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A child’s plea: United Methodists respond to plight of AIDS orphans Donald Messer, Oct 26, 2009
Up to 180,000 children in Kenya are living with HIV, and have no access to antiretroviral treatment.
By Donald E. Messer Special Contributor
The ancient theological question of theodicy—“why does a good God permit evil?”—is being faced anew in contemporary Africa. The poignant plea of a 9-year-old girl in a Nairobi, Kenya, slum echoes in my heart and mind. Surrounded by suffering and death prompted by HIV and AIDS, she asked:
“God, why did it have to be us? “Are we the ones who sinned or our parents? “Why did you have to take away our parents? “Are orphans and vulnerable children part of your creation?”
During a recent trip to Kenya, sponsored by the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, we were confronted by the agony being experienced by children and youth.
The statistics are staggering: In Kenya alone there are an estimated 990,000 to 1,400,000 AIDS orphans; one in 11 children is an orphan; worldwide the number exceeds 5 million.
An estimated 130,000 to 180,000 children in Kenya are living with HIV. Two-thirds of the HIV-positive Kenyan children do not have access to life-giving antiretroviral treatment. Some 40,000 are expected to die in the next two years because medicine is not available. Half of the HIV infants will never celebrate their second birthday.
Some questions only God can answer. Whether it is the plight of Job in the Old Testament or hungry HIV-positive children in famine-stricken areas of rural Kenya, human suffering is inescapably real. In today’s world, there is an urgent need for a Christian humanitarian response.
Caring for orphans
We Christians have a divine mandate to care for vulnerable AIDS orphans. Scripture clearly calls people of faith to “care for the widow and the orphan.” When the disciples tried to shoo away the children, Jesus insisted they come to him. He raised a little girl from the dead and repeatedly instructed his followers to “heal every disease and every sickness.”
The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund has supported several Kenya projects focused on caring for AIDS orphans. At the Nairobi Rituta United Methodist Church, where I heard the heartbreaking cry of the 9-year-old girl, the Fund has supported leadership training for youth and young adults.
The Rev. John Makokha, pastor of Rituta UMC, says, “Sexual abuse among young girls and boys, coupled with poverty and drug abuse, is increasing the spread of AIDS in the slums of Nairobi.”
At a Sunday morning worship service in the Rituta church, a young HIV-positive mother presented her baby for a special blessing. With tears in his eyes, the Rev. Christian Robbins of First United Methodist, Cheyenne, Wyo., prayed for the child and his mother. Mr. Robbins later said he was amazed that a 70-member church could care for 210 vulnerable children, “They do so much with so little,” he said.
In rural Meru, Kenya, the Center supports a community-based orphan care program for 120 children for just $150 a year. This gift of HOPE (Helping Orphans by Providing Essentials) program keeps children with their grandparents and guardians, and helps with education, school uniforms, safety and psychological support. First United Methodist Church in Grapevine, Texas, supports an additional 120 orphans.
A thousand more vulnerable children have been identified by name, age and gender, and are still waiting for someone to respond with care. If they do not receive help from the church or society, they will become vulnerable to exploitative pedophiles and recruiters of child soldiers.
At Maua Methodist Hospital, we participated in the dedication of a home built by members of three United Methodist churches in the Texas Conference (Arlington, Keller and Stephenville). Two little boys, ages 9 and 4, and their 100-year-old blind grandmother, who had been living in an inadequate dirt floor shack, now have shelter.
At the hospital, we met United Methodist missionaries Jerri and Bill Savato. Faced with overwhelming needs caused by disease and drought, they report seeing many hungry and malnourished people.
Ms. Savuto has vowed to give up one meal a day “until the children in this area have more than one meal a day to eat.” The money she saves goes to the Malnutrition Ministry at the hospital.
“I do find I pray so differently when I am hungry than when I am not,” she said.
Christians are also called to engage in helping to prevent children from becoming orphans in the first place. HIV and AIDS are preventable diseases, yet they have left more than 15 million orphans worldwide.
One way to help is by keeping HIV-positive parents alive. Thanks to major efforts initiated in 2003 by the United States through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and internationally through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, anti-retroviral medicines are being distributed free throughout the world.
Governments are the only entities that can afford these expensive drugs. But church hospitals and clinics, such as Maua Methodist Hospital in Kenya, are effective centers for distributing these life-prolonging medicines and for providing testing and counseling for persons who are infected and affected.
Volunteer community healthcare workers in local Methodist churches in Kenya recruit persons for testing and encourage appropriate treatment. Using a vehicle provided by the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, they are able to reach even the most remote rural regions.
About 590 HIV-positive persons have joined support groups that are open to all persons regardless of their religious affiliation. One participant told me that he had discovered that “Methodism was love in action.”
Another key to prevent children from becoming AIDS orphans is to ensure that people never get infected by the virus in the first place. With no cure or vaccine in sight, prevention must be a primary concern of the church. Yet too often, churches shy away from topics like sexual health, and unfortunately leave children, youth and adults at great risk.
The church has a special responsibility to emphasize the “ABC’s” (abstinence, being faithful and condoms) of prevention. At a United Methodist Global AIDS Fund workshop for Methodist clergy and spouses in Meru, Bishop William Muruki made certain all three dimensions were emphasized.
In Kenya, the fastest area of growth of infection is among married people, with one of the partners becoming HIV-positive and spreading the disease of AIDS.
Christians are being challenged to also develop economic opportunities so that HIV-positive parents and their children can not only survive but have sustainable incomes. HIV-positive people, who often suffer from the stigma of AIDS and experience discrimination, struggle to be employed—some people will not buy their vegetables or eat at their little kiosks.
Because of gender inequality and domestic violence, women with HIV suffer more than anyone. More than 60 percent of the persons infected in sub-Sahara Africa and about 50 percent worldwide are women. Many of these women are impoverished and illiterate. They sometimes end up selling their bodies to survive and feed their families.
Countless charitable initiatives have relegated women to making beads and other trinkets. But finding sustainable markets have proven to be problematic as the jewelry trade is crowded with competitors.
The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund contributed to efforts by the Riuruta United Methodist Women in providing seminars on micro-financing, entrepreneurship, small-business management and financial discipline. A revolving fund was created to help women launch small-scale businesses: Participants received $284 at just 1 percent interest.
We visited a comprehensive program initiated by Vickie Winkler, a Nairobi nurse who recognizes that health intervention must be accompanied by economic empowerment. Through her HEART program, she helped HIV-positive women learn how to sew. Already, they have made 2,588 school uniforms for orphans and other vulnerable children.
Rather than purchasing malaria bed nets from outside manufacturers, which are often not tailored to the cultural needs of Kenyan living facilities, HIV-positive women are now creating these nets and earning an income to feed their families. One small group of women in the past three years has made and distributed 21,427 malaria bed nets to children under 5 years old.
United Methodists are raising millions of dollars to fight malaria through programs like Nothing But Nets and the Global Health Initiative. What if United Methodists would channel a significant part of this money to help economically empower HIV persons who could make malaria bed nets, rather than using the money to purchase these nets from major manufacturers?
Hope and help
In the darkest days of South African apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu described Christians as “prisoners of hope.” Christians are people who do not accept the status quo. We are Easter people, confident that life will triumph over death, health over disease and goodness over evil.
Derik Fossum, a junior from Dakota Wesleyan University who is the first George McGovern Humanitarian Intern with the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, said that a high point in this journey to Kenya was meeting persons who are living with HIV and AIDS. One young woman told him she had attempted suicide three times. But with the help of the Kenya AIDS Ministry, she has overcome her depression and defeated the disease by her spirit of hope.
“Now she has become a voice and advocate for others,” he said.
As he returns to South Dakota, Mr. Fossum said his goal is to “make others more aware of what is happening in Kenya and to encourage other Christians to get involved in the struggle against HIV and AIDS.
“In the end,” he said, “what matters is not what you have accumulated in life, but how many people you have helped.”
Dr. Messer is professor of practical theology at Iliff School of Theology and chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.