Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stigma, Sermons, and Social Cohesion

The 19th International AIDS Conference took place this past July in Washington DC. During this conference, Sara Gari presented a study on the critical role of social cohesion in HIV testing and treatment; much of this study was based in Zambia.

The study found that people who attend church in Zambia are far more likely to be tested and treated, while those who are isolated from family and community resist addressing HIV/AIDS. In the survey, which was the basis for this presentation, social fear was the number one reason for resisting testing.  64% of those who resisted testing listed "people would gossip about me" as their primary worry. Other social reasons, such as the loss of family, friends, or reputation, were high on the list. 

As I read this study, I am also in the midst of reading the 2011-2013 Strategic Plan for CCAP-Zambia, the organization that I am working with. It is an incredibly impressive document, that calls the denomination to holistic mission work, addressing education, health, water and sanitation, HIV/AIDS, and agriculture. In each of these categories, there are impressive, specific, measurable goals that will truly impact the quality of life for many people in Zambia.

In the HIV/AIDS department, the goals include developing and conducting workshops on HIV/AIDS at local clinics, developing pamphlets in 7 different languages to educate people about HIV/AIDS, providing equipment for testing and treating, training personnel in counseling skills, and ensuring supplies of anti-retroviral drugs at clinics. CCAP is committed to addressing stigma, as it educates pastors on HIV/AIDS, encourages church leaders to preach 2-3 times a year about HIV, and commits its General Secretary to distribute messages in support of people living with HIV and AIDS. CCAP pastors are asked to learn HIV/AIDS counseling. They also encourage testing for church members and develop nutrition programs for those living with HIV/AIDS. This denomination is actively trying to reduce stigma and discrimination, and to increase testing, treatment, and care.

In light of this study, which indicates that stigma is one of the primary reasons that people resist testing and treatment, I am so excited to work with a denomination that is committed to increasing social healing. The reduction of stigma will save lives, and must accompany the provision of testing and treatment in clinics. This is an important role for the church, and CCAP is taking it on with energy and enthusiasm.

In the second chapter of Mark, when Jesus heals the paralytic man, he offers spiritual healing, as well as physical healing. But the first healing that happens is social.  Jesus addresses the man as “son.” When Jesus calls this suffering, paralyzed man his “son,” he is breaking a significant barrier, addressing a deep and pernicious societal disease. The social barriers that alienate differently abled people were real and overwhelming in Jesus‘ day, just as they are today. Human suffering was attributed to human sin; surely, this man had done something awful in order to deserve the kind of physical pain he endured. But Jesus calls this man “son” and draws him back into the social circle, healing not only the man, but also the community, showing that no one is outside of the love of God. This healing happens before the sins are forgiven, before the legs are restored.

Social healing matters when working on HIV/AIDS. The social stigma for those who are HIV positive is huge; this is still true in the United States and still true in Sub-Saharan Africa. Social healing matters a great deal to those who have been isolated, degraded, and blamed for their own illness. Any program that addresses HIV/AIDS must recognize that social healing is vital. This is especially true for us, as Christians, as we claim to be a part of the body of Christ. We know that the body of Christ is living with AIDS, and so we must reach out again, and again, to participate in social healing, as followers of Jesus. No more stigma, no more alienation, no more blame. The body of Christ needs healing!

As stigma decreases, testing and treatment will increase. But social cohesion will also heal all of us, as we remember again and again that we are all part of one body, united in love and hope.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Johnny's "Pretty Heart"

Yesterday, Johnny got an echocardiogram and an EKG. He lay on the hospital bed in pediatric cardiology, his little chest hooked up to ten wires and a large machine, while the technician looked at images of his tiny five year old heart.  Johnny had to lay still for thirty minutes as we watched his heart beat and looked at all the intricacies of that magnificent organ. A little while into the echo, the technician declared, "You have a pretty heart."

Johnny didn't respond, but Frankie, our 6 year old, heard the words differently; he heard, "You are pretty hurt." His face creased with worry as he looked at me.  "Johnny is pretty hurt?" he asked.  It was a very normal worry for Frankie, as he continues to wonder why his little brother so often needs extra medical care. "No, Frankie," I responded. "She said that Johnny has a pretty heart."

Frankie's fear faded and he went back to watching the heart beat.  But, I continued to dwell on her comment. "No, Johnny does not have a pretty heart," I wanted to declare. "Johnny has a beautiful heart, an amazing heart, a heart full of love and wonder and joy." Like any mother, I see in my child so much beauty that I can barely hold in how much I love him.

But watching his heart beat on that screen, I realized again how much my heart depends on the beating of Johnny's.  How it would rip my heart out of my chest if his every stopped beating.  How scared I am when I face Johnny's medical concerns head on.  How much I try to ignore the very real medical challenges that he faces, to protect myself from the fear that I will ever lose him.  Watching his little body hooked up to all those wires, it was hard to ignore my fears.

As we get ready to move to Zambia, we are facing some scary choices. One of Johnny's medications is not available in Lusaka, and we have to decide if we will switch his medication to something unknown, or if we will take the risk of getting it safely shipped from the United States. As this particular medication needs to be refrigerated, there are many challenges to getting it safely to our home in Zambia. Do we try a different drug or do we stay on the same medicine, trusting that we will be able to get it safely? Deep within, it makes me sick to have to make choices that could affect Johnny's health in a negative way.

But this is where faith comes in again. There is a God who formed that beautiful heart. A God who called our family to Zambia. A God who is bigger than my fears. A God who loves Johnny even more than I do. And this is where I need to rely on God. To help us make this decision about Johnny's medication, to guide us as we choose new doctors, to calm us in the midst of our fears.

One of the reasons that we are going to Zambia is because we don't want mothers to lose their children, and we don't want children to lose their mothers. Loving my child is just a reminder that every heart beat matters, that every heart is a beautiful heart, that every heart is worthy of love and care.  So, please pray for our hearts, pray for Johnny's heart, pray for our decisions as we move forward.  And pray, as well, for the hearts of all God's children, that we may all find health and wholeness as we dwell in the love of an amazing God. And finally, please lift up a special prayer for mothers who have lost their children; for God's presence in the midst of that unimaginable pain, for comfort, for peace, for healing. Thanks for your prayers.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Yesterday, I went with funds development staff to meet with a generous donor, a gentleman who has given large amounts of money to world mission over the past decade. As I anticipated the visit, I envisioned a man with a large house, expensive furniture, and exquisite possessions. After learning about the amount of money that was donated, I was convinced that this person was someone with a lot of wealth. I looked forward to the visit, to talking about my ministry in Zambia, and thanking this man for his generosity and support. I expected to say thank you, and to enjoy the company of a very generous person.

What I didn't expect was to find a humble, retired pastor who lived very, very simply. This was not a person who had accumulated large amounts of money, who lived luxuriously, who had a lot of extra wealth to throw around. Instead, I discovered a faithful man who lived with very little, so that he could help fund programs that sustain lives and offer hope in places of severe suffering. I did enjoy the visit very much; I learned about his years of ministry, his family, his work among people living in poverty. I discovered that he loved God deeply, loved God's children, and that his generosity was a source of joy to him, not a source of obligation. I was delighted by this man, and challenged, again, by my own attachment to possessions. How much do I give? Can I give more? Did I really need that new iPod?

Over the past few years, I have tried to move towards a true tithe. Yes, I have been a pastor for twelve years, and I probably should have started tithing a long, long time ago. But it always seemed too difficult, with the expenses of a family, the cost of daycare, etc. However, once I started to tithe, I couldn't believe how exciting it was! I could live in trust that I would have enough, and know that I got to be a part of ministries that mattered, through financial giving. Even though I was living in Michigan, I could help support a mother in Ethiopia; I could fund human rights work in Burma; I could be a part of national ministries; I could help my church provide clean water in Nicaragua; I could fund housing projects among the Lakota people in South Dakota; I could contribute to a church proclaiming God's love for all people. Offering my money helped me to realize how beautiful and powerful it is to be a part of transformation and hope.

I do not live as simply as that very generous man that I visited yesterday; not by a long shot. But he is a model to me that I can give more, and prioritize giving throughout my life. Our new job in Zambia involves a decrease in salary; it would be easy for me to pull back my giving, to claim that I just can't tithe anymore. In fact, I was on the verge of doing just that! But thanks be to God for the inspiring generosity of others - not only did this man give to world mission, he also gave to me - a reminder that I can, and should, continue to give generously. Not because it is an obligation, but because it is a joyous blessing to give. I get to be a part of a miracle every time I chose to be generous! And that really is a gift to me, and a gift to all of us. Thanks be to God!