Ndorimana Emmanuel nSJ
With the eyes of our imagination, we looked upon all the people in our world, each one so different from the other: white and black; healthy and sick, some with AIDS; born and dying, some born with HIV, others dying of AIDS…
This is how we started our session about AIDS at the Jesuit Novitiate of Our Lady of the Way in Cyangugu, Rwanda, on 17 and 18 December 2014. The director of AJAN, Fr Paterne Mombe SJ, led us in a contemplation taken from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order.
In this exercise, we looked at the whole world from God’s viewpoint, just as if we were sitting by his side and looking down below. As we focused our gaze on Africa, and especially on the reality of AIDS there, we saw men and women, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the happy and the sad. Many were aimless, despairing, struggling with life and blind to any meaning. With God, we heard people laughing and crying, some shouting and screaming, some praying, others cursing. And we heard God say: “Let us work for the redemption of the human race.”
This reflection paved the way for us to hear about the history of AIDS and the response of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to the explosion of the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. From the very first case of AIDS that was officially recorded in 1981, Fr Paterne traced the evolution of AIDS to the present day, emphasising the challenges it poses for our continent, which is by far the hardest hit.
This is the context in which the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) was set up in 2002, to combat what was then seen as “one of the greatest threats to Africa since the slave trade”. Since then, AJAN has been hard at work: Fr Paterne described the range of services that are being implemented in many countries by Jesuits and their collaborators to reach out to people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.
At the end of the workshop, we were invited to put together a “bunch of flowers” of what we had learned, what impressed us most. Among the “flowers” we picked, there were some thorns: the ravages of AIDS in its 33 years of existence; the evil of marginalizing and stigmatizing people living with HIV; the great vulnerability of young African girls to HIV; and how many social, structural and legal factors contribute to its spread, among them social injustice and gender violence. We also focused on the way all African communities are affected by AIDS and what might halt its advance. Religion, for example, plays a role in stemming the progress of the pandemic and, looking at the statistics, Islam seems to have good results. We learned a lot about the science of HIV and AIDS, how to manage it and how ARVs contribute to a positive reduction of HIV-transmission risk, as does circumcision, reducing the probability of contamination by 60%.
Perhaps one of the most important things we learned was how some Ignatian methodologies can be applied to the service of people living with HIV through pastoral care. For example, by contemplating together with them on scripture readings as we accompany them through their deep sorrow, discouragement, disappointment, faith crisis… towards acceptance and wholeness. Our relationship with men and women who are infected and affected should be one that is very caring and supportive – we cannot be indifferent to their plight. This personal contribution is one of the ways in which we, as religious, can play a redemptive role in the history of mankind in its struggle against the greatest plague in modern history.