One Thursday afternoon
Maryknoll missionary Father Jim Corrigan participated in the Bible Service of
the St. Charles Lwanga Small Christian Community (SCC) in the Bomani section of
Bunda Town, Tanzania. This SCC has a special concern for the increasing number
of people with AIDS in Bunda. Martina Chacha is responsible for the ministry of
"Good Neighbor" in her small community. She regularly checks on the sick people
in the vicinity of Bomani. During the past week Maria Magesa daughter’s Lucia
returned after over two months in the TB Ward in Bugando Medical Center in
Mwanza. Lucia has AIDS and now is too weak to even get out of bed. The family
was too embarrassed to tell anyone, but the word slowly got around. Martina
told the SCC leaders about Lucia. They decided to discuss how to help her
during the Thursday meeting of the SCC members.
The Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent —
the Parable of the Prodigal Son from the 15th chapter of St. Luke — was
read and reflected upon. Jim added his thoughts like everyone else. One SCC
member pointed out that the father in the story does not wait for his younger
son to return. He runs out to meet him. This shows God’s great love for us.
He is ready to run out to meet us in love, forgiveness and compassionate care.
When the community members discussed a
practical action to flow from the gospel it was immediately clear. As the
elderly man James put it: "We need to run out and meet Lucia who is
suffering." So after the Bible Service and meeting everyone walked over to
Maria Magesa’s home to visit Lucia. It was dark inside the small bedroom and
Jim had trouble adjusting to the poor light. Lucia has no husband which is
increasingly common these days. Her two young children were sitting quietly in
the corner. Lucia herself was lying on her side in bed, too weak to even sit
up. Her face was drawn and flushed. Sores on her tongue had bothered her for
many days. Her arms were thin and bony. Occasionally Lucia would put her head
over the side of the bed and spit into a small can.
Martina Chacha quietly sat down on the bed,
held Lucia’s hand and told her how much the small community members cared about
her. Philipo, the leader of the SCC, explained how suffering can be a special
call from God. The SCC’s patron saint, Charles Lwanga, had to suffer very much
in Uganda before he was burned to death for his Christian faith. There were
prayers of intercession and everyone, even the children, laid hands on Lucia to
pray for her recovery. Lucia said a weak "thank you." Philipo gave her mother
Maria a small donation of flour and money from the small community.
Then there was a painful moment of silence.
Everyone realized how many families in the Bunda area has a loved one who is
either sick with AIDS or already had died. Many people like Lucia are coming
home to die. The disease is ravishing East Africa especially on the other side
of Lake Victoria around Bukoba and up into Western Uganda. AIDS has no
favorites. Rich and poor, old and young, educated and uneducated, city and
rural people alike are getting AIDS or are HIV Positive.
Jim was grateful to be part of this SCC
outreach to people suffering from AIDS. Recently he had read about one Catholic
doctor who said: "As the Christian Churches in Africa at the beginning of the
21st Century, history will judge us by how generously and compassionately we
have responded to the AIDS crisis." At first Jim and Michael, the other priest
in Bunda Parish, didn’t realize how serious the AIDS pandemic really is. But
then in walking around the SCCs, Jim began to discover how many people have
AIDS. Most families try to hide it. The shame is too great. There is a unique
stigma attached to AIDS because it was different from other diseases. Most
people in Africa get AIDS from multipartner heterosexual relationships. People
don’t want to be confronted and have to examine their personal lifestyles.
Others pass it off as "just another illness." Still others say that it was
"just bad luck" or that they are "bewitched."
But Jim knew differently.
Soon he began to understand the "hali halisi"
(Swahili for the "real situation"). Bunda is on a major truck route. Also
many people pass through the town on their way to somewhere else. This
compounds the problem. There are a lot of multipartner relationships. It is
so very, very hard to convince people to change this sexual behavior. But Jim
knew this is the only way. Yet it is going to take a long time. And many
people like Lucia are going to suffer and die painful deaths in the meantime.
As he walked out of Lucia’s dark room and
was temporarily blinded by the bright African sunlight, Jim wondered if and when
he would see Lucia again. But the ministry of love and compassion to Lucia and
many like her would continue. Jim was proud that the Bunda Parish leaders and
the SCCs had responded so generously. He knew that this was what Christianity
is all about. He felt deeply that if he really follows Christ it means being
compassionate toward suffering people
The next Sunday Jim Corrigan preached about
AIDS in church. He called his homily “Suffering Faces and Hearts in Bunda
Today.” He got permission from Lucia to tell her story. Respectfully he told
the painful journey of Lucia, "one of our own Small Christian Community
members." In using the Gospel story of the prodigal the priest challenged the
people by asking: "Who is the prodigal? The son? The father? In today’s
world is it the Lucias? Is it the people who accept and love AIDS patients as
they are? Let’s admit it. We are afraid to talk about AIDS. And meeting a
person who is HIV Positive! That is even worse. How much easier to say: "That
is someone else’s problem. We have doctors and institutions to take care of
these AIDS patients.
"Each age has its own terrible form of
dying. In the First Century it was crucifixion. From pictures and films we
know what a painful death Jesus Christ suffered on the cross. In the 14th
Century it was the Black Death (bubonic plague) that was an epidemic disease
that killed one-quarter of the people in Europe. Today it is AIDS. If Jesus
chose the most ignominious form of death in his time to redeem us, would he
choose to die from AIDS today?” That got some gasps from the Christians at the
7:30 a.m. Eucharistic Celebration in the Bunda Town Church.
Jim went on to ask the congregation: "What
is the last word that will be spoken in human history?" After giving the people
time to think a little bit he quoted from one spiritual writer who said: The
last word of history will be "compassion." Jim added two other words:
"forgiving love — as in the example of today’s gospel about the ‘Prodigal
Jim praised the example of St. Charles
Lwanga SCC saying: "Outreach to AIDS patients and their families is a special
call and challenge for SCCs in East Africa today. SCCs are a community of
believers who care about other people. SCCs are a unique support group in the
AIDS ministry. As a communion of extended families the SCCs provide support,
encouragement and home care for AIDS patients themselves. We have a
responsibility to our brothers and sisters with AIDS. Do not be afraid. Be
Christ-like and reach out to others who are suffering. Join local "caring
communities" like SCCs and other special support groups for AIDS and HIV
Positive people." Reach out in personal ways too."
Near the end of his homily Jim told the story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta whom
many had heard about. Her religious community of the Missionaries of Charity
works with the poorest of the poor in Dar es Salaam and Tabora. The missionary
priest ended his homily by saying: "In talking about people with AIDS Mother
Teresa tells each of us: ‘Today people with AIDS are the most unwanted and
unloved brothers and sisters of Jesus. So let us give them our tender love and
care and a beautiful smile.’ Then Jim asked: "How about us here in Bunda? Are
we ready to give at least a smile and hopefully much more to these people who
are in such need?"