A Prayer for Africa

 

On September 14 last year I flew out of Sydney for Africa and the USA. It was barely three days after the tragedy in New York and Washington which overnight changed our world. Faced with the enormity of such brazen evil that in one day took three thousand men and women like us to their deaths, we were all struggling for answers to half-formed questions.

My purpose for travelling, however, was to join fellow mission and church leaders committed to addressing another evil spreading over our globe like a silent, invisible flood. Every day it kills six thousand people, yet is largely ignored by our media. It is HIV, the quiet killer.

Why does evil seem to triumph, God?

 

In the twenty years since the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV) was identified, twenty-four million have died with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), two-thirds in Sub-Saharan Africa. By the end of this decade the figure will rise to over 60 million, easily outstripping deaths from all the wars of last century. Thirty-four million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Millions of babies have been born HIV positive, most dying in their first months or years.

Despite massive efforts, the pandemic is spreading in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. While Uganda can boast of falling rates of HIV, in most countries the numbers of infected and affected keep rising.

How do I begin to comprehend such huge numbers, God?

Half of those who contract HIV in Africa are under twenty-five years of age, with young women much more likely to be infected than men. In much of Southern Africa today, a fifteen year old has a more than even probability of dying from AIDS. HIV/AIDS is reversing many of the social and economic gains of recent decades and having a devastating impact on the future of African countries, claiming huge numbers of soldiers and police, teachers, students, medical personnel, miners and truck drivers. Is God speaking to us in the midst of this tragedy?

 

Wars, famines, poverty, urban migration and the displacement of populations all contribute to the spread of HIV. Rape as a weapon of war infected the women of Rwanda with HIV. After Ethiopia's war with Eritrea, infected soldiers took HIV back to wives in remote villages.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital city, one mission project succeeded in moving dozens of street people into reasonable housing and providing them with the basics of life. A few years later when I visited the project, many of those who benefited were dead from AIDS, their children struggling to survive without parents.

On the streets of Africa's cities, thousands of women respond to poverty by commercialising sex, often to provide for their children. As in much of Africa, few know that they carry the deadly virus.

Is dying from AIDS some years in the future preferable to watching your children die from hunger within the next few weeks?

 

"Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter".2

 

Most diseases and epidemics kill the young and the old, leaving the social structure intact. HIV, in contrast, takes the adults in their twenties, thirties and forties. These are the breadwinners and caregivers. Across Africa, grandparents watch their children die and are faced with the task of providing for their grandchildren rather than being provided for in their senior years.

Here there are no pensions or government benefits. In a continent which has relied on the extended family for survival, and which had no word for 'orphan', children and adolescents are increasingly roaming the streets of the cities, bringing up younger siblings, and trying to manage farms by themselves. In Zimbabwe, for example, where more than one in four adults is HIV positive, we are seeing the breakdown of social order as society's leaders succumb to AIDS. In Zambia and Malawi drought is bringing famine to millions, but the lack of farm workers due to HIV/AIDS contributes to the drop in production.

God, what will be the future of Africa?

 

"HIV is a clever virus . . . HIV points to our behaviour and says: 'Change or die'."

Yet for all the magnitude of this disaster, an oppressive silence hangs over countries, communities and individuals affected by the pandemic. As I visit homes and churches in Africa, the tragedy around me is both invisible and silent. Few people want to find out their HIV status. Very rarely do you hear it openly said that so-and-so is HIV positive or died of AIDS.

When you visit or pray with a sick person, AIDS must not be mentioned. HIV is associated with deep shame for the infected people and their families. Because of this shame there is silence.

You do not hear it mentioned in church services. Church leaders do not want to discuss it. Christians are uncomfortable with HIV/AIDS, because it involves sexuality, death and, frequently, immorality.

God, when will we have the courage to be honest?

In Western thinking we are familiar with a problem-solving approach: analyse the situation, define the problem, determine the solution, find the resources, and just do it! HIV/AIDS defies this logic.

I visit a bush clinic in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa where nearly half of antenatal women are HIV positive. All face a slow death. In a Zulu township, a teenage boy looks at me with a bored gaze. There is little local employment or community spirit. What future does he have? The likelihood of him becoming infected with HIV, and infecting others, is very high. Simply giving him and his friends information about AIDS won't protect him - the issues are complex.3

God, what can rescue him from death?

 

The secular response to the AIDS pandemic focuses on AIDS awareness and the use of condoms, with billions of dollars being directed to this end. Hope, if there is any, lies in the development of a vaccine. Some suggest that the widespread availability of anti-retroviral drugs will make an impact on the spread of HIV.

The United Nations has recognised the threat to world security posed by HIV/AIDS. Out of a special session in June 2001, the paper "Global Crisis - Global Action" was released calling for a massive global response. The answer, it proposed, lay in political will and billions of dollars - US$2 billion is about to be distributed among a multitude of non-government organisations.

Uganda, Thailand and a few small countries are commonly cited as models of successful intervention. Yet the global pandemic grows daily and solutions are elusive.

God, show us how to minister when there are no simple answers.

The secular response lacks a moral dimension in calling for behaviour change. It does not believe that abstinence and faithfulness are possible. The UN paper does not deal with compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, peace and hope (nor corruption).

Yet this should be the dimension where the church is most ready to minister. The gospel is, above all, a message of hope. Jesus came to bring life - eternal life. God's ways are designed to protect us (even from HIV and despair). But belief in Christ by itself will not save from AIDS. Only as individuals, families and communities follow Christ will we find a ray of hope in the gloomy picture of sixteen thousand new infections a day around our world. Jesus said: "I have come that they may have life."

 

The hiv/aids pandemic is a threat to the church - statistics tells us that churchgoers are just as likely to be infected as non-churchgoers. In Zambia eighty percent of the population attends church, yet one in five adults is HIV positive.

This forces me to stop and reflect. Where is the life Jesus promised his people? The church should be salt and light in a decaying world. This is the opportunity God is giving. He is calling the church to wake up and minister in word and deed.

I long for the church to be a people whose behaviour matches their words, whose lifestyle protects them and others from HIV, and who are committed to the sick and bereaved. Jesus calls his people to reach out to those with AIDS, just as he did to the lepers of his time. His people should be the first to break the silence that surrounds AIDS.

God, awaken your church to the challenge.4

I visit a rural district in eastern Zimbabwe close to the border with Mozambique that has known a century of missionary work, revival, and the blessings of a Christian hospital, school and Bible college. Yet today it numbers its children orphaned by AIDS in the thousands. Heaps of stones around its houses bear silent witness to the many who have died from AIDS. I feel the death and despair in this valley. Even now, you cannot speak openly of AIDS.

But a throng of volunteers is mobilising at the grassroots to care for these children. People are opening their homes to take in them in. Coordinators are regularly visiting many of these homes, making sure the children are being well treated.

They ask about the child's schooling, fees and uniforms. They help orphans obtain their birth certificates and titles to land to safeguard their legal rights. They encourage the families. Where someone is dying, they give basic instruction on home care. Out of their meagre means they may take along a cake of soap, some cooking oil, or seeds for planting.

Above all they give hope. They demonstrate the love of Christ. People listen as they talk about a way of living that frees from the fear of death.

God, bless the efforts of these humble women.

 

In the high country of Nigeria, where Christian-Muslim conflict is bringing fear, pain and death, I relax over a cuppa in the home of New Zealanders Roger and Margie Upson. They talk about the opening of their new AIDS counselling centre on the edge of the hospital compound, which will greatly improve what they can offer those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Nigeria's huge population makes the task of reaching people with the good news of Christ all the more urgent. Roger's dream, fostered at Bible College of New Zealand, is to see lives of young people transformed by the gospel in their relationships with God, with one another, and with the ground they till. They give me hope that a new day is dawning in which the African church will rise up and bring healing to a continent wracked by AIDS, poverty and violence.

In Ethiopia, New Zealander Desma Lewis recently produced 20,000 Bible study courses in Amharic focusing on HIV/AIDS. In two weeks all the booklets were sold. Now, excited by the response of Ethiopian Christians, she is printing 25,000 more booklets dealing with questions such as "What can be done to help prevent the spread of HIV caused by young people delaying marriage?".

At Evangelical Seminary of Southern Africa in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, student pastors are now required to study a Christian response to AIDS as part of the curriculum, and apply it in local churches. Pastors from the region participate in seminars to help them equip their churches to minister in a world of AIDS. Slowly the church is awakening and offering healing and hope.

 

As HIV spreads across the globe, largely bypassing New Zealand, we are faced with the question: Should we care? Africa and AIDS seem so remote. How could we help? Is there hope?

I am motivated by the knowledge that God cares for the widow and the orphan. These are our brothers and sisters. I believe that we will see many in heaven who have died from AIDS yet found eternal life in Christ. He has not abandoned his people at this time to the scourge of AIDS. His church is strategically located over the face of Africa, and it will be his instrument for healing. As the pandemic spreads across the globe, so the church in Africa will one day take a message of healing to the nations. We worship a big God.

But what of us in Western countries where this pandemic is not a high priority? Despite the silence of our media, we need to be informed.5 The Web is a great place to learn about the state of HIV/AIDS and responses to it.

We can pray, asking God to raise up his church in Africa, to give courage to ordinary Christians to live moral lives and care for those in need around them, and to Christian leaders to speak out.

And we can link up with organisations that are involved in the fight against AIDS, including church-based groups, missions and aid agencies.

Thank you Lord: you give us hope as you call us to action.

"Religion which God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."6

 

Notes

1 Check out the excellent UNAIDS website at <www.unaids.org>. It includes the paper Global Crisis - Global Action. For a Christian website, check out Christian Connections for International Health <www.ccih.org>

2 Proverbs 24:11

3 Well worth reading is Charlene Smith's Proud of me: Speaking out against sexual violence and HIV London: Penguin, 2001. For a Christian perspective, see W Meredith Long Health, healing and God's kingdom: New pathways to Christian health ministry in Africa UK: Regnum/Paternoster, 2000. Also Daniel E Fountain God, medicine and miracles: The spiritual factor in healing Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1999.

4 The church has HIV lead article in Christianity Today, Vol 44, No. 2; February 7, 2000.

5 Time, No. 6; February 12, 2001. Special Report: The hand of death.

6 James 1:27