Friday, June 19, 2009

“We are Dying”

J.L. Zwane Memorial Church has Aids.

This Presbyterian congregation runs a series of impressive programmes reaching out to members of the Guguletu community striken or affected by this pandemic. The pandemic has reached staggering proportions in South Africa’s townships, with Guguletu itself having an HIV-positive rate of 29 percent (

But J.L. Zwane is not interested in statistics; it provides refuge for suffering bodies. Every Sunday during worship there is an Aids presentation, where a member of the church will address the congregation. As Mandisa approached the front of the church on the Sunday we visited, the congregation sang “Never, never give up”—echoing the words embossed on a wall of the sanctuary. Diagnosed in 2001, she didn’t expect to live three years, much less eight. Marginalized by family members, she came to "the Aids church" (as J.L. Zwane is popularly, if not notoriously, known). There she received a warm welcome, medical care, and support from one of the groups established for that purpose. The anti-retrovitrals she’s taking allow her and her three children (all HIV-negative, praise God!) to live a relatively normal life. However, there was a poignancy to Mandisa’s story: her brother—who openly mocked her when she went public with her diagnosis—is himself HIV-positive (actually diagnosed in 1998), and gravely ill.

Calling the church to a reponsible and caring practice is deeply unpopular. Aids remains a silent killer. But the stigma associated with it is nearly as destructive as the disease itself. According to J.L. Zwane’s minister, Rev. Dr. Spiwo Xapile, pastors who dare talk about the issue run the risk of losing their jobs. And having pastors ministering for short amounts of time doesn’t allow the development of a ministry in which space can be created for the discussion of sexuality. It’s a cruel catch-22.

Rev. Xapile himself knows the deadly disease only too well, having lost five family members to Aids.

The Centre has a number of programmes that promote responsible behaviour, and take care of those who have fallen victim to the disease, both directly and indirectly. Each Sunday, public health volunteers come to the church and offer a clinic for those who cannot afford health care (which, with an unemployment rate of 70 percent, is the vast majority of Guguletu’s population). The Centre itself expresses healing in its physical representations, featuring a number of striking works of art on its walls. All this has come about through Rev. Xapile’s vision, a partnership with Stellenbosch University, and the support of overseas donors.

But what was especially challenging was the way the church itself supports grassroots initiatives, including the work of two exceptional women we were privileged to meet.

Priscilla (right) is an elderly woman who has opened her small home to twelve--soon to be fifteen--Aids orphans. When an HIV-positive parent becomes ill, they receive support from the grandparents—most of whom are on a fixed income; when the parents fall to the disease, the children live with the grandparents. Rev. Xapile told our group that there are children in Guguletu who are now being cared for by their third grandparent, the others having died. The children are sometimes simply abandoned, and so Priscilla has taken some of them in.

Nancy, who herself has a sixteen year-old severely handicapped daughter, is taking care of twelve abandoned children who are physically and developmentally challenged.

The public support structures are simply inadequate in Guguletu to meet these kinds of needs. The J.L. Zwane church has organized itself into zones. And members in each track the needs of their community, and initiatives like Priscilla’s and Nancy’s. The church then distributes food parcels to them. A network thus extends through the body of Christ, linking such small spaces where the kingdom of God has taken root.

We ought not romanticize—despite this good work, the challenge remains enormous. Rev. Xapile put it baldly during one of our discussions: “we are dying.” Not they, but we. Aids affects the church as Christ’s suffering body. “By his wounds, we are healed,” said Isaiah. And so as the church suffers with those bearing the social, as well as the physical, effects of the disease, it imparts the healing of Jesus Christ—one face, one body at a time.

Mark’s gospel tells the story of an unnamed women who had been suffering from “an issue of blood” for twelve years (Mark 5:25-34). She came, incognito, to Jesus—pressing her way through the crowd hoping to touch the hem of his garment. This woman’s plight has particular resonance for women in rural South Africa, where menstruation may exclude someone from contact with men, even in church. Reflecting on the way the text is read among the Amawoti of KwaZulu, Beverley Haddad and Maleka Sebeko write:
The women of Amawoti immediately identified with the woman with the hemorrhage in the text. Discussion followed concerning this woman’s situation. However, the woman with the hemorrhage had no name, no relationship, and was known by her illness (v.25). Her situation defined both her name and her personhood. There was speculation as to what might have happened had the woman not revealed herself to Jesus (v.33). The readers felt that Jesus had made it possible by his attitude. He had not regarded the woman as unclean and had affirmed her by healing her (v.29). It was also acknowledged, however, that the woman herself had shown courage and inner strength by taking the initiative. In spite of her circumstances, there was a recognition that she had never given up hope throughout the twelve years. Through the encounter the woman was given the ‘right to talk to Jesus.’ (1)
Contact with the woman would have made Jesus ritually unclean. However, what happens is not that the woman’s uncleanness is passed to him, but his healing power flows from him to her. This story takes on new significance in the context of the “uncleanness” of HIV-Aids. The unnamed come fearfully but courageously to J.L. Zwane, “the Aids church”. But rather than experiencing condemnation by the pure, they participate in the healing present in Jesus Christ.

The lesson of J.L. Zwane Memorial Church is that the body of Jesus Christ has Aids. We who are in communion with J.L. Zwane—which means all Christians who share the Eucharist—also have Aids.

Think about it. Then find a way to act in solidarity.


1. Malika Sibeko and Beverly Haddad, “Reading the Bible With’ Women in Poor and Marginalized Communities in South Africa,” Semeia 78. Reading the Bible as Women: Perspectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld and Sharon H. Ringe (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) 87.

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