Ignoring an Ongoing Horror

Each year, AIDS kills more people than tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes combined. So why are we IGNORING AN ONGOING HORROR?

I want to give you the gift of a sleepless night or two. I’d like to ruin your appetite, but mostly I want to wreck your heart. Not in a sappy, sentimental way but in a hearty, Christian manner. Why? Because when our hearts break for the people of the world, God can piece us back together into a new mosaic of compassion.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to break a heart that’s low on compassion. Our world has seen its share of tragedies in the past year and a half: Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Stan, Wilma, Alpha, and Gamma queued up, one after another flooding cities, wiping out villages, and claiming more than 3,000 lives. A massive earthquake in Pakistan left almost 75,000 dead and millions homeless in the dead of winter. The Southeast Asian tsunami left us with staggering images of the terrifying force of water as it destroyed property and trawled more than 200,000 people to a watery grave.

Did you feel an urgent need to help? Did your heart pour out its own tidal wave of support and compassion? For most of us, the answer was “yes.”

Ironically, where sudden disasters often compel us to action, ongoing tragedies that are even more desperate elicit a tired yawn.

In the 30 days following the Southeast Asian tsunami, with world attention and support pouring into the region, 317,300 people quietly wasted away of HIV/AIDS in Africa. While 50,000 children are believed orphaned by the tsunami, UNICEF reports that 12 million children are orphaned by AIDS in Africa. Each month brings another HIV/AIDS tsunami that batters the continent of Africa.

Yet scarcely a fist of outrage or a dollar of support is raised. And far too few tears are shed over a tragedy that has been going on for decades.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is “the moral issue of our times,” remarks U2 lead singer Bono. The number of people living with and dying from HIV/AIDS is both staggering and scandalous. Last year, three million people died from AIDS, including 500,000 children. About 60 percent of the HIV/AIDS crisis unfolds in sub-Saharan Africa alone. This merciless disease causes most of its cruel suffering among the
poor and vulnerable, those without access to the needed resources, support, and treatment.

HIV/AIDS not only snuffs out human life but, as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell notes, it “tears the fabric of societies and undermines governments. AIDS can destroy countries and destabilize entire regions.” This is not political hyperbole but the mean reality facing an entire continent.

Throughout Africa, classrooms are quiet because teachers are sick from AIDS. Hospital beds lie vacant because medical staff are too sick to work. Bands of children roam the countryside without parents, relatives, or friends to care for them. Stephen Lewis, the U.N. special envoy on AIDS, observes that in Malawi it’s very possible that the majority of the workforce may wither away from AIDS, causing the national economy to crumble.

Yet perhaps the most troubling aspect about the HIV/AIDS disaster is how far off our radar it is in North America. It’s an ocean away on a continent few of us understand. U2 frontman Bono predicts: “This generation will be remembered for three things: the Internet, the war on terror, and how we let an entire continent go up in flames while we stood around with watering cans. Or not.”

Or not! Those two words of defiant hope fly in the face of the hopelessness that the HIV/AIDS crisis generates. Conquering the disease looks so impossibly daunting. But followers of Christ are part of a conspiracy of hope, called to “proclaim the Lord’s favor,” knowing that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Christ (Matt. 25:40).

This defiant kingdom hope can change the sad statistics of AIDS. It did for Annette, the oldest child in a large Kenyan family. Her father contracted AIDS and passed it on to her mother. Both of them died in short order. Like millions of other African children, young Annette was left to fend for the entire family, facing the likely prospect of begging, stealing, or falling into prostitution to somehow make life work.

But thankfully, the Huruma Women’s Group (huruma means “compassion”), a Kenyan partner of CRWRC, was there to advocate for Annette’s needs. They helped Annette establish small income projects so that she and her orphaned siblings could have daily food. Annette’s story is like a sprig of hope in a continent drowning in misery.

And it all begins with a broken heart. So here’s my prayer for you and for our church: may God bless our eyes so we see the wasted face of HIV/AIDS; may God bless our ears to hear the haunting cries of the HIV/AIDS orphans; may God bless our hands to reach across an ocean and hold out the compassion of Christ; may God bless our feet to take us into uncomfortable places; and may God bless our hearts by breaking them, piecing them together into his own heart for the least of these.

How is the CRC Responding?

CRC agencies, such as CRWRC, have been ministering to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa for almost 15 years. Here’s a summary of a few of our denomination’s efforts:

  • Kenya: CRWRC supports a large HIV/AIDS program in Kenya, partnering with the Anglican Church of Kenya and the Reformed Church of East Africa to provide Bible study for pastors and church leaders; train community leaders, counselors, and youth in AIDS awareness, prevention and care; and support AIDS orphans.
  • Senegal: CRWRC partners with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Senegal’s adolescent health program, which includes 11 peer-educators that take young people through a five-month curriculum promoting good reproductive health, making good decisions, and practicing communication skills.
  • Zambia: The Presbyterian Church in Zambia, one of CRWRC’s partner organizations, is responding by encouraging and training individuals to care for the needs of HIV/AIDS victims.

What can you do?

The North American church is positioned to be a vital partner in the fight against HIV/AIDS through a simple “I-3” strategy: inform, identify, invest.

Get informed: Bridge the distance that prevents us from seeing the HIV/AIDS need by getting informed. Start an AIDS-focused study group. The CD resource “We have AIDS,” produced by the CRWRC and the Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action, is a wealth of information and resources. Check out informative websites, like www.crcjustice.org, www.unaids.org, or www.stephenlewisfoundation.org.

Deliberately identify: Compassion is a deliberately cultivated disposition out of obedience to God. Do whatever you can to enter the plight of an HIV/AIDS victim. Make HIV/AIDS a regular part of your prayers (likely requiring a healthy dose of repentance for our indifference). Commemorate World AIDS Day (Dec. 1). Hold an AIDS-focused service in your church.

Generously invest: Singer Bono said of AIDS victims, “People are dying for the stupidest of reasons: money.” Support a CRWRC AIDS program. Ask your deacons to hold a regular offering for HIV/AIDS.

Nelson Mandela said, “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation.” Could we be that generation for Africa? Pray that it be so.

For Discussion
  1. Why does Reinders want to “break our heart”?
  2. Rock star Bono calls the AIDS/HIV epidemic the “moral issue of our times.” Is that an exaggeration? Do you agree?
  3. Why do we take notice and action when a sudden tragedy strikes but largely ignore ongoing horrors that exact a much higher toll? What role might the media play in this? What role should Christian media like The Banner play in this?
  4. Describe how the AIDS epidemic affects entire African communities.
  5. Why does Reinders call our Christian response to that crisis “a defiant kingdom hope”?
  6. What can we do? What should we do? What shall we do?

About the Author

Phil Reinders is the senior minister at Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Toronto, Ont. He is the author of the prayer book Seeking God's Face and blogs at squinch.net.

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