Since last week, after the death of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, a lot has been said about the death of celebrities. Even people who would under normal circumstances not believe in heaven, have made remarks and written on their blogs that they believe that MJ is in heaven, is moon-walking in heaven or has joined the heavenly band. OK, I admit that I’m too old to be able to appreciate his music. A friend of mine mentioned on Facebook that MJ had “one or two good songs” and was heavily criticized for saying this. But to be honest, if I had been on “Who wants to be a millionaire?”, I wouldn’t be able to name a single song that he had sung, without using a help-line – not even one or two!
So, this is not about MJ of FF or whoever. It’s about the emotions that are stirred when a celebrity dies. And perhaps, more importantly, the emotions that are NOT stirred when other people die. We’re confronted daily with death in Swaziland. I recently blogged about The innocent victims of AIDS. After I wrote about the baby who had died, one of a triplet, I heard on Sunday that a second baby had also died. In sub-Sahara Africa, around 6000 people die every day due to HIV and AIDS! Those who are dying leave behind families who need to be cared for. Very often, the people who are dying in these countries, are the breadwinners of their families. When the breadwinner dies, the family is effectively doomed. There is no estate from which the family can be cared for.
I can understand that the death of a celebrity will always wake up strong emotions with the public, but surely something is wrong if the death of one pop-star dominates the news for days on end (and we’re still waiting for the funeral!) while news about the innocent victims of AIDS, slavery, warfare, poverty, malnutrition and so much more, will hardly ever be mentioned in any newspaper, let alone make it to the headlines.
It was ironic, back in 1997, when Lady Diana and Mother Teresa had died within days of each other, how the people almost deified Lady Diana while Mother Teresa’s death, compared to Lady Diana’s, was rather unimportant.
In the Belhar Confession, one of the sentences read: “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged”. When I see the way that the world, the church as well as individual Christians reacted upon hearing of MJ’s death, that sentence may well have read: “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the famous, the rich and the celebrity.”
This post, once again, started as a comment on another post and became so long that it would have been bad manners to post it there.
My son, as well as a number of his friends, recently attended the Amahoro conference and it is clear that this experience made a very deep impression on these young people. Several of them blogged about the conference, amongst others on My Contemplations (my son’s blog), FutureChurch (Roger Saner’s blog) and Nextchurch (Andries Louw’s blog). There will be many more, but these are the three which I follow regularly.
Roger and I recently had a long discussion on his blog about Apartheid and racism. Me feeling is that our enemy is not so much Apartheid, which is actually an ideology, but rather racism which gave birth to this ideology (and which will give birth to similar ideologies in the future.) Today my son shared a few very interesting thoughts on keeping the memories of Apartheid alive in order to prevent us from doing the same in the future. Having grown up in a house where we as parents were strongly opposed against Apartheid and where we tried, as far as it is humanly possible, to oppose all forms of racism, I am happy to see how strongly he feels that Apartheid should be remembered so that it may never be repeated. This, of course, is something different from fighting Apartheid today and is something which I do agree with. But how effective this is, I don’t know.
In 2005 I had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust museum in Amsterdam. I can’t remember all the details, but it boiled down to something like this: In Amsterdam Jewish people were prevented from entering certain premises, such as theaters. Theaters for Jewish people were built in other areas. Then the Jews were forced to move out of restricted areas and were forced to live in areas specifically reserved for them. Then job reservations were applied, reserving certain occupations for non-Jews only. Later on the entrance to the Jewish areas were controlled through gates. And the rest is history.
What upset me the most on that day, was the realisation that events in South Africa followed exactly the same route during the years of Apartheid: Restricted areas, separate places of entertainment, job reservation, entrance control to Black townships. The similarity was almost uncanny. Dr Verwoerd, who is considered to be the creator of the Apartheid ideology, was born in Amsterdam, although he moved to South Africa at the age of two. But, standing that day in the museum in Amsterdam, I asked myself whether it had really been impossible for him, who was a highly intelligent man, to foresee what would be the outcome in South Africa if he followed the same method as had been used before the Holocaust?
We do need to remember the past to prevent us from making the same mistakes in the future.
But then I’m wondering: Will it really make a difference? What about Uganda? What about Croatia? What about Rwanda? What about Zimbabwe? Hopefully Germany will never be guilty again of the things that had happened under Hitler. Hopefully South Africa will never again be guilty of the things that had happened under Apartheid. But will our remembered mistakes prevent other countries from doing the same and will the world be faster to respond in order to prevent the tragedies that had been part of the South African history? Sometimes I wonder.
A very sad thing happened today. On Thursday evening I called our coordinator for our AIDS ministry to discuss a few issues with her before meeting one of our Home-Based Care groups on Friday. She told me that a family had been identified, a mother and father (both HIV-positive) who have recently had triplets. The children are one month old. The children could not be nursed as it is absolutely essential, when a mother is HIV-positive and nurses a baby, that the baby may not take any other food or liquid for the first six months, not even water, after which the child is put onto solids and then the baby may not be nursed at all anymore. With three children this is impossible.
However, when the family was found, the caregiver found out that the mother is feeding the children with thin maize porridge as she does not have money to buy milk formula. I was shocked when I heard this. On Friday morning I had a quick discussion with our coordinator about the situation and we decided that we would take responsibility for the children until they are at least six months old. We would buy the formula and bottles and everything else which is needed and will make sure that the children are fed properly. I went to a local pharmacy and arranged to have the correct formula ordered so that we could start caring for these children as from Monday.
At this point I need to share a remarkable incident, something which have happened to us a number of times in the past. Our budget does not really allow us to do things like this. Our income is too small and our expenses just too big. But we have learned to be open to the nudging of God when we need to do something like this and normally don’t spend much (and normally almost no) time on discussing where the money will come from. It’s not that my faith is so big. But God has taught us a few lessons over the past few years. In any case, when I arrived home on Friday and opened my email, I received a message that a group of students that had been with us in Swaziland had arranged to have money deposited into our account. At least now we know that we will be able to take care of the children.
And then, this morning, I got the news that one of the babies had died! Not because of HIV. Because of malnutrition. I was angry. I’d had a tough day, struggling to work through some bureaucratic red tape, both in South Africa and in Swaziland. But suddenly all my impatience seemed to vanish as I realized that these parents had lost a child, probably not because they did not care, but more probably because they lacked some basic knowledge and lacked the funds to be able to give their three children what they needed. I was angry at the injustice that seem to force certain people to do things that we would consider to be absolutely irresponsible. I was angry that we were not able to pick up this problem earlier.
The other two children are also suffering form malnutrition and have now been hospitalized. As soon as they leave the hospital, we will make sure that they are properly fed.
Last year I preached in a church (on World AIDS day). Afterwards I heard that a certain man who had been in the church was absolutely disgusted with the service, saying, amongst others, that AIDS was not his problem. The people who had it had made a choice and are suffering the consequences.
I wish I could take him to these children and ask him what they had done to deserve this.
I’ve been involved with Evangelism Explosion (EE III) since 1993 as a training method to express one’s faith in words and also to assist someone else to come to faith in Christ themselves. Over the past few years there has been increasing criticism against EE III, especially against the two questions used during the conversation:
- Are you sure that, if you should die today, that you will definitely go to heaven?
- If you should die today and God should ask you for what reason you should be allowed into heaven, what would you answer Him?
One reason for the severe criticism is because it is said that these questions focus only on heaven. What about our lives on earth? Taken out of context, this may indeed be true. However, within the context of the full conversation it is clear that a new life in Christ is not only possible but is essential while we are still alive. Furthermore, the purpose of this question is mostly to bring someone to the point of seriously thinking about faith issues.
However, it was especially the first question that has been on my mind over the past 24 hours. My wife is a teacher at a high school and also helps to coach the chess team. Another (male) teacher, in his forties, helps her with the chess team. Last night they were preparing the team for a tournament this coming Friday. After they packed up, my wife came home and he went to play action cricket. There he started feeling ill, rested for a while and then decided to return home. On the way back home he had a heart attack while he was driving and died behind the wheel of his car, leaving behind a lovely wife and three great children.
And I thought to myself how many times in my life I had asked a person whether, if he should die that night, he would go to heaven. But I don’t think I’ve ever seriously thought that this would happen. Last night’s episode made me realise once again how vulnerable we are.
I’m busy preparing a series of sermons on the Gospel of John which I will be sharing from this coming Thursday up to 31 May. I’m starting on Thursday (Ascension Day) with John 14, in which verse 6 is the central verse: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” In my sermon I want to explain a few things, one being that the Way is not something physical (a physical road) but that the Way is a Person – Jesus Christ. To be on the way therefore implicates that I have to be united with Jesus Christ and within the context of John, this happens through faith in Jesus, who is Lord and God (John 20:28). Furthermore, our aim, first of all, is to be on the Way, to live daily in close unity with Christ. Our main aim is not to reach the destination. But there is another aspect which we cannot deny, and this is that Jesus says that He has gone to prepare a place so that we can be where He is (John 14:3).
To be united with Christ leads to our ultimate destination: to be where He is, with the Father. And if I’m not sure of my destination, how can I be certain that I’m on the right w(W)ay? Or to change the order: If I know that I’m on the right Way, how can I be uncertain of my destination?
In an attempt to minimise stigma, I find that many people who work with others who are HIV+ or have full-blown AIDS, are reluctant to speak about death. “AIDS is not a death sentence!” we are told and in a certain sense I do agree with this. There are people who have become HIV+ twenty years ago and who are still living productive lives. There has been a great advance in the effectiveness of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) and this medication, linked to a healthy lifestyle could mean that someone who is HIV+ could live a long and healthy life.
Alas, this is not true in countries like Swaziland. ART is available, (unless if the government runs out of medication, which happens every now and then, which means that for a few weeks people have to live without taking the lifesaving medication). Many people starting ART have to stop using the medication when the expense of travelling to a clinic outweighs the advantage of using the medication. And test after test have shown that ART needs to be linked to a healthy diet for it to have a long-term effect on the person with AIDS.
In rural areas in Swaziland this is totally out of the question and with the exception of the few who are earning good salaries, even those who live in one of the larger towns in Swaziland where products such as fresh fruit and vegetables are available, do not have the resources to buy these products. This means that the majority of people who are on ART, have no choice other than to eat maize porridge (the staple food of Swaziland) – which is not unhealthy under normal circumstances, but which does not contain enough vitamins and other micro-nutrients essential to stay healthy while the person carries the HI virus.
Regular readers of this blog will know that we started with a home-based caring project in the southern region of Swaziland in 2005, where volunteers are trained and equipped to take care of the people in their communities who are too sick to look after themselves anymore. For more information on this work, you can go to http://www.swazimission.co.za/English/aids.htm
We have developed a fairly simple report form which each of the 400 volunteer caregivers fill out every month. The 12 groups which we have trained, each have a coordinator who then fill out another form, based on the report forms of the group’s volunteers and then I compile a single report from these 12 forms. I’m not all that interested in reports, but the way in which the form was developed, it is possible to see with a single glance where problems exist, how effectively we are working and also what is happening within the community.
I was wondering today how many of our clients (we prefer to speak of “clients” rather than “patients”) are dying each month. The number of clients are not stable, but on average we have about 1400 people whom we are caring for at this stage (about 3.5 clients per caregiver). To get this number in perspective: A medium to large congregation in South Africa may have around 1400 members. In a normal congregation of this size, there may be one or two funerals per month. But things are totally different in our case. In July 80 of the clients died. In August 54. September 54. October 60. November 29 and December 48. That’s 325 people who died in six months. That’s almost as many people that can travel on an Airbus A300! And this is happening only in 12 small communities in one region of Swaziland. What about all the other communities in the region where we are situated? What about the three other regions in Swaziland?
This is the ugly reality which we need to face. And we can try and be politically correct and tell our clients that AIDS is not a death sentence. Or we can face up to the reality and inform people of the horrible truth and assist them in making vital changes to their lifestyles (being tested, going on ART if they qualify, taking vitamins daily, eating healthy food if available, ensuring that they do not become re-infected with another strand of the HI virus, etc).
Every once in a while we receive reports about breakthroughs which may be coming in the treatment of people who are HIV+. I don’t get excited about these reports anymore. The harsh reality is that I believe that we are losing the battle against AIDS. And the number of people dying is proof to this fact.
Yesterday was spent in a meeting with the ten coordinators of the ten different home-based caring projects in the southern region of Swaziland. These meetings can be quite exhausting but at the same time it’s really a joy to be busy with this. When we started with the home-based caring ministry in 2006, the story which you can read in an article I published under the name: “On Becoming the Hands and Feet of Christ in an AIDS-ridden community in Swaziland – A story of hope”, I invested huge amounts of time and energy in the group. I met the entire group at least once a week and during the other days I regularly met the volunteers individually. My aim was to build up this group to become as strong as possible. But the other advantage was that I had my finger on the pulse of the group and I knew fairly well what was going on.
And then, in 2007 we trained five more groups in different areas in the southern region of Swaziland. By the end of that year it felt to me as if things were getting out of control. Eventually, in an attempt to determine where things were and where they were going to, I arranged for the entire group of volunteers to meet at a central place and gave them a chance to tell me what was going on. It was a highly informative meeting and afterwards I felt that I was more or less in control again.
And then we started more groups this year. At present we are standing at ten groups of around 350 volunteers doing home-based caring. And I got that depressing feeling again a few months ago that I’m out of control! And at that point I decided that I will need to implement a reporting system whereby I can at least get an idea whether we are working effectively and where we need to improve. We drew up a reporting form in the simplest way we could think of, translated it into siSwati and then gave the coordinators a brief training session on how the forms should be completed. They then had to train the volunteers for whom they are responsible and once a month the coordinators have to meet at a central place where they bring one consolidated report from their project from which a final report can be made of the previous month’s work. And this is the meeting we had yesterday.
The reports still have many errors, but I prepared myself beforehand that it will take at least three months to get this sorted out. But what amazed me was to see what these people are doing. When I was in the USA recently to receive the Courageous Leadership Award, I told the people there that we are caring for around 1000 sick people. Now that the reports for July have been finalised, I found that the total number of clients is closer to 1500! More than 3800 home visits took place that month, 524 new clients were identified and 80 of our existing clients died. 374 of the clients are terminally ill and 821 are chronically ill.
These figures are mind-boggling. Three more communities in the southern (Shiselweni) region of Swaziland have approached us to train them to start with home-based caring and our first invitation from the northern part of Swaziland (Manzini) have also been received.
And as I keep on thinking about the future, I realise that God may well be preparing us for more work. I’m excited about this. But I also realise that God will have to provide great wisdom if we want to keep on expanding. I have ideas in my mind, some of which I may share in my next post.