A letter from Janet Guyer on home assignment from South Africa
Looking out over the Oregon coast, watching the waves come rolling in, sometimes making it to the shore, sometimes flattening out before getting there, sometimes coming high up the shore, and occasionally going crosswise to the other waves coming in… How like our life that is, each new day comes rolling in, sometimes full of excitement and energy, sometimes just going along, just making it, and then some come crosswise, such a surprise. And yet, each one is a gift from God, a new opportunity to journey on, to make a new start, and yes, even those surprising ones that go crosswise are gifts as well.
Being here in the U.S. these past months has been a bit like those waves, each one a little different, new people to meet, old friends to renew friendships with, and even the ones that go crosswise throw you into the arms of God, trusting God for where it will take you. For those I connected with, it was great to see you again and for those I missed, I am so sorry. Let’s try to make it happen next time, but in the meantime, please stay in touch.
Watching the campaigning—the issues people feel are important to talk about or not talk about—the election has been interesting. (I usually watch the election years from a distance, which may in fact be preferable…) All the talk about health care has made me think about health care back in Southern Africa. In South Africa it really matters who you are, what position you have, what your health care will be like. One time a friend who lives in a very poor part of town, one of the townships, accidently poured boiling water on her foot on a Saturday evening. She had to wait until Monday morning to go to a clinic because the clinics were closed on Sundays and the hospital was too far. Monday, the lines at the clinic would be way too long, so she decided to go to work. Fortunately her employer took her into a clinic near her work, and she is fine. Contrast that to the time I, oh so wisely, reached over a boiling teakettle and got badly burned on my arm. Within 15 minutes I had driven myself down to the clinic and was in the emergency section with burn care pads on my arm.
The outcomes are not always so happy. A friend living with HIV had a terrible opportunistic infection. She had gotten the disease because her immune system wasn’t working. The short version is that the medication she needed was not available in that country and we, her family and friends, were not able to get it for her, at least not in time. There are other challenges for people living with HIV as well, challenges of physically getting to a clinic, of getting tested to know that you are HIV-infected, and challenges of knowing whom to tell.
Access to health care is such a privilege, when it should be a right for everyone. The governments of the countries in which I work—Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and South Africa (which is in a different situation financially than the others)—have committed to making the anti-retroviral medications available at no cost for all who need them. To date about half, very roughly speaking, of the people who need them are able to access them. But in what they have done, the governments have saved thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives and continue to strive to do better.
Churches are also a part of the struggle to bring health and wholeness to people: not only through the Christian hospitals and clinics but also through congregations. Being sure that congregants know the facts about HIV and AIDS and not just the myths, learning to care for each other in many senses of the word "care," and moving beyond stigma by learning to live the fact that God loves us all, regardless of what our HIV status might be.
In South Africa and Lesotho four partner denominations are currently working with EMPACT Africa on a project to help congregations understand HIV, then look at themselves to see how they might be stigmatizing others and address what they can do to make a difference. We believe that if people know that God loves them and they will be accepted regardless of what their HIV status is, they will be more willing to get tested, the first step in accessing all kinds of help and support that can lead to a long and healthy life.
But still, the cycle continues. A pastor’s wife just wrote that her child, lets call her Tammy, needs specialized surgery that is not available in her country. Please pray for Tammy and her family, and for all the other people who know that there is more help out there than they can access.
And now I am looking forward to going back to Southern Africa, thanking God for where the waves of heaven have taken me so far. I have learned faith from people who say that yes, they go to the hospital for what it can do, but then trust in God for the rest. I have learned commitment from a friend who works long, tiring hours as an AIDS coordinator so that her church members can help themselves to prevent infection and to care for those infected or left orphaned. I have learned joy from a woman who said, "Just because I am poor doesn’t mean I can’t be happy," and I am learning to dance in church, because God cares and God is with us.
November 5 I will return to South Africa. Please continue to journey with me though your prayers, your letters, your Skype—or even come out to visit, and we will discover where the waves of God are tossing us, with the gentle swells, the tumultuous high tides, or even the crosscurrents or undertows that will send us swirling to surprising new places.
Blessings to you and yours.
Rev. Janet Guyer
Regional HIV and AIDS Consultant for Southern Africa
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 112