“You gave us your heart.” These five words are foundational in my ministry. At times it is easy to be frustrated with missions and in particular with HIV/AIDS ministries. There is the potential to achieve so much and at times we seem to be moving so slow that we get almost angry and forget what is important. I asked one group of church leaders what it was that had made the most difference and their answer was “You gave us your heart.” Clearly there had been others of whom they felt they could not say the same thing. All frustration with the apparent slowness of progress disappears when you realize the importance of relationships. Relationships with church leaders, missionary colleagues and communities that you are trying to assist are paramount. These relationships are more important than the ministry you feel is so critical or valuable.
My experience with HIV/AIDS ministries began in 2001. Serving in Mission (SIM, of which I am a part) field leaders could see that many of their ministries related to HIV/AIDS in some way. Yet as a mission we had no coordinated expertise in how to do HIV/AIDS ministry. We had a large number of people doing work in their own spheres of ministry. These individuals did not have a lot of contact with others and were not learning from the experiences of those facing similar challenges. A lot of these missionaries had added HIV/AIDS ministries to an already overwhelming assignment and some were having to tailor assignments or ministries around the environment that HIV/AIDS had produced. With fields and international headquarters wanting to develop some coordinated expertise, SIM commenced the Hope for AIDS program, which currently operates about seventy projects and works directly in eleven countries in Africa and India. My role is to develop and lead this program and ensure that we assist SIM in achieving its vision of planting, strengthening and partnering with churches.
Unforeseen Results of Hope for AIDS
In some instances our desire to work with local churches and partners has forced us to reevaluate our relationship with these same churches and partners. Where we thought we had a solid relationship and a deep understanding of their hopes or desires for HIV/AIDS ministries we were sometimes proved wrong. We have learned not to assume that we know what partners need or want. This has meant that in some fields we did not commence the projects in either the scope or number that we might have expected. However, when we began a ministry, it was always with the full support of partners.
Similarly, some projects appear to be progressing far too slowly. One project was behind schedule after two years of planning. However, the project not only was back on schedule in year three, but actually surpassed original expectations. This rapid acceleration and growth resulted from support garnered from relationships developed in those apparently-wasted first two years. I have learned that my timing is not necessarily God’s timing.
Hope for AIDS Program
The Hope for AIDS program has four key elements and is based upon the word “HOPE.”
Home-Based Care: Improved home and community-based care for those affected by AIDS.
Orphans: Meeting the basic physical, spiritual and psychosocial needs of orphans and children-at-risk.
Prevention: Prevention of infection by reducing high-risk behavior, especially among young people and children.
Enabling: Enhanced church and partner capacity to develop AIDS-related ministries.
Originally the intention or expectation was to have different projects operating in only one of the above categories; however, we have found that while each project may have an original focus, many often end up working in more than one area. It is extremely difficult to do home-based care without caring for orphans and vulnerable children who live in either the same or neighboring houses. Much of the work we do includes teaching or educating, which leads to prevention-type activities and ministries. Enabling churches, partners and communities is a key motivation SIM has for maintaining Hope for Aids.
Each project seeks to engage with the specific community it is working in and is therefore unique from all other projects. One might think there is not much room for significant differences between home-based care projects in different regions, but there is great potential for developing personal programs. Some communities might focus on washing and cleaning the patient; others might be involved with housework. For others, the focus might be on moving in with a patient when family members are frightened by the idea of losing their loved one. Indeed, each of the other three categories can have similar variety.
The Unique Place of Mission Organizations in Relief and Development
There is, however, one common thread. This is the love of God that enables volunteers to remain committed to projects, despite the lack of material reward. This love is visible to the communities that we work in and to the neighbors and patients we visit. This love speaks of a God who can dispel the stigma, fears and superstitions that so many cultures hold concerning HIV/AIDS. This is why SIM does HIV/AIDS ministries. There are other organizations that do relief and development better than what we do and have better trained personnel. Although there are many good reasons why Christian organizations should be involved in this type of work, the vision of SIM is on “kingdom building.” There are at least two advantages that mission organizations (and in particular, SIM) have over some organizations that specialize in relief and development.
History and grass roots contacts that spread across both rural and urban regions and countries. SIM has served in some countries for more than 110 years and has built strong and lasting relationships with individual communities. We are able to call on these relationships and can travel rather easily into rural areas. Relief and development agencies, often based in larger towns, do not typically have this easy access. Because we are more prominent in rural areas, we can more easily call upon local churches to provide volunteers if needed.
Answers to problems that governments are often facing. Many governments, in fact, ask us for answers for certain problems. Promoting abstinence and fidelity is not something many governments want to be part of (despite evidence suggesting these work); however, they generally encourage Faith-Based Organizations to share these important messages.
Despite the work we have done, I still get frustrated. Many people have died, many friends are HIV-positive and many societies seem slow to change. I believe Psalm 2 is just as applicable today as it was when it was first written. I can picture God sitting in heaven and mocking the efforts of the “kings and rulers” of this world. Despite the money and personnel committed to finding either an AIDS cure or vaccine, we are still some distance off. I imagine God looking down from heaven, knowing that the disobedient people will reap the consequences of what they sow. There is a sense of mockery in early portion of the Psalm and an awareness that the consequences to the “rulers” and “kings of the earth” will be severe.
I look at young people who have lost siblings because of HIV/AIDS. Many continue walking the same paths their brothers and sisters walked. It is very rare that they make a conscious decision to take another path. Why is this so? What have they got to lose by trying something different?
In Psalm 2 the psalmist advises the world to “serve the Lord with fear” and “kiss the Son.” Some commentators translate “kiss the Son” as “pay a deep and sincere respect to the Son.” When you respect someone, you listen to what they say and consider or follow their advice.
The Bible teaches faithfulness within marriage and abstinence before marriage. If we all were to show sincere respect to Jesus and the Father, the possibility of HIV/AIDS would be substantially reduced. Medical mishaps and mother-to-child transmissions would be reduced or eliminated. Psalm 2:12 advises that we “kiss the Son lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way.” We are seeing this consequence today. However, this cause-effect in verse 12 is followed by “blessed are all who take refuge in him.” The good news is that while we are seeing the destruction mentioned in the first part of the verse, we are also seeing people taking refuge in him. Our prayer is that more and more people will continue to do this.
Realities of the Mission Call to HIV/AIDS Care
There are as many challenges as there are missionaries and ministries. One is the difficulty in motivating and caring appropriately for the volunteers involved in the Hope for Aids program. In many cases the volunteers are HIV-positive themselves. We need to provide sufficient “pastoral” care and support to each person as part of their regular training, working and de-briefing cycle. We also need to provide the same care for project managers who often support the volunteers.
In our HIV/AIDS ministry, people are coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Children are rejoicing in the education they are receiving. Families and individuals are being fed hot meals. We receive words of encouragement from people who are grateful that someone has ignored the stigma, fears and superstitions and taken the time to visit them. All these things are all worth rejoicing over.
However, the losses also hurt in a very real way. Consoling children who have lost parents or siblings, attending yet another funeral and ensuring care for still another orphan/vulnerable child are all draining. It is difficult to talk with a young person who recently discovered they are HIV-positive.
When next you pray for missions around the world, pray for the people mentioned above. Pray for the people who face these challenges. Pray that the joys and victories they see now, and the hope of the future, will sustain them.