Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Chaos Within - Jesus Saves

There are blogs that have come and gone in these last few months... thoughts that have pushed themselves forward with such force that my fingers have itched to write, to empty myself... and then there is what requires to be done on the ground: awareness sessions, meetings, visits, deaths, client gatherings, planning events, dancing... sitting down to empty thoughts onto a computer screen don't seem so important.

These past few months have been marked by so much that I don't even know where to begin, and I am also conscious that we have ex-volunteers and other friends of the project and Deep Griha that follow our progress via the blog, so... no more excuses. We will write more often, and although someone noted that all the blog is about is HIV these days... well, in our defense that is what we do...

I will not attempt to condense everything that has happened into one blog, rather I will try and write about what happened and how what happened has affected us, and pushed us to think of different approaches, or just helped us realise that once again, answers are not always possible.

I was in Nagaland last month. Lush Green. Military presence. The reason they're there - the Underground. Drugs. HIV. Colour. Jesus.

Nagaland is predominantly Christian. (See churches and crosses pic above, just outside Dimapur) The tribal landscape, and the disorganised towns have crosses and churches scattered about, leaving you in no doubt as to the Naga's choice of faith. Dimapur - where the Sahara research project on HIV and orphans is based - is a sleepy garrison town on any given day, and then on any given Sunday, it's just a little sleepier. Our God ordained day of rest.

The complexities of this place cannot be laid out in a blog, much less by someone who visited the state for just over a week. The drug rehabs and HIV projects we visited however threw up some interesting issues that struck us as peculiar to Nagaland. The most notable being how difficult it was to sustain the projects. Funds are not easy to come by, and while the Gates Foundation, Global Fund, NACO and all the players are playing, grassroots initiatives often continue to suffer.

One project, just about to start shared this with us:

"We can't raise money here. There are no companies, no businesses that can support us. Not even the church. The underground demands 25% of our income, if we are unlucky enough to be in an area where there are two rival factions, then the other faction would also demand 25% of our income, the church demands 10% as tithe for God, and what people are left with they need to struggle through till the end of the month. Why will they help us? We are drug addicts."

Every project we visited also spoke of the Church, and the successes and failures of working with God's places of worship. Some churches were welcoming of addicts, ensuring their stories were heard, and that they were supported. Others were paranoid and dismissive. This despite both church leaders and NGO community leaders agreeing that the church was well placed (and well funded) to be the community focal point for young people... and of course even those who are HIV positive... While some Nagaland churches have got their head around the need to reach out to and support PLHIV, others still consider them to be cursed by God for their addiction/promiscuity/homosexuality.

We passed an opulent church in Dimapur, central air conditioning, state of the art everything, and I was again pushed to wonder about what the carpenter who died on the cross would have thought about what we do in his name.

'Jesus Saves' and I think a lot of his followers do a pretty good job of saving too, money that is.

It's the same here in Pune. Churches have fat bank accounts, community halls, schools, everything, which is fantastic... no 'HIV people' though. When we approached one church in Pune with the request to run a 'Be an HIV Positive Church' programme, they didn't want us to be referred to as HIV positive because that would infer that HIV positive people are in the church and that's not ok.

This is ignorance. Clearly. These are good people, they are just not ready to accept the reality of HIV in their city, because they believe that HIV is not an issue within their congregation... and it never will be, because HIV+ people will not feel welcome, and those who are HIV+ will never disclose their status within a church environment because of the stigma and discrimination that results from the ignorance and fear...

The church is therefore well placed to continue ignoring the reality, if they choose to do so...

This week we had a meeting with Rev. Dr. Dasan from the United Theological Seminary in Pune. We (as Wake Up Pune) had approached UBS with the idea of organising a national conference on HIV and the Church. They have agreed. Now many would argue that UBS is an academic institution and therefore more open to discussing 'relevant' issues like HIV. The point is however that institutions like UBS are the mothers that push out priests and pastors into the world. What young men and women learn at theological schools and seminaries is what colours their lives of service...

We wish it was that simple. What young men and women learn at seminary is often what they refuse to talk about because of the (perceived) fragile faith of their congregation.

A conference therefore is not good enough... expand to a debating tournament, where the issues of HIV and the Church will have to be looked at from every angle, and not just from the preconceived angle one is comfortable with. Liberal students may have to argue conservative standpoints, and vice versa...

This is not good enough... our plan following this conference is to help UBS expand its already excellent student community programme so as to bring students face to face with the issues on the ground, outside of lecture halls and under-leafy-tree discussions.

This is still not good enough... in the end it is the student (read future shepherd) that must take HIV with him or her to church.

We are currently piloting a programme with corporates in Pune where we speak of 'infecting people with knowledge', infecting people with 'access' to make informed decisions. The need for civil society to rise and fight the epidemic is not limited to marching in the streets and screaming slogans till you're hoarse... it just involves breaking the silence about HIV, talking about it, and realising that if I can protect myself, so can the people I care about... and the virus of knowledge can spread.

Jesus saves... ok, let's help him save, here, now, in the life before death.


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