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Listening: South African HIV/AIDS projects show 'hope amidst despair'
TEAC sees local church in action during its South African consultation

By Mike McCoy
[Episcopal News Service]  Photographs accompanying this article are available online at:

The working group Theological Education for the Anglican Communion (TEAC) took time out of its January 14-21 meeting in South Africa to visit local church-based HIV/AIDS projects and to see some of the realities that theological education must address.

TEAC member Elizabeth Appleby of Brisbane, Australia, said that the churches' work alongside people living with AIDS was a sign of "hope in the midst of despair" because it showed unconditional acceptance of people when they were most vulnerable.

The 34-member body gathered January 14 to draft its proposals for the reshaping of Anglican theological education, as mandated by the Primates in 2002.

Servants of the community

On January 18, TEAC members spent a morning with two community-based projects run by Anglican churches in the Diocese of the Highveld, east of Johannesburg, and visited a Roman Catholic job-creation scheme that includes many people living with AIDS.

The visits were arranged by the Rev. Marlene Rodda, a deacon in the diocese and coordinator of the diocese's social responsibility programs. Victor Matshikiza, a retired school principal who works extensively in HIV/AIDS programs, also accompanied the group.

The first stop was All Souls' Parish in Tsakane, a major center for home-based care and HIV/AIDS counseling, and a day care center for children affected by AIDS.

The parish's Tsepo-Hope Project -- endorsed and supported by the South African Departments of Health and Social Welfare -- was described as the "flagship" of non-governmental HIV/AIDS programs in South Africa.

Project coordinator Flower Boyi told TEAC that the center's main activity was to send volunteer home-based care workers (HCWs) into the community, both to visit people in the advanced stages of AIDS-related illnesses each day, and to help their families to care for them.

Parish-based counselors are trained to work alongside the HCWs, and food parcels are taken each month to needy families.

At the parish church, a day care center feeds and cares for a large group of young children whose parents have died from AIDS-related diseases, or who are themselves HIV-positive.

Welcoming the TEAC group to All Souls -- a church building whose interior is strikingly decorated with African art and artifacts -- the rector, the Rev. Ziphozonke Mnyandu, said the church's role was to be servants of the wider community.

A few kilometers down the road, TEAC members visited the Kopanang-Sithand'izingane Centre run by nuns of the Roman Catholic Dominican Community. Begun in 2002 in response to the 80 percent unemployment rate in the area, the center trains women in sewing, embroidery, paper-making, and work with beads. It also offers organic vegetable market-farming and houses a day care center for HIV/AIDS-impacted children.

Coordinator Sister Sheila Flynn spoke passionately of the challenge that HIV/AIDS poses not just to the church's pastoral care but also to its theology.

"We need to walk with the suffering, without always being able to 'fix' it," she said.

She told TEAC that 75 percent of the world's HIV-infected people are in Southern Africa, and that half of the South Africans who are now 15 years old will be dead before they are 30.

"AIDS challenges us to do theology that is rooted in human dignity, because it reveals how we deal with each other," she said. "Theology is 'God-talk' -- so our theology must be rooted in the reality of people's lives."

"How can we not believe in God?"

TEAC's final visit was to the Bambanani Community Care Centre in Dukathole, in the industrial zone of Germiston. The center is a diocesan project that serves a community of 15,000 people living in an informal settlement squeezed into a small area between the local factories.

An unemployment rate of between 80 and 90 percent means that most of the people in Dukathole live in extreme poverty, and HIV-infection rates are high.

In 2001, a local woman who was herself HIV-positive, Margaret "Numsa" Sikhwari, began an AIDS-awareness and home-care center in a shack behind her house in Dukathole. With church and other funding, the center is now housed in a converted container opposite the local primary school.

Members of TEAC were divided into groups, and accompanied the center's home-based care workers into the homes of several of the 150 people they visit every week. Their main job was to deliver food parcels, but in some cases the TEAC visitors were asked to pray with those they had gone to see -- including HIV-positive infants, young parents with advanced AIDS, and bed-ridden grandmothers.

Afterwards, Marlene Rodda told TEAC members of a mother whose young child had just been buried after dying from AIDS-related diseases. A friend asked, "How can you believe in God when all this is happening?"

"How can you not believe in God at a time like this?" she replied.

In a time of reflection back at the conference center, TEAC members agreed that their visits had shown the importance of theological education that helped Anglicans to go beyond simply dealing with urgent needs, and to analyze and critique current realities such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Bishop Simon Chiwanga of Tanzania summed up the day's visits: "What we did today was an example of good theological education: we engaged and dealt with real issues in a situation, and then reflected on it together."