preached by Emily Davila, EW Chair, on the anniversary of World AIDS Day
Advent Lutheran Church, New York City

Like the shepherds so long ago, I must share with you what I saw.

Like the shepherds so long ago, I must share with you what I saw.

I woke up this morning on World AIDS Day with many emails in my inbox from around the world.   World AIDS Day (WAD) is a time of social networks, and we celebrate it in many ways – we post liturgy on websites, email, worship, remember, give money, wear ribbons.  Today is the day that we do these things all at once, all over the world.  By sitting here in these pews we are part of a chain of reflection and action.

AIDS is with us in the US, but from my work at the Lutheran Office for World Community, an office representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) at the United Nations, I have seen the immense and tragic effects of AIDS’s in countries that are poorer than ours.  Having traveled to far off places, like the shepherds sent on a mission that winter night, I feel I must tell you what I have seen, that among suffering I have felt awe.  This witness is what I am going to talk about today.

When I visited Kenya last year, I sat with a group of women at Jerusalem Parrish in Nairobi.  These women meet weekly for a widows support group. In Kenya, widowed women are considered outcasts, and face discrimination. After the husband dies, it is part of the culture for his family to take his land and his house, in the worst cases forcing the woman out on the street with nothing.  One of the women told me: “As you mourn death of your husband, someone from his family is in Nairobi filing the paperwork.”  I can’t imagine, on top of such a loss, having to fight for your home at the same time as you grieve.

Besides having support groups for women, many of which have lost their husbands because of AIDS, Jerusalem Parrish pays school fees for children who have lost their parents, and has a program for kids that live on the street in the slums.   This church welcomes HIV positive people into the pews, and offers testing.  Christine Mangale, an intern at the Lutheran Office for World Community, is from Jerusalem Parrish and she tells me today they are doing a WAD observance today that lasts all day, with singing, dancing and testimony.

At another church I visited in Northern Kenya, I sat with a group of women who come together every week to do crafts while their children go to preschool.  I watched them –one stitch at a time– weave baskets out of plastic string.  Each stitch had to be pushed through the hard plastic frame.  It seemed it would take days to stitch just one basket.  These women sell the products to each other, maybe for the equivalent of one dollar.  Their handicrafts will never reach a large market, certainly not our coffee hour after Sunday services. Their income will never buy them medicine, let alone send their child to college. While they wove their children played in the yard.  Many of the children were half naked because they did not have clothes.  It was the rainy season. This was poverty.  These women had nothing, and some of them had HIV.  It seems just too cruel.

In my work I have seen that the Lutheran church has its arms around the entire world, with person-to-person connections — names, faces and addresses– in every country.   The chaplain at the Church Center for the UN, helping me with this sermon, told me don’t be afraid to speak from your own point of view – your generation worships differently.   That got my thinking, mine is the social network generation, and the church I believe in is a giant social network.   The church I believe in is global –and by walking together, with each other and with God, each and every day, we are constantly creating our communion.

When I first started my job 6 years ago, I would look up at the UN building and think, wow, what good work the UN does and we are only a small church office.  Now I when I look up at the UN I think, I can go anywhere in the world and find a church and a program that works at a local level, helping women and children and empowering community leaders.  As Lutherans, we have a human network connected by faith, family and belief.  Our communion is stitched together by what is felt in our hearts and done by our hands, and these connections are incredibly strong and long lasting.  I can only think the UN would envy the strength of our network because it is priceless.

In September I went to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for a National Lutheran Women’s conference.  One-fifth of PNG is Lutheran because of the German colonization, and the church has deep roots in the country.  PNG is a fascinating place, with 6 million people it has more language diversity than any place on earth, the people speak 800 languages on an island that is about the size of Texas.  PNG has an estimated 60,000 people living with HIV or AIDS, and with a culture that still practices polygamy, isolated communities, severe gender inequality and violence against women, the conditions are prime for further spread of the virus.  PNG is still struggling with fundamental challenges like keeping mothers alive during childbirth and making sure children can go to school, so AIDS becomes just one of many urgent issues.

But in PNG I learned the meaning of community health care, and saw firsthand how churches are saving lives.   Through sponsoring training programs, the church trains what they call village health volunteers and birth attendants.  These volunteers, mainly women, are trained to identify signs and symptoms of abnormal pregnancies, as well as Flu, TB and malaria and then take the patient to the nearest health center or hospital.  The volunteers also keep birth and health records, while before there was no one to do this.

A trained birth attendant, or midwife named Midi Nus, told me:  “Lots of women do this, but when they see they don’t get anything in return for their work they give up.” She told me if she were to be given money for her work she would spend it on kerosene to cook meals for her family.  She is a widow with six children.

“Last week a girl from the bush came down,” said Midi. “She was two months pregnant and had a homemade abortion, she was bleeding to death, I made her safe.” Before she was trained as a birth attendant, it was not legal for her to be a midwive, she could be caught by the police.  Now that she has the certificate, her husband is supportive of her work.

She told me “When women seek help, we always pray first so God is with us”.

Midi is a caregiver, and she is doing her work for free.   According to the UN, women are 90% of caregivers.  In some ways this is a story that we know in this country.  Women care for the sick or the elderly in our families, but in many ways it is an unfamiliar story to us.   But in the US no one is expected to deliver a baby for free, or provide hospice care without compensation for weeks at a time.

In Africa, where 4 out of the 5 deaths from AIDS occur, the caregiver, or community health workers might travel to the bed of 10-20 patients a day, having received some training from an organization like the Lutheran World Federation.  They might be caring for family members or for strangers, but they alone are the health system.   While these women give their time helping others their own families suffer.  They do not have money to pay for school fees, they do not put food on their table.  Next year the UN is having a global meeting to discuss women as caregivers, and the equal responsibility of women and men.  I am glad for this because caregiving is an issue that has not received much attention.

I tell you this information about PNG and Kenya because it is an example of the church holding up society where there is nothing else.  The church must go where no one else can, and when no one else will.  These examples also show that government and society’s response to AIDS depends on how the church responds to AIDS, and that the church can be and is, in small and quiet ways, salvation.   Since we are the church, sitting here today in these pews, let us remember that our collective voice is important.

When we are sick, when we are afraid, we seek God and we seek each other.  Our communion comes from this need.  Healing is the work of the church. Faith-based organizations have provided care all over the world, for hundreds and hundreds of years. The UN will not tell you this. As church people we must tell each other about this good work and speak up.   We do so much, and with our strong existing networks, we can still do more.  In the ELCA each church has a synod to synod partnership—here the NY synod partners with Tanzania.  Advocacy staff like myself and my colleagues in DC are advocating on behalf of the poor and those living with HIV and AIDS and we need your help reaching out to decision makers and congress, you can help by signing up to our action alerts at elca.org/advocacy.  I am sure as an ELCA congregation you already contribute to the ELCA World Hunger Fund, which gives grants to support the work in Kenya and PNG.  These grants go to real people and solve real problems of hunger and poverty.  They are vital.  Thank you for your support to ELCA World Hunger.

There is so much we can do as church people.   This collective ability is our gospel, this interdependence our celebration.  I am so happy to pray with you today, to be invited to your church, and to honor this communion.

Finally, let us remember the parts of the networks we do not hear about, but are surely connected to: the caregiver who works for free, the widow, the women who have no clothes for their children, those living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Let us keep asking about them, keep seeking out connections to them, for we don’t have to look too far.  Our communion includes them, and this is our strength.  Amen.