Today, travelers on our Short-Term Missions and Global Awareness Trip to South Africa visit an HIV/AIDS Hospice center. A few months ago Domestic Volunteer Anna Robinson also went on this trip and visited patients affected by AIDS. For this Franciscan Friday post, she shares with us a reflection on the experience and finding common ground with St. Francis.
In 2011, roughly 5.6 million people in South Africa were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Of those, 270,190 died from AIDS-related causes. AIDS was something I knew very little about going into South Africa. My context was wrapped around these distressing numbers and in turn made me distressed.
I could never be a doctor or a nurse. Just the thought of ghastly wounds and deathly illnesses makes me shiver. I can’t say I’m proud of this fact, but that’s just how it is. So when they told us that we would be visiting an AIDS hospice near Johannesburg, my mind protested and I couldn’t quite hide my nervousness with my many worrisome questions.
We visited the St. Francis Care Centre on a sunny warm day. It was quiet and all I could think about was this painful silence. We were given masks and were educated on the special lights they have in the halls to kill bacteria – all of which were meant to calm any worries we had, but instead brought to light additional information about AIDS I didn’t actually want to hear.
As we moved through the grounds, getting a tour of the buildings and purposes of the organization, I began to compare it to a retreat center. There were bedrooms, dining halls, and a chapel. I began to understand that this was meant as a place of healing. Perhaps the physical illnesses would not be cured, but the spiritual health and need for community were just as important for these people as medication.
Then it was time to meet the patients. My heart started pounding quickly. Some of the patients were children, some were adults, but as we greeted them my nerves began to calm. I was not a doctor, but I didn’t need to be to diagnose the happiness exposed in their smiles. They were just delighted to have visitors, especially the kids. Before I knew it one was climbing up my leg and another pulling on my shirt. So much for keeping a distance, there was no point in worrying then.
I picked them up, showed them my camera of which they were curious. I too became curious; curious about them – their likes and dislikes, their favorite toy or what they like to eat. This human connection distracted me from my fear of their illness and I let go.
During the tour that day our guide said that AIDS was the modern day leprosy. This made me think about St. Francis and his visits with the lepers. He was afraid of those with leprosy, but through the Holy Spirit found the human connection and embraced them as children of God. My guess is that he was experiencing the same thing I was:
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
– Matthew 18:20
It was a spiritual connection, what Francis and I experienced. I didn’t worry about my fear of illness, because God was among us, in them and in me, and when I remembered that I was free to see the person as just that: a person.
Anna Robinson serves as a full-time volunteer at the Franciscan Mission Service office as a communications associate. She graduated from Cardinal Stritch University in 2011 with a degree in Communication Arts and a minor in Music Composition.