12.01.2005

Why?


In the next 60 seconds, five people will die of AIDS...

I wonder how Kenedy is today... if he is still alive.

That's him, second from left. He's the same age as the boy at the right of the picture, but you'd never know it. He was sick that day, and spent most of the time our group visited in his grandmother Martha's home staring out the door into the hot Tanzanian morning, chewing on a blade of grass.

It was an amazing moment of connection when Martha asked us "Why? Why does one of my grandsons have AIDS and the other doesn't?" Despite the differences between this struggling Tanzanian family and our group of visiting Lutheran communicators, we were one that moment -- one in helplessness before that question, one in anger at the forces that permit the epidemic to continue, and one in prayer to the God who holds all things -- even these confusing, painful things -- in his hands.

We're connected, too, by dedicated servants of Christ who work with countless families like Martha's -- thank God for them! But why is it so hard to maintain the connection? It seems like yesterday...and a lifetime ago... Maybe, for Kenedy, it was.

Here's what I wrote then:

A troubling question
9 FEB 2004

"Why does one of my grandsons have AIDS, and the other does not?"

The weariness that had been evident in Martha Symphorian's face and posture now crept into her voice, as she asked us to pray for her struggling family – three teenaged cousins being raised by a 74-year-old grandmother.

There was silence as our group of ELCA communicators learning about the hunger and AIDS crises in Africa pondered the depth of her question. In our several days visiting the hungry and orphans in Uganda and Tanzania, we had seen a lot of suffering, and a lot of faith and pride in its face. But Martha's anguish and frustration hit us on a deep, theological level.

"We don't know," our leader, Pastor Eric Shafer, said after a long pause. "That's a question we're all going to want to ask Jesus when we see him in heaven."

Martha's grandson Kenedy is slouched just inside the door to the modest brick home in the Eastern District of Tanzania's Northwestern Diocese, near Bukoba. He chews aimlessly on a piece of grass, staring sometimes at us and at other times off to the horizon, but never said a word. At 15 he is much smaller than his cousin Dennis and even than his 11-year-old cousin Rose. That's what AIDS does to young bodies.

Kenedy's father – Martha's son – died several years ago of AIDS. Kenedy was about a year old when his father died. As often happens, because of the stigma that attaches to AIDS, Kenedy's mother simply took off. She moved to another area to try life without everyone knowing her situation – perhaps to marry again – leaving Martha to raise her young grandson. Soon Kenedy began showing some symptoms of AIDS, an unfortunate accident of his birth. He excelled in school when he was well enough to go, but these days the disease is more on than off.

Dennis' and Rose's mother – Martha's daughter – also died of AIDS. It is the African tradition for the extended family to take care of such young orphans, and Martha followed tradition and took on a new family. Though aging, she works hard to cultivate the banana trees and avocados on their small plot of land, and sees that the children get to school and are cared for. But how hard it must be for her to follow the process to get Dennis admitted to a vocational secondary school – a rare and expensive privilege in this poor community – while watching her equally bright Kenedy wither and wait to die.

Martha and her family are not alone. The Northwestern Diocese is organized with a team of social workers and lay ministers who seek out and care for families in need in their territory. Sister Renathe is the social worker who tends to the Symphorians along with a lay evangelist from the local Lutheran parish. She helps Martha get assistance to pay school tuition – about $200 per year for each child – and takes Martha and Kenedy to a diocesan dispensary where he can get medication when his symptoms are active. Funding from the ELCA World Hunger Appeal helps the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania offer comprehensive social and medical as well as religious programs.

"Sometimes," she says, shaking her head, "you think he (Kenedy) is ready to die, and then he comes back…" Her voice trails off as she contemplates Kenedy's fate if medications were not available to him, even occasionally.

So we pray, quietly but fervently, for Martha, Kenedy, Dennis and Rose. Martha's request for prayer isn't surprising. The dominant decoration in her sparse living room is a collection of pictures, torn from calendars, of various aspects of Jesus' ministry – Jesus in the Temple, healing, Jesus on the cross. While there are many things she lacks, faith is not among them.

We pray for strength for this fragile family. We ask for food and schooling and access to medical care. Above all, we ask that whatever happens to them, that Martha, Kenedy, Dennis and Rose know the deep, deep love that Jesus has for them.

It doesn't matter that our translator doesn't repeat our petitions in Martha's language. She flashes a weary smile, and breathes peacefully, a clear sign that she has understood.

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