Cathy Scott recalls International Aids Day 2006 which she spent in Malawi. She explains the moving sermon she heard which emphasised taking responsibility to help prevent the spread of Aids and remembering those affected.
International Aids Day 2006. I was in Malawi and found myself invited to a remembrance service in Maula Cathedral, Lilongwe for those who have died of Aids in Africa’s poorest country, where over 14% of the population are HIV Positive. I accepted little realising what a moving experience it would be.
Some 100 people had turned up – not a church full, but a good cross section of ages, lay and religious – lots of young people among them. Three priests entered, swathed in Advent purple, the Mass celebrated by the secretary of Malawi’s Bishops’ Conference, Fr. Joseph Mpingansjira.
Candles had been distributed, and as we sat down to pray, a power cut prompted us to light them straight away. ‘The church has HIV and Aids’ announced Fr Joseph Mpinganasjira. ‘We are all either HIV Positive, HIV Negative, or HIV Ignorant’. He spoke gravely about the numbers of deaths, among them his own brother as well as many other relatives. There are few if any Malawians that the pandemic has not touched in one way or another. There were poems, readings, testimonies interspersed with the normal Sunday readings. The story of the Good Samaritan among them. One by one, members of the congregation got up and read out lists of names of people they knew who had died of Aids. Some of them ran to twenty or thirty. Each. With the Taize chant ‘Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ playing quietly in the background, the congregation planted their flickering candles in a bed of sand beneath the central altar.
Father’s sermon was clear, calm, and compassionate. It is up to us to prevent Aids, (as was corroborated by the numerous posters decorating the sanctuary inviting those present to ‘take responsibility’) but the church must care for and have compassion for those living with the disease. It also believes that everybody has a right to full information about how to prevent the spread of Aids. Preferably this would be by abstinence and faithfulness, but our God is not a God of condemnation, and Jesus welcomed all as his friends, including adulterers, tax collectors and anyone else considered by the ‘in-crowd’ at the time to be a social outcast. ‘Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people will die of Aids tonight, Fr. Joseph reminded us. Not all of them are ready. Many are afraid. Let us pray for their peace of mind, because as Our Lord said to the criminal crucified besides him, ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’.
Like many of us from our protected and privileged societies in the West, I do not know anyone close who has died of Aids. The few people living with the disease in the UK have access to the drugs they need to go on living reasonable lives. In Africa the death toll is a silent holocaust- a Tsunami every few days. As I stood in solidarity with these people I heard no sobs, saw no tears. Just a brave acceptance that this must be faced, the dead mourned, those still living supported, the orphans taken care of. Day by day – whatever the cost, all hardships accepted.
Watch and Pray, the Taize music continued as the candles burned down. Let us all Watch and Pray – and remember those living with HIV and Aids, and those who, sooner or later will die – as well as those who love and care for them.
I will not forget this service – nor Father Joseph’s face, as he spoke that night. It has brought the tragedy and waste of it all home to me more than ever before.
livesimply Anthology, a CAFOD resource, edited by Annabel Shilson-Thomas.
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