The reflection for the first week of Lent is written by Danielle Vella of AJAN.
“Let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” – 1 Jn 4:7-8
“Those who love… know God.” This is the main theme of the 2014 Lenten reflections of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) and it sums up the essence of the message of Jesus.
Some years ago, I met Pierre Ceyrac SJ, an inspirational French Jesuit who lived his life as a companion to the poor in India and as a pioneer of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Thai border camps in the 80s. I remember Pierre passionately restating this truth: “Only love is important – God doesn’t care about anything else!”
This, then, is our challenge – to love. And, if we want to live like Jesus, then our love should favour the poorest and most marginalised among us, because it was for them that he had a special love in his lifetime
We have all met people who know God well, who draw others to him like a magnet through their compassionate love and service. Another event that sticks in my memory is a visit to home-based care projects in Zambia. The caregivers explained what had prompted them to volunteer to look after people living with HIV in the dark not-too-distant days when AIDS was a sure death sentence.
One of them, Doubt, said: “I volunteered to be a caregiver when people started dying of AIDS. At first I was one of those who used to run away. I came here to the parish for workshops and I learned you don’t get HIV just by touching someone who has it or by sharing a spoon. Then I understood.” Another, Mwando, said: “We volunteered to help so people could have a better life. We are the people of God and when others suffer, we cannot just sit back and watch.”
And these caregivers are themselves poor and struggling to cope from day to day to bring up their families.
Florence, a Kenyan woman living with HIV, said the Church is an instinctive place of refuge. She told guests at an AJAN book launch late last year: “The first place we turn to is the Church because it has been a source of care, a place where we can go and not be judged or stigmatized. It is a place where everything is real, because we are all human, and this is the most important thing.”
Through such love, people with HIV who have lost hope and health can recover the joy of living. But sometimes it seems love isn’t enough. In the last issue of AJANews, AJAN director Paterne Mombe SJ shared the story of his friend Bernard, a man in his early forties from Togo, who died of heart complications because he couldn’t afford the treatment. Bernard belonged to a small association of people with HIV; they used to make soap to sell to meet their daily needs. But their love, their savings and their efforts to find money on the last day of Bernard’s life were not enough. So he died, leaving four orphans; his wife died of AIDS years ago.
This tragedy is no exception. Countless poor people in Africa and other developing countries die because they don’t have access to treatment that is easily available and affordable for better-off people in their own country itself and in richer parts of the world.
In Lent, when we are called to turn towards God, to see where we could have loved more, Bernard’s death troubles me… because it was needless; because he leaves four children who have been deprived of his irreplaceable love; because the wellness of poor people living with HIV in poor countries remains so fragile, something that can be snatched away from one day to the next; and because I wonder if there was anything I could have done about it.
I wonder. Is there anything I can do about the millions of people who don’t have access to the basics they need to stay alive? Is there anything I can do to include all of humanity, especially the poor and marginalised, in the privileges I enjoy?
Am I guilty of indifference? When Pope Francis went to Lampedusa (Italy) to meet asylum seekers from Africa, he asked: “How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings? We are no longer attentive to the world in which we live …” He threw out a strong challenge: “Today, this question emerges forcefully: who is responsible for the blood of our brothers and sisters? Nobody! That is our answer: it isn’t me, I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: ‘Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?’ We have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters.”
The first step away from the “globalisation of indifference” underlined by the pope is to be constantly informed about the reality of preventable pain in the world that is born of injustice and inequality. Once I know, I can act, together with others, to do my part to advocate for a more just world. And I can help individuals, like Bernard’s four children.
It is not easy to believe we can have an impact on distant and difficult realities, that our actions can actually influence the lives of the poor. The famous talisman of Mahatma Gandhi puts our doubts in perspective, encapsulating the inner reflection we are called to during Lent: “Whenever you are in doubt, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”
To read this article in French, please go here.