“When I was Hungry, you Gave me Food, when I was Thirsty, you Gave me Drink.”
In the early 1990s, as South Africa wrestled with finding peace amid violence and unrest following the fall of apartheid, AIDS began its deadly infiltration of the country. Spread not only through unprotected sex, but fueled by denial among government officials and agencies and a lack of access to medications, over 5 million Children of God became infected before the country acknowledged AIDS even existed, let alone that it was wiping out an entire generation.
The almond dust peppered our shoes and the smell of goat, roasting whole over open fires in outdoors stands, latched onto our tongues. Guided by members of the JL Zwane Presbyterian church, we continued our pilgrimage through Gugulethu township, an overcrowded and impoverished community, established by the government during apartheid to forcibly remove blacks from the city center. A mix of simple brick homes and metal shacks, residents string wires to the high voltage power lines which run directly over their community—the only way they receive electricity, which still is not provided in many settlements.
While South African President Thabo Mbeki and was denying the connection between HIV and AIDS, and his administration was banning the importation and distribution of antiretroviral drugs, the JL Zwane community was organizing to prevent further spread of the disease and provide care for the thousands infected within their township. Amid tremendous opposition, the church began AIDS ministries.
“We watched too many friends, family, members of our community, die undignified, painful deaths from this disease. Lying on the floor of a shack, dying next to your child, covered in one’s own body fluids, is unacceptable. Saying ‘we don’t know why she withered away’ while knowing AIDS is the cause, only leads to more suffering and death.”
The church empowered leaders who lived in the township, creating community wide assessment tools to understand the needs of their neighbors and the number of people likely infected. Meals and basic care were provided, along with education programs for adults and children. Pastors began going door to door, not with bibles in hand, but with condoms and information on prevention and treatment.
“This church is no place for dying people”
As the church began their ministry to those afflicted by AIDS, many who were a part of the community and surrounding city were very clear — "This church is no place for dying people.” Threats to church vitality, financial support, and the stigma the church would experience were far reaching. Hundreds of people left, angry that AIDS patients were within the doors of their sanctuary and fearful they would contract the disease. No one wanted to recognize, let alone associate, minister to, or be apart of the lives, the deaths, of people with AIDS. Not a single organization in Cape Town would partner with the church. Defiant, they continued their ministry, going so far as creating a partnership with a Minnesota LGBT organization that had experience caring for AIDS patients and their families.
“We expected to find compassionate people of God in the other churches in Cape Town. But instead, God blessed us with a partnership with gay Americans, half way around the world. It wasn’t comfortable at first for any of us. We didn’t understand one another’s cultures or communities. But we understood our brothers and sisters were dying of the same disease, and that God called us to work together to show dignity to those who were dying.”
“The church is no place for dying people.”
No matter where we live, we want to deny death, our own mortality, the ugliness of the pain that surrounds us on this side of eternity. We fear aloud that our churches, our traditions, our bodies will succumb to death. Clinging to the edge of the cliffs of our past, blindfolds tied across our eyes, we do everything in our power to deny death. Often, we would rather leave our brothers and sisters on dirt floors, covered in filth, than pick them up and touch their moral flesh. There is such irony in claiming the church is not a place for the dying—it is THE place for dying people. Our lives, our whole being, our every breath, is centered upon the broken, beaten, blooded body of our Lord, nailed to a cross, gasping for his last breath, before into God’s hands he commends his spirit. You cannot have resurrection without death. There are consequences to death and not every person, church or community is willing to enter into the suffering and pain which is a part of death. Most will not dwell with the dying, their caskets made and waiting. Yet other communities, individuals, congregations, living out their baptismal covenant place the dying in a bed, press a washcloth upon their brow and speak the words “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever” while the dying live out their baptismal covenant to their final breath. Dying, living, awaiting the resurrection.
For we, the church, are the dying.
We, the church, are the resurrected.