Fr Bernard Karerwa SJ
“You are a priest and this is why I am going to tell you everything,” the woman told me, holding me with a penetrating gaze. Actually, I was not yet a priest then, but on my way to becoming one, as I explained to her when she came to my office saying she needed to “talk to a priest”.
The woman, who was called Jane, was no longer young when she appeared in my office at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in South Africa, where I was doing pastoral fieldwork as part of theology studies. My task was to welcome the refugees, to identify their most important needs and to refer them to the person best equipped to help them. It was not easy work and called for close attention and unlimited love, because I found myself meeting people who had faced many trials and were living with deep wounds.
When Jane turned up, I was expecting her to tell me what she needed so I could direct her to someone who could help. But, curiously, Jane said she needed to “talk to a priest”. Hearing these words, I understood that she was tired and wanted to confide in someone. Jane opened her heart and told me everything, how she became HIV-positive after being raped by a stranger on one of Johannesburg’s streets. “It is very unjust of God to allow these things to happen,” she said.
For Jane, the world was a bad place; she had been rejected by society and considered to be ‘not quite right’ in the head. I had nothing to offer except to listen to her. Jane’s initial reaction was to thank me; at least she had met someone who dared to look her in the eye. “Others don’t look me in the face,” she said. “They call me by number, often while looking at their computer screens. Sometimes I ask myself whether I am a stone or a tree; I have strong doubts as to whether I am still a human being.”
There was no way her words could leave me indifferent. Deeply moved, I welcomed Jane many times after that initial encounter, and my part was basically to listen without judging. At the end of my stay in South Africa, Jane explicitly asked me for a meeting so she could let me know what she thought about my support. “Father, you may go because your mission is accomplished,” she told me. “You came when I was sick, and now you can go back to the school that sent you here, because I am well. I know I am a person like anyone else, not mad, not a tree or a stone, but a child of God.”
Hearing these words, I realised just how much a listening ear can bring healing. I still remember and pray for Jane now that I am no longer in touch with her. This and other encounters with HIV-positive people have taught me that if you want to help, the most important thing is to be ready to listen, not to let the other fall down in the dumps, to be a true friend that can be counted on in times of need.
I remember 12 years ago, in 2000, when another woman told me she was HIV-positive. She was at the Roi Khaled hospital, in Bujumbura, at the bedside of her husband who was dying of AIDS. The news shook me. AIDS was, and remains, taboo in our country, Burundi. It is difficult, still today, for someone to dare to share that she is positive. In the minds of many, AIDS is a curse and those affected have been punished for sins committed against their Creator.
Back then I didn’t know what to say. What could I tell a person suffering from an incurable sickness, who was not going to get better (we were pretty sure of this then)? My education about the matter was very limited. But all that this woman wanted was someone to listen, to share her suffering without judging her. I did this spontaneously and she seemed to be satisfied. Sometime later, her health deteriorated and she died; at the time, antiretrovirals were not widely accessible yet.
These days, as a newly ordained priest, I am involved in an association called AVEGA (Association des Veufs du Génocide – Association of Widows of the Genocide) in Rwanda, some of whose members are HIV-positive. I hear their confessions, if they need, and celebrate Mass when they ask. Meeting an HIV-positive person is always a sensitive matter because it’s difficult to gauge how much their diagnosis affects them and how they have accepted their new conditions of life. A positive diagnosis plunges the person into a void, into uncertainty; in a way, it is comparable to an experience of death – the death of what the person was.
But AIDS is no longer a death sentence. People who are affected need to know they are sick just like any other person may be sick. If respected, protected and offered moral support, people with HIV are somewhat relieved from the burden of their illness. As Jane told me, they realise they are still human beings just like any other.