Africa: Adventist Ministry Mends Lives, Empowers Women

November 28, 2006 Maseru, Lesotho .... [Elizabeth Lechleitner/ANN]
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Despite sweeping efforts by both government and private organizations to step up AIDS education, prevention and treatment around the globe, many AIDS' sufferers continue to combat not only the disease's ravages, but also the scorn and alienation of neighbors, friends, and even family. 

Ostracized by her community, weakened, and severely depressed, Maseeng, a Lesothoan elementary school teacher, led a life unraveled by AIDS. But then she joined a sewing seminar run by the Seventh-day Adventist AIDS International Ministry (AAIM). 

Headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa, AAIM was organized three years ago to combat AIDS, which claims the lives of 12 Adventist church members daily. Since then, AAIM has reached 14 African countries, says Eugenia Giordano, the ministry's associate director. The sewing seminar Maseeng joined is one of AAIM's many income-generating seminars created to help those infected with HIV regain self-sufficiency. 

AAIM particularly focuses on caring for AIDS orphans and women, who--according to recent World Health Organization (WHO) statistics--are biologically, socially and economically more susceptible to HIV infection than men. In sub-Saharan Africa, WHO reports indicate, young women are 6 times more likely to contract the HIV virus than men. 

At the sewing seminar, Giordano reports Maseeng's healing process began with smiles and supportive friendship. "Maseeng [found] people [who] were loving and caring. [She] was not alone anymore. She had a new group of friends--people [who] were in the same situation that she was in. People [who] understood her, [who] did not judge her, and [who] cared for her." 

But Maseeng is only one out of the estimated 40 million people suffering from AIDS around the world. And a November United Nations report states "the [AIDS] epidemic is growing in all areas of the world, with worrisome signs of resurgence in some countries that were trumpeted as successes in combating the disease, like Uganda and Thailand." Battling AIDS worldwide remains one of the UN's most challenging Millennium Development Goals. 

"We are aware that in the midst of this epidemic any effort is never enough and much more needs to be done," admits Giordano. But statistics discourage neither her nor her husband, Oscar, AAIM's director. Both are medical doctors committed to stamping out not only the physical symptoms of HIV, but also the prejudiced attitudes many in both secular and religious communities project toward those infected. [See the June 6, 2006 ANN story: Africa: Adventists Call for End to Discrimination Against People with HIV/AIDS

"The biggest challenge our church faces is silence about HIV and AIDS [and the] stigmatization, rejection, and isolation of people living with [the disease]," says Giordano. "But [AAIM] is promoting hope, love and compassion to people living with HIV." Giordano says AAIM--with its grassroots organization focused on the concerted efforts of local individuals, communities and congregations--takes its cue from Jesus' healing ministry on earth. 

This December, Eugenia and Oscar will commemorate World AIDS Day during a ceremony held in Soweto, South Africa. 

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) International, a humanitarian agency long involved in AIDS prevention and treatment, will also observe World AIDS Day. In addition to continuing its ambitious programs for those infected with the disease around the world, ADRA will distribute red AIDS awareness ribbons and provide informational packages--themed 'What Can You Do?'--to educate church members about the epidemic. 

In Soweto, the Giordanos will celebrate triumphs such as Maseeng's, but along with ADRA, they'll also urge local churches, pastors, and lay people to organize more church-based HIV and AIDS support groups to "sensitize and mobilize the membership," says Giordano. She hopes a compassionate spirit coupled with education will empower people to mitigate the scourge. 

Beyond that, Giordano believes solidarity is essential. "The UN theme for 2006 is 'Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise,' remind[ing] all of us of the need [to] work together to fight this epidemic." 

Maseeng has taken that reminder to heart. Today, in addition to running a day care and resuming her teaching job, she spearheads her own network for women with HIV and AIDS in the surrounding community, providing both encouragement and financial wherewithal. "They come together to sew, and to support each other with love and friendship," says Giordano. 

The women also meet at Maseeng's home each Sabbath for worship services. "[Maseeng] is doing wonderfully," reports Giordano. "She is full of life and she is praising the Lord for everything that He has done for her."