A series of essays towards General Convention in 2003
"If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you asleep. And what I say to you, I say to everyone: Keep awake."
Are we awake to AIDS? Actually, it doesn't even blip on our radar screen. New treatments began in 1996 to suppress AIDS in the U.S. to where it has become a somewhat manageable disease. New infections occur at about the same rate, but more in society's margins. It has slipped from our awareness.
A year ago on this day, I attended a seminar sponsored by the UW on AIDS in Africa. The host remarked that history would judge our generation on how it responded to this pandemic, the worst health crisis in human history. He said that other big events of our time will seem routine to historians, if not to us, but AIDS will stand out. Our unwillingness to respond wholeheartedly to an entire continent disintegrating before our eyes, he said, will be known as one the greatest moral failings in human history.
Africa is awash with AIDS. While the U.S. infection rate runs a little under half of one percent, sub-Saharan Africa is well over 10%, with ten countries running over 25%. There are about 950,000 people in the U.S. with HIV/AIDS. In sub-Saharan Africa, it's 28 million. It takes only five days for as many people to die of AIDS in Africa as there are new infections in the U.S. in one year-40,000. 8,000 Africans a day. Less than 1 in a thousand have access to any treatment. That's Africa. Other emerging explosions are in India, China and Russia. In our own hemisphere, Haiti and the Dominican Republic by themselves have more than a third as many infected as all of North America.
So what's our problem? Why don't we notice? Our problem is a sin called narcissism, a sort of passive pridefulness. We are self-absorbed. We go to workshops to improve everything from our waistline to our prayer life; we want to chew on our bones in the parish rather than see ourselves as members of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church . . . and the worst is this: if the problem doesn't affect us here in America, in our eyes it doesn't exist anywhere. Look at our response to the terrorist attack in Bali-- Australia's 9/11. Did we light candles, did we have services for them? No, it was just another news story, quickly to slip into the back pages. AIDS is like that. It can be decimating Africa with other major areas about to enter the shredder, and we don't notice, because it doesn't affect us.
Through the power of economics and communications, our way of life intrudes on everyone, full of promised wonders, but we never notice who they are. Is it any wonder that people can admire and hate America at the same time? Basically, we have a global Apartheid: the resources you get are determined by your race and where you live. We can't allow the world to live half sick and half well. Jesus's healing power made no distinctions, nor should we.
What should we do? Years ago in New York City, Cardinal Spellman's secretary came in to announce that there was a man at the office door who claimed to be Jesus. "What should we do?" she asked. "Look busy," he replied. We might also be busy.
ERD is among the busy. ERD has committed a hefty portion of its resources to AIDS prevention in Africa. Now, ERD has identified viable Anglican-based AIDS programs in seven African countries, mostly directed toward orphans. Our local AIDS committee-ECRA-- has been working with two others. Two weeks ago, our convention passed a resolution to urge congregations to take practical action to respond to AIDS in Africa and other parts of the world. St. Stephen's was among its sponsors. ERD convened a working group right after convention to begin building a grassroots response among Episcopalians to AIDS in Africa. St. Stephen's was there.
There are four intertwined issues here: treatment, prevention, economic disintegration from people too sick to work, and orphans. The experts speaking at the ERD conference all urged us to focus on the orphans. 90% of the world's estimated 14 million AIDS orphans live in Africa. Most of the big money from the global fund and governments flows to the other three more complex issues. Church organizations are well equipped to help orphans. The keys to orphan support are education (fees and uniforms to keep the kids in school) and family support for those who have taken in orphans (Africans rarely use orphanages).
Through ERD and ECRA, congregations can access and support orphan programs in several African countries. In this, the Church Women of St. Stephen's are way ahead of most parishes in the U.S. This year, they are funding secondary education for nine girls in Namibia. This is significant in view of the fact that 58% of HIV infections in Africa are women. In the last two years, the Church Women have supported three AIDS orphan programs in Africa-- one in Uganda and two in Namibia. If you want to do something really easy to help, just spend a few hours a month at Cloud Nine. That's where the money comes from. One thing we can do as a parish and as individuals is to follow the Church Women. We all need to be among the busy.
In Zambia, there are 570,000 orphans in a population of 10.2 million. Some live in child-headed households, some in expanded families, many on the street in child gangs like in "Lord of the Flies." Imagine a whole sub-continent of "Lord of the Flies," a vast breeding ground for terrorists. Now reflect that the cost of one aircraft carrier could virtually check the progress of AIDS in Africa. Which use of the money would make you feel more secure?
Here's another thing you can do. Episcopalians are often people of influence. If you have access to people in power, talk to them about paying attention to Africa. If you don't, write to them. Use scripture. Most of our leaders claim to be people of faith, so make them live up to it.
Henri Nouwen, the great Dominican priest, once went to Peru to help the poor, but as he returned home, he became convinced that his main mission would be to help the poor of Latin America convert their wealthy northern neighbors. The poor and dying in sub-Saharan Africa have a similar reverse mission to us today.
It is Advent, and we wait for the holy child to arrive. If we look, we will find the Christ Child among the vast host of orphans in Africa. If we allow the children of Africa to strip away our needs, preoccupations, and cares, to knock the scales off our eyes, then awake at last, we can touch the holy one in them. And as they accept us, that holy one will touch us.
We wait for God's kingdom to break into our lives amid the candlelight and evergreens. We wait for the little child who we hope will heal us and change our lives. And we fear that will be what happens. The holy child awaits us in the faces of the AIDS orphans in Africa, Haiti and throughout the world. As we know and heal them, we will be known and healed by them. Then that unimaginable wild holiness of the Christ child will truly arrive in our lives, purifying us, freeing us, and blessing us with the peace we long for, hope for, and pray for. Amen.
AIDS Resolution Passed Unanimously by the Diocese of Olympia, 2002
Whereas, throughout the world and especially in Africa, HIV/AIDS has become one of history's most devastating catastrophes, and
Whereas, despite aggressive prevention programs and ever-improving treatment programs, the number of people in our own country who are living with AIDS continues to increase; be it
Resolved, That this 92nd Convention of the Diocese of Olympia urge each congregation to designate annually an appropriate Sunday as Worldwide AIDS Sunday; and be it further
Although people everywhere suffer from AIDS, Africa has been especially devastated. While sub-Saharan Africa comprises 3% of the world's population, it is the home of 70% of those infected with HIV/AIDS. Of the 40 million people infected worldwide, 28.5 million are Africans.
Other heavily affected areas include the Carribean, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and South and Southeast Asia. The resolution spotlights Africa, however, because it remains the heart of the tragedy.
In our own country, the public perception is that HIV/AIDS is no longer a significant problem. Yet more than 950,000 Americans are living with HIV/AIDS. Among our neighbors, those infected are increasingly the young, women, substance abusers, the mentally ill, African-Americans and Hispanics, along with young gay men.
In his letter on AIDS of September 13, 2002, the Presiding Bishop suggested several appropriate days for Episcopalians to focus on AIDS. The Feast of Constance and her companions (September 9), St. Luke the physician and healer (October 18), and World AIDS Day (December 1) were examples, or Sundays near these days.
In response to such pervasive suffering far away and near at hand, our baptismal vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons calls us as Episcopalians, to seek and support effective ministries that relieve the sick, the dying and those orphaned by this disease.
Episcopal Relief and Development and The Episcopal Church Responds to AIDS Committee have developed strong connections with some AIDS organizations in Africa. They are able to connect congregations with proven ways to offer specific and practical support to people suffering from AIDS in Africa, and in other parts of the world.
Submitted by: Earl Grout, Episcopal Church Responds to AIDS Committee, Diocese of Olympia.
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