“My hosts from World Relief were eager to take me to meet men and women who were HIV positive. We piled into old Land Rovers. As we drove I plied them with questions, but they were wise enough to ask me to just observe and listen to the people I met. They told me in time I would begin to understand.
Before long we parked and then walked through low greenery toward a tree with spreading limbs.
At first, a faded piece of fabric was all I could see.
Under the canopy of leaves, this piece of fabric turned out to be a dying, homeless woman named Joanna. I was told that when people in her village learned that she and her husband had AIDS, the villagers asked them to leave. A distant relative offered to care for her and her husband, and so they moved. But when their new neighbors heard their diagnosis, the tiny straw hut they had built was mysteriously burned. The day I met her, Joanna was living under the large tree. She had no shelter, no cooking pots, no blankets, no extra clothes –just a sheet of plastic to lie on. She saw us approaching on foot and made a valiant effort to pick herself up off the ground to greet us, but with unrelenting diarrhea and an emaciated body, she was unable to stand. She crawled toward us on her elbows and knees. At one point, she collapsed in a heap, and her auntie scrambled to lift her onto the piece of plastic, which served as a welcome mat for the visitors. Joanna arranged her thin body in a dignified pose and waited to greet us. She was just a bag of bones.
I was stunned.
I know how to talk to people who are stressed about their careers, discouraged with their parenting, upset because they can’t lose weight they want to. But nothing, absolutely nothing, in my experience of my faith had prepared me to speak to a homeless woman dying of AIDS and living under a tree. I smiled on the outside, but on the inside I was in a total panic – angry at God, angry at the brokenness of our world, searching the dim recesses of my mind for something halfway spiritual to say. I choked; I couldn’t come up with anything other than “My name is Kay; thank you for your hospitality to us.”
Fortunately, Debbie Dortzbach, international HIV director for World Relief and my host, was experienced. She had seen hundreds of women like Joanna, and her faith was strong. She showed me how to greet Joanna with warmth and kindness, how to kneel down next to her and look her in the eye, how to place my arms around her and hug her, how to pray and ask for God’s comfort, strength and help to be given in this terrible situation. She spoke of the hope of heaven – that while this world held pain and sorrow and sickness for Joanna, there is a better world she could be a part of through faith in Jesus, who loves her. Debbie offered a few anti-nausea pills that she carried with her to alleviate some of the discomfort Joanna was feeling, but even as inexperienced as I was, I new this woman was only days away from death.
I left Joanna under that tree, but she remains with me. Her picture hangs on the wall of my office, and I look at her every day. She gave AIDS a name; she gave it a face.
I could have gone home after the first day; I had enough experiences to occupy my mind and heart for years to come. But there were more people to meet and love, more scenes to disturb me.”
Photo by Guenter Eh