by Paul Brink, associate professor of political studies
Paul Brink visited South Africa this past summer as a member of the Seminar in Public Theology, cosponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Calvin College.
By our second week in South Africa we expected the unexpected, but none of us professors from more than half a dozen countries were prepared for J. L. Zwane Memorial Presbyterian Church in Guguletu, a poor township outside Cape Town. J. L. Zwane has AIDS. A big sign says so.
Even in a country where nearly 20 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive, the stigma remains pervasive. J. L. Zwane confronts the prejudices head-on, and proclaims to Guguletu and all visitors that the church shares in this suffering. No one remains unaffected—family members fall to the disease or new orphans arrive. Pastor Xapile has lost five family members, and his words stop us short: “We are dying”; his weekend activities are Sundays for worship, Saturdays for funerals. This church really does have AIDS.
But he also makes clear that the church suffers in hope, sustaining the HIV/AIDS programs: support groups, counseling services, hospice care, education programs, medical care (in the lobby after Sunday services!), and care for orphans. We met Priscilla, an elderly grandmother who has accepted 12 AIDS orphans into her small home. J. L. Zwane has become a crucial lifeline to Priscilla and other de facto social service organizations.
But perhaps the greatest sign of the solidarity of the church has been integrating HIV/AIDS into the liturgy of the Sunday morning service. As the choir and congregation sing “Bambelela (Never Give Up),” someone who is HIV-positive rises to tell their story. The good news of the gospel is brought against the bad news of disease.
Our group reboards the bus more quietly than before. If J. L. Zwane has AIDS, then surely the Body of Christ—of which I am also a member—has AIDS. Does my own church reflect this reality? Does yours?
Picture: Isaac Sobe, an AIDS orphan, photographed Neo Makoena, whose mother is HIV positive.