Seeking miracles in AIDS ministry

By  Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • November 23, 2007
AIDS_africa.jpgHealing is tougher than handing out pills. The spectacular results of antiretroviral (ARV) treatment have many thinking such drugs are the solution to the pandemic. They can make a huge difference. Where available, they prolong life, improve its quality and thereby reduce stigma. Making them as available throughout Africa as they are in Canada is an urgent issue of international justice.

Thus, the slogan of World AIDS Day 2007 on Dec. 1: “Take the lead. Stop AIDS. Keep the promise!”

But universal access is a very long way off, and I repeat — healing is tougher than handing out pills.

The curing model, if I may put it this way, is to remedy a biochemical or mechanical problem — stop the cells from multiplying or stop the gland from overproducing. But a narrow, medical strategy can overlook other vital ways of managing HIV and AIDS.

HIV-AIDS turns out to be a hugely complex affair. It affects nearly every dimension of individual, family and community life. The response has to be equally broad and varied.

For AIDS, sad to say, is part of life. All Africans live in its midst. Some will be born with HIV. Many will die because of AIDS.  And this will continue for generations.

A non-medical but heartbreaking problem is stigma. Ignorance and terror shroud the virus to such an extent that many HIV-positive people would literally rather die than admit they are infected. Going for life-prolonging ARV treatment entails too great a risk of being discovered. It is really stigma, rather than the virus, which kills them.

Even if people pluck up the courage to get tested, they often cannot afford trips to the clinic or routine tests that go with ARVs. And malnutrition, endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, is another obstacle. You can’t take ARVs on an empty stomach and, if undernourished, you are much more likely to succumb to infections.

At any one time, only 10 or 15 per cent of those who have HIV are eligible to take these medicines. For the rest, it’s either too early or too late or for other reasons they cannot take them. So, for 85 or 90 per cent of people who are HIV-positive, ARVs are not a solution right now. Our role in the church is mostly to work with this vast majority.

Already immersed among the people, the church is well-placed to meet many needs by including those with HIV or AIDS in the life of the community, by helping with food or school fees, by support groups, by home visits, by spiritual accompaniment. Countless parishes have home-based care programs run by volunteers. Many parishioners receive training, learning to monitor adherence to ARV regimes and diets, which is so important if treatment is to work. Caregivers attend to sick people, comfort them and help look after their children, ensuring they can go to school.

Christian AIDS ministry yields its miracles. I think of Rosanna, a young Kenyan who lay rejected and alone in a Nairobi slum. Church workers sought her out. The love and simple care they offered saved her from despair and death. With such support but so far without ARVs, today Rosanna has passion for life and is raising her young son. She is a witness to the love of God and reaches out to others at risk or in need.

Religious sisters and priests visit people in their last days or hours, sometimes very young people, and offer them consolation and hope so they can close their eyes in peace. A Jesuit brother in Zimbabwe visits orphans in the townships of Harare, makes sure they are OK, offers a listening ear, helps them get food and go to school.

This is the kind of work we support. The African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) encourages Jesuits in nearly 30 countries of the sub-continent to respond where they are, as part of the daily work they already do, and in the widest variety of ways.

In all its variety, this is the work of healing.  The kingdom of God is all about healing. To me, the paradigm for healing is Jesus reaching out.

A leper came up to Jesus, fell on his knees, and begged him for help: “You can make me clean,” he pleaded, “if you want to.” Moved with pity, Jesus replied, “Of course I want to!” He reached out, touched him and declared, “Be clean!” (Matthew 8:2)

In the time of AIDS, God really wants to heal. To be healed means to be touched, included, comforted, treated humanly and made to feel alive. We are God’s way of reaching out and touching. God heals through us.

(Canadian Jesuit missionary Michael Czerny, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is the director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network. AJAN fosters and supports Jesuit-sponsored AIDS ministries in Africa.

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