Beyond Facts to Faces, Beyond Numbers to Names
by Donald E. Messer
Does anyone care that every three seconds a person dies somewhere in the world because of poverty? Are we concerned that 8 million poor people are converted into faceless and nameless death statistics every year? Does the fact that more than 1 billion people go to bed hungry every night disturb our sleep?
Today an estimated 6,000 people will die from AIDS. Last year, at least 2.1 million individuals succumbed to the disease and almost 4 million more were infected. Do those facts make any difference, even to Christians?
The moral, religious, and political scandal of people's dying from hunger and AIDS in a world with enough food and medicine for everyone hardly causes a ripple in the consciousness of most people. It certainly does not change the priorities of most church budgets.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists struck the United States. Fear triumphed over hope, and suspicion replaced compassion. Instead of reaching out across the oceans to provide neighborly help to the forgotten indigent of the world, we began looking for suspicious activity among our next-door neighbors, lest they be disguised terrorists waiting to strike.
Yearly, we mourn the tragic death of more than 3,000 persons killed in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. on that fateful September day. Yet, sadly, we choose to forget that every day 10,000 Africans die from preventable malnutrition and disease.
Numbers Without Tears
HIV/AIDS, hunger, poverty, racism, sexism, and indifference are all inextricably linked. Of the 33 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the world, 68 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, 76 percent of all AIDS-related deaths and 68 percent of new HIV infections occurred in that region. More than 15 million children have been orphaned by the global AIDS crisis. Many children with HIV never live beyond their second birthday because they have no access to treatment.
As an African proverb proclaims, "Statistics are numbers without tears." We simply fail to identify with numbers; they are nonpersons in our minds and hearts. Facts without faces do not evoke within us a sense of personal compassion or religious commitment. As the poet and essayist, Archibald MacLeish, once suggested "We are deluged with facts, but we have lost, or are losing, our human ability to feel them."
My life has been transformed as I have become personally acquainted with persons infected and affected by HIV and AIDS around the world. As I have encountered my sisters and brothers in need, I have discovered a new sensitivity in my soul and new hope in my heart. Instead of writing abstractly about this subject, let me briefly introduce you to some people I have met.
Living and Dying with HIV/AIDS
People who are HIV-positive regularly report that, worse than living with the disease is living with the way people treat you when you have it. If you have malaria or cancer or heart disease, people do not stigmatize you and discriminate against you. If you are HIV-positive, however, you face great prejudice and mistreatment, even from religious people who profess compassion and care. Judgmental people want to know how a person became infected, when, as my late friend Ashok Pillai used to say, "It is not important how I got AIDS but how I am living with it."
Even as I write about people I have met, I am forced to disguise most of their names because of the threats they or their families may experience if their identities are revealed. During a visit to Thailand, I met Khin Myo Bu. Most visitors to Chiang Mai see only beautiful landscapes, exotic elephant camps, and busy night markets. But a pastor, the Rev. Sanan Wutti, took me into one of the 20 garbage dumps in the area.
There, amid a mountain of rubbish, were tin shacks stuck together in the crudest fashion. Beneath a mosquito net, Khin Myo Bu, a 28-year-old mother, was dying of AIDS. Beside her were her two malnourished sons, ages seven and five—all three being refugees from Myanmar (Burma). Her husband had already died of AIDS. Hours later, she died and her children were orphaned. Thanks to the ministry of the Church of Christ in Thailand, care continues to be provided to these little boys.
Paula Gill greeted me outside a Methodist church in Barbados after I had finished preaching on Jesus' command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. (Matthew 25:31-46) With a baby in her arms and holding another child by his hand, she whispered: "My husband has died from AIDS, and I am HIV-positive. I'm working, but I don't have enough money to care for the children. They need food, and the baby has no diapers. Can you find me some help?"
Infected by her husband, this faithful churchgoing woman felt terribly alone, uncertain what people were saying about her and her family. When you are poor, hungry, and HIV-positive, you realize people do not want to be with you—even in the church of Jesus Christ.
When I met William Kahangi, who was hawking clothes on the streets of Eldoret, Kenya, he seemed healthy and happy. However, this 40-year-old man reported that once he had been at death's door. His family had left him because he was HIV-positive, and no one wanted to buy clothes from a gaunt, sickly man with ugly open sores.
William had prayed for the "angel of death," but instead, an "angel of life" appeared at his bedside. A retired United Methodist medical professor from Indiana, Joseph Mamlin,
When I met Anna Kiwibali, she was leading a Jakarta, Indonesia, organization for persons living with HIV. She was an incredibly positive and courageous woman fighting against waves of stigma and discrimination in a predominately Muslim country. I asked her what made her angry. She replied, "I can't stand to hear of yet another person dying because they followed the advice of a Pentecostal preacher telling them to stop taking the medicines and just pray." Prayer can be a powerful medicine for the soul but a cruel substitute for reliable antiretroviral drugs and good nutrition.
United Methodist Response
When the United Methodist Council of Bishops met for the first time on the continent of Africa, they issued a statement: "People are dying...every day, every hour, every minute, and literally every second....The loss of life is enormous.... Women and the young represent the highest percentage of those infected. The burden of care for those who are dying and left behind is extraordinary. The plight of orphans is a growing concern. We must support the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund."
A Christ-centered and church-oriented outreach, the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (Advance #982345) was established by an overwhelming vote of the 2004 General Conference and reaffirmed in 2008. With a target of at least $8 million, the fund has raised more than $3 million thus far. No World Service or other apportionment money has been provided.
Despite the prophetic appeal of the Council of Bishops, a conference-by-conference review reveals that very many bishops lead conferences that have not contributed significantly, if at all, to the fund. As a denomination, we have been "talking the talk" about a global health initiative to aid those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, but we have yet to "walk the walk."
Of every dollar given, 25 percent should be retained by an annual conference to be used as directed by its own AIDS committee. The remaining 75 percent is to be sent to UMCOR. An interagency fund committee has been authorized by the General Conference to supervise the distribution of these funds internationally.
The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund works through churches, not governments. Grants are given to programs around the world, not just in Africa, with 100 percent of the contributions going to help people. No administrative overhead is deducted.
Raising awareness and funds to help create an AIDS-free world proves difficult in the church. A friend of mine from India, N. M. Samuel, M.D., told me 15 years ago: "If HIV were caused by the bite of the mosquito, the church would be in the forefront of the efforts to end the pandemic." Mobilizing money for programs to buy mosquito nets is far less controversial among many Christians than facing the challenges of human sexuality and HIV prevention.
Yet United Methodists also recognize that an AIDS-free world is not possible without their contributions. As retired Bishop Felton E. May reminds us, "Churches cannot conquer AIDS alone, but it will not happen without us."
Jesus repeatedly instructed his disciples to "cure every disease and every sickness." (Matthew 9:35, 10:1) He made no distinctions as to why people were sick but focused on the fact that they needed compassion and care. In pleading for more help in his healing ministry, he said to his disciples: "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Matthew 9:37-38)
AIDS Projects in 33 Countries
The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund has supported a variety of education, prevention, care, and treatment programs with small, targeted grants. The people who are helped are not faceless or nameless but our sisters and brothers in Christ. More than 155 global AIDS projects have been supported in 33 countries, including the United States.
Theological education programs have been designed to help clergy and laity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia deal creatively and compassionately with HIV and AIDS. The Global AIDS Fund joined Upper Room Ministries and the Center for the Church and Global AIDS in publishing a prayer book for persons living with HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. More than half a million copies of Prayers for Encouragement have already been distributed globally in 14 languages. In South Africa, Christians included the book in 5,000 baskets of food given out at Christmas.
The fund's HIV/AIDS programs have emphasized the ABC's of prevention: "A" for abstinence, "B" for being faithful to partners, and "C" for condoms. A Norwegian United Methodist missionary has received help in distributing condoms and taking HIV-testing and counseling to roadside truck stops. Prevention has been stressed in seminars in Zimbabwe schools, Sierra Leone churches, and Sri Lankan refugee camps. At the South Carolina Annual Conference, people picked up more than 2,000 condoms from the global AIDS display.
Caring programs emphasizing compassion, not condemnation, have characterized the fund's outreach. These have included support groups in Thailand, feeding projects in Zimbabwe and Zambia, counseling for rape victims in Rwanda, and rehabilitation outreach to sex workers in Pakistan. Special emphasis has been given to helping AIDS orphans in Kenya, Malawi, the DR Congo, and many other places in the world.
Only governments can afford to provide regular antiretroviral medicines, but the fund has provided money for medicines to stop related infectious diseases and mother-to-baby transmission during childbirth. These life-giving medicines have made a difference in places like Mozambique, Kenya, and India.
We Need to Be the Change
In the battle to stop HIV/AIDS in the world, we do not all have to do the same thing or even agree on a common strategy. The key is that we are called to live out the imperative of Jesus to "cure every disease and every sickness." As Gandhi once affirmed, "We need to be the change we wish to see in the world."
The Rev. Dr. Donald E. Messer is executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee, and president emeritus of the Iliff School of Theology. He is also the author of several books including: 52 Ways to Create an AIDS-Free World (2009), Names, Not Just Numbers: Facing Global AIDS and World Hunger (2009), and Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis (2004).
Date posted: Nov 01, 2009