A couple living in the village of Mambu, Cameroon, left home one morning before sunrise. They walked for an hour, spent two hours digging cocoyams out of their field, and returned home with baskets of cocoyams on their heads.
The work was hard, but they were proud of the food they had gathered. It represented the bounty of their labor. It assured them that they would be able to feed their family during the dry season.
There is a burden in Africa, however, that is heavier than any basket of cocoyams. This burden is made heavier by social stigma, fear, and death. It is the burden of HIV/AIDS.
Last June, the village of Mambu held its second candlelight memorial service for people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. As in much of Africa, that means nearly everyone in the village attended. Those not infected are affected because AIDS has touched many members of their family and community.
The rains didn’t come as usual that evening, which made for easier travel as people climbed the hill to the community hall.
Earlier in the day, youths from Mambu Presbyterian Church lifted heavy wooden benches onto their heads and carried them about a mile (1.6 km) to the hall so that more people could sit. They had to make several trips to move all 29 benches.
Singing and teasing each other, as young people do, they never complained about the heaviness of the long benches. They cushioned the weight with “nests” made of cloth or leaves.
A shy young man was one of the first to arrive. A nurse from St. Theresa Catholic Medical Centre pinned a red ribbon on his shirt. As more people came—some with their families, some with a friend or two—each person was given a small white candle.
Someone lit a single large candle at the front of the room. The speakers, representing the churches in the community and other leaders, including the Fon (chief), found their seats on the high platform.
A choir sang, accompanied by drums and shakers.
“May this burden of HIV/AIDS be lowered from our heads,” prayed Pastor Ivo of Mambu Presbyterian Church in the opening prayer. “It is heavy. We have neglected your word. . . . We have misused the body your Son has bought on the cross. Forgive us. Christ our Redeemer, lighten us as we listen to the advice this evening. Amen.”
The theme for the service was “Family Leading the Way to a World Without HIV/AIDS.”
Why the emphasis on family? Because family is the fundamental cell of society, promoting and preserving life and moral and human values.
The family can lead the way to a world without HIV/AIDS by accepting, supporting, caring for, sharing with, protecting, loving, and educating its members.
When children feel loved and protected by their parents they are less likely to go looking for love in the opposite sex at too early an age. When husbands and wives experience and practice mutual respect, appreciation, and esteem, they are more likely to be faithful to one another.
Stigma and rejection should not exist among family members. Hope for all those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS begins there.
The Scripture reading from Job 2:1-10 introduced Pastor Ivo’s talk on the need for compassion in breaking down the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
“If you want to see how compassionate people are, then bring illness,” he said.
He compared the plight of Job to that of people with HIV/AIDS. Like Job, they are often abandoned. Job’s wife wasn’t taken from him, but she didn’t stand by him either. In fact, she prayed for him to die. When Job’s friends came to visit they told him that his sickness was his punishment. They lacked compassion.
“Our lack of compassion also comes alive in us,” Pastor Ivo said referring to the way people infected with HIV/AIDS are treated. “The action of Job’s wife becomes active in us. Families and churches turn their back on those who are sick with HIV/AIDS. They are left with deep emptiness and betrayal.
“The hope of survival for people with the disease decreases dramatically when the infected person has no support.”
Prayers were raised for the affected and the infected, prayers for forgiveness and strength in responsibility. A moment of silence followed.
As darkness descended, people were invited to come forward and light their small candles from the large center candle. When all the candles were lighted, people began singing—not a rehearsed song, but a traditional African song that rose up spontaneously. The candles were raised and dancing began—joyous, spirited dancing, the flames nearly leaping off the wicks.
The service ended with the youths dramatizing how important it is that families communicate and show compassion. Then people exited into the darkness, with crickets chirping and the stars shining down. It was a peaceful evening.
Had the burden of HIV/AIDS been lifted from their heads? No, the burden is still there. The cushion of compassion, however, gave them hope.
But how far, deep, and wide is the compassion? Will the larger family of Christ help to lighten the burden of HIV/AIDS in Africa?
Kate Reinsma, Dr. Patrick Okwen, and Carol Reinsma contributed to this story. Kate is a graduate of Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, who served as a health worker with the Peace Corps in Cameroon from 2005-2007. Dr. Okwen is a physician at St. Theresa Catholic Medical Center in Mambu; he was Kate’s supervisor. Carol is a freelance writer and Kate’s mother. She was visiting Mambu at the time of the candlelight memorial service.
How Can I Help?
How can churches in North America support people in Africa and around the world who are suffering under the burden of HIV/AIDS?Here are some suggestions:
- Ashia (ah-shi’-uh) is a word often heard in Mambu, Cameroon. It is used to express compassion. When meeting someone with a heavy load, you say “ashia” in recognition of their burden. Most of us won’t have the opportunity to see firsthand the burden of HIV/AIDS in countries that are hit hard by the epidemic, but we can offer ashia through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee’s “Embrace AIDS” campaign. Visit www.embraceaids.org for ideas, facts, and stories.
- Express ashia through a fundraiser, or find a creative way to put money aside. For example, skip a meal and donate the money. Or prepare a meal and serve it to a group willing to donate. (Check out Christian Reformed World Missions’ new cookbook called International Cuisine from the Ends of the Earth (http://www.crcna.org/pages/crwm_cookbook.cfm)
- Embrace suffering. You don’t need to experience every type of suffering in order to have compassion, because suffering is already present in our lives, our families, and our church body. Identify with another’s suffering by playing a “What If” game: “What if I were in this situation? What if I were a child born with HIV?”
- Ask God. Go to God with your supplications and petitions for those living with HIV/AIDS. Go to God for guidance and vision in your role. Ask God to reveal what he can and will do.
What Do People with AIDS Need?
What kind of support do people with HIV/AIDS and their families need?
- Medical support: People need free testing and medical consultations. They also need affordable medications. Because HIV/AIDS attacks immunity, the body is unable to fight other diseases, such as tuberculosis and malaria. Medications, hospitals, and trained medical staff are needed. Mothers can pass on the virus to their unborn children or in breast milk. Formula is needed for babies with HIV positive mothers.
- Psychosocial support: The lives of many people living with HIV/AIDS are cut short by neglect. Orphaned children often become servants in another household, sometimes in the homes of relatives who already have more children than they can support. Often these children are unable to go to school, or they go with torn uniforms and bare feet.
- Nutritional support: AIDS interferes with nutrient absorption and decreases appetite. This causes muscles, organs, and tissues to waste away. People with HIV/AIDS need a balanced diet to prevent muscle loss, weight loss, and to keep the immune system strong. A balanced diet also helps in fighting opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis and malaria. But nutritious foods are difficult to obtain when income is cut because of illness.
- Legal or judicial protection: In many African countries, when both parents die their property rarely reaches the children. Assistance is needed for advocating for children’s rights to inheritance. Without these rights, orphans are left at the mercy of others or must fend for themselves.
- Financial support: No health or life insurance exists for people in many of the countries afflicted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. So when a person with HIV/AIDS becomes too ill too work, there is nothing to fall back on. When the main income provider is too ill to work or dies, the livelihood of the whole family is threatened.
- Spiritual support: The AIDS epidemic has caused many communities in Africa to look hard at various traditional practices, including sexual mores. Church leaders want to give spiritual guidance in sexual matters and in relationships between spouses and between parents and children. They need prayers and financial support for materials and programs.
A statement from the Mambu faith community
“It is the church’s vocation to enter into the suffering of others just as Christ did for us when he died on the cross. The church cannot exclude anyone, including those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.“As the church enters into solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS, the hope of God’s promise of abundant life comes alive and visible to the world. It is in the church that all life is seen as sacred. Thus, people can be encouraged to take responsibility for their sexual behaviors and adopt behaviors that limit the transmission of HIV. “We raise our voices to call for an end to silence about this disease—the silence of stigma, the silence of fear . . . our Christian faith compels us to accept that all persons, including those who are living with HIV/AIDS, are made in the image of God.” [From a statement of the Anglican primates on HIV/AIDS, United Kingdom, April 2002.]
What Is My Church Doing?
The Christian Reformed Church in North America has made addressing AIDS a priority. Here are some of the ways the church reached out during the past year:
- The Back to God Hour’s Arabic broadcasting team produced a 30-minute documentary on AIDS that included interviews with AIDS patients and medical staff. North American radio broadcasts, as well as French-language broadcasts in Africa, also addressed the topic.
- Faith Alive Christian Resources, the CRC’s publishing agency, made available resources for churches interested in learning how they can address the issue.
- The Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action helped to spearhead campaigns to encourage lawmakers in the United States and Canada to support legislation that responds to the needs of the more than 30 million people worldwide who are living with HIV/AIDS.
- The Nehemiah Center, which is supported by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) and Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM), helped churches in Nicaragua train individuals to lead HIV/AIDS outreach in their communities.
- CRWRC brought together 50 community development workers from across Africa and around the world for a three-day summit on AIDS in Limuru, Kenya.
- Rev. John de Vries Jr., a CRC pastor and chaplain from London, Ontario, ran in the Boston Marathon in honor of John Bara, an AIDS orphan, and raised funds to help CRWRC in AIDS-related work in 13 countries.
- The magazine Reformed Worship published an article by Kristen deRoo VanderBerg calling on churches to address the issue of HIV/AIDS. “With more than 12 million children orphaned by AIDS and entire generations of people dying, it is time for Christians to take a stand,” she wrote. “The church must begin talking about AIDS and the church’s role in the face of this crisis.”
- CRWM missionaries Gerald and Jackie Hoogeterp spoke to a church full of people in Nigeria about HIV/AIDS and participated in administering AIDS tests.
- CRWM health educator Mary Kaldeway worked to integrate information about AIDS prevention and treatment in several of her classes at an international school in South Africa.
- Calvin College hosted a photo exhibition spotlighting the increasing number of women in sub-Saharan Africa who are being infected with the disease by their husbands.
- In conjunction with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, CRWRC announced the launch of a two-year “Embrace AIDS” campaign with a goal of raising $3 million to help curb the spread of AIDS and ease the suffering.