Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
29 November 2007, 19:30 (Service to mark World AIDS Day)
Ever since I visited Africa in 1999 to see the pain and suffering wrought by AIDS in Kenya, I learnt that faith is not just something you have, it's something you do. The resources of governments may be vast, and the good works of charities and aid agencies may be abundant, but we should never underestimate how powerful the passion of people of faith can be in taking the lead to live positively with this infection.
I went to Africa with my 16 year old son, Ben. We visited an HIV/AIDS hospital in Nkuru in the Rift Valley that was filled to capacity with people who walked hours - even days - just for the chance to seek help. I met courageous patients who refused to give up for themselves or their families. And we came across AIDS activists who met resistance from their own government but kept on fighting anyway.
But of all that we heard, we encountered few stories as heartbreaking as the one I want to share with you tonight.
Leo, as she was known, grew up as one of nine children in a small Kenyan village near Nkuru. All through her life, she worked hard to raise her two kids and save every last penny she earned, and by the time we met her, she had almost finished paying off the mortgage on her home. She had even hoped to open a refuge for local children who had been orphaned by AIDS. Then one day, Leo received a phone call that her eldest brother had fallen ill. At first he told everyone it was diabetes, but later, in the hospital, admitted to the family it was AIDS. He died a few days later. His wife succumbed to the disease as well. And Leo took in their three children.
Six months later, Leo got another phone call. Her younger brother had also become infected with AIDS. She cared for him and nursed him as she did her first brother, but he soon died as well. Leo's pregnant sister was next. And then another brother. And then another brother. She paid for their coffins and their funerals. She took in their children and paid for their schooling. She ran out of money, and she borrowed what she could. She ran out again, and she borrowed even more.
And still, the phone calls continued. All across her tiny village, Leo watched more siblings and cousins and nieces and nephews test positive for HIV. She saw neighbours lose their families. She saw a grandmother house sixteen orphaned grandchildren under her roof. And she saw some children go hungry because there was no one to care for them at all.
AIDS is a story often told by numbers. 40 million globally, we are told, are now infected with HIV. Nearly 4.5 million this year alone. 12 million orphans in Africa, according to a recent article in The Guardian. 8,000 deaths and 6,000 new infections every single day. In some places, 90% of those with HIV do not know they have it. AIDS is set to become the third leading cause of death worldwide in the coming years.
These numbers are staggering and they help us understand the magnitude of this pandemic. But when repeated by themselves, statistics can also numb - they can hide the individual stories and tragedies and hopes of the Leos who live the daily drama of this disease. On this World AIDS Day, these are the stories that we need to hear. They are the stories that touch our souls - and that call us to action and to take a lead.
What might that involve? First, if we hope to win this fight, we must stop new infections - we must do what we can to prevent people from contracting HIV in the first place. We need places and churches where people can be provided with unconditional loving support and a moral framework to make better choices about sex, abstinence and fidelity.
Another area where we can make significant progress in prevention is by removing the stigma that goes along with getting tested for HIV-AIDS. The idea that in some places, nine in ten people with HIV have no idea they're infected is more than frightening - it's a ticking time bomb waiting to go off.
Ben and I took the test on our trip to Kenya after the Centre for Disease Control informed us that by publicly getting a simple 15 minute test, we would encourage a great many Kenyans to get tested as well. Those in public life can do the same. We've got to spread the word to as many people as possible. It's time for all of us to demonstrate that just as there is no shame in going for a blood test or a CAT scan or a mammogram, there is no shame in going for an HIV test. Because while there was once a time when a positive result gave little hope, today the earlier you know, the faster you can get help.
Leo’s story tested my ability to put myself in someone else's shoes - to empathize with a fellow human being. While most would agree that the AIDS orphan or the transfusion victim or the wronged wife contracted the infection through no fault of their own, it has too often been easy for some to point to the unfaithful husband or the promiscuous youth or the gay man and say "This is your fault."
I don't think that's a satisfactory response. My faith reminds me that we are all sinners. My faith also tells me that it is not a sin to be infected with HIV. My Bible tells me that God through Christ healed, comforted, fed, clothed, befriended, and redeemed the lost and fallen.
Living his example is the hardest kind of faith - but it is a way of life that not only lights our way as people of faith, but also really joins us in humility and compassion to other people whoever they are. The gospel of a God who became un-special and took upon himself, in responsibility, our sin and our death, liberates me to follow his example and to live his life to the full.
In the end, the AIDS orphan in Africa presents me with the challenge that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something done for the people with whom we share this earth.
Let me close by returning to the story of Leo, that Kenyan woman burdened by so much death and despair.
Sometime after the death of her fifth sibling, she decided that she wasn't just going to stand idly by. She decided to call the town's first public meeting about the AIDS crisis - something that no one had even talked about, let alone met about. 200 people showed up. Some had walked for miles to get there, a few with their grandchildren on their back.
One by one, they stood up and broke their silence, and they told their stories. Stories of tragedy, and stories of hope. And when they were done, Leo rose and said, "I don't know whether we will win this war, but I'm looking for people who will stand up and face the reality. The time for sitting silently has come to an end."
Everything did not suddenly get better after that meeting, but some things did. Despite all the children she had to raise and all the infected relatives she still had to care for, Leo still decided to open the AIDS orphanage she had dreamed about so long ago. She began building a day care centre that would house one hundred orphans. And she started plans on a youth centre and a soup kitchen.
I hear that part of the story and I think, if this woman who has so little, and has lost so much, can do so much good - if she can still make a way out of no way - then what are we waiting for?
In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul says that we are all of one spirit, and that "if one part suffers, every part suffers with it." But he also says that "if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it." [1 Corinthians 12:26]
On this World AIDS Day, it is the stories of overcoming, and not just suffering and pain, that we need to hear. Yes, the stories of sadness call us to suffer alongside those who suffer. But stories like Leo's also call us to honour her example and rejoice in the hope that it brings. And one of the things I will be free to do when I leave Rochester next Easter will be to make time to revisit Leo in Kenya to help her achieve that brighter future.
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