Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Fighting the demon of Racism

One of South Africa’s coloured church leaders last year spoke, during a church meeting, about the demon of racism which is still alive in South Africa. Although I’m not someone who constantly try and link some kind of demon to every form of sin, such as the demon of alcoholism or the demon of lies, I do think that there is some truth in saying that the fight against racism is something which needs to be won in a spiritual realm.
After my post on the Angus Buchan Phenomenon, I received a lot of reaction. With the exception of one, the comments were really decent, even where people differed from me. Some of the correspondence about this post was done via email and therefore did not appear on my blog. One of my very special e-pals (an “e-pal” is the equivalent of a “pen-pal”, except that we correspond by email rather than by pen and paper), who is a missionary in Ukraine, wrote me a long letter which triggered many things in my mind. In the post I referred to, I asked the question why Angus Buchan is so popular amongst white men. But in my correspondence with my friend in the Ukraine, I asked another question: Why doesn’t God use Angus Buchan more effectively to break down racial barriers?
My friend responded by saying (my own translation from Afrikaans to English): I think that, while big meetings and prominent leaders can create the atmosphere within which believers can live differently, the coming of God’s kingdom which needs to be demonstrated by the church as alternative society, will have to start from “below”. The mass of Christians need to live and do things differently. Then the prominent leaders will merely become catalysts in processes which are much greater than their own abilities. And my heart for mobilisation tells me that now is the time to do it!
On the same day that I received his email, I was attending a small group consisting of white Christians in which I told them that I had been challenged to do something about racism in our community and that I am going to challenge them to take hands with me, to pray with me and to work with me to make a difference.
South Africa had gone through the amazing period of reconciliation after more than forty years of a policy of “Apartheid” and we have experienced great blessings in many ways since 1994. But, to use the words quoted above, the demon of racism is still alive. Or, as I often say: Apartheid is dead. Long live racism! South Africa’s problem is not Apartheid. That was just the name given to an evil policy of government. The problem is racism. And I have traveled fairly widely throughout the world and have seen that it is definitely not only South Africa which is struggling with this.
I will never forget a particular class in Dogmatics which I was attending at university. Our lecturer was the distinguished Professor Johan Heyns, who was assassinated in 1994, presumably because of his strong viewpoint against racism. (His assassin has never been arrested.) On this specific day one of the students asked him what his viewpoint was on racism. Without a word professor Heyns turned towards the blackboard, took up a piece of chalk and wrote: RACISM = SIN! This made a tremendous impact on my life and I could probably say that on that day I vowed that I would fight against racism in my own life.
One of the most popular verses used in South Africa today comes from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
I am getting convinced that there is probably not a more wicked sin that we in South Africa will need to turn away from, than our sin of racism. Can we really expect God to heal our land while so many Christians still refuse to repent from racism?
I have been involved in processes of healing amongst people of different races and can testify that for White South Africans, there is little that can beat the feeling of liberty once they had come to the point of confessing this as sin and reaching out to people across racial barriers.
For those who had attended the Mighty Men Conference and experienced God’s forgiveness and love during the weekend: Are you willing to take up this challenge to help in bringing healing to our country?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 Posted by | Africa, Alternative Society, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Grace, Hope, Mission, Prayer, Racism, Stigma, Theology | 11 Comments

Eric Bryant: Peppermint-filled Piñatas (Audio book)

More than a year ago I wrote a review on Eric Bryant’s book: Peppermint-filled piñatas. You can read it here. And then I recently wrote how I’ve now discovered audio books which gives me the chance to listen to books while I’m driving, in this way getting to read a book during time that would otherwise have been wasted. I’ve been wanting to re-read Eric’s book for some time now, but with books almost waist-high next to my bed, all waiting to be read, I realised that this would not happen soon. That is, until I heard that Peppermint-filled piñatas is also available as an audio book which you can purchase and download online. I downloaded the mp3 files, copied them onto five CDs and had them ready in my car in preparation for a long trip I had to undertake this past weekend.
Eric, if you’re reading this: My wife and two of my children travelled with me, but we’ve had a hectic time the past few weeks and my wife asked me whether I would mind if they sleep while I drive. I agreed to that but asked them whether I could listen to this book while they sleep. And in the end, they all remained awake for the greater part of the journey. Not only that, on returning Monday morning, leaving Pretoria just after 4 am, they all complained when I said that I’m going to continue listening to the book while I’m driving, as they actually wanted to sleep and would miss out on the book! Consider this a compliment.
It surprised me how much of the book I could still remember after a year. I think the chapter that spoke the most to me on this round, was Chapter 7, The Untouchables. This is about compassion for the poor and the destitute. By far the majority of people that I know, have a feeling for the poor, but will never reach out to them to do something practical to help them, probably because they lack true compassion. For most of my life I’ve been surrounded by poor people, having grown up in South Africa with its harsh distinction between races. After moving to Swaziland in 1985, the reality of extreme poverty just became all that more clear to me. I definitely had a feeling for the poor and the destitute, but it still took me a long time to develop true compassion for The Untouchables. As I listened to this chapter, I realised how important it is for church leaders to expose their members to this part of reality. But this is not enough. Without a plan to get involved in other people’s lives, it will not be possible to develop true compassion. Without wanting to repeat what I wrote in my earlier review, I can say that this book should be read by church leaders looking for ways to break through their own feelings of prejudice in order to share their love with others different from themselves, so that they can lead their members into doing the same.

Thursday, March 26, 2009 Posted by | Book Review, Church, Mission, Poverty, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Vision | Leave a comment

Death – the inevitable result of AIDS

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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009 Posted by | AIDS, Death, Health, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Poverty, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Leading, Reading or Feeding

Jason Jaggard wrote a very interesting article which I recommend that you read yourself. It has the title: Stop Learning.
Two weeks ago I was invited to preach in a certain church and I started my sermon on Isaiah 58:1-12 with an illustration which I had heard from Rev John Thomas, a pastor at the Fish Hoek Baptist Church close to Cape Town in South Africa, who is doing absolutely amazing work in his community. The illustration goes that this man was visiting a restaurant, looking at the menu, discussing the ingredients of each dish, calculating the calories of each dish, considering which wine would best complement the dish, but never ordering any food. (In my sermon I elaborated on this illustration, making myself the subject of the story.) John calls this: “Menu Study!”
I then applied this illustration to the way in which many people see the church. They come to church to hear a good sermon. They attend cell groups to be fed spiritually. They attend Bible Studies to learn more about the Word. At home they are constantly reading spiritual books. Some even reach the point where they enroll in a course in Greek in order to understand Greek grammar. But a great number of our regular church goers (could it be the majority?) never step out in faith to do something for God. They are so busy doing Menu Study that they never get to eat the good food.
And this is why Jason’s post was so exciting to read. The theme of his post fits in nicely with the theme of my sermon. Church members, in general, do not need to be fed. They need to be led! They don’t need to read more spiritual books. They need to find a place where they can make a difference within the Kingdom of God. The sad thing is that more and more church members who are realising this, either leave the church and live out their Christianity outside the church (in my mind a bad thing to do) or they move over to another church where they can be challenged to make a difference. And the churches where the leaders have been satisfied to feed the flock and to give them more books to read, are left with those people who find the meaning in their spiritual life in just being fed.
Earlier this morning I had a long telephone conversation with a friend of mine who is busy organising an AIDS conference where he wants me to speak about possible ways in which the church can get involved in this pandemic. As we discussed the nitty-gritty of the conference, I asked him about the potential audience and what their attitude is towards AIDS. Although the audience comes from a very large community in South Africa which is especially hard-hit by the effects of AIDS, I was told that many of their pastors still want nothing to do with AIDS, believing that it is caused by immoral women. (Apparently the men have no blame in the spreading of this disease.)
Can it be possible for a pastor to find fulfilment in knowing, at the end of his or her career, that they had spent thirty or forty years merely feeding the flock? And will that pastor’s successor continue for another thirty or forty years, doing the same? I absolutely agree with Jason that church members need to be challenged to move out of the church building to do something for God.
John Thomas, at a recent conference, told the story of a certain man who arrived at the church just a few minutes before the end. As he went inside, he whispered to someone: “Is the service over?” To which the other person replied: “The sermon has been preached, but the service has yet to start!”

Saturday, January 24, 2009 Posted by | AIDS, Church, Comfort Zone, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Mission, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology, Vision | Leave a comment

My World AIDS Day Church Service

Today is (or was, depending on where you live on the time zone) World AIDS Day. Churches are encouraged to devote the Sunday before or after 1 December for this cause. I was preaching yesterday in a church in South Africa and made full use of the opportunity to devote the entire service to the AIDS issue.
I took my Scripture reading from James 1:19-27 with my main focus on the first part of verse 27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress”
I then proceeded to show an AIDS Photo montage which can be downloaded, free of charge from http://www.willowcreek.com/grouplife/aids_day.asp
As introduction to my sermon I used a parable which was once told by the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard. There are a number of versions of the parable, but the one I used goes like this:
Imagine that geese could talk, Kierkegaard once said, and that they arranged things so that they too could have their Church services and their worship:
Every Sunday they would assemble together and a gander would preach. The essential content of the sermon was the exalted destiny of the geese, the exalted goal for which the creator had destined geese (and every time his name was named all the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed their heads). With the help of their wings they could fly away to far countries, blessed countries, where they really were at home; for here they were just like exiles. And so every Sunday. Then the gathering broke up, and every goose waddles home.
Then the next Sunday off they went to the service again, then home again. That was all. They throve and grew fat, they became plump and tender… that was all. For while the sermon sounded so exalted on Sundays, on Mondays they would tell one another of the fate of the goose who wanted to take his destiny seriously, with the help of the wings the creator had given it. And they spoke of the horrors it had to endure. But they prudently kept this knowledge among themselves. For, of course, to speak of it on Sundays was most unsuitable, for as they said, in that case it would be obvious that our service would be a mockery both of God and of ourselves.
There were also among the geese some that looked ill and thin. Of them the others said, “You see, that’s what comes from being serious about wanting to fly. It is because they are always thinking of flying that they get thin and do not thrive, and do not have God’s grace as we do. That is why we get plump and fat and tender, for it is by God’s grace that one gets plump and fat and tender.
(This also motivated the theme for my sermon: Do you want to waddle or do you want to fly?)
I then asked someone with whom I had arranged beforehand to give a short testimony of what she had seen and experienced in homes where people are living with AIDS.
In the second part of my sermon I spoke about the widows and the orphans, in Biblical times and then also in modern times. I ended this part of the sermon with something that I realised as I had been reading Jeremiah recently in my personal devotions, that God was angry with the prophets and the priests, some of whom were actively involved in exploiting the widows and orphans, but He was also angry with the “good” prophets and priests, because although they themselves did not exploit the widows and orphans, they refrained from speaking out against it!
I then showed a short clip from the excellent South African movie “Yesterday”. If you haven’t seen it, beg, steal, buy or borrow a copy! It is available on Amazon.com as well as Kalahari.net. I showed the part where Yesterday goes to a clinic to be tested for HIV. Then I asked a Swazi woman to tell the congregation how it feels to live with HIV.
In the next part of my sermon I spoke about the fact that the church in general still seems to live in denial of the enormity of the problem of AIDS and that the situation calls us to act. I also included the words of Helder Camara, a priest in Brazil who once said: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” We need to address the reasons why AIDS is such a huge problem. Is it just by chance that the countries most affected by AIDS are the poorest countries, the countries in which the greatest discrimination takes place against women, the countries with the lowest education level?
My last video clip was The hidden face of AIDS, which can also be downloaded, free of charge, from Willowcreek’s website. There is a shorter and a longer version. I used the shorter version.
I then ended by asking those who had come to church whether they were going to waddle back home or whether they were going to fly home, because they had decided not only to listen to the Word of God, but to DO what He wants them to do.

Monday, December 1, 2008 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Health, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Movie Review, Poverty, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology, Worship | Leave a comment

The Freedom Writers Diary

Some time ago I attended a church service which was led by my oldest son, presently in his final year of theological studies. During the service he showed a clip from the movie, The Freedom Writers, which he used as illustration to speak about God’s righteousness. Some time later I saw the whole movie and then decided to buy the book on which the movie was based. The entire book consists of diary entries written by the teacher, Erin Gruwell or by the children in her class, all of whom remain anonymous.
Starting as a young teacher in a class of “unteachable, at-risk” students, she intercepted a strong racist note passed around the class one day. This infuriated her and she told the learners that it was this attitude which had eventually led to the holocaust. Most of the children in the class also belonged to various gangs and there were frequent fighting amongst the gang members. Eventually it also came out that virtually not one of the learners had not lost at least one friend due to gang-related violence.
Through the reading of books such as Anne Frank’s and Zlata Filipovic’s diaries, she was able to make them understand that they had to learn to tolerate each other. But she also helped them to believe in themselves and this seemingly useless learners eventually became star children of whom many went on to college and later had a successful career. You can read more about them here.
While at Willow Creek on 7 & 8 September, Bill Hybels had an interview with Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America. I first read about her in Jim Collins’ book: Good to Great and the Social Sectors and her story not only inspired me but also became a model for me when we train new volunteer caregivers for our Home-Based Caring program when I warn them that we are expecting a great input from them but that they will not be rewarded for their work through a salary. (Amazingly, we have found that instead of chasing people away, more and more people want to be part of this project through which they can serve their neighbours.)
Through excellent teaching methods, children who may never have been able to break out of their cycle of poverty and lack of education, are now getting a first-class education and are being enabled to make a success of their lives.
The Freedom Writers Diary is an extremely inspiring book to read. Perhaps, one day, the day will come when we will be rid of all prejudice and where every child will be able to get first-class schooling and where children growing up in bad circumstances will be able to start a new life.
I salute people like Erin Gruwell, Wendy Kopp and the thousands of teachers willing to walk the extra mile in order to enable students who would most probably have ended up in prison or rehabilitation centres to start a new life. In fact, this morning I started wondering if God would not want our church to do something about education in Swaziland as well. But I still need to pray and think about this.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 Posted by | Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Home-based Caring, Hope, Jim Collins, Mission, Poverty, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Vision, What I'm reading | 3 Comments

Listening to the stories of AIDS workers

I’ve been tied up the whole of this week, getting ready to travel to Chicago on Sunday where I will be attending the Leadership Summit at Willow Creek on 7 & 8 August and where I will also be attending the Courageous Leadership Award ceremony on behalf of our church’s AIDS ministry in Swaziland on Thursday evening, the occasion which I wrote about here.
I had a professor from a college in New York with me at the church today where some of our home-based caregivers were gathered for a meeting. It was just one of those special occasions when I just felt so proud to be part of this team. She is an anthropologist and has been coming to Swaziland since 2005, to try and determine the link between religion and AIDS. She was also at the conference in Durban that I wrote about last week.
Unfortunately our time was a bit restricted, as she had another appointment later today, about a hundred miles from where we were. One of the things I realised once again today, is how important it is to ask the right question if you want to get the right answers. And through the questions she asked today I also picked up things that I had never realised before. Through her experience of interviewing church leaders in other areas of Swaziland, she had already picked up certain tendencies. She asked at one point how the caregivers experienced it when the woman of the home were diagnosed as HIV-positive. Would she tell her husband? In general this is quite a problem, because for a woman admitting to her spouse that she is HIV-positive seems to imply that she had at some time been unfaithful to him, although we obviously know that this is not necessarily the truth and very often the complete opposite.
Then one of the ladies shared an amazing story. ‘I went to see my client. She was sick. So I told her to go to the clinic so that they could find out what was wrong with her. Next week, when I returned, she told me that she had been tested and she is HIV-positive. Then she asked me not to tell her husband. “He mustn’t know!” Some weeks later, after finishing my visit to her, her husband was waiting for me a distance from the house. He walked with me until we were out of hearing distance of the home and then told me that he was very worried about himself. He seemed to be sick and he did not get any better. I told him to go to the clinic. Perhaps he had diabetes. So they should draw his blood and try to see what was causing his sickness. When I returned he was waiting for me at the gate. He told me that he had been to the clinic and they had found that he was HIV-positive. But then he asked me not to tell his wife. “She mustn’t know.”
And then I brought them together and I helped them to speak to each other and to admit that they were HIV-positive. They were so happy!’
I was deeply touched when hearing this and realised how special these caregivers were to me.
I had told the group two weeks ago that I wish I could sit down with them and start writing down all their stories of the experiences which they had had. Most of them have seen the worst cases imaginable, but they’ve also been able to work through the experiences and become stronger people because of it.
A few weeks ago I also mentioned that we had hosted a mobile clinic and I told about the young boy who had arrived with a metal rod sticking out of his knee. This morning the boy’s grandmother came to me with tears in her eyes. After the boy had been admitted to hospital (and the doctor who had done the clinic had put some pressure on the hospital), he had recovered completely. He was back at school. His leg is fine and he’s running around again.
Someone asked me this morning how we are able to go on with the work. Things like this make it worthwhile to go on. We won’t make a difference to hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. But every now and then we hear stories like this and just know that we can’t stop what we’re doing.


Friday, August 1, 2008 Posted by | AIDS, Bill Hybels, Cross-cultural experiences, HIV, HIV & AIDS, Home-based Caring, Hope, Mission, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology | 1 Comment

Dodging the AIDS issue

A number of years ago I published an article with the title: Why are we losing the battle against AIDS? One of things I mentioned in the article was the problem of denial. In a previous post I wrote about a friend of mine who had died of AIDS. When I asked him, shortly before his death, what was wrong with him – hoping that it would create an opportunity for him to speak about his sickness – he answered that the doctor had told him that he had been working too hard in his garden and that he just needed to rest.
This same man had lost many family members: brothers, sisters, in-laws. Every time he lost another family member and we spoke about it, I asked him: “What did they die of?” And then he would answer: “You know. They died of that sickness.” It was always “that sickness” – never AIDS!
Someone published a list of euphemisms by which HIV and AIDS are known in Africa. It’s called: “AFRICA: Mind your language – a short guide to HIV/AIDS slang.” The original article was published in PlusNews but a better formatted article which reads easier was published on CABSA’s website and can be accessed here.
One of our greatest frustrations remain that it may never be said that a person has died of AIDS. I have with me three death certificates of people who had died in Swaziland. Admittedly, not all of them had AIDS, but the reasons for death which were indicated on the death certificates, were as follows:

  • Unknown, suspected swollen feet
  • Unknown, but suspect headache
  • Unknown, but suspect poisoning (this one had committed suicide by eating weevil tablets – an extremely strong poison)

Some people have the worm, others the bug. Some suffer from slim disease and others from “five plus three.” But until we start calling the sickness by its name and until we admit what caused people’s death, we will always be living in denial.
In the article mentioned above, I started by quoting from an article which was once published in a Swaziland newspaper:

Saturday night has become the night of vigils, of traditional Swazi wakes, when friends and relatives gather to feast and to mourn the deaths of young people, the cream of the nation. As the AIDS pandemic gathers pace, Swaziland has entered an endless season of mourning.
The vigils are announced publicly in death notices that fill a page, or often two pages, in the local newspapers every day. Many are accompanied by photographs which show that almost all the victims are in their twenties or early thirties. The language of the announcements is both quaint and evasive: George Shongwe is late; Zodwa Madolo, nee Diamini, died suddenly and is late, Cynthia Zwane is late. Friends and relatives are informed that the vigil will be on Saturday night, the funeral early the next morning.
There is no hint of the cause of these deaths, though everybody knows. The universal human response to AIDS is denial. It is as though nobody can face the awful reality of a calamity that rivals the great plagues of history.

Unfortunately, too many people, both in the affected countries as well as in the West are still in denial – an ideal breeding ground for this virus to grow in.

Friday, July 25, 2008 Posted by | Africa, AIDS, Cross-cultural experiences, Death, Health, HIV, HIV & AIDS, HIV/AIDS Documents, Mission, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology | Leave a comment

Religion and AIDS Symposium

I’ve just returned from Durban (also known as Durban by the Sea or locally lovingly called Durbs) where I attended a symposium about Religion and AIDS. I grew up in Durban. Up to my tenth year we lived five minutes walk from the main beach. So in that sense it was great to be back in Durban for two days.
This morning the symposium started at the University of KwaZulu Natal. It was hosted by an organisation known as HEARD (Health Economis and HIV/AIDS Research Division) with Prof Alan Whiteside chairing the meeting. There’s a lot of this stuff going on and it is impossible to attend every single conference on AIDS. I received the invitation however and because I have met Alan before and know that he has a great heart for Swaziland, clearly seen through his publication called Reviewing Emergencies For Swaziland, I decided to travel the distance to attend. I was also asked to deliver a short paper on the Swaziland Situation, with special reference to the Home-Based Care program which we are running. If you haven’t read it yet, you can download and read my publication: On becoming the Hands and Feet of Christ in an AIDS-ridden community.
One of the advantages of attending specialised conferences such as these, is that one immediately makes contact with people sharing the same vision and the possibility of networking becomes much greater. Once again, I was not disappointed. I met up with Robin Root, Associate professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Baruch College in New York and we are now trying to set up a meeting with her in Swaziland on 1 August, at which time I want to introduce her to some of our volunteer caregivers and also give them a chance to tell her first-hand what we are doing in Swaziland.
Some of the other papers were also very interesting to listen to, but the one which touched me the most was presented by Marisa Casale. She is a staff member of HEARD and had been responsible for evaluating a church-based AIDS prevention program run in an area in Durban, known as Cato Manor – an extremely poor suburb with a more than 50% unemployment rate. A local church had started visiting a school in that area where they had built relationships with the children, did AIDS awareness programs with the children and eventually also assisted them in making the right choices in an attempt to prevent them from getting infected with HIV. Their main aim was to promote abstinence among the children.
After the program had been running for a number of years they felt that they would like an objective view on the success of the program and approached HEARD to do this research. Marisa was responsible for this. I didn’t bother to write down everything she said (trusting that I will get a copy of her paper), but it was amazing when they found that, after having run this program for a few years, the sexually active number of children in this school was down to around 40%. In a control school which was also examined, but which had not run the prevention program, more than 60% of the children were sexually active.
For many people this 40% sounds extremely high. It is extremely high, even more so when you realise that the possibility of most of these children becoming infected with HIV is an absolute reality. But I know the influence which poverty has on communities. Often moral behaviour becomes deeply affected when money for food does not even exist.
What encouraged me about this was the fact that the church can indeed play a significant role in the prevention of AIDS. In fact, in my own paper, I said the following:

It is unfortunate that the church does not seem to be having a great influence in preventing the spreading of the HI virus. We are all well aware that the propagation through the church of condom usage is a highly controversial topic. While the Roman Catholic Church has decreed that the use of condoms are not approved, most other churches are equally reluctant to advise their church members to use condoms as they feel that this may sanction extra-marital sex. I am of the opinion that there may also be another reason why churches do not feel comfortable in propagating condoms as a way to prevent HIV transmission. Although condoms undoubtedly decrease the risks of transmitting the virus, even a high profile company such as Durex warns us on their website that “no method of contraception can provide 100% protection against pregnancy, HIV (AIDS) and STDS.” The reluctance of many churches to advise people to use condoms may be compared to advising someone who wants to play Russian roulette with five rounds in the cylinder to remove four of the rounds before firing the revolver. Obviously the risks are much smaller, but most churches I know off would rather prefer people to live in such a way that there is no risk at all of getting AIDS.

I don’t think what I said was incorrect. But there is hope that certain Christian programs are starting to have an effect on the way that people, especially the youth, make moral choices. I believe we still have a long way to go, but after today, the tunnel isn’t quite as dark anymore.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008 Posted by | AIDS, Building relations, Church, Cross-cultural experiences, Death, Health, HIV, HIV & AIDS, HIV/AIDS Documents, Home-based Caring, Hope, Meetings, Mission, Poverty, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology, Vision | 5 Comments

Starting a new church at Lavumisa

During February I posted two items concerning the possibility of starting a new church in an area known as Lavumisa, on the south-eastern border of Swaziland. In the one post, From the Society to the Church, I also mentioned a post by Bob Roberts, Start with the Society – Not the Church, and said that we had been invited by the local member of parliament, on the grounds of our involvement with the community in caring for the sick and the dying, to start with a church. In a follow-up entitled , I told how we had met with members of the local community one Sunday morning to Planting a new church start with our first church service.
This past Sunday I went to visit the people again. We had about 35 people who attended the service. At times nearly 70 people attend, but because of funerals being held on Saturdays and Sundays, the number of people attending fluctuate constantly.
Instead of having a formal sermon, I attempt to have a more informal discussion with the group on certain topics. This isn’t easy. The Swazis are so used to being preached to, that they find it fairly difficult to respond during a church service. But basically I think it went fairly well. After the service I asked them how they saw their future as church members. At the moment they are still an independent group of people meeting on a Sunday. On their request I am visiting them whenever I am able to (which cannot be more than once every four to six weeks). But I wanted them to start thinking about the future. Would we continue meeting in this way as an independent group of people (I’m willing to help them if so) or did they want to start considering joining up with another church?I wasn’t really surprised, as I had been watching their body language closely, to hear that they wanted to join our church. Frankly, I’m not sure how I feel about this. Obviously, on the one hand I’m excited about it. This is a first for our church. For decades our church had been stigmatised, because of our South African origin, as the Apartheid Church. Although our church is held in high regard throughout Swaziland because of its strong Biblical foundation, many people never wanted to join our church because they did not want to be connected to the legacy of Apartheid. To suddenly find a group of people wishing to join our church en masse is therefore something which is really exciting. We never started our home-based caring work with the intention to grow our church, but I did anticipate that it may happen. But definitely not on this scale.
The reason why I have mixed feelings is because we don’t want people to join the church for the wrong reasons. For too long people have joined the church (and not only in Swaziland) mainly because they believed that they would benefit from this. Now that at least a portion of our church (I’m still striving to make this universal) believe the Biblical principle that we belong to a church not mainly because of what we could get from it but what we can give to others, I want this new group to understand this before they join.
It’s almost like the story in the Bible of the rich young man who came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to be saved. Most evangelists would think (even if they don’t say it out loud) that Jesus missed the chance of a lifetime with this man. But Jesus knew that this young man had issues which still needed to be dealt with. So I’ll really have to put my thinking cap on about this issue. It’s inevitable that they want to join our church. How to handle this in the right way is the question.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008 Posted by | Bob Roberts, Church, Home-based Caring, Mission, Social issues, Stigma, Swaziland, Theology | 1 Comment