On a cold afternoon in Concord, Mass., the Sinikithemba HIV+ Choir from Durban, South Africa, is rehearsing and holding media interviews at Trinitarian Congregational UCC. It is in this country for an eight-city concert tour, singing out in the fight against AIDS in Africa.
A young South African woman faces video cameras, talking with quiet dignity to her interviewer. She talks about what it's like to live with HIV/AIDS on a continent where most people can't afford antiretroviral medications to prolong their lives. She talks about South Africa, where HIV+ people are ostracized or even killed by friends or family.
After her interview, she sits in one of the pews and begins to sob. "Eight members of my family died with AIDS in the past two years," she says.
In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 23.5 million men and women and more than one million children are infected with the HIV/AIDS virus.
"Living with AIDS is one of the most dreadful experiences," comments the Rev. Bonganjalo Goba, Global Ministries Area Executive for Africa, UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "It compounds the situation in which people are usually poor in the first place and do not have access to medical resources.
"Only churches and non-governmental organizations have come to their rescue and have begun to provide home care."
Goba says orphans, who are victims of AIDS, are being taken into the homes of pastors, "especially in Uganda, Tanzania, and southern Africa." Africa is becoming a land of orphans.
Voices of Hope
How do people live their lives and maintain hope?
In Zulu, sinikithemba means "we give hope."
The Rev. John Lombard, pastor of Concord's Trinitarian Congregational UCC, experienced that hope first hand at Sinikithemba Christian Care Center when he visited Global Ministries missionaries in the KwaZulu Natal region in 2001. Lombard's congregation also had given an $18,000 gift to Sinikithemba.
"What was so striking," he recalls, "is that the people we met afflicted with this devastating illness nonetheless exude irrepressible joy and hopefulness.
"They sing, dance, and interact with this great camaraderie," he says.
"They transform the lives they touch. When the choir rehearsed at our church, I stood in the back of the sanc- tuary and tears streamed down my face."
Care for whole persons
The tour was hosted by Church World Service. "The Sinikithemba Christian Care Center, associated with McCord Hospital, is one of the few AIDS clinics in Durban offering services that care for the whole person, medically, emotionally, spiritually, socially and economically," says CWS executive director the Rev. John L. McCullough.
"Faith and a happy state of mind have a good effect on your body," says one HIV+ woman in the choir from KwaZulu Natal.
"We are with them from diagnosis, to seeing them through acceptance of their diagnosis, through management of opportunistic infections," explains Dr. Helga Holst, medical supervisor for McCord Hospital. We also provide a social worker and counseling, she says.
The stigma of AIDS is so severe there that often, Holst says, "patients don't inform their families. We offer a safe place where HIV positive people can talk to others in support groups and not feel so isolated."
The clergy's support of the AIDS pandemic has not always gotten high marks across Africa.
"Churches have made this prejudice," one choir member chimes in. "They told everyone in the beginning that if you are HIV positive, it means God is punishing you for your sins by giving you an incurable disease."
In the United States last summer, South African Council of Churches General Secretary Molefe Tsele said the National Church Call to Condemn the Stigmatization of HIV/AIDS Infected and Affected is having an impact there.
"The church," he said, "is urging compassion, saying people who are HIV positive shouldn't be condemned or looked at as if they have sinned. We have made a great inroad in the townships. Compared with a year ago, people are less eager to judge."
Affected taking charge
The AIDS-affected are also leading the way. "People living with AIDS are taking an active role in AIDS education programs," says Goba. "They challenge communities to take the disease seriously."
"They are also challenging governments to provide HIV/AIDS medicines," he notes. "Many of them have a sense of hope and have not given up on life."
At Sinikithemba, part of using the "AIDS cocktail" is about income-generation. In Sinikithemba's beadwork enterprise, women produce traditional Zulu beadwork jewelry and crafts, selling them at fair market prices through organizations such as Church World Service and "putting food on the table for many," says Holst.
Then there is the music.
On World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, in New York City's vaulting The Riverside Church (UCC/ABC), the Sinikithemba choir sings to a full house. At Harvard University's Memorial Church they sing, "Jesus is all over me ... Satan is under my feet."
In a church in Philadelphia, the Sinikithemba Choir is very much alive. They sing, "Friendship with Jesus ... Jesus is a Friend of Mine." A young woman named Nomusa holds a lighted candle. She prays for everyone affected by AIDS. She says, "We are still praying your name. And," she says with confidence, "we are praying for a cure."
Jan Dragin is a communication consultant who traveled with the Sinikithemba Choir during its U.S. concert tour