was a quiet youth, someone I hadn’t gotten to know well in the first part of the conference. But in deeper conversations we had later that evening (with his Equipa da Vida district coordinator) he spoke with evident joy of his two children, and of great pride that his 10-year old is already in third grade—a significant accomplishment in his rural community. We spoke of his active role in his church, and the potentially powerful impact he could someday make in that community, speaking as a person living positively. We made plans about how to tell his wife that he was positive. Since it was urgent for her to be tested, we gave him money to cover the costs of the 65 mile journey from his home to the nearest testing center. (The tobacco his family is growing won’t be ready for sale for a couple more months, and until this harvest, his family will have no cash.) Testing for her is urgent because she’s five months pregnant. Though only one in three babies of HIV-positive mothers is infected under normal conditions, it’s possible to virtually eliminate the possibility mother-to-child transmission if she takes anti-retroviral medications before and during delivery, and if she takes care in feeding the baby.
Later that same week I spent more time in the testing center, this time with sick women who had come to Lichinga through our lakeshore community health program. Both tested positive, and therefore both now have access to some of Mozambique’s best health care, offered by the international NGO Doctors without Borders (MSF). Gladia was to have immediate surgery on an infected abscess; Julia is to start treatment for her oral thrush and her TB, and her currently healthy 6-week-old baby Ermelindo has been given medicine to ward off opportunistic infections—if, indeed, he’s HIV-positive (which will only be definitively determinable at 18 months). Though we’re only just beginning our hospice program to care for people who come to Lichinga from afar to seek treatment, we already have a list of 60 women who have volunteered to care for and visit sick people.
While I was waiting at the testing center with Gladia and Julia, various others who I knew entered. A woman who I’d visited a couple of years ago, bed-bound, bounced in, full of life, obviously a beneficiary of life-giving antiretroviral therapy. And unaware of my presence there, the person who had led our conference’s final worship service, who had prayed with people in their pre-test nervousness, came in to be tested himself.
Christ is risen. Maria has an expanded family, who supports her, even in her vulnerability. Artur sees that life is about more than just sleeping around. The Diocese of Niassa has a growing team of competent leaders. Through our final worship, representatives from every parish have seen that testing and the emotions surrounding it are indeed God’s business. With the sobering news that he has a virus in his veins, Armando is more equipped to take action to care for his own family, and potentially be a prophetic voice in his community. Ermelindo has prophylactic treatment, and his mother has the chance to get on antiretroviral therapy before she worsens. Christ is risen indeed.
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