"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Saturday, March 10, 2007 Words made flesh This is Tena. At least I think that's his name. He's probably only 3-4 years old and that's the best I could understand him the several times I asked him.
Tena lives in a township outside Pretoria called Lekgema. He doesn't live with his parents. His parents are both died from AIDS. Tena is probably HIV-positive, too.
One of my struggles with the conference thus far is how almost completely didactic the program has been. The content has been mostly excellent, but other than breaks (of which there aren't many) there have been almost no chances to really mix it up in dialogue. Program has been fairly well confined to speakers (again, most of whom have been very good) and then Q&A with them ... but no chance to engage each other -- even in workshops.
The result is content that engages the head without the relationship that engages the whole person. And as someone who thrives on relationship, it's been a little frustrating ... and I've been living for the breaks!
No such problem today. Today I skipped out on the conference and went with Mark Andrus' Pilgrimage for Peace Group on a trip to a township outside Pretoria ... to Lekgema ... to a day care center for AIDS orphans administered by the Diocese of Pretoria called Tumelong Mission.
That's where I met Tena.
There were lots of kids there, but Tena captured me immediately -- literally. As we got off our bus and were guided into Tumelong Haven (a day care center for AIDS orphans we were visiting) to hear song and drama performances by the children, there was a cooler with bottled water for us. I hadn't yet gotten one and so Tena came up to me, grabbed me by the hand and dragged me over to the cooler to get my water. Later, when I slipped out of the room to look around and found him, he smiled at me, grabbed me by the hand and dragged me back to the room where he felt I was supposed to be.
This was a child with purpose!
A little bit later when we were standing out on the porch, I came up to him again and he smiled and then tried to run in between my knees. My younger son, Hayden, is about his size so I did what I do with H -- waited until he was halfway through and closed my legs and said "gotcha!" And just like Hayden, Tena laughed and wriggled free ... and then came back again and again and again to continue the game.
Tena is one of about 75 children who come to the Haven six days a week. Admission is free ... well ... that's not exactly true. The children don't pay anything to attend, but the admission fee is the death certificate of your parent. Christina, the woman who runs the Haven, told me that all of the children there are orphans and almost all of them are HIV-positive, too.
The HIV infection rate in S. Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho teeters near 30%. In South Africa, among children it is estimated between 5 and 6 percent. It is the region on earth most devastated by the pandemic.
In this context, Tumelong Haven does remarkable work. The staff of close to 20 *brings them to and from their homes (headed by grandparents or older siblings *gives them nutritious meals *ensures they are properly cared for and cleaned *provides school-going children with uniforms and stationery for schools, counseling, homework supervision and school fees. *does home visits to assess their emotional and physical conditions *provides food parcels to those that need them most *teaches Saturday classes for school-going children
Everywhere we looked was evidence of an operation that strived for excellence. And yet despite this, and despite the dire situation, Tumelong Haven is in danger of losing its primary funding. A good portion of its money comes from the National Lottery ... only their grant ran out last month and they haven't heard whether it will be renewed. If not, Christina says, they will not be able to afford any staff salaries.
"Will the staff still come?" I asked.
"Of course!" she answered quickly.
She looked genuinely surprised at the question.
Others who were there witnessed a drama put on by some of the older children (I was outside playing with Tena!). Bob Brooks, rector of Grace Church in Providence, told me about it on the bus ride back. He said one by one, four or five kids came forward while the rest of the group was singing softly and told their story, dropping to their knees. They told the story in their native tongue, but Bob said he asked afterward what one of them had said and they said he was telling the story of the death of his parents and about how "life was suffering."
The story was a common one. And yet as Amber noted as we were leaving, these children were as loving and affectionate as any we've ever met -- even the older ones. They hadn't un-learned unbridled affection as children often do as they get older. They laughed and played. They took our sunglasses and wore them and paraded around for each other. We gave them our cameras and they took pictures of each other. We stood in a circle and played games (I tried teaching them to sing "Louie, Louie" as part of a circle game and experienced the same inability to grasp cultural mores that they experience when they try to teach us their songs!)
A young man in the Pilgrimage group named Eric, who had also taken a side trip that only a few went on to the AIDS hospital, where many of these children's parents died, marveled on the way to our next stop how despite the deep tragedy of their lives they were still able to choose joy.
This week so far has been full of facts and figures. It's been full of beautiful theology and some mind-boggling and even heart-rending stories shared over meals and tea.
But if the theology is really true -- and it certainly is. And if the facts and figures are really true -- and they certainly are. Then where the two meet is in children like Tena.
And if, as Rowan Williams suggests, as we come to the Eucharistic table we should as we are looking forward, look sideways and ask how we can be a part of Christ nourishing our fellow guest -- it's in places like Tumelong Haven where the rubber hits the road.
And if the Word was really made flesh and not made text ... then it has to change us. It has to change our hearts ... and change our actions.
I know I will never play the "run between my knees" game with my children again without thinking of Tena. But as with all encounters like this, the privilege of choice is mine. Will Tena remain a picture on a blog page, a story told of a trip past, a memory revisited from the vantage point of safety.
Or will I choose to let what touched my heart, change how I live my life?
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."