December 1 marks World AIDS Day and the start of this year’s Advent season. “Comfort, yes, comfort my people, says your God,” (Isaiah 40:1).
In the most neglected regions of the world where the HIV epidemic has raged for over 30 years, the reality of this epidemic is evident with its disproportionate impact on children. The number of children affected by the HIV epidemic increases each year almost as if the numbers are simply meant to convey what we already know — that not much is being done to care for those who are orphaned or to slow one of the most neglected complications of the HIV epidemic.
As one looks into the faces of the orphaned children, one wonders what they are thinking as they struggle each day to survive. What is it like, to get up as the sun rises and realize that it is unlikely there will be enough food for the day, or that you will again stand and watch all the other children go to school with their books and uniforms while you remain still and staring. When they look at any visitor, do they see an individual who might, just might, change their daily lives and their future. Or maybe they have gotten so used to visitors from foreign lands who come, look, listen and then never return, that their hopes never reach the level that creates disappointment. These orphans are frequently the most impoverished, and yet, somehow, they manage a smile that breaks through their obvious poverty. It’s moving to see so many orphans in need and to watch individual children jockeying to the front to get a space where they will be more visible to the visitors. It reminds one of the scene in the movie Cider House Rules adapted from the 1985 novel by John Irving, where the orphan children line up waiting to be adopted and shout out to the potential parents, “Look at me, look at me.” Today the HIV orphan epidemic needs to be made visible and needs to be seen as individual children who deserve the love and care that all children long for.
On this year’s World AIDS Day we continue to worry more than ever about the HIV orphan epidemic. Perhaps we shouldn’t. Maybe some big international organization or some large non-government organization or a benevolent government will take up the cause. But in reality there are too many orphans and so someone’s got to worry, and in fact, a lot more people need to be moved to worry. We all need to recognize that there is an entire generation of children orphaned by the HIV epidemic that are in desperate need of being rescued. Just as Jesus recognized the potential of the children who sat at his feet and refused to send them away as his disciples urged, we need to acknowledge that orphans are also welcomed inhabitants into the kingdom of heaven.
In 2013 the orphan crisis looms large. So large, in fact, that many will turn their eyes away, overwhelmed by the enormity of the need. Currently it is estimated that there are over 16 million orphans worldwide, with 6 million added to that number each year. Fewer than 20% of the orphans are infected with HIV. The majority have escaped HIV infection but not orphanhood. In two to three years there will be more orphans as a result of the HIV epidemic than there are adults living with HIV.
Every life is important, but over the last decades the priorities for the HIV epidemic have been to provide education to adults to help them to protect themselves from getting HIV infection, or if they are already infected, to provide them with drugs to control their infection so that they will have a normal life expectancy. All this is extremely important. But the orphan crisis is a direct consequence of placing their needs at an unacceptably low priority. Children do not choose to become orphans of the epidemic, nor is there a magic medicine that will erase their orphan status.
Worrying is the beginning. There’s a lot that we can and should do. Women need to be protected from unwanted HIV infection that destroys their lives and that of their family. If infected, they need access to life-saving medicines to keep them healthy so that they can provide for their children and prevent them from becoming orphans in the first place. Pregnant women can also be given medicines to keep the virus from being transmitted to their infants. Advocacy is required to protect women from physical violence, the major source of unwanted HIV infection. Donations will help provide medicines to keep mothers healthy and prevent children from becoming infected. Donations can also purchase food to provide severely malnourished children with nutrition so that the medicines work. This can be done for one orphan, or for two, or for five, or for 10, or even for 100 children, providing orphans with the comfort that there are individuals who believe that they have a responsibility to care for the widows and the orphans of this world.
The severity of the orphan crisis may not be on the radar screen of all of the big organizations or for that matter most Christians. Orphans need advocates because they cannot advocate for themselves. Any new direction will not come from inside the political process. Politicians love to make speeches about families and children, but when they get back to Ottawa and budget battles, kids are the last to cross their minds. Kids don’t vote. And political leaders respond to three things: threats to their re-election, potential embarrassment in the media, and the promise of campaign contributions. Children don’t make campaign contributions, and many of their parents are too busy struggling to make ends meet to get involved in campaigns. If change is to come, it will happen because people like you respond in an aggressive, sustained, and even outraged way.
We are in good company when we advocate for orphans. We join with God, the prophets and Jesus in urging the Christian community to care for the widows and the orphans of this present world. It will be a tragedy if the Christian community looks back years from now and says that more should been done to rescue the oppressed.
In Isaiah chapter 40:11 we read, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” In the flock I see not just individuals, couples and families. I also see widows and orphans. God has given us the privilege of gathering them together and bringing them close to his heart. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27.
ABOUT THE LIGHT
It’s always been about the light with you,
hasn’t it, Jesus?
Magi, braving distance and desert to find you,
and bewildered shepherds, compelled by an angel’s invitation,
allowed light to be their guide,
And it is still the light that calls us to you;
the light of beauty that whispers its truth
in surprising ways and places;
the light of compassion that kneels,
and washes road-soiled, life-battered feet;
the light of joy that glows
even in the darkness of grief and suffering;
the light that seeks to shine within us,
and through us into the dark corners of our world.
It’s always been about the light with you, Jesus;
and it’s always about the light for us.
Please lead us, now and always, out of darkness
and into your marvellous light.
… John van de Laar