A letter from Sarah Henken, regional liaison for the Andean Region, in Bolivia
There’s a story I’ve been wanting to share with you, and the time has come. My first visit to the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Venezuela took me to Vida y Esperanza (Life and Hope) Church in the city of Maracay. The church there is small and unimposing, in an average house in the center of town. I went with a small delegation from Central Presbytery, and the pastor and his wife greeted us enthusiastically. We sat in the shade of the interior patio and listened to stories of the life of the church while the traffic buzzed and honked outside and the windchimes jangled in the breeze.
Pastor Josué Gómez and his wife, Sigrid, began their ministry in Maracay 10 years ago, establishing a worshiping community in the usual way. When one regular attendee became increasingly ill from AIDS-related complications, the congregation found itself invested in ministry with the broader community affected by HIV/AIDS outside the church walls.
Today Vida y Esperanza church has a deep understanding of its call to work in active collaboration with an ecumenical HIV/AIDS ministry. They offer a space for those who are personally infected—or affected by a friend or family member’s infection—to gather and share experiences, get the facts about what life with HIV looks like, and encounter God in the midst of it. The ministry offers monthly sessions for those who have been recently diagnosed as well as regular groups for women, youth, children, and couples. The groups are called ProVida (ForLife) because the focus is on living life in fullness while also cultivating awareness and education to prevent the spread of HIV.
On that warm February afternoon we heard from Josué and Sigrid and several of the ministry’s leaders who were all living with HIV/AIDS. It was a time full of laughter and joy, as well as stories of personal struggle and loss. Tony Medina, who was at that time the president of ACIVA (the community association that Vida y Esperanza takes part in), told us about his own walk of faith. He had often felt either rejected or used by local churches, but there was something different about Pastor Josué. Having someone willing to simply listen and be present, sharing Christ’s love quietly rather than forcefully, spoke to Tony and he began to worship at the Presbyterian church, taking on leadership and sharing his joyful spirit there as well as in his community HIV/AIDS work.
Speaking about the importance of spiritual support, Tony said, “I told Pastor Josué, ‘We need to talk about God here.’ Because I’m convinced that in this situation—and in every situation! the thing is I didn’t recognize it—it was God who saved me. I was really in bad shape. And the time came when I said, ‘Alright, God, your will be done.’ I wanted to say that I was just so tired of so much struggling. Because it’s been 15, 16 years I’ve lived with this.”
Josué and Sigrid are passionate about this ministry. “Just like Martin Luther King had a dream, I have one, too” said Sigrid. “To spread prevention, from the church to the church and to other places… so that people will know that by accompanying and caring, by giving a hug or a word of encouragement, or sharing the Word of the Lord, they aren’t going to get infected, they won’t get HIV in their blood. We carry HIV in a different way, through accompaniment. It’s what it means, in our case, to be Christian, to carry Jesus Christ here with us.”
Transformational HIV/AIDS ministry like the one that is taking place in Maracay with Vida y Esperanza is still uncommon in most of Latin America. The need for education is great, in the churches as well as in society generally. I was deeply moved by the joy and dedication of everyone we met that day and inspired by their witness and vision.
“Here in Maracay,” said Josué, “we hope to motivate some congregations or some group from the Presbyterian church to begin to take on this work so it’s not just in Maracay—we’re still in diapers here, with lots to learn and do! But I feel extremely happy to accompany these people and be accompanied by them.”
Please pray for Josué and Sigrid, for the leaders from ACIVA, the Vida y Esperanza congregation, and the broader church, that this life-giving vision and ministry might be sustained and expanded to communities in Venezuela and around the world. If you’d like to hear about the ministry in their own words, please take a few minutes to watch this video of excerpts from our conversation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C41QdLlCJps&feature=youtu.be
Thank you so much for the many ways you support ministries like this one and my work in the Andean countries of South America. Your financial contributions for my sending and support and my ministry/travel budget are what make my continuing presence here possible and help strengthen our ties in mutual mission.
In Christian hope,
P.S. I’m still filling in my calendar for Interpretation Assignment in the U.S. from April through August. Please let me know if you’d like me to share with your community!