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The poor and wretched show us Christ

Brendan Walsh, Director of Communications at Cafod, the Catholic relief agency, writes this week about the forgotten African women who are dying of Aids in their millions.
There are now more than 19 million people living with HIV in the Third World, nearly half of them women. State-of-the-art drug treatments cost as much as $10,000 a year; patients in African countries are often without aspirins or simple anti-diarrhoeal preparations to relieve their suffering.

Theophista lived in Rakai, Uganda, and she was very poor. She worked hard in her garden growing bananas, beans and maize, until constant diarrhoea, fevers, and awful internal sores weakened her too much.

She was visited every week by an Irish nurse, Ursula Sharpe. Ursula incised her abscesses and treated her diarrhoea with medicine, but, although she tried many treatments for her sores, nothing worked. For a while, Theophista's condition improved, but as time went by she began to get worse again, and it became clear that she was dying.

One day Ursula found Theophista lying in the darkest corner of her room in awful pain with a headache. She did not have any drugs strong enough to kill the headache. "I held her," Ursula recalls, "and screamed inside myself, `God, why don't you take her? How can you allow somebody to suffer like this?' But there was nothing. God was deaf. The woman continued to suffer."

While the white coats scratch around for a vaccine, a potion, a cure - a medical solution for a medical problem - it has dawned on us that the HIV/Aids pandemic is embroiled in a complex web of issues: poverty and underdevelopment, violence and conflict, and the skewed relationships between men and women.

The pharmaceutical industry is the wrong place to look for a solution to the Aids epidemic. But the churches, too, reached for familiar remedies when the first cases were diagnosed. Some voices gleefully suggested that Aids was a punishment sent by God, but church leaders - if often embarrassed by the social hinterland of HIV/Aids - called gamely for a compassionate and non-judgemental response.

In several countries in Africa the churches provide many of the social services and more than half of the health service infrastructure. Many have taken up the challenge with generosity and courage. All over the Third World, they have set up education and prevention programmes with young people, street children, women's groups, sex workers, truck drivers, orphans, parish groups and prisoners.

But something more significant has happened than a decently generous and passably efficient response to a major health emergency. In the Church's prayerful responses to HIV/Aids, even in its official teaching, there has been an interesting change of language and style. One of the most tiresome traits of the followers of Christ is to put people into two categories: those who receive compassion - the sick, the poor, the unclean - and those who enjoy the delicious satisfaction of bestowing it: the healthy, the righteous, the pure. But it is precisely this spirit of judgement and self-satisfaction that Jesus - to the astonishment of his disciples - came to destroy.

One or two other pennies have dropped, too. Globalisation is the fancy new word for the increasing interconnectedness of the world. Intricate economic levers and hidden pulleys link what the poor family in Kenya or Brazil is able to afford for breakfast to the brand of coffee a shopper in Huddersfield selects from a supermarket shelf. Rich and poor are two more categories that cannot be neatly separated. The rapid spread of Aids/HIV amongst the poorest peoples of the world cannot be unpicked from the way we live in the developed world, the decisions we take here. An alert compassion is nudged towards solidarity and a demand for social justice and human rights.

In this time of Aids, many Christians have experienced something of the same shift in understanding described by the Irish missionary sister who nursed Theophista on her death bed:

"When I went to Uganda I had all these ideas about witnessing to the gospel with my life," Ursula Sharpe recalled. "But when I got involved with people who had Aids I found that they were the ones who were challenging me, instead of me challenging them. They still challenge me. They shake my faith so much that it has been rocked to its roots."